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Happy birthday to me: On half centuries and legacies

This time tomorrow, fifty years ago, I came into the world and spent the proceeding twenty-seven years trying to figure out what the hell I was doing here. With the summer of 1993 came something of a rebirth, one that put me on the path to where I am today. But the years before were dominated by prolonged spells of frustration, searching and disappointment. It feels, at times, that I’ve only lived half a life, which is probably why I don’t feel anything like the fifty I’ll be tomorrow.

Birthdays with significant numbers often bring with them periods of reflection, although reflecting is something I tend to do on a regular basis. I’m my own worse critic, always challenging and never allowing myself the opportunity to feel comfortable, or develop any sense of achievement in what I’m doing. I’m ridiculously driven and, because of that, tend to see the glass half empty most of the time, reflecting on things I’m yet to do rather than the things I’ve done. There’s never been room for complacency in my life. There’s always more to be done.

In the twenty-three years I feel I’ve actually ‘lived’ a life I’ve certainly crammed a lot in, even if it doesn’t always feel like enough. Living and working across eight African countries, getting a degree, building out one of the more successful mobile messaging platforms, speaking all over the world, winning numerous prizes and awards, publishing two books and building out my spiritual home on the web – kiwanja.net – into a well established social innovation/development site. And none of that includes the more recent addition of a young family – something I thought I’d never have given all the time that had passed me by.

If anything, having children has had the effect of driving me even harder, if that were at all possible. What I see happening to other families around the world compared to the peace and stability of life at home tears me up in ways I struggle to describe. Life is cruel. The refugee crisis is a bigger reason as any to not become complacent. There is plenty more to be done.

Uganda 1995

Uganda 1995: A photo which would face much derision today given the growing ‘white savior complex’ debate. Yes, I have made some mistakes along the way.

Birthdays with significant numbers also put more of a spotlight on legacy, but in this case not mine – more the people who have been instrumental in shaping the last twenty-three years of my own life. People like Freddie Cooper, who let me tear into his Commodore PET computers in the early 1980s, an act not as destructive as it sounds but one that built the foundations of all my later technology-based work. Or Karen Hayes and Simon Hicks, who called me up from my sick bed in the autumn of 2002 offering me the chance to explore an emerging technology – mobile phones – and their potential for development.

And, of course, there was my mother, who encouraged and supported me the whole way, and who thankfully lived long enough to realize, as my work took off, that all her efforts and sacrifice were worth it. Sadly she never got to meet Henry, our first child, who was born four months after she died. She would have made a brilliant grandmother.

In an early school report I was described as ‘too sensitive’ and, if I’m honest, a vast majority of the things I choose to do are a reaction to that oversensitivity. Empathy, something that seems to be lacking in many, exists in abundance and I have no problem identifying with the suffering of others, whatever and wherever it may be. One of my favourite films of all time is The Green Mile, and one of the stand-out quotes from John Coffey, the central character, resonates for that very reason:

I’m tired, boss. Tired of bein’ on the road, lonely as a sparrow in the rain. Tired of not ever having me a buddy to be with, or tell me where we’s coming from or going to, or why. Mostly I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world everyday. There’s too much of it. It’s like pieces of glass in my head all the time. Can you understand?

zero-degrees-empathyFiguring out how we might use technology to raise levels of empathy, compassion and understanding is close to the top of the list of things I’m yet to do. It’s one of those ideas that’s been gently burning away in the background for years, but now feels like a good time to focus on it a little more. This weekend I started reading a new book.

I’ve been very fortunate over the years to develop a way of working which allows me to write, speak, consult and earn money and then use excess funds to subsidise many of my own personal projects. In each case I’ve done most of the work myself to keep costs down, and used WordPress to develop the websites. Ideas I’ve managed to work on the past couple of years or so include two books, Donors Charter and Everyday Problems. Right now I’m working on a new mobile giving app called altruly, another app with a working title of For My Children, and a wider thought-leadership piece going by the name of Hacking Development.

It’s for others to judge how significant, meaningful or impactful my work has been but, whatever the outcome, I’ll continue on as I have for the past twenty-three years. I still have a distant dream of opening a community cafe, but am saving that for the end.

