There are a lot of great ideas floating around about how Information and Communications Technology (ICTs) and technology in general can help to rebuild Haiti. I hope these ideas keep coming. I would love to see international development organizations, aid agencies and non-profits in general open up more to ideas on how technology can improve the lives of the people they are trying to support as well as facilitate coordination and program implementation.
But I also hope that the technology folks who haven’t worked in a crisis context such as that in Haiti will lend an ear to those who have experience working in past disasters and on-going development programs, human rights work, volunteer initiatives and advocacy. Those experiences shouldn’t be tossed out as old-school. Good programs and experiences exist that can be examined, processed and built on.
I work globally, with one foot in community development and the other in ICTs, and I notice a gap between these 2 sectors, though they could really learn a lot from each other and work nicely together.
Cool technology ideas, just like cool program ideas can flop on the ground if the local culture and context are not taken into consideration, users were not involved or consulted during design and testing, the supposed ‘problem’ really wasn’t a problem at all, the proposed idea is not sustainable, a better/preferred local solution already exists, etc., etc.
Sometimes when I hear enthusiastic people sharing ideas for new applications, innovations or program ideas that they want to implement in ‘developing’ countries, I find myself thinking: “Wow. They have no idea what it’s like on the ground.” I don’t want to shoot down someone’s excitement. But I do wish that those who are not intimately familiar with their end users would slow down, think for a minute, and realize that local context is king. I wish they would remember that ultimately this is not about them and their ideas for other people. I wish they would stop being mad that abc organization won’t take that shipment of xyz technology that they want to send over, or that no one wants to implement such and such program that was so successful in such and such place. Solutions looking for problems are not the best way to go about things, even when you have the very best of intentions.
However, non-profit organizations (large and small) can be totally resistant to trying new tools, technologies and programs that could make a huge difference in their effectiveness, impact and quality of programming. They can be bureaucratic and slow to put new ideas to work. They can be risk averse, afraid of failure, and resistant to innovation and new ideas. The seemingly limitless relationships that need to be negotiated around can really slow things down.
Sometimes I see non-profits doing things they way they’ve always been done and I find myself thinking “Wow. I wish they’d be open to trying ________.” I wish organizations would be more willing to test out new technologies and new ideas that don’t come from within their sector. I wish it were easier to make change happen.
When it comes to the Haiti earthquake response, the technology and non-profit sectors are 2 of the key players. I’m worried that the outpouring of interest in helping will lead to a lot of wheel re-inventing. I’m worried about local relevance and executability (if that’s even a word) of some of the ideas I am seeing. I have concerns about the amount of projects being conceived and designed from afar. I also see that there are new program and technology ideas out there that have the potential to make people’s lives easier if they were well integrated into the local reality, yet there are many factors that prohibit and inhibit organizations from exploring them or using them.
The technology and non-profit sectors benefit quite a lot from each other when they work together and understand each other. It would be great to see a bigger effort to bridge the gap between these sectors. Regardless of whether people believe NGOs and/or private enterprises and/or technologists or the Haitian government or the UN are good or bad, there are a lot of experiences that can be learned from and/or improved on from all sides.
The links below might be helpful for thinking about designing technology, ICT and programs in ‘developing’ country contexts and to help avoid known pitfalls and overcome obstacles. They can help reduce the amount of time and other resources wasted on projects that are not sustainable or impactful, or at worst are actually harmful in the short or long term to the very people that we all want to support and help. There are certainly many more resources out there… please add ones that you find helpful in the comments section.
Mobiles for Development Guide by Hannah Beardon
Changemakers and Kiwanja collaboration: SMS How To Guide
Mobile Active‘s case studies
Ushahidi Blog: February Archives have a lot of information on the Haiti response
iRevolution: thought provoking posts on technology and crisis situations
Educational Technology Debate: Sustaining, rather than sustainable ICT4E and Designing and sustaining a sustainable ICT4E initiative
Posts on Wait… What? that might be useful: