Why we need more anthropologists

Today I’m back at the University of Edinburgh talking to anthropology students about how I’ve used my degree in my global technology/development career. I can’t overstate how refreshing it is to speak to a room not obsessed with technology, or scaling projects, or measuring impact. For me, it’s always started with the people and, for everyone in the room, it will be the same. I’ve long advised people interested in a career in global development to study anthropology (better still, anthropology with development studies, as I did at Sussex University).

It may sound crazy, but there aren’t enough people focused on understanding people in the technology-for-development world (one week field trips carrying out surveys don’t count). You see plenty of ‘Technology Advisor’ roles, but where are the ‘People Advisors’? There’s plenty of everything else, just not enough of that. I’m currently looking at work opportunities in the technology-for-development sector, and don’t think I’ve seen a single job description define a major requirement for time spent in the field, understanding the context of technology use in global development. And, of course, no mention of the word ‘anthropology’ anywhere. Everything else seems to matter more than that, and it’s something we have to put right. Anthropology has a huge amount to offer the sector – it just doesn’t seem to know it yet.

A question that I often get asked when people get over the shock that I have an anthropology degree, not something computer science-related, is “What on earth would anthropologists be doing playing with mobile phones?”. The answer may be a little more obvious than you think, but let’s start at the beginning.

Anthropology is an age-old, at times complex discipline, and like many others it suffers from its fair share of in-fighting and disagreement. It’s also a discipline shrouded in a certain mystery. Few people seem to know what anthropology really is, or what anthropologists really do, and a general unwillingness to ask simply fuels the mystery further. Few people ever question, for example, what a discipline better (but often incorrectly) ‘known’ for poking around with dinosaur bones is doing playing with mobile phones and other digital devices.

What anthropology isn’t

The public face of anthropology likely sits somewhere close to an Indiana Jones-type character, a dashing figure in khaki dress poking around with ancient relics while they try to unpick ancient puzzles and mysteries, or a bearded old man working with a leather-bound notepad in a dusty, dimly lit inaccessible room at the back of a museum building. If people were to be believed, anthropologists would be studying everything from human remains to dinosaur bones, old pots and pans, ants and roads. Yes, some people even think anthropologists study roads.

Despite the mystery, in recent years anthropology has witnessed something of a mini renaissance. As our lives become exposed to more and more technology, and companies become more and more interested in how technology affects us and how we interface with it, anthropologists have found themselves in increasing demand. When Genevieve Bell turned her back on academia and started working with Intel in the late 1990’s, she was accused of “selling out”. Today, anthropologists jump at the chance to help influence future innovation and, for many, working in industry has become the thing to do.

What anthropology is

So, if anthropology isn’t the study of ants or roads, what is it? Generally described as the scientific study of the origin, the behaviour, and the physical, social, and cultural development of humans, anthropology is distinguished from other social sciences – such as sociology – by its emphasis on what’s called cultural relativity, the principle that an individuals’ beliefs and activities should be interpreted in terms of their own culture, not that of the anthropologist. Anthropology also offers an in-depth examination of context – the social and physical conditions under which different people live – and a focus on cross-cultural comparison. To you and me, that’s comparing one culture to another. In short, where a sociologist might put together a questionnaire to try and understand what people think of an object, an anthropologist would immerse themselves in the subject and try to understand it from ‘within’.

Anthropology has a number of sub-fields and, yes, one of those does involve poking round with old bones and relics. But for me, development anthropology has always been the most interesting sub-field because of the role it plays in the gobal development arena. As a discipline it was borne out of severe criticism of the general development effort, with anthropologists regularly pointing out the failure of many agencies to analyse the consequences of their projects on a wider, human scale. Sadly, not a huge amount has changed since the 1970’s, making development anthropology as necessary today as it has ever been. Many academics – and practitioners, come to that – argue that anthropology should be a key component of the development process. In reality, in some projects it is, and in others it isn’t.

