At a recent ‘Technologies for Conservation and Development’ (t4cd) Conference I attended in Cambridge, I asked the delegates what I thought was an important yet often under-asked question – where and who were our ‘customers’? The conference was concentrating on the use of technology in global conservation and development work, and there was an interesting mix of technical and conservation people. Having them all in the same room for a couple of days was certainly a unique experience, and something which most of us agreed should happen more often.
For those who don’t know the focus of my work, my key area of interest is making technology work for the NGO community, mainly those working on the ground in places such as Africa. The reasoning for this is simple – although I can hardly class myself as a conservationist or a development practitioner, I have spent a bit of time working on various projects on the continent and take a keen personal as well as professional interest. Not only seeing, but experiencing over the years the wide range of basic problems that ICTs could easily help solve out there has got me wondering why more isn’t being done, and if it is why we don’t hear that much about it.
I have always believed that I’m never going to save a species from extinction, or a tropical forest from becoming a palm oil plantation. But what I can do is support someone who can. It is the same with technology. Alone it won’t achieve much, but if applied appropriately it has absolute potential to positively assist worthy conservation and development causes. It is its ability to empower individuals and groups at all levels – international, national and local – that makes the potential impact so exciting. Hearing of a small NGO in South America using simple text messaging to mobilise local communities against illegal logging is no less inspiring than hearing about the international effort to create complex early warning systems, and may in fact be more so. The problem, as far as I see it, is that too much focus is put at the top-level. As a good friend Simon Hicks once put it, we mustn’t forget the foot soldiers, the guys on the ground eating and breathing conservation day after day.
Here’s an interesting one for you: While much of the international donor community commit to helping those in extreme poverty – defined (by someone – always wondered who) as having an income of less than $1 a day – significant numbers of local people employed through internationally-funded community projects get somewhere around just that – $1 a day, or its equivalent. If anyone can explain this, please let me know. (Okay, I know it’s a complex subject – point me to the debate).
When you look at the philanthropic actions of many of the bigger technology companies, most of the focus remains at the higher end of the spectrum, the larger, expensive, complex, sexy stuff that looks good in the Corporate Social Responsibility Yearbook. You could point to many reasons for this, including prestige (bigger project means bigger headlines). The fact of the matter is that much more can be done with your dollar if you spend it on the ground. There’s nothing new there. But that’s not to say the global monitoring systems, big fat databases and biodiversity analytical tools aren’t useful – they are – but useful to different sets of people.
There are, it goes without saying, problems when you start spending your money on the ground – accountability is one – but this also applies when you give millions of dollars to third world governments. It can still vanish, and it often does. Just in much larger quantities.
When small, tightly run local NGOs struggle to raise a few hundred pounds to equip their rangers with HF radios, or mobile phones, you can see the problem. We managed to re-build an education centre in Nigeria during my time there. The impact was immense – no more cancelled lessons in the rainy season (leaking raffia roof, muddy floor), no more re-doing posters which were regularly blown away or trashed in flash storms, a place to have meetings, for the staff to go, proper electrically wired plugs and lights (done by me, so maybe not so proper). And the cost? A mere £200 (or $300 if you want to talk ‘real’ money).
So, who are we doing what we’re doing for? And why? Even worse – are we doing it for ourselves? Who is the ‘customer’? Who will benefit most from the work we do, the systems we create, the hardware we build? I notice a slighly worrying trend of projects being run for projects-sake, of people doing things because ‘they’ want to, or because ‘it will be interesting’ or because they want to be first to something. Where does the need lie in these scenario’s?
A lot of current talk is of broadband- server-intensive applications, ones which would only serve the top of the conservation practitioner pyramid. Don’t get me wrong, many other people have the same view. But what do we do about it? How do we shift the mindset?
Finding out what the real conservation need is, and where it is, is absolutely vital. How we join the dots, and help make this happen, is the challenge. Thankfully there are enough people out there trying. As for the success stories, since we’re often talking small-scale, very little news gets out except on a local level. “Hey, Wayas has got a camera phone and can collect actual evidence of illegal logging activities. What if we could give our tiger patrol teams one?”.
This lack of news isn’t necessarily a problem – it’s still a success story and, after all, some of the foot soldiers will have slightly easier lives because of it. But, by knowing about it we could maybe replicate it and help our entire army?
Then you’d be talking…