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.

Publishing and the art of iteration

Eighteen months ago, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” hit the shelves. The product of a combination of donations, crowdfunding, ten inspiring innovators, an editor with too much time on his hands, and an engaged publisher, the book was always something of an experiment. Tales of people innovating ‘outside the system’ – people with little by way of resources or money, and often without qualification or permission – just getting on with fixing social ills that deeply bothered them seemed like stories the world needed to hear.

Today, it looks like I may have underestimated the number of people who wanted to hear them.

Professional book reviews are hard to get, particularly when you self publish. But the couple we got were great (here’s one). Amazon reviews were even better – standing today at 43 and counting, and all five star reviews bar a couple. It even topped Amazon’s “Development Studies” charts for a while. All of this, of course, in addition to the couple-of-dozen fantastic post-publication endorsements we got.

Interestingly, universities and colleges around the world quickly started picking up on the book as it found its way into numerous social innovation and ICT4D classes. For me, this has been the biggest positive for the book. One typical response appeared on Amazon:

Stories for every college campus

Ken Banks has collected a volume of stories here that need to be told on every college campus. College campuses are at this moment unique seedbeds of opportunity. Populated with “Millennial Searchers” who, in increasing numbers, tell us they define life success in terms of meaning, purpose, and making a difference, and shaped by the larger movements of social entrepreneurship and sustainability, college curricula have begun shifting towards educating students to become agents for change.

What our change agents need above all right now is not more information, but stories – stories that the move them from paralysis and despair in the face of social disintegration and ecological loss to actions shaped by courage, humor, and hope. These stories do this. And because they inject so much of the raw, the uncertain, and the unformed portion of reality into their tales they are stories on which students will clamber for in the face of the challenges of their generation.

These stories speak eloquently about power – the power of connections, the power in confronting power structures for the sake of the marginal, the power of serendipity, the power of the human spirit to overcome immense challenges and work towards transformation and justice. In doing so, they function as a calling to that part of ourselves that will recreate and restore human and natural communities, that bears witness to our capacity for both good and ill, and that remembers the full range of ingenuity and wisdom we possess individually and as a species.

Wendy Petersen Boring, co-editor, “Teaching Sustainability: Perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences”

Over the past few months it’s become increasingly clear that I ought to make more of the book. So I started speaking to an international publisher, and am delighted to share news that I’ve now been offered a full publishing deal to release a new, revised and re-worked “Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” early next year (though the title will need to change to something a little more search-engine-friendly, apparently).

Over the summer I’ll be working with the existing chapter contributors, and some new ones, putting a little more structure around each of their stories. The essence of the book will remain the same, but we’ll make it more useful to students of social entrepreneurship and social innovation. We’ve already learnt that our approach is a little unique, and that it stands out from other books which are often dominated by theory and stuffy concepts. Ever since I started inviting FrontlineSMS users to write about their work and experiences using the software way back in 2005, I’ve been increasingly convinced that people are primarily motivated and inspired by raw stories of innovation.

Watch this space for news and updates over the coming months. In the meantime, you can check out the current book offering here.