The importance of KYC (Know Your Customer)

It’s widely recognised that projects can succeed or fail on the realisation of their relative impacts on target communities, and development anthropology is seen as an increasingly important element in determining these positive and negative impacts. In the consumer electronics sector – particularly within emerging market divisions – it is now not uncommon to find anthropologists working within the corridors of hi-tech companies. Intel, Nokia and Microsoft are three such examples. Just as large development projects can fail if agencies fail to understand their target communities, commercial products can fail if companies fail to understand the very same people. In this case, these people go by a different name – customers.

Selling phones as torches in Uganda. Photo: Ken Banks

The explosive growth of mobile ownership in the developing world is largely down to a vibrant recycling market and the initial arrival of cheap $20 feature phones (and now $75 smartphones), but is also down in part to the efforts of forward-thinking mobile manufacturers. Anthropologists working for companies such as Nokia spend increasing amounts of time trying to understand what people living at the bottom of the pyramid, or those with very limited disposable income, might want from a phone. Mobiles with flashlights are just one example of a product that can emerge from this brand of user-centric design. Others include mobiles with multiple phone books, which allow more than one person to share a single phone (a practice largely unheard of in many developed markets) and phones which hold multiple SIMs.

My anthropology journey

My first taste of anthropology came a little by accident, primarily down to Sussex University‘s policy of students having to select a second degree subject to go with their Development Studies option (this was my key interest back in 1996). Social anthropology was one choice, and one which looked slightly more interesting than geography, Spanish or French (not that there’s anything wrong with those subjects). During the course of my degree I formed many key ideas and opinions around central pieces of work on the appropriate technology movement and the practical role of anthropology, particularly in global conservation and development work.

Today, mobile devices are closing the digital divide in ways the PC never did. Industry bodies such as the GSM Association, who have previously run Bridging the Digital Divide initiatives, today remain extremely active in the mobile-for-development sector. International development agencies pump hundreds of millions dollars into economic, health and educational initiatives centred around mobiles and mobile technology. Mobile phones today are almost as exciting as big data, 3D printers and drones.

I’m immensely proud of my anthropology roots, and the insights it has given me in my work. Without it, I’d not have successfully conceived and developed FrontlineSMS. I’m also very proud with my ongoing association with Sussex University in my capacity as Ambassador for International Development.

And I’m always happy to do my part to promote the discipline in the technology-for-development world because I think it needs more – many more – anthropologists walking the corridors if it’s to take full advantage of the wonderful digital opportunity it has been given. I just hope it starts paying attention before it’s too late.

One last throw of the dice.

I’ve always found the global development system frustrating. It was the 1980’s when it first got my attention, with suffering and extreme poverty dominating my daily news feed. The Ethiopian famine in 1985 was the turning point, forcing me to seriously question why a sector awash with money and resources could have so little visible impact (and when it does, how it struggles to effectively communicate the change). While I still don’t have all the answers I think I know a lot more about what needs to be fixed.

A depressing reality struck me the other week as I pulled together a collection of my most popular blog posts for a new eBook. It dawned on me that I’ve been writing about the same stuff for over a decade. Some of my posts from 2007 apply just as much today, if not more. And that’s depressing. Seriously depressing.

I’ve always been my biggest critic and I constantly question whether anything I’ve done, or currently do, has or is making any kind of meaningful difference out there. Sure, I’ve spent the best part of my working life trying to figure out how I can contribute to a solution to some of the social and environmental problems that deeply trouble me, but because I’ve spent so long doing it doesn’t mean I’ve achieved anything. I wrote about this recently, too.

Tonight I watched a TED talk, provocatively titled “Poverty isn’t a lack of character; it’s a lack of cash“. It was wonderfully argued and delivered, and beautifully challenged many of the assumptions that underly global development policy and practice. In his talk, Rutger also highlighted a solution to a poverty reduction programme that actually worked but has since been largely ignored – the basic minimum income. (This is something I’ve seen time and time again in my work on the technology side of development (often called ICT4D), in that when ideas emerge that seem to actually work for unexplained reasons the wider sector decides not to adopt or support them. For a sector that constantly demands new and innovative solutions to everything, it’s perplexing.

