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Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

As part of the work I’m doing with the mEducation Alliance around mobile technologies and youth workforce development (mYWD), we’re putting together an event focused on innovation in the mYWD space on October 15  from 9-12.30 EDT.

Some of the topics we’ll be looking at include:

  • How do workforce development programs address different forms of exclusion? And how do different forms of exclusion affect approaches to youth and workforce development programming?
  • What do innovation and ‘disruption’ mean in the context of mobile technologies and youth workforce development?  What are some different frameworks for thinking about innovation?
  • What role might mobile technologies play in increasing access to information and work/entrepreneurial opportunities for young people?
  • Where are there opportunities for innovation with mobile technologies in YWD? What are some examples? What are some precautions?
  • What can mYWD learn from other areas/sectors? What can be adapted and built upon?

Philip Auerswald (The Coming Prosperity: How Entrepreneurs are Transforming the Global Economy and the Innovations: Technology, Globalization, Governance Journal), Nick Martin (Tech Change), John Zoltner (FHI360), and a host of development and technology practitioners working in mobiles and youth workforce development (mYWD) and related fields will be joining.

From the event preparation research and the discussions, we’ll assemble a short publication to share, and (if all goes well!) we’ll do some short videos exploring what innovation means to different people working in this space.

If you’d like to join the meeting, RSVP now by emailing Matthew French at MFrench [at] jbsinternational [dot] com. In person space is limited, so hurry! The event will take place at FHI 360 Conference Center, 1825 Connecticut Avenue NW 8th Floor, Washington, DC 20009 (Map)

If you are not able to participate in person, contact Matthew by October 11 for details on joining the session online.

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The use of social media and new technologies in disaster and crisis situations will likely be framed forevermore as ‘Before Haiti’ (BH) and ‘After Haiti’ (AH). The terrible earthquakes that devastated the country and the resulting flood of humanitarian interventions that followed mark the moment that the world woke up to the role that new technology and new media can and do play in the immediate local response to a crisis as well as the ongoing emergency response once international volunteers and aid organizations arrive to the scene.

Still left in the dark? How people in emergencies use communication to survive — and how humanitarian agencies can help,’ is a new policy briefing by BBC Media Action. It does a fantastic job of highlighting the ways that new media is changing disaster response and the fact that the humanitarian industry is not doing enough to keep pace.

The briefing asks: ‘Are humanitarian agencies prepared to respond to, help and engage with those who are communicating with them and who demand better information?’ As the report shows, the answer is ‘not really’.

Many humanitarian agencies continue to see ‘communication’ as something done to raise money or boost the profile of their own efforts, says the report. Yet the sector increasingly needs a clear, strategic focus that responds to the information and communication needs of disaster-affected populations. ‘While responders tend to see communication as a process either of delivering information (‘messaging’) or extracting it, disaster survivors seem to see the ability to communicate and the process of communication itself as every bit as important as the information delivered.’ Communicating with affected populations can improve programming and response, not to mention, as highlighted in the Listening Project and referred to in the BBC report, ‘Listening is seen as an act of respect.’

The briefing is not one-sided, however, and it does a good job of understanding some of the common perceptions around the use of new technologies. There is ICT and social media hype on the one hand (often the position of international ICT specialists, based on very little hard evidence). And there is strong questioning of the value of these tools at all on the other hand (often the position of aid workers who are turned off by the hype and want to see proven practice if they are to consider investing time and resources in new ICTs). The briefing paper provides examples that may serve to convince those who are still unconvinced or uninterested.

Many of us see the reality that social media tools are still quite out of reach of the poorest members of a community or country. But writing new media and technologies off entirely is ‘too crude an analysis,’ says the briefing paper, ‘and one that is being challenged by data from the field.’ In Thailand, for example, use of social media increased by 20 percent in both metropolitan and rural areas when the 2010 floods began. ‘Communities now expect — and demand — interaction,’ the paper emphasizes.

Throughout the paper there are good examples of ways that in the immediate aftermath of a disaster local individuals and companies are quickly creating and rolling out communication platforms that are more relevant, feasible and sustainable than some of the initiatives that have been led by international agencies.

