When your best might not be good enough.

As most people working in global development will know, poverty isn’t a static state. It’s not ‘simply’ a case of helping lift people out and then moving on to other things. Poverty as a state is fluid, one which the majority of people repeatedly drift in and out of over time.

Problem-solving more broadly in international development follows a similar pattern. Some problems seem solved, only for them to return later. Others might be genuinely fixed, only to be replaced by others. One of the reasons the world continues to look and feel such a mess is precisely because of this – the fluid nature and complexity of the problems we’re trying  to solve.

Impact matters to me, so this is particularly problematic. And by impact, I don’t mean specifics. I’m not the sort of person who wants or needs to feel they’re changing the world for millions of people, but I would like to know whether or not some of my actions are helping some people in some way, however small. Positive change is positive change, regardless of the size of the box it comes in.

External forces impacting on people’s lives aren’t static, either. This year feels like a particularly bad one if you look at the number of wars, insurgencies, terrorist attacks, political crises, financial crashes and natural disasters contributing to that impact. Asking yourself what kind of a dent you’re making, given everything that’s working against you, seems a totally natural and reasonable question to ask.

During a panel discussion with Tori Hogan and Archbishop Desmond Tutu a couple of years ago, I said that it was easier to have a negative impact on the world than a positive one. After this year, where I’ve becoming increasingly angry and saddened by what I see, I stand by that comment more than ever. I don’t believe it when I read that now is the best time to be alive. For the minority, perhaps, but the minority never interest me. Far too many people are suffering day-in day-out for the world to feel even remotely balanced, something I spoke about in a recent TEDxMunich talk.

Crucially, though, my scepticism won’t stop me trying to do good. It will, however, force me to question more than ever whether or not my actions are in any way contributing positively towards any kind of solution anywhere. I owe it not only to myself, but more crucially to the people who pay me and support me to be clear in my own mind that my time, and their money, are being well spent – or spent as well as possible.

Taken to an extreme level, this means asking myself whether or not the world is any better because I’ve:

  • Spoken at a particular conference
    Does all the cost and effort of speaking ever change anything?
  • Published a book
    I can only try to share best practice as I see it, but does it influence change?
  • Let a researcher pick my brains
    Do research papers ever support or help any kind of action on the ground?
  • Taken a field trip somewhere
    Do so many people really need to fly to so many places, so often?
  • Become a consultant for a project
    Is this project any better because I’ve worked on it?
  • And, yes – written a blog post
    Has ten years of blogging achieved much?  Revisiting earlier posts, I remain unconvinced.

I think all this matters because in international development you can argue that everything is impact investing. Every penny or cent you take from a budget line should either have a direct impact, lead to an impact, or contribute to or support an impact somewhere. If it doesn’t then you have to question why you’re doing it. Sure, it’s quite hard to identify, measure or track pretty much any of this, but deep down many of us have a sense of our own contribution. We certainly have an understanding of our motives for doing it. Ethically and morally we should never stop asking ourselves what we’re doing, how well we’re doing it, and who we’re doing it for.

As I’ve got older I’ve become increasingly self-critical about my contribution. My career was kick started working with local communities, supporting local initiatives. I had a strong drive and desire to be on the front line, to witness and tackle challenges of poverty and environmental degradation head-on. Developing FrontlineSMS was a natural extension to that work, combining my passion for the field with the technology skills I’d picked up in the early part of my career. A few years later, as I became further and further detached from the things I was most passionate about, in frustration I stepped back.

With so much going wrong in the world, and with a clear and obvious lack of moral leadership anywhere, I feel another of those pivotal moments isn’t too far away. I’ll have a window of opportunity later next year to decide what to do next. Good friend Larry Diamond predicted what that might end up being in a tweet earlier today.


As was the case when I first set out on my journey in 1993, it’s unclear what I’ll be able to do to contribute. That said, again as in 1993, I feel I need to try. My work began in development, shifted to conservation, then technology, and then took a turn to activism as FrontlineSMS became increasingly picked up by groups combating dictatorial regimes and those committing human rights abuses around the world. Things may end up turning full circle if I return to that kind of work, albeit civic action in general. As Larry says, a lot needs to be done, and for the foreseeable future things are unlikely to get much better.

Next year is lining up to be an exciting one, with some great new work with CARE International and my first major piece of work with DFID. I’ll also be entering my 15th year at kiwanja.net – something I never really expected when I set out rather opportunistically in 2003 – so this feels a good-a-time as any to re-evaluate where I am, and where I can be most helpful next. This is something of an extension to a few previous reflections earlier this year, which you can read about here.

