When your best might not be good enough.

As most people working in global development will know, poverty isn’t a static state. It’s not ‘simply’ a case of helping lift people out and then moving on to other things. Poverty as a state is fluid, one which the majority of people repeatedly drift in and out of over time.

Problem-solving more broadly in international development follows a similar pattern. Some problems seem solved, only for them to return later. Others might be genuinely fixed, only to be replaced by others. One of the reasons the world continues to look and feel such a mess is precisely because of this – the fluid nature and complexity of the problems we’re trying  to solve.

Impact matters to me, so this is particularly problematic. And by impact, I don’t mean specifics. I’m not the sort of person who wants or needs to feel they’re changing the world for millions of people, but I would like to know whether or not some of my actions are helping some people in some way, however small. Positive change is positive change, regardless of the size of the box it comes in.

External forces impacting on people’s lives aren’t static, either. This year feels like a particularly bad one if you look at the number of wars, insurgencies, terrorist attacks, political crises, financial crashes and natural disasters contributing to that impact. Asking yourself what kind of a dent you’re making, given everything that’s working against you, seems a totally natural and reasonable question to ask.

During a panel discussion with Tori Hogan and Archbishop Desmond Tutu a couple of years ago, I said that it was easier to have a negative impact on the world than a positive one. After this year, where I’ve becoming increasingly angry and saddened by what I see, I stand by that comment more than ever. I don’t believe it when I read that now is the best time to be alive. For the minority, perhaps, but the minority never interest me. Far too many people are suffering day-in day-out for the world to feel even remotely balanced, something I spoke about in a recent TEDxMunich talk.

Crucially, though, my scepticism won’t stop me trying to do good. It will, however, force me to question more than ever whether or not my actions are in any way contributing positively towards any kind of solution anywhere. I owe it not only to myself, but more crucially to the people who pay me and support me to be clear in my own mind that my time, and their money, are being well spent – or spent as well as possible.

Taken to an extreme level, this means asking myself whether or not the world is any better because I’ve:

  • Spoken at a particular conference
    Does all the cost and effort of speaking ever change anything?
  • Published a book
    I can only try to share best practice as I see it, but does it influence change?
  • Let a researcher pick my brains
    Do research papers ever support or help any kind of action on the ground?
  • Taken a field trip somewhere
    Do so many people really need to fly to so many places, so often?
  • Become a consultant for a project
    Is this project any better because I’ve worked on it?
  • And, yes – written a blog post
    Has ten years of blogging achieved much?  Revisiting earlier posts, I remain unconvinced.

I think all this matters because in international development you can argue that everything is impact investing. Every penny or cent you take from a budget line should either have a direct impact, lead to an impact, or contribute to or support an impact somewhere. If it doesn’t then you have to question why you’re doing it. Sure, it’s quite hard to identify, measure or track pretty much any of this, but deep down many of us have a sense of our own contribution. We certainly have an understanding of our motives for doing it. Ethically and morally we should never stop asking ourselves what we’re doing, how well we’re doing it, and who we’re doing it for.

As I’ve got older I’ve become increasingly self-critical about my contribution. My career was kick started working with local communities, supporting local initiatives. I had a strong drive and desire to be on the front line, to witness and tackle challenges of poverty and environmental degradation head-on. Developing FrontlineSMS was a natural extension to that work, combining my passion for the field with the technology skills I’d picked up in the early part of my career. A few years later, as I became further and further detached from the things I was most passionate about, in frustration I stepped back.

With so much going wrong in the world, and with a clear and obvious lack of moral leadership anywhere, I feel another of those pivotal moments isn’t too far away. I’ll have a window of opportunity later next year to decide what to do next. Good friend Larry Diamond predicted what that might end up being in a tweet earlier today.


As was the case when I first set out on my journey in 1993, it’s unclear what I’ll be able to do to contribute. That said, again as in 1993, I feel I need to try. My work began in development, shifted to conservation, then technology, and then took a turn to activism as FrontlineSMS became increasingly picked up by groups combating dictatorial regimes and those committing human rights abuses around the world. Things may end up turning full circle if I return to that kind of work, albeit civic action in general. As Larry says, a lot needs to be done, and for the foreseeable future things are unlikely to get much better.

Next year is lining up to be an exciting one, with some great new work with CARE International and my first major piece of work with DFID. I’ll also be entering my 15th year at kiwanja.net – something I never really expected when I set out rather opportunistically in 2003 – so this feels a good-a-time as any to re-evaluate where I am, and where I can be most helpful next. This is something of an extension to a few previous reflections earlier this year, which you can read about here.

I’m sure in the 1930’s people thought things were going a little crazy, but reassured themselves that everything was going to be alright. Just like then, there’s too much at stake to sit back and hope for the best.

Reflections on eight years in mobile

It was exactly eight years ago that I hesitantly took my first steps into the fledgling world of “mobiles for development”. It was December 2002, and Vodafone live! was the platform I would develop on. I was filled with self doubt. Not only had I never done any technical development with mobiles before, I also had little idea how phones might be used to solve social and environmental problems around the world. To be honest, few people did, and that was probably the reason I got the job.

Much of the latter half of that December was spent meticulously studying the limited range of Vodafone live! handsets. The very idea of cameras, colour screens, music, video, web access and downloadable games on phones was still pretty new back then, and I’d never even owned a handset with that kind of functionality before, let alone tried to build a service on top of one.

