Doing good? Or do-gooder?

We all like to think our work makes a difference, even if we’re not really sure if it does. I’m well known for ‘doing good in the world’ yet even I question what that really means, or who precisely where might be better off in some way because of my chosen career path. For many people, feeling like they’re doing good is likely enough. For me, it’s not.

I’ve worked hard over the years to ground everything I do in some kind of reality. All those years working with grassroots NGOs across Africa, all that time trying to understand their problems and realities – being able to see, live, taste, smell and experience them – has given me great insight, but also made me incredibly impatient for change. In the technology-for-development sector, where donors always seem hungry for the ‘next big thing’, I like to drive home the point that we need to be solving problems today, for people suffering today, with tools available today. For some people there is no tomorrow. For others, no next year. Others may be living longer, but they’re living in poverty for longer. I see little worth celebrating in that.

Anyone that knows me will know I’m always challenging and questioning global development, and always challenging my own role within it. I feel I’ve been fortunate to have spent the vast majority of my career working independently, giving me the freedom to be open and honest, and to pursue the things that I see as important, not things which suit a particular trend or political agenda. Sadly too much of the wider work that goes on suffers because of the very reason that it does.

Susan, the subject of Pete’s post (photo courtesy Pete Vowles)

Earlier this week I read a post from Pete Vowles, Head of DFID in Kenya. Pete has been instrumental in the ‘Doing Development Differently’ movement, and in his post he shares his experiences ‘living’ with a family in Kenya for 24 hours, a family living well below the poverty line. It’s a harrowing read, and something everyone working in global development should print off and stick above their desks as a reminder of what development was meant to be about.

One thing that struck me, and moved me most, was Susan’s lack of hope and how, in Pete’s words, she felt physically and mentally broken every night as she locked herself and her children in their huts. Dignity and hope, two things a healthy human spirit really can’t do without, have never appeared as key performance indicators in any development project I’ve worked on. What does it cost to give someone hope?

A photo I took in India a few years ago, and used recently in a talk about development and dignity

Pete’s post more than anything I’ve read recently has given me a real jolt, forcing me to be more critical than ever about the work I’m doing, and whether or not I’m really doing good, or just feeling good. For me, development has always been personal. It’s not about scale, metrics, KPIs or log frames, but about connecting with real people with real problems. I’m proud that I’m still in contact with, and friends with – and supporting – many FrontlineSMS users years after I stepped back from the project. Friendships outlast any development timeframe, as should our desire to be there for the people we seek to help. Perhaps this, more than anything, should be my own personal KPI, and how I judge whether my efforts have ultimately been worth it or not.

Want a holistic view of the world of social innovation? Try these four books.

We’re seeing a steady stream of great books hitting the shelves at the moment, each focusing on a different aspect of the technology/social innovation debate. While some offer hardcore theory and research, others offer softer inspiration and advice. One day we’ll have a book which captures and weaves together all four – that would be the ideal book – but for now we’ll have to read them all as separate volumes.

So, what are they? Well, if you’re interested in the whole spectrum of social change, with a slant towards the use of technology and innovation, these four books should make your summer reading list.

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For background, theory and context:
AID ON THE EDGE OF CHAOS

Ben Ramalingam

It is widely recognised that the foreign aid system – which today involves every country in the world – is in need of drastic change. But there are conflicting opinions as to what is needed. Some call for dramatic increases in resources, to meet long-overdue commitments, and to scale up what is already being done around the world. Others point to the flaws in aid, and bang the drum for cutting it altogether – and argue that the fate of poor and vulnerable people be best placed in the hands of markets and the private sector. Meanwhile, growing numbers are suggesting that what is most needed is the creative, innovative transformation of how aid works. In this ground-breaking book, Ben Ramalingam shows that the linear, mechanistic models and assumptions on which foreign aid is built would be more at home in early twentieth century factory floors than in the dynamic, complex world we face today.


