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A call for sanity – not innovation – in humanitarian tech.

If you’re a socially-focussed tech organisation working with refugees, it’s been a pretty tough few months. Not only have you had to deal with the ever-growing number of people fleeing conflict – now at record levels – but you’ve had to deal with the politics of the ‘humanitarian technology sector’.

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For those who have been working with refugees for years, often with proven, well-thought out solutions, it must be frustrating to see call after call – through Challenges and Innovation Competitions and the like – for ‘innovative new solutions’ to the crisis. Not only is it madness to imply that every solution already out there isn’t any good (which asking for new ones implicitly does), but it often sidelines the very organisations with the best background and experience – the ones best-placed to build the ‘desperately needed stuff that works’ that we need.

Can we agree to stop calling for ‘innovative and new’ solutions to every crisis, and commit to at least first looking at what currently exists? And, sure, if there is nothing then let’s reach out and built something new.

Deal?

What technology-for-conservation might learn from technology-for-development

Although the majority of my more recent work has sat in the ‘global development’ bucket, much of my early interest lay in conservation. Before I stumbled into the world of mobiles-for-development (m4d) I was helping with biodiversity surveys in Uganda and running primate sanctuaries in Nigeria, and focusing my academic studies on the role of anthropologists in the creation of national parks. My first m4d project looked at the potential of mobile technology in conservation, and it was my work around Kruger National Park over 2003 and 2004 that lead to the idea behind FrontlineSMS.

Conservation is still one of my biggest passions, and I returned to my roots a couple of years ago when I was asked to speak about the potential for, and use of, emerging technology in the global conservation effort at the 2013 WWF Kathryn Fuller Symposium. You can watch that talk below (it’s also available, along with other talks, in the Audio & Video section of this website).

The following year I was invited to an event at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, and gave a similar talk at their inaugural Digital Conservation event on how the sector might draw lessons on technology use from global development. Following my talk, I was invited by the organisers to join them in co-authoring a paper for a forthcoming special edition of Ambio Journal focusing on “Digital conservation: Understanding the impacts of digital technology on nature conservation“. One element of the paper proposes a rework of kiwanja’s Donors Charter for the conservation community.

Late last month, that special edition hit the shelves. Here’s the summary of our paper, which was proudly co-authored with Georgina Maffey, Hilary Homans and Koen Arts:

The application of digital technology in conservation holds much potential for advancing the understanding of, and facilitating interaction with, the natural world. In other sectors, digital technology has long been used to engage communities and share information. Human development – which holds parallels with the nature conservation sector – has seen a proliferation of innovation in technological development. Throughout our paper, we consider what nature conservation can learn from the introduction of digital technology in human development. From this, we derive a Charter to be used before and throughout project development, in order to help reduce replication and failure of digital innovation in nature conservation projects. We argue that the proposed charter will promote collaboration with the development of digital tools and ensure that nature conservation projects progress appropriately with the development of new digital technologies.

You can download a full PDF of the paper from the kiwanja website here or via the Ambio website here.

The case of We Care Solar and our failure to spot winners

“The first ever US$1 million UN-DESA Energy Grant has been awarded to We Care Solar, a non-profit organisation, to enhance and expand the use of its ‘Solar Suitcase’. By making solar power simple, accessible and affordable, this device allows for the provision of electricity for medical procedures during childbirth in many developing countries, helping to avoid life-threatening complications for mothers and children” – UN website

Yesterday afternoon at United Nations HQ in New York, Laura Stachel and her organisation, We Care Solar, picked up the inaugural UN-DESA award. It’s the latest in a string of awards and accolades for a project I’ve known and admired for many years. You can read more about what happened yesterday on the UN website.

