Global development R&D: Maintaining a balance

My first brush with technology-for-development, almost twenty years ago, wasn’t on the potential of the Internet, or how mobile phones were going to change, well, everything. To be honest, neither were really on the development radar in any meaningful way back then. It’s almost funny to imagine a time when that was the case.

No, my first contact with what was to become a career in ICT4D started off with an essay on the failure of plough and cook stove projects across Africa. I was struck by the beauty of simple, locally appropriate solutions and amazed at how development experts just didn’t seem (or want) to get it. Many of their failed initiatives seemed more like a reaction against them – that, as experts, they were expected to come out with something the opposite of simple, primitive, practical. This they did, but very little of it ever worked.

smallisbeautifulIt was around this time that I also came across the work of E. F. Schumacher and his brilliant 1973 book, Small is Beautiful. The lessons in his book apply just as much today in a world dominated by digital technologies – a world he would never have imagined back then. World Watch magazine interviewed me a few years ago on why his appropriate technology ethos was just as relevant today. It’s well worth a read.

Our obsession with the latest shiny technology hasn’t gone away, either. History repeats itself and, despite being armed with a range of tools and solutions that work, experts still appear to rebel against them because they’re digitally too simple, primitive or practical. And, again, many of their alternative ‘innovative’ solutions simply don’t work.

Sure, there needs to be a degree of emphasis on new tools, new solutions, new ways of tackling old problems. This – the R&D side of the development machine – is essential but it needs to be kept in balance. The average R&D spend among top UK companies in a recent survey was 5%. No company in its right mind would spend most of its money on research and development and ignore its bread and butter, namely its current products and services, and current customers.

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How about the global development sector make a commitment to spend, say, 5% of its funding on blue sky, high tech, high risk forward-looking ideas, and commit the rest to funding the really simple, primitive, appropriate solutions we already have that are proven to work? 5% of global development spending is still a few billion dollars, more than enough to invest in the next big thing.

And how about it pool these funds and create a single Global Development R&D Fund? A better coordinated approach might result in better outcomes, and it could better manage its external communications. The amount available would compare quite favourably with R&D spends of the bigger tech companies (source: Atlas)

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Right now, with an increasing big data, drones and wearables obsession (among others), you get the sense that global development R&D lacks coordination and spends too much of its time, energy, focus and resources on high-risk ideas. While it toys around with the next big thing people are going to bed hungry, dying of treatable diseases, at school with no pens or books, or drinking polluted water. All of these things can be put right with the technologies we possess today, but they’re not. I’ve never understood why. We should only allow ourselves the luxury of looking to the future once we’ve fixed the solvable problems of the present.

While the development community needs to naturally look ahead, it also needs to remember the people suffering today, those who might not be around to reap the benefits of any cool drone, big data or wearable solution of the future. Every life matters, after all. You get a sense that in the development space, R&D spending is way out of control as it feeds its obsession with cool, shiny and innovative.

So let’s keep that R&D budget in check, be more open with how much is being spent on speculative new ideas which may go nowhere, and make sure we don’t forget our bread and butter – our current (working) products and services, and our current customers – the poor, marginalised and vulnerable out there who, through no fault of their own, desperately need our help. Today.

In global development, is the pen mightier than the sword?

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 ‘The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator‘ because I wanted to help steer young social innovators away from expensive university 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. I can’t speak for Ben or Kentaro, but they probably hope something might improve as a result of their writing efforts, too.

I spent the best part of three years as an undergraduate at Sussex University in the late 1990’s writing about how rubbish development was. That’s what undergraduates do. Of course, it’s not all bad, but many of the problems I studied 20 years ago persist. That’s my problem.

I thoroughly recommend all of the books Ben, Kentaro, Bill and Dambisa have written. Oh, and of course, mine. And if nothing changes, at least you’ll have had a good read.

The “Tweet. Recycle. Repeat” of ICT4D

During a rare, quiet, bored few minutes last week I looked through a few early blog posts from some of the longer standing members of the ICT4D community. Between around 2012 and now, many of the same statements, proclamations and questions have come up time and time and time again. The same tweets with the same outcome – usually nothing. Many have regularly appeared on my blog over the past seven or eight years, too, without making the slightest bit of difference.

I recently wrote about the need to stop just meeting up and repeating ourselves in the ICT4D echo chamber, which is what has been happening. But suffice to say it continues, and likely will, for as long as the discipline survives. The most obvious impact of all this activity are tweets and retweets of surprise every time something is said, even if it has been said for the past five years. If we’re looking to keep ourselves in a job and not fix anything, this isn’t a bad strategy, I suppose.

Here’s just a few of the things we’ve been saying over and over again for years.

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Okay, so no more pilots. Let’s put an end to ‘pilotitus’. Other than talking, what are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

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Okay, after decades of trying we have done some stuff right. So how do we identify the stuff that works and genuinely support that? Other than talking, what are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

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Yup. The world doesn’t need any more data collection tools or SMS gateways. So how do we put an end to this constant replication and reinvention? Other than talking, what are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

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In many cases it’s still unclear who should pay to do monitoring and evaluation. Donors seem to think grantees should do it, and grantees only seem prepared to do it if the donor has given money for it. Other than talking, how are we going to fix this, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

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Hallelujah. After years of ignoring the end user we’re now entering an age (in ICT4D and global conservation and development, more broadly) where we think it’s a good idea to be consulting our end user. But it still doesn’t happen as much as it should. What are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

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Everyone loves talking about appropriate technologies, but then they go off and build iPad apps for African farmers. We need to lead with the problem and the people, not the technology. But other than saying this, what are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

When it comes to talking, blogging and tweeting ‘best practice’, I’m as guilty as the next person. We all do it, and we all rightly believe in what we’re saying. But talk is cheap if we do something very different on the ground (or do nothing at all). And after 12 years working in ICT4D/m4d I seem to keep seeing the same questions and issues raised over and over again. I’m sure I’m right when I say we all want to do the best we can for the people we serve. If we’re under performing then that’s something we all should naturally want to address.

Of course it’s pretty easy to rant about how bad things are, but that’s little use if you don’t offer any solutions. I’ve been trying to do more of that lately, publishing a book – The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator – to challenge conventional wisdom around how social innovation happens and should be done. I also launched the Donors Charter which seemed to stir up all sorts of trouble, breaking the SSIR commenting system in the process. Check out the Stanford Social Innovation Review post if you’ve got a couple of hours spare.

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The Charter, in short, proposed (quite logically in my mind) that if donors largely control what gets funded, all they needed to do was ask potential grantees a few simple questions before they handed over their money. We could then put a stop to some of the repetitive bad practice that we see. Donors all sign up to the Charter, and enforce it among themselves.

Of course, whether anything like this gets adopted is out of my control. But at least it’s a possible solution, not a rant.

Passions often get fired up in these kinds of debate, and it’s wonderful to see so much of it around ICT4D and m4d, particularly on how we can move the disciplines forward. But if the people and organisations with teeth in the non-profit sector aren’t in the room, and don’t act, then nothing will ever change. Perhaps everyone is too comfortable with how things are, and perhaps people don’t really want change.

Or perhaps we’re only comfortable with disruption as long as it doesn’t happen to us. Tweet that.