I’m sure in the 1930’s people thought things were going a little crazy, but reassured themselves that everything was going to be alright. Just like then, there’s too much at stake to sit back and hope for the best.

An app. For my children.

It’s no secret to readers of this blog that for a while now I’ve been attempting to get back into coding. This, combined with a growing interest in building sustainability into many of my projects, has fuelled my interest in the potential of mobile apps to build out some of my ideas.

Today sees the launch of my first experimental app. While I didn’t write the code it’s been a useful exercise in understanding the process of app design, app development, testing and publishing. Hopefully the coding piece will fall into place in the new year.

There’s nothing better than scratching your own itch, so my first app does just that. Say hello to for my children.


for my children is a simple app I wish my mother had before she died. It would have let her share those places that were special in her life. Her first school. First home. Favourite cafe. First job. The place she met my father. The old playground she played in as a child – which is now a block of flats. Places I would love to visit and stand today if I only knew where they were.

for my children effectively lets you create your own memory book of special places so your friends, your family, your children – and their children – can one day walk in your footsteps and revisit them. I know it’s something I want to use, and hope you feel the same.

I can also imagine this being useful for early-stage dementia or Alzheimer’s sufferers, helping them capture memories for family while they still can.

It’s only available in the Apple App Store at the moment but we’re planning on building out an Android version soon assuming we generate the income. The online sharing functionality will also come later, budgets permitting. If you like the app and think others might too, please share on your social media and your blog. And if you download it, consider rating it in the App Store. Good ratings will be vital if we’re to develop the idea further. Thank you.

Official website
In the App Store
Information sheet (PDF)
Screenshots (JPG)
App splash screen (JPG)

Time for a ‘slow innovation’ movement?


Dear fellas. I can’t believe how fast things move on the outside. I saw an automobile once when I was a kid, but now they’re everywhere. The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry
Brooks – quoted in the Shawshank Redemption

Today everyone seems to be in such a rush. From the time it takes to fly across the Atlantic to the time it takes Google to pull together your search results, speed is everything. Products are increasingly rushed to market, investors are increasingly impatient for exit and the social innovation community – that’s us – are increasingly impatient for scale. We have innovation accelerators left, right and centre and if we fail, well, we need to do that fast as well. When did we get in such a big hurry?

When I speak at conferences I often highlight the disconnect between funding cycles and the time it takes for a technology solution to firstly get a little traction, and then get to some kind of scale (depending on your definition of scale). Typically, how long does it take an innovation to take hold? One year? Two years? Three years? Five years? If we’re honest we don’t know. All we do know is that we usually lose patience (or interest) after a couple of years or so.

I often speak of my own experience with FrontlineSMS, which took about three years to really get going, and – if I’d taken funding and committed to deadlines and deliverables early on – how it would likely have not made it that long. As a product, maybe it just needed three years to bed in, to take hold in the imagination of its users, for news to filter down. If that’s the case then speeding up the process through an accelerator of some kind would have been counterproductive, and perhaps also lead to an early demise. Sometimes things just take time.

It begs the question: How many potentially great products have died prematurely because they weren’t given the time? Or because they were rushed? What proportion of projects do accelerators kill compared to those they genuinely accelerate?

As with many things in the social innovation and international development sectors (including innovation challenges), we don’t have the evidence either way. Just as small is often cited as beautiful, perhaps we need to recognise that sometimes slow might be sensible?


Accelerators almost certainly have their place as one of a number of tools and approaches, but we seem to be painting everything with the same brush. Acceleration might not be best for everyone and everything. Maybe speed only really matters if:

  • You’ve quit your day job and need to start earning money fast
  • You’ve banked some money to prove your idea – and the clock is ticking
  • You’re working to some arbitrary deadline – a competition closing date, or a school term, or a funding deadline
  • You’re working in the midst of an unfolding crisis and your solution was needed yesterday
  • You’re worried that a ‘competitor’ is going to beat you to market
  • You’re impatient

In the social innovation and international development worlds we seem to have fallen into our fair share of self-made traps. Assuming scale is everything is one of them. So is believing that open source is best for everything – without question. And that innovation challenges hold the key to unlocking all our great ideas.

Maybe questioning why we’re always in such a damn hurry should be another.