Overwhelming. Perspective.

I’m just back from the first night of the Stanford leg of the United Nations Association Film Festival (UNAFF). From the opening documentary about the atrocities, lies, deceit and mystery surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, where respect for individual human life was almost non-existent, to the incredible work of a team of dedicated doctors and nurses in a Lesotho HIV/AIDS clinic where respect for individual human life could not have been greater, the immense diversity of the worlds problems were really driven home. Sandwiched between these two incredible films was a third, made up of 5-minute snapshots of six ordinary people who fought – and won – environmental battles in their communities armed with just passion, commitment, drive and a sense of injustice.

If there are two things that I came away with tonight from the festival, they’re this. When you’re overdosed with visual images of suffering, despair and corruption like many of the audience tonight, the problems of the world seem totally overwhelming. But this can also help put things in perspective, and force us to look more closely at ourselves, how we live our lives, how effectively we focus our own individual efforts, and why so many people turn a blind eye to everything happening around them. Each and every life has value, yet we sometimes lose this in a world where scalability and sustainability rule and the shear numbers of real people suffering is lost in the huge numbers thrown at us by the statisticians. For the young boy who was told at the Tsepong Clinic in Lesotho that his father was dying (captured in the photo above), only one thing mattered. And it wasn’t statistics.

It was Margaret Mead who once famously said that we should “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”. It is with that comforting thought that I drift off to sleep tonight.

The unpicking of FrontlineSMS

Going by the title of this Blog post you might be expecting a little online session for prospective FrontlineSMS users. You know the kind – what it is, what it does, where it’s been used and so on. Well, however useful that might be, this posting is more for my benefit. It’s time for a spot of thinking out loud…

FrontlineSMS started life in 2005 as a classic example of evolutionary prototyping – in other words, the act of throwing something together and then sticking it out there and waiting to see what happens. Apart from a hunch and a small grant from a couple of early converts, there was little proof that anyone would be interested in the software, let alone make the effort to use it. I remember to this day talking about it during an interview with Charity Times in the early summer of 2005. I was still in Finland at the time, writing the code, when it dawned on me that it might be a good idea to put together a website if I was going to start talking to major industry magazines. (Incidentally, the Charity Times interview was already lined up – I just managed to convince them that it would be good to put out a “call for trialists” in the article). So programming was put on hold for a day while I very quickly put together a website. (In case you were wondering, the top banner on the FrontlineSMS website is actually the view from the lounge window where FrontlineSMS was written. It seemed kind-of relevant, in the absence of anything better to put there).

So, FrontlineSMS was let loose on the world during the last couple of months of 2005, and it was then a case of sitting back and waiting to see what happened. There never was a big plan, no big intention, no big vision. Not only did I not have the budget or capacity to do much else, I didn’t know what else I could do. But herein lay the beauty of the project, for me at least. If it was going to be a success then the very people it was meant to empower would need to play a big part. I never wanted to force anything onto anyone, never wanted to have to “sell” the idea, so it was down to grassroots NGOs to somehow find out about FrontlineSMS and then find a use for it. If that didn’t happen then there probably wasn’t a need in the first place. If that was the case, I thought to myself, I’ll let my hunch go and move on to something else.

Well, as it turned out the hunch wasn’t a bad one, and FrontlineSMS has come on a long way since that heady Finnish summer two years ago. In addition to there being funding (thanks to the MacArthur Foundation), there now is a plan, and a vision. But despite there being more structure to the project, the software continues to surprise me – and that’s why it’s such a great project to work on. Okay, the Nigerian election monitoring was great, as was its use in the Philippine elections shortly after (this wasn’t so widely reported) and the overall response from the community. But despite feeling more in control in recent months, it turns out that FrontlineSMS is doing some pretty exciting stuff out there that I’m only beginning to hear about. (Keeping in contact with grassroots NGOs working in pretty remote areas presents its own challenges, so I do have an excuse). So my learning continues…

So, what have I learnt recently? Well, two things in particular. Over the past few months it seems that FrontlineSMS has not only been merrily sending out security alerts to field workers in Afghanistan (a conflict zone if ever there was one), but it’s also been providing market prices to several thousand farmers in Indonesia. None of this should surprise me – FrontlineSMS is a tool, after all, and it can be used for many different things. I’ve always maintained that the software would end up being used for things I’d never dream of, and on that note at least I have been proved right.

Cat out of the bag?

After a hectic but interesting and rewarding summer, October sees me back at Stanford University continuing work on my MacArthur Foundation-funded next generation FrontlineSMS system. The past few months have also seen interest in the work of kiwanja hit new heights. Requests for interviews came from web-based, radio-based and print-based media (see the News page for details). All that’s missing is television, although after two recent emails that doesn’t look too far off. (I did record a video keynote for the first ShareIdeas Webinar, in case that counts).

One growing trend has been the number of emails hitting my inbox from for-profit organisations. Up until recently most contact came from the non-profit sector, either NGOs enquiring about mobile, or requests to use FrontlineSMS, or bloggers and ICT4D news sites asking questions and interviewing me about my work. Breaking into the more mainstream media – and the for-profit sector – is an exciting new development, and it presents a great new opportunity.