The biggest challenge for me is going to be knowing when that is.

Breakfast with explorers

I’m sitting on the top deck of a 747 after British Airways kindly decided to upgrade me to First Class. After a week in Washington DC it feels like a fitting – if not fortunate – end to a crazy and hugely productive, thought-provoking few days. The main purpose of my trip was to attend the National Geographic Explorers Symposium, but that ended up being sandwiched between various meetings for the Global eHealth Foundation, a CARE International workshop, and coffee with a number of old friends and colleagues. There’s nothing like a bit of diversity in your working week.

The Symposium itself is a bit like Christmas – you sort of wish it would come round every week. Hundreds of Explorers and Fellows converge on the Society’s headquarters for five days and share new and exciting updates on their work. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do, or how far up or down you are on the fame ladder. What makes the week special is that, for a while at least, everyone is equal. (Example: On the first night at dinner I sat next to Bob Ballard. For those who don’t know who Bob Ballard is, he discovered the Titanic).

The National Geographic Explorer family

The National Geographic Explorer family

During the week I had the chance to catch up with some older acquaintances, including Meave Leakey (who picked up a Hubbard Medal, the Society’s highest honour) and John Francis, the ‘planetwalker’ – both fascinating, approachable, humble people. And I bumped into Lee Berger, who picked up Explorer of the Year award for his discovery of a new hominid species. Given my passion as a child was conservation and exploration – not unlike many others, I don’t suppose – Explorers Week finds me pinching myself almost hourly. It truly is an honour and a priviledge to be a member of this family.

I had the opportunity this year to share my latest work and decided to focus on my writing and work on altruly, a new kind of mobile giving app. Education came across as a strong theme during the week, and much of what I find myself doing at the moment – writing, speaking and mentoring – proved very complimentary. I also managed to hand out some free copies of “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” (which carries three National Geographic endorsements) to help push the message further. Nothing beats a free book. And after a couple of productive meetings I’m hopeful for a future collaboration with National Geographic Education. Watch this space.

Although I come away energised and inspired, I also come away frustrated and impatient – not just at the problems and challenges of the sector I work in, but in my own progress and ability to make a positive dent on them.

When you meet people at the very top of their game it makes you question the one you’re playing. That’s exactly what Explorers Week does, and one of the many things that makes it so special.

A Six-Point Plan for Change

Late last year I was in South Africa attending Buntwani 2015. As always, it was great meeting new people and catching up with old friends. Sadly, some of those old ‘friends’ included many of the issues we seem to continually face in the development sector, issues which don’t seem to ever want to go away. I wrote about this in “Retweet, recycle, repeat” and “What to do when the yelling stops?” recently.

One of the sessions I proposed was aimed at kickstarting discussion around some of these historical issues. I quote from almost every technology-for-development conference of the past ten years:

  • We need to stop reinventing wheels
  • We need to share and learn from each other
  • We should collaborate more
  • We should work more closely with local people
  • We should avoid using tech for tech’s sake
  • We should break out of our silos
  • We need to put an end to ‘pilotitus’

As anyone who’s read my blog over the last few years will know, I’ve been writing about most of these issues for a long time. Sadly, it seems like we’re still as far away as ever to meaningfully solving many of them, despite the fact that they’re almost impossible to ignore. The fact that some people might be happy with the status quo is one of the reasons I called the current state of affairs ICT4D’s “inconvenient truth”.

fixingdevelopment

When I launched my Donors Charter back in 2014, I asked how we might break the cycle of “technology for development becoming a sector full of replication, failed pilots, poorly thought-out projects, secrecy and near-zero levels of collaboration”. I agree with those who say these are big, hard problems but, as JFK famously said, “We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard”. We need to have the same attitude.

Over the years I’ve gradually pulled together a number of ideas and arguments for how we might begin to solve some of these issues and begin the shift from repetitive dialogue to constructive action. For the first time in one place, here’s the beginnings of my manifesto, or Six-Point Plan for Change. These will form the first ever strategy for The kiwanja Foundation – but more on that later.