Liberian Health Workers receiving their  Solar Suitcase (Photo: We Care Solar)

Liberian Health Workers receiving their Solar Suitcase (Photo: We Care Solar)

I was already a fan of simple, appropriate technology solutions to problems before I met Laura in 2009. While almost everyone else at the time seemed to be aspiring to build complex tech solutions to often simple problems, the idea behind the Solar Suitcase was beautiful in its simplicity. It was based on a rather simple hypothesis: If the power (and therefore lighting) goes down in the middle of a difficult (or any) childbirth, and there’s no backup, people can die. This is not just true of maternity wards in the developing world, where Laura first witnessed this happening. Try plunging any operating theatre anywhere in the world into darkness and see how the surgeons cope.

I always found the idea compelling, and always did what I could to help. Laura was as committed to ending these unnecessary deaths as anyone could be, and her determination was at times a source of frustration to her. She gave it everything, and taking it on changed her life. The fact she got so little support early on, despite the compelling nature of her work, was an injustice in my eyes, and another reason I always did what I could. It was another reason why I wanted to include her story in my recent book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator“. In celebration of their award yesterday, we’re offering Laura’s chapter here for free (PDF).

Why Laura was so committed was clear. From her Nigerian fieldwork (2008), quoted in the book:

I had not predicted the challenges facing my Nigerian colleagues. At night, I observed maternity care, watching helplessly as doctors and midwives struggled to treat critically ill pregnant women in near-total darkness. The dim glow of kerosene lanterns often provided the only illumination. Without electricity, doctors had to postpone Caesarean sections and other life-saving procedures. When the maternity ward was in darkness, midwives were unable to provide emergency care and, on occasion, would turn patients away from the labour room door, despite their critical need for care.

The story of Laura’s response, the Solar Suitcase, is not the rosy tale of social innovation and overnight success that many people hearing about her work for the first time yesterday might think it to be. Today, things might be going well but, as Laura will remind us, there’s always more to be done, and women and children continue to die in the dark in wards the developing world over. It’s obviously great news that, as a result of yesterdays award, that number will continue to decrease, but that level of support hasn’t always been there, despite the compelling nature of what she was doing.

Poster for the Solar Suitcase (Courtesy Laura Stachel)

Poster for the Solar Suitcase (Courtesy Laura Stachel)

After that Nigerian trip in 2008, Laura and her partner, Hal, sketched out the early plans for the Solar Suitcase. That done, they needed money to build a prototype. A $12,500 competition at UC Berkeley looked like the perfect place to get it, but out of twelve finalists they didn’t win. In her own words, Laura felt dejected and, worse, felt she’d let down colleagues in Nigeria who she had promised to help. But someone there believed in them. Thomas Kalil, a campus official who had been at the competition, called Laura up and told her they should have won. He committed to helping. Within three weeks he had pulled together $25,000 from The Blum Center for Developing Economies and Berkeley Big Ideas, and We Care Solar was born. Considerable challenges remained as the work progressed, and on numerous occasions anyone with less determination would have quit. There’s nothing more deflating that having huge belief in what you’re doing, only to find so few others who share it. If you want the real story behind what it means to innovate, read Laura’s chapter. Trust me, it’s worth it.

The story of We Care Solar is littered with opportunities for the official development sector to come on board. But on so many occasions it didn’t. There could be many reasons for this. Perhaps the technology wasn’t clever enough? Maybe donors didn’t see the potential in what Laura was doing? Maybe they were too busy looking for the next big thing? Maybe all of the above?

Yesterday’s award is proof that Laura was right sticking to her belief in the Solar Suitcase, despite the immense personal sacrifices that involved. And we should be grateful that she did. We talk a lot in the development sector about ‘picking winners’ and the ‘need to support things that work’. But that clearly didn’t happen here. Until now. How many Laura’s are out there who don’t battle through, who call it a day on potentially life-changing ideas because they can’t get the support they need? Or, worse, because they are constantly rejected?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but what’s not compelling about giving light to maternity wards in the developing world? What’s not compelling about wanting to stop women and babies dying in the dark? And why did it take so long to help someone fix it?