A nice example of how these non-profit and for-profit communities can be brought together is nGOmobile, launched three weeks ago. This competition, aimed squarely at grassroots NGOs, is supported by a total of seven companies of various shapes and sizes, each providing in-kind support in some shape or form – Hewlett Packard, Nokia, Wieden+Kennedy, mBlox, ActiveXperts, Perkins Coie and KnowHowe (the project took just 5 weeks and cost just $10, but that’s another story). Harnessing the products, services and support of companies such as these can create powerful allies for organisations such as kiwanja and, in turn, the non-profit community it seeks to serve. Global SMS providers, mobile software development companies, handset manufacturers, government agencies and industry bodies are now regularly in contact, not only to ask but also to offer. This is a refreshing change. And I sense that change is in the air.

Last night I met up with a good friend from SAP here in the Valley. She is also an Advisor to my recently created (but as yet inactive) Foundation. Conversations with Tracy, as with my other two Advisors, often centre around capacity. How I’m going to cope working alone when things really take off. “Not enough people know about kiwanja for it to be an issue, surely?” is my usual answer. I’m still not too concerned right now, but with each passing day – and each new email – I’m slowly beginning to think I should be.

As Tracy put it, the cat may already be out of the bag.

In search of The Searchers

In my search for a holiday read last week, I picked up a copy of The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly, a book about “why the West’s efforts to aid the Rest have done so much ill and so little good”. Reading this feels like a throw-back to my days at Sussex University where, during the Development Studies portion of my degree, I seemed to spend half my time reading books about how woefully inefficient international development-spending was. On the whole, most of the evidence then seemed to fit that view. So here I am, a decade later, reading much of the same in the form of an updated condemnation, reinforced by a further ten years of (generally-speaking) failure. The White Man’s Burden does a good job of unpicking much of what I – and many people – believe is wrong with the development industry (and yes, it is an industry, employing – it seems – as many people here as we’re trying to help there). And I find it particularly refreshing because, for once, small-scale efforts are appreciated for what they are, and not condemned as ‘irrelevant’ or ‘unscalable’. The problem, as William Easterly puts it, is that donors and governments like big impact, and this leads many people to only think in terms of “Big Plans”. Few Big Plans work. Many more smaller ones do.

Much may be wrong with international development, but the industry is still blessed with talented people who deeply care, and are truly passionate, about their cause. Many work for the Big Planners, while others choose an alternative path. The two approaches could not be more different, and there are many reasons why people choose one over the other – job security, money, opportunity, ‘big is beautiful’ and status are perhaps just a few. After all, how could billions of dollars funnelled through massive aid projects not make a difference? One problem with the Big Plan approach is that no-one ever seems to be accountable. Wait for the next set of global health targets to be missed – better still, the Millennium Development Goals – and see who gets fired. Go it alone, however, and the situation is very different.

Planners prefer big budget big scope big impact plans designed to fix big problems, while Searchers look more closely at specific (smaller) problems and tailor a more appropriate response based on cost, local issues and understanding, need, relevance and opportunity. Microcredit began life this way. It was never meant to fix everything, although going by the number of Microfinance Institutions (MFI’s) around today you’d have thought it was. As William Easterly puts it:

Microcredit is not a panacea for poverty reduction that some made it out to be after Yunus’s discovery. Some disillusionment with microcredit has already come in response to these blown-up expectations. Microcredit didn’t solve everything – it just solved one particular problem under one particular set of circumstances – the poor’s lack of access to credit except at usorious rates from moneylenders

Although William Easterley’s book only occasionally touches on technology, ICT projects are far from exempt from the Planner/Searcher scenario. Mobile phones are regularly touted as “the device to close the digital divide”, a magic tool to help lift people out of poverty or a quick-fix solution for activists. As with microfinance, this is also only true in some instances, not all. Mohammad Yunus took a commodity as ‘available’ as money and improved people’s access to it. Mobile phones are now the new currency, and there are myriad examples of how this handy little device is empowering people the world over. But we need to be careful that the mobile doesn’t fall foul of the same trap. We need to realise, too, that many of the mobile-based solutions prevalent in the developing world are the result of local initiatives, local people identifying local needs and acting on them. These people had no Big Plan – they simply searched, found and did. As William Easterly puts it, “poor people have accomplished far more for themselves than the Planners have accomplished for them”.

So often we find that the answers lie with the people themselves, but all-too-often solutions are imposed from the outside – the West – or from above through a distant, centralised government. William Easterly continues: “The best chance for the poor is for them to be their own Searchers, borrowing ideas and technology from the West when it suits them to do so”.

A few months ago I gave an interview about my work, and FrontlineSMS, to the Corporate Council of Africa for their forthcoming Africa Journal. This interview more than any captures kiwanja’s work ethic, and ends with a quote which could have easily come from William Easterly’s book:

… But what excites Banks most about FrontlineSMS is the role he doesn’t play. “FrontlineSMS provides the tools necessary for people to create their own projects that make a difference. It empowers innovators and organizers in the developing world to achieve their full potential through their own ingenuity”

Whether it’s measured in the uptake of FrontlineSMS, or interest in my latest nGOmobile initiative, it will be The Searchers in developing countries who ultimately determine whether my efforts succeed or fail. We all need to be accountable to someone. I’m happy to be accountable to them.