1. FULLY DEVELOP AND DEPLOY A Donors Charter

Under pressure to support ‘innovative’ ideas, and often under pressure to spend their large budgets, donors often resort to funding projects they shouldn’t. What we end up with is a sector full of replication, failed pilots, secrecy and near-zero levels of collaboration.

donorscharter

This negatively impacts not only other poorly-planned initiatives, but it also complicates things for the better ones. On top of all that, it confuses the end user who is expected to make sense of the hundreds of tools that end up on offer. The policy of funding many in the hope that the odd one shines through – the so-called “let a thousand flowers bloom” scenario – belongs to an earlier era. Today, we know enough about what works and what doesn’t to be far more targeted in what is funded and supported.

Donors can fix this by agreeing to ask potential grantees a dozen very simple (mostly yes/no) questions, answers which will determine whether or not the project was ready for funding.

You can download a checklist of the questions, and read more, on the Donors Charter website.

2. CREATE A SHARED FOUNDATION TO ABSORB UNDER-SPENT FUNDS

Of course, if donors ceased funding badly thought-out projects they’d either have to give more to those which were worthy of support, or they’d have a surplus. Giving more to the most promising projects isn’t a bad idea, but any surplus would still be a major problem for any donor. At the moment, many of the larger government development agencies would likely pump anything left over into the World Bank, or another large institution that could absorb it, which in most cases isn’t particularly strategic. Many smaller Foundations also have funds left to spend, leading to a scramble to disburse them before the end of the financial year in order to protect their donor/non-profit/501c3 status. Smart fundraising teams often know this, meaning easy pickings for any that can get short concept papers together within a matter of hours. Again, a situation not too strategic for the donor.

Instead of this, could donors create a shared Foundation which could absorb some of these underspends, and then for those funds to be used for some other (perhaps bolder) strategic programmes, such as those outlined here? Or commit to giving them to NGOs in the global south?

3. A PROGRAMME OF InvestMENT in people

We hear it all the time. Investors invest in people, not products or ideas. Marty Zwilling, a veteran start-up mentor, describes people as the great competitive advantage. I wonder what the non-profit world might learn from people like him?

The vast majority, if not all, non-profit foundations and donors are project-focused. In contrast to many angel and traditional investors, they’re primarily interested in the products and ideas. It doesn’t matter too much who has them, as the hundreds of online development competitions and challenges testify. These investments in products and ideas, however helpful and generous they may be, almost always miss one key thing – investment in the person.

gic-disrupters

I can’t help but wonder what the non-profit sector might achieve with a VC-style approach. Imagine if each year a large, private Foundation picked half-a-dozen or so people working in global development – people with a track record of vision, thought-leadership and execution working and living anywhere in the world – and supported them in a similar way? Imagine being able to free up some of the greatest minds – conventional and unconventional – to imagine and deliver their own vision of development into the future? Freeing them up financially would, in the same way as the MacArthur Fellowship, allow them to be bold and brave with their ideas, and in the same way “enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society”. Isn’t benefiting human society, in essence, what the non-profit world is all about?

More on my thoughts on funding people not projects can be found in this Stanford Social Innovation Review article.

4. Create an independent M&E body

Knowing what works and what doesn’t, and to what extent, is crucial if we’re to continually improve global development efforts. Grand programmes such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – and the new Social Development Goals (SDGs) – only make sense if we’re able to track progress. In a recent Guardian article, Bjorn Lomborg asks if we met the MDGs, and which targets were closest. If we’re honest we don’t really know the answers yet (and we may not for some time). According to Bjorn:

“There were 18 simple goals. Data collection for these targets was patchy, with many gaps, and much of the information collected was of dubious quality. However, Jerven collates the information we have about survey costs and estimates that properly monitoring all 18 targets and 48 indicators would have cost $27 billion”

We have consensus in global development that M&E is critical, and while there are plenty of people, projects and organisations proposing and working on their own solutions, there is seemingly little co-ordination. Given that donors, more than anyone, ought to want to know if their money is being spent well, why not create and fund an independent M&E body to once and for all agree on standards, approaches and tools? Each donor could provide a small percentage of funding to cover operating costs, which would likely be no more than a few million dollars each year, and then make it a condition of all the grants they provide that the M&E body is consulted by the grantee and a sensible, effective plan put in place to get baseline data for a project, and then have some kind of evaluation carried out at the end. This information could then be published online, furthering our understanding and strengthening best practice. In the same way that donors often insist that technology projects are open sourced (a debate for another day), they could insist all projects subject themselves to a certain agreed standard of monitoring and evaluation.

