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What to do when the yelling stops?

I’m reading two books in parallel right now – Ben Ramalingam‘s ‘Aid on the Edge of Chaos‘ and Kentaro Toyama‘s ‘Geek Heresy‘. With both books I’m finding myself regularly pausing for a nod of approval or a wry smile. Both books are spot on in their identification of the issues – Ben in global development more broadly, and Kentaro in ICT4D, a sector/field/discipline/specialism of global development.

A while back when Bill Easterly published his ‘Tyranny of Experts‘ I started to wonder what impact his previous book – ‘The White Man’s Burden‘ – has had on the practice and policy of global development. I have the same question for Dambisa Moyo, too, whose ‘Dead Aid‘ is another classic development critique. Both provide strong arguments for a new aid world order (or, more to the point, no aid at all).

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Suffice to say, if you’re not a fan or supporter of big development there are countless books out there to feed your anger, frustration and despair. But for all the hundreds of billions of words written over the past decade or two citing the challenges, problems and issues, have any forced any kind of change in how those hundreds of billions of Pounds, Dollars or Euros of development aid were spent? Almost everyone I meet who works in big development has at least one major frustration with it – many have several – but the one that drives me to despair the most is that no-one seems to be able to change anything.

I published my first book – ‘The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator‘ – because I wanted to help steer young social innovators-to-be away from expensive university or design thinking courses and encourage them to firstly get out into the world, meet the people they wanted to help, gain some empathy, and find their passion. Before they did anything. I can’t speak for Ben or Kentaro, but they probably hope something might improve or change as a result of their writing efforts, too.

It’s easy to rant, but far more productive if we also offer solutions and ways forward. Obama made this point recently when talking about the Black Lives Matter movement, and what he said could equally be applied to international development:

“Once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them.”

Last week I stumbled across a BBC News article provocatively titled Barbie challenges the ‘white saviour complex’. It’s a brilliant example of creative – innovative? – thinking in how to challenge much of what many see is wrong in our field.

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“Just taking a #slumfie amidst this dire poverty and need. Feeling so #blessed and #thankful that I have so much more than this.”

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“The people living in the country of Africa are some of the most beautiful humans I have ever laid eyes on. I feel so insignificant next to my new friend Promise.”

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“Who needs a formal education to teach in Africa? Not me! All I need is some chalk and a dose of optimism.”

If the purpose of Barbie Savior was to draw attention to the ‘warped concept’ of volunteerism, poverty tourism or what many would see as the ‘condescending nature’ of many aid efforts, it has undoubtedly succeeded. Just a selection of headlines include:


‘White Savior Barbie’ Hilariously Parodies Volunteer Selfies In Africa
Instagram’s White Savior Barbie neatly captures what’s wrong with “voluntourism” in Africa
White Saviour Barbie’s world of orphanage selfies and charity startups
‘White Savior Barbie’ brilliantly mocks insincere volunteer selfies in Africa
Barbie Savior: The parody that makes aid types feel good, but does nothing
“Barbie Savior” Instagram Account Brilliantly Skewers White Savior Complex


As with the Barbie account, there are plenty of other examples of books, games, conferences and campaigns that seek to raise awareness around the issues in our sector, but few seem to be able to drive change to the same degree that they’re able to raise awareness or anger, or laughter, or point fingers. The same tweets get sent out conference after conference, and retweets abound, and heads nod – but again there’s very little sense of what can be genuinely done to address the challenges so beautifully described in many of these 140 character outbursts, or in those cleverly Photoshopped Instagram images.

After more than two decades working ‘in’ global development, my question remains unchanged. What to do when the yelling stops?

Life in full circle

In both my books – The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator from 2013 and Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation published this March – I make no secret of my early struggles to find meaning and purpose. Back home in Jersey, for a period approaching a decade from my mid-teens, I went through the motions doing what most people around me were doing – working in a well-paid but totally unfulfilling job. It was a fairly dark time, but one which I thankfully stumbled my way through.

Part of my strategy at the time was to go on long drives in my beloved TR7 – quite a feat on an island the size of Jersey. As most people my age did I’d play my music loud, putting together compilation tapes of some of my favourite thought-provoking, sometimes gloomy, music.

In 1986, like many people, I found myself caught up in the buzz and excitement of a new album called So by Peter Gabriel (famous for a number of hits including Sledgehammer, Don’t Give Up and Big Time). I began ordering some of his earlier records (yes, I had to order vinyl LP’s from actual record shops back then). One of those records was his very first album, and one track in particular found its way onto many of my driving/contemplation tapes. Playing it today still takes me back to a place I didn’t want to be, almost thirty years on.

