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.

The dollar-a-week “mobile challenge”

Some people go on long walks. Some climb mountains. Others run marathons or go for weeks without smoking, drinking alcohol or watching television. There are many ways to raise money for charity these days, although many don’t have a direct connection with the area of focus of the charity itself. Even less put the fundraiser in the shoes of the target audience the charity’s very existence seeks to help.

Trying to live off a couple of dollars a day is an exception. Starting yesterday, thousands of people across the UK started doing just that – living off £1 (approximately $2) a day for a total of five days. That needs to cover all their food and drink needs. According to Live Below The Line, they’re doing this to:

get a better understanding of the challenges faced by people living in extreme poverty, and to raise funds for crucial anti-poverty initiatives

One friend who will be shortly joining the challenge is Laurie Lee, Deputy Director of Policy & Advocacy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. You can follow Laurie’s progress on Twitter, along with Live Below The Line’s own updates. There can be few better ways of helping people understand the challenge hundreds of millions of people around the world face than to put them in a similar position or predicament.

So, it got me thinking… I wonder what the equivalent challenge might be in the mobiles-for-development sector?

Some time last year we passed a critical point in the history of mobile when more people on the planet started owning one than not. Projected penetration and ownership rates vary, but within the next year or two we’ll be over the five billion mark, which is quite incredible.

Of course, ownership alone doesn’t tell the whole story. The hundreds of millions of people having to eek a living off a couple of dollars a day are not only trying to buy food and water for them and their families. They’re also trying to save to send their kids to school, to buy medicine, to keep a roof over their heads. In the context of their phone ownership, they also need to find extra cash to keep their phone charged, and to keep it topped up, usable and functional. There is already growing evidence which highlights the tough decisions mobile owners are having to make when balancing a restricted household budget.

So, what would an equivalent “$2 a day” challenge look like for mobile? Well, for a start we’d have to calculate the average telecommunications spend for an average mobile owner in a developing country. Without specific data to hand, I’m going to take a stab at $1 per week. If I were to cancel my mobile contract today and move to pre-pay, how would I manage with that kind of budget, and what decisions would I have to make on a daily basis before hitting “Send”, “OK” or “Dial” on my phone?

Let me take another stab at some of the things I’d likely have to do.

Service costs
For the first time I’d need to read up and make sure I fully understood all of the price plans and offers from each of the mobile operators in the UK. Right now I have no idea, because I’ve never needed to know. If I’m to maximise my $1 per week I need to know under which conditions which operator will be cheapest.

SIM choice
I’d need to go out and acquire one SIM card for each of those operators, and get used to swapping it in and out on a regular basis before making calls, sending texts, tweeting, checking emails, and so on in order to maximise my budget. Ideally I’d have a phone which takes multiple SIM cards to make this all slightly less painful, only they’re not available where I live.

Assuming I’m able to access the Internet and can afford to (see “Web challenges” below), whenever I do switch SIM cards I’d need to learn how to change the WAP/Web configuration settings on the phone (which are network dependent). This can be a challenge at the best of times, and even more so for less technical users.

Web challenges
Assuming my phone and SIM are data enabled, I’d be able to access the Internet. Only problem is I have very little idea what the costs would be. Right now, with my generous browsing allowance, I can pop onto Twitter or read the news, but if I had to pay for each page view or chunk of downloaded data, how would I know what the costs are ahead of time? Again, I’d need to make a conscious decision whether or not I could afford the luxury, and confusion over data costs could easily (and quickly) be the death of me.

My friends and family network
I’d need to make sure I knew which network each friend and family member were on, so I’d know which SIM to switch to before making a call, or texting (same-network calls or texts are cheaper in many countries). And with many of these contacts also likely having multiple SIM cards, I’d need to be confident that I could manage a complex address book.

To call, tweet, text – or not call, tweet or text?
Before making a call, or sending an SMS, I’d need to make a conscious decision whether or not I could afford it, and weigh up any cost with the anticipated benefit. Gone would be the days of having the luxury of thousands of minutes and texts to ‘waste’ away.

