The end of a golden age of discovery?

Exactly six years ago this week I was in Washington DC to collect the Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest, and award given each year to an individual who has created or led an effort to create an open source software product of significant value to the non-profit sector and movements for social change. While the Prize came in a golden spell for me and my work, I wonder if that golden age of discovery in our wider sector – which I was privileged to be a part of – is now over?

When Livingstone, Stanley and Speke set out on their voyages of adventure across Africa, their objective was not only discovery but to show the impossible was possible – that you could penetrate into the heart of Africa – the ‘Dark Continent’ – and live to tell the tale. Although later discoveries and adventures still roused public and press interest (and awards and recognition for the individuals involved) for many that early raw, frontier period was gone, never to return.

Bushbuckridge, South Africa (2003). A frontier of mobile exploration. Photo: Ken Banks

When I look back through the 15-year history of kiwanja.net, much of the first few years felt like a period of raw expectation and raw exploration. It was a bit of a Wild West. Nobody really knew what would work, how it might work, or who it might benefit. Most people weren’t even aware of the early signs of what was to famously become the ‘mobile revolution’. Back then, innovation wasn’t a word thrown around casually, you could have put everyone working in mobile-for-development into a local cinema, and there wasn’t such a thing as best practice. For me and many of those around me, it felt like those early days for Livingstone, Stanley and Speke. It felt like we were making trails that others might follow, but we didn’t know where they would lead, if anywhere, and what we might learn.

My early work, without any doubt, felt like it came in a golden age. It felt like we were forging a path – one centred around the use of SMS in conservation and development – where no-one else had been before. Like those early Africa explorers, interest and fascination among the public and press was high. And because of it, the project grew and awards and recognition came. Over a six year period multiple fellowships, awards and prizes arrived, along with considerable amounts of funding for FrontlineSMS which, for a while, seemed to be everywhere. You could try anything, safely in the knowledge that it was unlikely anyone else had tried it before.

In the true spirit of adventure, in 2010 I had the huge privilege of being named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. At the time it felt like a very bold move by the Selection Committee. Almost all of the other Emerging Explorers were either climbing, diving, scaling, digging or building, and what I do hardly fits into your typical adventurer job description. But as I think about it today, as I write this post, in a way it does. As mobile technology continued its global advance, figuring out ways of applying the technology in socially and environmentally meaningful ways was a kind of 21st century exploring. Since 2010 a number of other friends and colleagues have gone on to be named Emerging Explorers whilst working in the technology sector, continuing a trend at National Geographic of reframing exploration in a digital age.

Today – as I reflect on this, the later stages of my career – my time is increasingly spent helping others cut their own route, and sharing stories of those who succeed. Today we have more tools than ever at our disposal to help solve the social and environmental problems around us – perhaps too many – but despite this the golden age feels over. Our field has become professionalised, and with it we have lost a lot of the magic.

In reality, all that has really changed is that frontiers have shifted. Maybe I just prefer the one I lived through all those years ago.

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.

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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.