Dilemmas of innovation and invisibility

Northern Zambia, August 1993. We set off from Chilubula – where we were helping build a school – for another village a couple of hours away. They didn’t have a school. They didn’t seem to have much, in fact. As our pick-up approached, children ran out to greet us, throwing themselves onto their knees. Many of them saw us as saviours, visitors from afar who had the power to build them schools, drill them wells and change their lives in unimaginable ways.

While some people enjoyed the attention, for me it was an uncomfortable experience. It may be hard to not be the “white man in Africa” when you’re white and in Africa, but that doesn’t mean you have to behave like one. Humility is lacking in so many walks of life, yet a lack of it seemed even more misguided in the environment in which we’d found ourselves.

Since then, on my many trips – they’ve ranged from as brief as a week to as long as a year – I always grapple with visibility, the feeling that whatever we do it should never be about us. How do we facilitate the change we want to see without being so totally central to it? I remember Jerry, a colleague at a primate sanctuary in Nigeria where I worked in 2002, towing me along to meetings with government officials because “white faces opened doors”. I always went along, but insisted he did all the talking. They were his plans, his ideas, and it would have been wrong for me to take any of the credit for them.

Jerry organised an incredible environment day in Calabar that year. He’s managed to do the same every year since. The doors thankfully stayed open. Job done, perhaps.

Invisibility

The dilemma of visibility has been with me from the very beginning – 1993 – and I still grapple with it today. I don’t have the answer, but I do know that putting end-users first at every opportunity is the right thing for me to do. Create tools that enable other people to head off in any direction they choose increases the distance between me and their solution. That’s what they want – independence, empowerment on their terms, credit for their actions – and doing it this way gives a little of the invisibility we seek, too.

Not having intimate knowledge of every single thing FrontlineSMS users are doing with the software may be a challenge when it comes to funding and reporting, but it has everything to do with trust, respect and genuine empowerment. It’s not until you try to do something like this that you realise how difficult it is to achieve. I don’t think enough people really know how to “let go”. Too much innovation and too much noise still centres around the technology and not in the approach. Maybe it’s time we saw a little “innovation in the way we innovate”.

Development is littered with contradictions, and my work is no exception. These things still trouble me, but at least I believe we’re on the right path – not just technically, but more importantly, spiritually.