An important point that the report makes is that the most successful use of new media in disaster response combines multiple communication channels — new and old — allowing information to flow in and out, to and from different populations with different media habits and levels of access. For example, local journalists and radio stations may pull information from Twitter and Facebook and broadcast it via the radio. They may also be broadcasting online, meaning that they not only reach their local population, but they also reach the diaspora community. ‘Good communication work,’ the paper notes, ‘is, by definition, multi-platform. It is about integrating media, non mass media and technology tools in a manner that is rooted firmly in an understanding of how communities approach information issues.’

So ‘while aid agencies hesitate, local communities are using communications technology to reshape the way they prepare for and respond to emergencies.’ This hesitation remains in the face of growing evidence, according to the paper, that agencies who invest in meaningful communication with disaster-affected communities garner a range of benefits. ‘The communication process becomes central to effective relationships, mitigating conflict and identifying and preventing rumours and misunderstandings.’ Doing it right, however requires good program design, which in turn, requires aid agencies to focus time and expertise on improving communications with affected populations, which, of course, requires budget allocated to these kinds of activities.

For those agencies that want to look more closely at integrating some of these tools and approaches, the report gives several great examples. The recommendations section is also very useful.

One of the recommendations I think it is especially good to highlight is ‘analyse the communications landscape’ (see InfoAsAid’s materials). I would, however, have liked to see mention of involving members of local communities in a participatory analysis of that landscape. In addition to the technical analysis, it’s important to know who trusts which information sources, and why. For example, the information sources trusted by men may be different than those that women trust. The same goes for children, youth and adolescents. Access is also a critical issue here, especially in terms of reaching more marginalized groups, as the population affected by a disaster is not homogeneous and there will be hierarchies and nuances that should be considered in order to avoid leaving certain people or groups out. I would have liked more mention of the need to take a specialized approach and make a focused effort regarding communication with children and adolescents, with women, with certain ethnic groups or persons with disability, as they may be left out if care is not taken to include them.

Another recommendation I found very useful was ‘think of the whole population, not just beneficiaries.’ The paper cautions that working only with the population that directly benefits from an individual agencies’ funding is a positive angle for transparency and accountability, but it ‘seems to have a profoundly limiting effect in practice.’ Beneficiaries need information about more than just one aid agency, and those who are not benefiting from a particular agency’s programs also have information needs.

The report mentions that sometimes in the aftermath of a disaster, when people use new media to communicate, confidentiality and privacy risks are not fully considered. I’d like to see this aspect addressed a bit more in the future as there is a lack of documented good practice around privacy and protection. (Note: I’ll be involved in some research on ICTs, migration and child protection over the next year, so watch this space if it’s a topic of interest.) Humanitarian agencies may have strong policies here, but this is an area that others may not consider in their rush to offer support following a disaster.

Overall the report is extremely useful for those considering how to improve two-way (or multi-way) communication in a post-disaster situation and I very much enjoyed reading it as it sparked learning and fresh ideas, and documented some good work being done by local as well as international groups.

I don’t have a lot of pity or patience for aid agencies who are ‘left behind’ because they refuse to move with the changing times or because their approaches are not effective or relevant. There are several forces that are ‘disrupting’ humanitarian work these days, and  the report does a great job of identifying some of them. It also highlights the importance of local actors, local private sector and diaspora communities who have always played an important role in aid and development but have only recently been given more recognition.

International agencies still play a critical role in the humanitarian space, but they need to understand and adapt to the changes happening around them. This report can serve as a discussion piece and offer guidance for those agencies who want to use new media and technology to enable them to do a better job of listening to, working with and being accountable to disaster affected populations.

In summary, highly recommended reading!

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Our Tracking Violence Against Children in Benin project won first prize for Most Innovative Use of Technology or Social Media in Plan’s internal Global Awards contest. The competition was fierce and we were up against some really great projects.

Here’s a nice video overview of the project and where we hope to take the initiative as we go forward.

We still have some kinks to work out and we are still in pilot phase, but we are pretty happy about the award in any case. It helps motivate us even further to improve on the idea until it’s fully functioning and sustainable and we know that it’s resulting in more reporting of violence, helping to track trends and cases of violence, and being used by local and national authorities for responding and following up on those cases that occur.