I’d need to put aside a few pence per week to cover the cost of charging (electricity isn’t free), depending on how much I used the phone. If charging costs were prohibitive then I’d need to make sure my phone was off when I didn’t need it (or wasn’t expecting a call) in order to maximise the time between charges.

Flashing and beeping
If I did need to contact someone urgently, and assuming I was okay with them being burdened with the call cost, I could “flash” or “beep” them (ring their phone a couple of times, and hang up and wait for a call back). Since there’s no real culture of this where I live, I’m not sure if it would work, and if the person I was calling was also short of credit, we could have a stalemate. (For an excellent article on the culture of flashing and beeping, check out this Jonathan Donner article).

Calling codes
For short, regular messages – “I’m at work okay”, “I’ve got the shopping” or “Leaving now” – I’d possibly need to devise a system where I could ring a recipient phone and use a set number of rings (or sequence of missed calls) to relay the message. I’d need to come up with a range of “survival strategies” in order to protect my phone credit.

Regardless of how well I did, one thing is abundantly clear – me and my phone would have a very different kind of relationship than we do today, and I’d certainly have to be a lot better organised than I am now. Both of those could, of course, be seen as a good thing.

If anyone else has any other “survival strategies” I’ve missed, please let me know (there are bound to be many). Either way, this would be a fascinating exercise, and well worth a try if anyone’s interested in putting themselves in the shoes of many mobile phone owners throughout the developing world.

Poverty, pain and the politics game

As a keen cyclist for most of my life, I’ve always been shocked at how little many car drivers care or care to understand the challenges of two wheels in heavy or fast moving traffic. This lack of respect is not only frustrating – it can also be dangerous. In my younger days I thought I had the answer. Force all learner drivers to spend a month on a push bike before issuing them their licence. There’s no better way than learning by experiencing, after all.

As I’ve got older I realise that my bike riding solution may not have been the most practical, but the “learning by experiencing” point is as strong and relevant as ever, particularly in the world of international development. You can’t beat experience. Pretty-much everyone I respect and turn to for guidance – both spiritual and practical – has got their hands dirty in the field at some stage. I feel at times that a stint in the field should be compulsory. How else can you truly understand the problem?

War DanceOne of the down-sides to a discipline which doesn’t insist on “compulsory” fieldwork is the rise of a culture of politics. Losing sight of the bigger picture and becoming embroiled in competitive, overly critical behaviour can be a huge distraction and hugely destructive. Development suddenly becomes a battle of “a versus b” or “x versus y” and not about the alleviation of poverty and suffering that it should be. I steer well clear at every available opportunity, and draw on much of what I’ve seen and experienced over the past sixteen years to do so.

I also have my “War Dance” DVD. One of the toughest films I’ve ever seen, “War Dance” – based in the camps of Northern Uganda – puts everything into perspective. For those of us who have seen this kind of suffering it’s a stark reminder – and a cry – to remain focused. Get a copy and watch it each time you need reminding why you’re doing what you doing. Politics has no place in a world like this.

It doesn’t have a place here, either. Whether you agree or disagree with the approach, this recent Medecins Sans Frontiers video drives home a message not a million miles away. It may be messy, it may be challenging, and it may be confrontational – but if this is the reality for everyone on the ground then we need to be having these conversations.

Be warned: It’s difficult to watch (well, listen to), as is “War Dance”. But it’s powerful, and it’s a reminder to all of us that we need to focus on what matters, where it matters. Poverty is not about politics, and should not be driven by it. It’s about people. Every single one of them.

Poverty: The elephant in the room

A recent tweet by good friend Juliana Rotich on street/graffiti artist Banksy reminded me of another image he put together a couple of years ago. On display in Los Angeles for a limited time as part of an exhibition on global poverty and injustice, this was an incredible piece of “live art” which made it stand out from many of the other ‘works of art’ he has become famous for.

Elephant, by Banksy

Banksy created the image to drive home how widely world poverty is ignored, and I used it during my first talk at Stanford University in late 2006 to describe my first visit to the African continent in 1993. It was during this trip – to help build a school in northern Zambia – that I first noticed the elephant.

When was the first time you saw it?