So it is one of life’s little ironies, in a way, that Peter Gabriel agreed to write the foreword to my new book. In the same way that life sometimes goes full circle, his involvement has almost bridged what feels like two lives – the one I had before I found purpose, and the one I’ve had since.

2016: A year in preview

2015 started off with more than a little degree of uncertainty. Thirteen years ago I launched kiwanja.net not really knowing whether there was really much of a long-term demand for what I had to offer. But it was worth a go. Apart from my years at the helm of FrontlineSMS, where funding often came in multi-year awards, most of my other work has been short-term, and I’ve ended up combining paid work with pro-bono support to grassroots innovators. Uncertainty is the name of the game when you go it alone, as many people in my shoes will know too well.

In stark contrast to how the year began, it comes to a close with a busy and hugely exciting year ahead. So, in something of a shift from the traditional ‘year in review’ post, here’s my ‘year in preview’ and a summary of what I’ll be getting up to over the next twelve months.


Care International

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In October 2015, CARE International announced my appointment as their first ever Entrepreneur in Residence. I’ll be spending time with CARE over the next year helping them make sense of the increasingly complex world of social innovation and technology-for-development. Further details are available in this interview first published on the CARE Insights website.


Yoti

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Yoti is a new digital identity tool which helps you prove who you are and confirm who other people are, online and face-to-face. I’ve been appointed an inaugural member of Yoti’s Guardian Council. Yoti Guardians are “influential individuals who ensure that Yoti always seeks to do the right thing, and that they are transparent about what they are doing and why”. I’ll be advising them in an independent capacity over the next year to help them do just that, and to help Yoti think about the potential of their work in the developing world. Further details are available on the Yoti website.


Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation: International Case Studies and Practice

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In March my second book – the follow-up to “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” – will be published by Kogan Page. From the publisher’s website:

“Social innovation and social entrepreneurship look for creative and affordable solutions to specific societal problems. Fuelled by the spread of the internet and the ubiquity of mobile phones, there are more people working to solve pressing social and environmental problems in the world today than ever before in human history. Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation presents the journeys of pioneering – and often accidental – social innovators who, faced with a problem, used their courage, tenacity and creative thinking to find a solution.

Using their own words to reflect open their experiences, these cases do not gloss over the setbacks and the dead ends social entrepreneurs can face. Instead, readers will gain a realistic insight into the challenges and an engaging look at the problem-solving mindset needed to overcome them. From a life-saving project to bring solar-powered lighting to midwives in Nigeria, to a news dissemination service that’s grown from small beginnings to have a global impact, each case study draws out the lessons learnt by the innovators, providing guidance and advice for those looking to follow in their footsteps. Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation is an invaluable resource for social entrepreneurs and innovators looking for new ideas and insight into what really works – and what doesn’t. This book is an inspiring read for anyone with a social conscience and a desire to change their world for the better.”

We’ll be announcing more nearer publication date in early March, so watch this space.


Means of Exchange

MoE-X-Man-IconWe’ve recently recruited a Project Director for our Means of Exchange (MoE) project, and over 2016 will be launching a number of new initiatives. For those that don’t know, MoE is a kiwanja initiative launched in 2012 to look at how emerging, everyday technologies can be used to democratise opportunities for economic self-sufficiency, rebuild local community and promote a return to local resource use, leading us to a better, fairer, more locally-connected world. I’ll be supporting Sally Brammall over the year as she devises and implements the new strategy. More on the Means of Exchange website.


Global eHealth Foundation

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The Global eHealth Foundation (GeHF) is a UK charity dedicated to using the power of technology to bring healthcare and health education to the poorest and most disadvantaged communities in the world. GeHF is supported by a highly influential group of Trustees and Champions including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mrs. Graça Machel, Peter Gabriel and Mary Robinson. I’ve been appointed Chief Executive on a part-time basis to work with the Foundation to help them deliver on their objectives and mission. Further details can be found on the Global eHealth Foundation website.


altruly mobile app

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After about nine months of planning and raising investment, I’m now working on a new kind of mobile giving app called altruly, due for release by early summer 2016. altruly re-imagines mobile giving, helping people support the kind of change they want to see in the world in a new and engaging way. Further details will be announced soon. In the meantime, you can sign up for news and updates on the altruly website or follow the project on Twitter.


In addition to my contract and project commitments, I’ll continue to blog and write guest posts, support and mentor grassroots innovators and carry out speaking engagements. I am incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to do work that I deeply care about, and that genuinely excites me. I take none of it for granted. Thanks to everyone who has been part of my journey so far, and I look forward to others joining over the coming year. Happy new year, everyone.