Many many thanks to everyone who has helped the project get where it is, including:  Henri da Silva, Carmen Johnson, Bell’Aube Houinato, Amelie Soukossi, Eleonore Soglohoun, Morel Azanhoue, Victoire Tidjani, Alfred Santos, Jean Sewanou, Michel Kanhonou, Paul Fagnon, Camille Ogounssan, Anastasie Koudoh, Mika Valitalo, Ken Banks, Josh Nesbit, Patrick Meier, Juliana Rodich, Henry Addo, David Kobia, James Bon Tempo, Stefanie Conrad, Theresa Carpenter, Penelope Chester, Shona Hamilton, and community leaders, parents, school directors, local authorities, children and youth in the 2 participating communities.

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Angelica Valeria Ospina recently wrote about the role of social memory and ICTs in building climate change resilience.  She refers to Carl Folke’s definition of social memory as “captured experience with change and successful adaptations embedded in a deeper level of values, and actualized through community debate and decision-making processes into appropriate strategies for dealing with ongoing change.

Ospina suggests that social memory is “key for linking past experience with present and future adaptation actions, and in turn allows for novelty and innovation.” She comments that “Although the role of memory tends to be overshadowed by that of innovation, the two are in fact important foundations for change, and are equally relevant within contexts that are struggling to adapt to uncertainty….”

I really like this idea of balancing memory and innovation, and it’s not only valid within the framework of resilience and climate change.  Social memory is also useful for those of us working in ICT4D and m4D because we find ourselves at the intersection of development and technology, where methodologies and mindsets can be in opposition at times and where change is happening at a rapid frequency.

A quick characterization of the mindsets

Development Organization Mindset: How can we work with our existing resources and work around our challenges to reach our goals? How can we build on experience?

Those who work with grassroots community development are schooled to look at assets, to help communities and local organizations look at what exists already, what is within their reach, and how to identify their existing resources before looking outside for support or help. This helps a program to be more locally owned and sustainable.  Those in this field are trained to look for potential obstacles and limitations and see how to go around them or to work within them. There is a sense that lives and livelihoods are on the line, this is nothing to play around with and failure carries a high price both for community members and for organizations. This mindset can be really frustrating for for-profit or marketing consultants who come in to get people to do ‘blue sky thinking’ and to forget about limitations.

This is the group that people would describe using that Henry Ford quote:  ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.’ But this kind of thinking does have its place – local context, perceived limitations, and local experience, eg. social memory, are important in design and sustainability and impact. In addition, innovations don’t only happen in terms of ‘products’, there are process, position and paradigm innovations also which happen all the time in non-profit organizations and communities.

(Note: Certainly some will say that in aid work, no one does evaluations, and no one learns and it’s all a waste of time and resources, but that’s not been my personal experience at this point, and the work I’ve been involved in has been community development focused, not top down delivery of services and goods.)

Design Student/Technology Innovator Mindset: What can we make? What can we build that’s like nothing that’s come before? What solutions can we offer?

Innovation thinking pushes for a different kind of visioning. For throwing aside conventions and ignoring limitations so that the chains are completely off. It urges people to move quickly, to try and fail fast and often. A lot of innovation and tech thinking is product focused – What can we make? What can we build? What solution do we have that people might need? What tech can we invent and then let people figure out uses for? Those in this group are trained to move forward without thinking so much about the challenges and limitations, to move at a quick pace, and without engaging a thousand people in the process. This enables new ideas to flourish unfettered by endless rounds of consultations and participation by too many people bringing you to the fabled and unfortunate “a camel is a horse designed by a committee” result.  It allows totally new ideas and processes as well as products to spring up. Lots of trying might equal lots of failing, but it also brings about those few amazing and game changing innovations that allow huge leaps forward. Many within this field are amazingly bright and creative. At this point few have long-term experience living in poor communities in developing countries, and there are few opportunities for gaining enough of that experience.