5. FUTURE SCENARIO PLANNING

In a recent interview for a paper on the Principles for Digital Development, I suggested that the best way forward for our sector would be to paint a picture of what we see the future of ICT4D to be, and then to put policies and practice in place to enable us to meaningfully work towards that future. For arguments sake, we could pick 2030 as our date, which would neatly tie in with the SDGs. From the opening final chapter of that paper:

Future-Vision

If we analysed social media to pick out the main themes and opinions – this might be the quickest way to get an early sense of the kind of future people are talking about (or perhaps the most honest one) – then I’d hazard a guess that keywords and phrases would include things like: local empowerment, building local capacity, people solving their own problems, bottom-up development, appropriate technology, etc. Using this, we might say:

“The future of ICT4D is a strong local civil society tech sector, realistically funded and supported, carrying out its own research, evaluation and prioritisation of local problems, using its own talent to build, pilot and test those solutions, built using the kind of appropriate technologies available in their own contexts, and then managing the scaling and replication of solutions which best solve theirs and their communities needs. We would see an end to current uncoordinated practice of outsiders using those same communities as sandpits and testing grounds for their own remotely designed and built solutions, and for those outside organisations to be required to work through local partners to determine the appropriateness, usefulness and potential of those tools”.

From here we could agree a timetable of how we achieve this over a 14 year period – how we build local capacity and institutions, gradually increasing levels of funding to local organisations (which currently amounts to only a couple of percent of all humanitarian aid spending), support initiatives that build engineering capacity in-country, slowly wean Western institutions (NGOs, academia, etc) off the practice of trying to save the developing world with fancy new technologies, and work towards a better balance where outsiders take on a new, more back-seat role in this new future.

How about (for starters) an event, or a conference, to agree on this future? And then wider collaboration and consultations to decide how we might get to a future we all agree on? And then for all parties to commit to owning it, and executing on it?

6. TOWARDS AN ANTHROPOLOGY OF INNOVATION

I’ve always maintained that my chance encounter, and subsequent training, in social anthropology has had a huge influence in the way I go about my work. The concept of participant observation – simply watching and learning from a distance, without attempting to directly impact or directly ask specific questions – should be an essential step in gaining local understanding, and empathy, before any attempt to solve anything.

It’s widely recognised that projects can succeed or fail on the realisation of their relative impacts on target communities, and development anthropology (one of many branches of anthropology) is seen as an increasingly important element in determining these positive and negative impacts. In the commercial ICT sector – particularly within emerging market divisions – it is now not uncommon to find anthropologists working within the corridors of high-tech companies. Intel and Nokia are two such examples. Just as large development projects can fail if aid agencies fail to understand their target communities, commercial products can fail if companies fail to understand the very same people. In this case, these people simply go by a different name – customers.

anthropology-quiz

With the need for empathy and local understanding key pillars in today’s ‘user centred design’ approach to social innovation, there is much we can learn from anthropology. Yet the discipline remains largely on the sidelines. In my recent Twitter poll, the need for anthropologists came top. One thing we need to do is figure out how to mainstream the discipline in all aspects of ICT4D and global development projects – to the point where they’re not the exception, but the rule. No team should be complete without an anthropologist, or the input of an anthropologist.

Back in 2007, during my time at Stanford University, I incorporated The kiwanja Foundation (the original home of FrontlineSMS, and now remodelled into SIMLab) and almost ten years on I think I finally have something closely resembling a launch strategy for the Foundation. The majority of these ideas are well formed, and some (such as the Donors Charter) have been ‘launched’, although resources to fully promote them have been somewhat limited. With a little seed funding I one day hope to continue with those I’ve started, and execute on the others.

The 10th anniversary would be a great time to do this. That’s just under one year and counting. There’s nothing quite like setting yourself a challenge. Any adventurous funders out there with a little cash left over at the end of their financial year?