Doing good? Or do-gooder?

We all like to think our work makes a difference, even if we’re not really sure if it does. I’m well known for ‘doing good in the world’ yet even I question what that really means, or who precisely where might be better off in some way because of my chosen career path. For many people, feeling like they’re doing good is likely enough. For me, it’s not.

I’ve worked hard over the years to ground everything I do in some kind of reality. All those years working with grassroots NGOs across Africa, all that time trying to understand their problems and realities – being able to see, live, taste, smell and experience them – has given me great insight, but also made me incredibly impatient for change. In the technology-for-development sector, where donors always seem hungry for the ‘next big thing’, I like to drive home the point that we need to be solving problems today, for people suffering today, with tools available today. For some people there is no tomorrow. For others, no next year. Others may be living longer, but they’re living in poverty for longer. I see little worth celebrating in that.

Anyone that knows me will know I’m always challenging and questioning global development, and always challenging my own role within it. I feel I’ve been fortunate to have spent the vast majority of my career working independently, giving me the freedom to be open and honest, and to pursue the things that I see as important, not things which suit a particular trend or political agenda. Sadly too much of the wider work that goes on suffers because of the very reason that it does.

Susan, the subject of Pete’s post (photo courtesy Pete Vowles)

Earlier this week I read a post from Pete Vowles, Head of DFID in Kenya. Pete has been instrumental in the ‘Doing Development Differently’ movement, and in his post he shares his experiences ‘living’ with a family in Kenya for 24 hours, a family living well below the poverty line. It’s a harrowing read, and something everyone working in global development should print off and stick above their desks as a reminder of what development was meant to be about.

One thing that struck me, and moved me most, was Susan’s lack of hope and how, in Pete’s words, she felt physically and mentally broken every night as she locked herself and her children in their huts. Dignity and hope, two things a healthy human spirit really can’t do without, have never appeared as key performance indicators in any development project I’ve worked on. What does it cost to give someone hope?

A photo I took in India a few years ago, and used recently in a talk about development and dignity

Pete’s post more than anything I’ve read recently has given me a real jolt, forcing me to be more critical than ever about the work I’m doing, and whether or not I’m really doing good, or just feeling good. For me, development has always been personal. It’s not about scale, metrics, KPIs or log frames, but about connecting with real people with real problems. I’m proud that I’m still in contact with, and friends with – and supporting – many FrontlineSMS users years after I stepped back from the project. Friendships outlast any development timeframe, as should our desire to be there for the people we seek to help. Perhaps this, more than anything, should be my own personal KPI, and how I judge whether my efforts have ultimately been worth it or not.

One last throw of the dice.

I’ve always found the global development system frustrating. It was the 1980’s when it first got my attention, with suffering and extreme poverty dominating my daily news feed. The Ethiopian famine in 1985 was the turning point, forcing me to seriously question why a sector awash with money and resources could have so little visible impact (and when it does, how it struggles to effectively communicate the change). While I still don’t have all the answers I think I know a lot more about what needs to be fixed.

A depressing reality struck me the other week as I pulled together a collection of my most popular blog posts for a new eBook. It dawned on me that I’ve been writing about the same stuff for over a decade. Some of my posts from 2007 apply just as much today, if not more. And that’s depressing. Seriously depressing.

I’ve always been my biggest critic and I constantly question whether anything I’ve done, or currently do, has or is making any kind of meaningful difference out there. Sure, I’ve spent the best part of my working life trying to figure out how I can contribute to a solution to some of the social and environmental problems that deeply trouble me, but because I’ve spent so long doing it doesn’t mean I’ve achieved anything. I wrote about this recently, too.

Tonight I watched a TED talk, provocatively titled “Poverty isn’t a lack of character; it’s a lack of cash“. It was wonderfully argued and delivered, and beautifully challenged many of the assumptions that underly global development policy and practice. In his talk, Rutger also highlighted a solution to a poverty reduction programme that actually worked but has since been largely ignored – the basic minimum income. (This is something I’ve seen time and time again in my work on the technology side of development (often called ICT4D), in that when ideas emerge that seem to actually work for unexplained reasons the wider sector decides not to adopt or support them. For a sector that constantly demands new and innovative solutions to everything, it’s perplexing.

With so much still to be done, I wonder whether I’m going to see the change that’s needed in my lifetime. I’ve been fortunate in my career, and have had wonderful support throughout. But the question I’m beginning to ask myself now is this. If there was just one thing I could work on for the next ten years – one thing I could throw myself at and have the greatest impact – what would that be?

I wonder.

Eugene L. Lawler Award for our work in mobile

A couple of weeks ago I received the surprising (and wonderful) news that I had been selected as the latest recipient of the Eugene L. Lawler Award for Humanitarian Contributions within Computer Science. The Award is given by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) every two years to a group or individual who has made a significant contribution through the use of computing technology.

The ACM is the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society, uniting computing educators, researchers and professionals to inspire dialogue, share resources and address the field’s challenges. As it does each year, the ACM honours the dedication, talent and achievements of luminaries of the international computing community. Working in diverse areas, the 2016 award recipients were selected by their peers for longstanding efforts that have had far-reaching impact. This year’s ACM award recipients made contributions in areas including computer science education, technology in the developing world, preserving and sharing computing history, and supporting women in the computing field. According to the ACM:

Ken Banks has received the 2016 ACM Eugene L. Lawler Award for developing FrontlineSMS, using mobile technology and text messaging to empower people to share information, organize aid, and reconnect communities during crises. Banks saw an opportunity to harness the world’s most-used communication platform – mobile messaging – to help people in the developing world.

The Awards will be presented at a special ceremony in San Francisco in June. You can read more about each of the Award winners on the ACM website, or via the official Press Release [PDF].