The middle ground

Both of these mindsets have advantages and limitations and seem to have a very hard time coming to a middle ground to work together effectively, though some initiatives are overcoming this challenge. Potential collaboration can be compromised when people address each other in snarky or accusatory ways, without sufficient knowledge of the other’s work and experience. For example, this series of blog posts around crowdsourcing and humanitarian aid between Patrick Meier (here, here and here) and Paul Currion (here and here). Unfortunately I don’t have a audio recording to post of the conversation where someone told me that Paul is quite well-known for innovations in the field of humanitarian aid and technology, and would be an excellent person to collaborate with on innovations in humanitarian aid — I really hope people like Patrick and Paul will work together, as the results could be fantastic.

Ken Banks has also raised this issue of m(obile) vs d(evelopment); most recently in his post Dissecting m4d: back to basics, where he asks: Do the majority of people working in “mobiles for development” work in mobile, or development? It may seem like an odd question, but how people approach “m4d” may have more of an impact on success or failure than we think.

An example of collaboration

There are some good examples of collaboration however. One I saw most recently is MIT’s Department of Play’s Summer Institute in early August, where a team of incredible innovators and students from MIT working on community youth engagement tools spent 2 days in discussions with folks with years of experience working on child participation and youth engagement, including UNICEFCUNY Children’s Environments Research GroupProject Vision Design and Research Collective at Srishti School of Art Design and Technology Bangalore; and the Program in Education, Afterschool & Resiliency (and me :-D)

I think eventually these gaps will smooth out as the younger generation moves in and up the chain at development organizations and some of the newer technology becomes ubiquitous within organizations. It’s quite possible also that the current and new generations of design and tech students will spend more time ‘in the field’. And I am not only talking about ‘Western’ folks here, I’m also talking about young people and design students from the so-called ‘underdeveloped countries’, many of whom use technology at a dizzying pace and who are already re-shaping how development is viewed and carried out in their countries.

By lowering the fences that we are all working behind, and finding ways to combine our different skills, ICT4D and m4d can come up with even better solutions and achieve better impact in areas like accountability, health, education, livelihood, governance, emergency response and disaster preparedness.  We can build teams that capitalize on the different kinds of knowledge, skills and mindsets. We can harness social memory and strive for a balance between experience and innovation.

Related posts on Wait… What?

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I taught English in El Salvador when I was 24. A few of the students liked to talk with me about music. One day they wanted me to hear ‘this great song by Sepultura’, and I was like ‘Cool! That’s Orgasmatron!‘ and mentioned that I knew the Motorhead version. I don’t know what shocked them more: that I knew that particular song, or that their Sepultura version wasn’t the original.

I find myself having my fair share of those moments these days. I’m happy when good ideas in development and aid work are taken up, and especially happy when they are improved on (though I have to say that I like Motorhead’s version better than Sepultura’s). But it kinda bugs me when people talk about those ideas as if they are brand spanking new when they’ve actually been around for awhile. It seems like people should do some research, to at least know what came before.

What are some examples of 2010 re-makes?

Bottom up development

I find it weird that we are still discussing ‘bottom up’ development as a new or innovative thing in the year 2010 when it’s clearly been around for a really long time.

I started in development in 1994 in El Salvador. Most of the work that local NGOs were doing at that time was focused on helping grassroots groups and communities organize and manage their own development. A lot of time was spent in communities with community organizations. But this concept wasn’t born in the 1990s. It was grounded in Liberation Theology and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Liberation Theology emerged in the 1960s ‘as a result of a systematic, disciplined reflection on Christian faith and its implications’ as the Catholic church in Latin America was reflecting on itself and its relationship with the poor. Those who formulated the concept worked closely in communities with the poor and saw the social and economic injustice begun by colonization and continued through those in power both in governments and within the church. Liberation theology re-interpreted the scripture in a way that affirmed the dignity and self worth of the poor and their right to struggle for a dignified life. ‘Liberation theology strove to be a bottom-up movement in practice, with Biblical interpretation and liturgical practice designed by lay practitioners themselves, rather than by the orthodox Church hierarchy.’  Check here and here for good links on Liberation Theology.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Brazilian Paolo Freire, based on his experiences working on literacy with poor communities developed his Pedagogy of the Oppressed all the way back in 1968, around the same time that Liberation Theology was emerging. Freire’s philosophy has been heavily drawn from and applied to development. Especially pertinent is the concept of dialogics an instrument to free the colonized, through the use of cooperation, unity, organization and cultural synthesis (overcoming problems in society to liberate human beings). This is in contrast to antidialogics which use conquest, manipulation, cultural invasion, and the concept of divide and rule’. Freire’s ‘emphasis on dialogue struck a very strong chord with those concerned with popular and informal education…. However, Paulo Freire was able to take the discussion on several steps with his insistence that dialogue involves respect. It should not involve one person acting on another, but rather people working with each other. For more on Freire (I certainly did not do him justice) check here and here.