Much has changed over the past eight years. Not only have mobiles got one heck of a lot smarter, but there are a couple of billion more out there, and they’ve become a useful tool in the fight against all manner of worldly ills. “Mobiles for development” (m4d) has also matured somewhat as a discipline, and if my original job back in 2002 was advertised today there would likely be hundreds – maybe thousands – of applicants.

All-in-all it’s been a fascinating, action-packed eight years, and a journey I never expected to be on. As I look back and reflect, here are a few of the highlights.


Most of my first year in mobile was spent trying to understand how they could be used to promote international conservation efforts. Eleven months working closely with the Vodafone team and many of the staff at Fauna & Flora International (FFI) culminated in the launch of wildlive! in December 2003 at FFI’s centenary celebrations at the Natural History Museum in London. This innovative new service combined conservation news with live field diaries and downloadable ringtones, wallpapers and games, which we’d developed all from scratch. Over £100,000 was generated through wildlive! in the first year, and throughout 2004 it was localised and rolled out in several additional European countries. Sadly, due to management restructuring and a shift in focus the following year, the service was shut down. A painful lesson.

(Interestingly, the “Silverback” game (which we later relaunched after a series of gorilla killings in the DRC in 2007) was designed and developed my Masabi, a UK-based company who, four years later, would re-write the early version of FrontlineSMS).


Between work on wildlive!, a colleague and I were dispatched to South Africa and Mozambique to try and understand how mobile technology was being applied to conservation and development in the developing world. Over 2o03 and 2004 we made several trips, working with numerous local FFI partners, and in the process made one of the earliest attempts to try and document the emerging “m4d” field. It’s quite fascinating reading even today, not just because so much has changed but also because so much hasn’t. The report – “Mobile Phones: An Appropriate Tool for Conservation and Development?” – can be downloaded in full from the kiwanja Mobile Database here.


This year began innocently enough, but was to prove pivotal because of the birth of FrontlineSMS. It was a few months after my final field trip to South Africa and Mozambique when I was sitting at home when the idea for the software first struck. I had already come across countless grassroots NGOs on my travels who were thinking about how they could use mobile phones in their work, yet there was no simple, out-of-the-box system they could easily deploy.

There were a number of reasons for this, but the idea behind FrontlineSMS seemed to solve all of them. Build a messaging system which could run without the need for the Internet, make it simple to use, design it so that NGOs could deploy it themselves with little or no technical skills, and make it free. Despite only a small amount of private funding, in October 2005 – after a five week software development cycle on a kitchen table in Finland FrontlineSMS was released to the world.

2006, 2007

Shortly after the very low-key launch, I was contacted by someone at Stanford University who was himself beginning to experiment with SMS messaging hubs. Erik Sundelof and I became friends over the proceeding months, and he encouraged me to follow him and apply for a Fellowship at the Reuters Digital Vision Programme. It took a couple of tries, but I got in that year and headed out to Palo Alto in the late summer of 2006.

Stanford gave me the platform I needed to accelerate my work – and my thinking – around mobile technology and development. I was able to attend lectures, meet academics and give talks throughout campus, and use the Stanford connection to open doors which had previously been well-and-truly shut.

My time at Stanford University was also notable on a more personal level in that it gave me my first proper chance to own a VW Camper, something I’d dreamed of for years. It also doubled as my home, and my global HQ, and saved me a fortune in rent. Selling it was one of the hardest things I’d have to do. On a more positive note, my time at Stanford coincided with the first big break for FrontlineSMS when it was used to help citizens report on the Nigerian elections, and that lead to our first major grant – $200,000 – courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation. Later that summer I also randomly met Josh Nesbit for the first time, a young human biology major who was to help take FrontlineSMS off in a whole new direction.

2008, 2009

On June 25th, 2008, a new and improved version of FrontlineSMS was released, along with a new website and \o/ logo (courtesy of Wieden+Kennedy). By this time FrontlineSMS was becoming firmly established as a tool with potential (we were yet to fully understand what that potential was, mind you) and funding and media attention began to flow. In late 2008 we received a second significant grant, this time $400,000 from the Hewlett Foundation. The Open Society Institute (OSI) also stepped in with some valuable funds to help tide us over during a tricky few months.

Finally, as 2009 drew to a close, FrontlineSMS won a prestigious “Tech Award“.


This year has seen no let-up, and from humble beginnings FrontlineSMS has become a full-time job. As the new year dawned we received a grant of $150,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation to help strengthen capacity, and the Omidyar Network came in over the summer with a $350,000 grant to help with organisational development. Our team now stands at eight strong over three continents, and FrontlineSMS has been downloaded over 11,000 times by NGOs in well over 60 countries.

This year draws to a close with an exciting new collaboration with National Geographic, who earlier in the year rewarded us for our work. The “Mobile Message” is a series of articles which will be published on the Nat Geo News Watch site, aimed at taking news of the ‘mobile revolution’ to a new audience.

It’s hard to believe that eight years have passed, and that for the past five I’ve been focusing almost solely on the simple text message. No doubt 2011 will be the ninth year I hear a “death of SMS” prediction. If my experience is anything to go by, there’s plenty of life left in the old dog yet.

To see what happens over the next eight years, watch this space.