With so much still to be done, I wonder whether I’m going to see the change that’s needed in my lifetime. I’ve been fortunate in my career, and have had wonderful support throughout. But the question I’m beginning to ask myself now is this. If there was just one thing I could work on for the next ten years – one thing I could throw myself at and have the greatest impact – what would that be?

I wonder.

Announcing our Four-Part Manifesto for Change

For almost fifteen years kiwanja.net has been home for our hopes, dreams and frustrations on all things technology, social innovation, and international conservation and development. During that time we’ve widely travelled, spoken, published, built, consulted, mentored and despaired. It’s been an incredible journey that started in early 2003 on the fringes of Kruger National Park, and we’ve had plenty of opportunities to see what does and what doesn’t work along the way. Crucially, we’ve stayed small and independent over that time, allowing us to remain honest and challenging when and where we need to be.

Where it all began. Early mobile phone research in Bushbuckridge, South Africa. Photo: Ken Banks

One of our earlier, seminal posts from 2009 – “Time to eat our own dog food?” – challenged the sector to not waste the opportunity that mobile phones gave us, asking:

Is the future of social mobile an empowered few, or an empowered many? Mobile tools in the hands of the masses presents great opportunity for NGO-led social change, but is that the future we’re creating?

Sadly, much of the same argument outlined in that post can be applied today, placing something of a question mark over what progress we’ve made. We know, for example, that many projects still rarely optimise for their beneficiaries and the environments in which they operate, and despite what they often claim, many set out as solutions looking for a problem. Too many initiatives still lead with technology, and fail to scale into sustainable programs – in part because donors are constantly under pressure to disburse funds to new and ‘innovative’ projects, rarely giving older projects time to mature.

There is still no minimum standard for funding development projects, either. As a result, money struggles to find it’s way to the projects most likely to succeed, and a vicious cycle ensues. Worse still, despite talk of local capacity building and ownership, the vast majority of programs are still conceptualised, executed and funded by outsiders and parachuted in.

And to top it all, as a sector we still lack a shared vision of the future we all should be working towards. All of this adds up to a cycle of underperformance, perpetuated by the fact that feedback loops between donors, practitioners, policy makers, academia, civil society and program beneficiaries remain at best weak.

We can, and should, be better than this.

One thing I’m particularly proud of is that we’ve offered solutions when we’ve identified problems over the years. It’s far too easy to rant about how rubbish everything is, and it goes without saying it’s much harder, yet undoubtedly more productive, to offer ways forward. Over the past few years in particular, many of those bigger ideas have sufficiently matured to allow us to today launch our new Four-Part Manifesto for Change.

This new Manifesto focuses on four areas in particular that we feel need positive disruption in our field.

Working closely with innovators and entrepreneurs from the places where the problems exist, we propose the creation of a new policy paper that helps us achieve a future where local innovators and local innovations drive the development agenda. You can download a summary PDF of that proposal here.

We believe that donors are in an ideal position to stem the flow of poorly thought-out or inadequately planned technology-for-development projects and propose the adoption of a Charter to put things right. You can read about that here.

Offering long-term support to some of our top talent would increase the chances of them – and us – having a positive global impact. We focus too much on projects and not the people who drive them. You can read our thoughts on a new Global Fellowship Programme here.

Do international development projects designed and managed at grassroots level perform better than those managed from the outside? The debate rages, so we propose a development challenge to help us find the answer. You can read more about how that might work here.

To reach our full potential, and to alleviate as much suffering on the planet as possible, we need to be bold, embrace appropriate innovation and be open to disruption in our own sector, not just others. We need to face up to our problems, failures and inefficiencies, and be brave in seeking new solutions when things go wrong. Our Manifesto offers four new solutions to four of those long-standing problems.

We hope this might be the start of a wider, bolder conversation where we begin putting into action projects and programmes that put the needs of the people we seek to help before those of ourselves or our organisations – however uncomfortable that may be.

You can read more on our Manifesto at hackingdevelopment.org