For inspiration and inside stories of social innovation:
THE RISE OF THE RELUCTANT INNOVATOR
Ken Banks

Classes in social innovation, social entrepreneurship and design thinking have become increasingly popular in recent years. On the one hand, this might be seen as a good thing. After all, the world needs as many smart, engaged citizens as it can get, particularly when you consider the multitude of challenges we face as a planet. But does a career in social change really begin in the classroom, or out in the real world? How much social change is planned, and how much accidental? And which approach tends to lead to the most meaningful, lasting or impactful solutions?


For research, theory, context:
GEEK HERESY: RESCUING SOCIAL CHANGE FROM THE CULT OF TECHNOLOGY
Kentaro Toyama

In this incisive book, Toyama cures us of the manic rhetoric of digital utopians and reinvigorates us with a deeply people-centric view of social change. Contrasting the outlandish claims of tech zealots with stories of people like Patrick Awuah, a Microsoft millionaire who left his engineering job to open Ghana’s first liberal arts university, and Tara Sreenivasa, a graduate of a remarkable South Indian school that takes impoverished children into the high-tech offices of Goldman Sachs and Mercedes-Benz, Geek Heresy is a heartwarming reminder that it’s human wisdom, not machines, that move our world forward.


FOR Inspiration, advice:
DOING GOOD BETTER: EFFECTIVE ALTRUISM AND HOW YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE
William MacAskill

Almost all of us want to make a difference. So we volunteer, donate to charity, recycle or try to cut down our carbon emissions. But rarely do we know how much of a difference we’re really making. In a remarkable re-examination of the evidence, Doing Good Better reveals why buying sweatshop-produced goods benefits the poor; why cosmetic surgeons can do more good than charity workers; and why giving to a relief fund is generally not the best way to help after a natural disaster. By examining the charities you give to, the volunteering you do, the goods you buy and the career you pursue, this fascinating and often surprising guide shows how through simple actions you can improve thousands of lives – including your own.


Happy reading!

Gazing into development’s crystal ball

It’s a sector that famously likes to look and plan ahead. So what does the development professional of today think it takes to be a professional development worker of tomorrow?

In partnership with the USAID Global Development Lab and PSI, Devex recently conducted a survey of development professionals to see what tools, skills and approaches they think the next-generation of development professionals will need to thrive ten years from now. Last week they published a report of these findings. And it’s enlightening on a number of levels. From the report:

“The results paint the picture of a well-rounded, flexible professional who takes a holistic view of development work. Just as likely to be a venture capitalist or high-tech whiz as your traditional aid worker, the future development professional will need to be agile, collaborative and constantly learning new skills.”

A few elements of the report particularly stood out for me. For a start, the fact that only 10% of respondents felt that disrupters would play any significant role by 2025. Perhaps today’s emphasis on disruption is a passing trend, or we’re just over-estimating its significance? Or perhaps development professionals are blind to what’s going on out in the real world, and they choose to not recognise it?

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There was some recognition, though, that the traditional top-down approach would decline, although I’m not quite sure how the target communities will be able to meaningfully engage in the debate that replaces it. I guess the survey respondents assume that by 2025 we’ll have finally nailed those tricky little feedback loops.

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It was also interesting to see where the respondents felt most of the ‘development professionals of the future’ were going to come from. We’re already seeing a blurring of boundaries between aid and business (i.e. Facebook and Google’s approach to last mile connectivity issues), and perhaps that trend will continue. If this forecast does turn out to be true, I’d argue that they shouldn’t be called ‘development professionals’, though (in the same way we don’t call Facebook and Google’s work in Africa today aid or development).

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Last but certainly not least, this was one of the most revealing slides for me. Lack of empathy is already a huge problem as people by-pass time in the field and opt to develop solutions far away from the problems without speaking to anyone. It’s great to see empathy on the list, but it should be higher. After all, none of the other skills matter if you don’t understand the people you’re trying to help, surely?

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So, what was missing? Well, I’d loved to have seen a breakdown of responses from aid workers in the developing world vs. aid workers from the developed world. I’m sure some of the attitudes would have been quite conflicting and, in turn, revealing. And I’d love to see a similar survey carried out among aid recipients – their thoughts, concerns and hopes for the sector – something that will be increasingly important if they do, quite rightly, begin to have more say in how ‘their’ aid is spent and administered.

You can download your own copy of the survey findings here.