These 2 philosophies closely mirrored ideas that arose during the Civil Rights Movement in the US. There’s a brilliant book called “We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change” where Paulo Freire and Myles Horton (who started the Highlander Folk School in 1932 and influenced Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.) discuss the similarities between their philosophies.

Public policy and advocacy

Fast forward to 1996, where we get a new director at the organization where I’m working, a Brazilian. He simply won’t stop talking about ‘civil society’ and ‘public policies’.  ‘There will be no sustainable changes if we don’t have an impact on the level of policies and their implementation. How does this program idea impact on public policies? How is civil society involved in holding the government accountable? Where is the budget for Peace Accords implementation going?’ Changing systems, transparency, political participation by those formerly excluded, and moving away from hand outs and emergency type programs were key in the vision of how the country would improve.

Working with local partners

To that aim, we funded different local organizations that raised awareness in rights holders on their rights and that advocated for the implementation of the 1992 Peace Accords. We worked with an association of women who were demanding that the alimony laws be operationalized, ex-combatants groups from both sides of the conflict who were not getting the benefits promised them in the Peace Accords, sex workers who were being harassed and abused by police, civic education, environmental organizations who worked with local communities on issues such as deforestation, water and land rights, etc. We also met and discussed a lot with other international organizations, and many of them were doing similar kinds of work.

Local management of the development process

I was pretty much ineligible for any advancement in the organization because the director’s mandate was to nationalize and hand over the program, now that the civil war and the ‘state of emergency’ were over. Local organizations now had more political space to work without the protection of international organizations. The idea was to strengthen capacities of all local staff, to move over to a national board of directors and to nationalize the organization. At the same time, the thought was to build the administrative capacity of local organizations so that they could function transparently with full accountability.

Participatory design/participatory development

I moved to a different organization in 1998, and one of my first tasks was to help write the organization’s strategic plan. The first step in developing that plan was community consultation. Staff (all of them local by the way) facilitated a consultation process with people  in the 400+ communities where we worked. In addition, they met and consulted with community based organizations, local NGOs, local governments, national level ministries as well as other international organizations, to learn of their plans and to avoid duplication of efforts.

The community consultations were done using PRA (aka ‘participation, reflection, action’) methodologies. Many of the tools staff used were developed and written about by Robert Chambers. Check here for a great overview of PRA or these 2003 notes on PRA since 1998.  PRA traces many of its roots back to Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and looks to make communities the real owners of the development process. Any externals involved act as facilitators of a process (not drivers of the discussion) who ‘hand over the stick’ to local people as often as possible so that they fully manage their own processes. Chambers warns against ‘fascipulation’ – facilitation + manipulation, and surface PRA, saying the main ingredient in PRA is having real respect for local knowledge and local people. Some reading suggestions here.

(Side note to get an idea of how awesome Chambers is. I went to a workshop with him once and he walked in barefoot, pants rolled up, hair askew. He stood in front of us holding a map. It was upside down. Someone raised their hand to tell him it was upside down. He looked down at it and said ‘it looks fine from my perspective’. Then he went into a whole discussion about perspective. As part of that discussion, he started talking about computers and network thinking and how birds fly in flocks. This guy is some kind of genius.)

Community managed projects

Following the strategic consultations, staff worked with communities to design, plan and carry out their own projects, which were also administered by the community once they had gone through project administration training and had opened their community bank account to receive deposits.

Orgasmatron moments

Thinking about sustainability and working with local communities is really not a new concept, nor is the idea of working yourself out of a job if you work in development. The buzz words of transparency and accountability have also been around for awhile. Participatory design is not new either.

I don’t know. Maybe the organizations I’ve worked with in the 1990s and up to now are just amazingly progressive. Or maybe I’m missing something and when people use the terms above they are talking about something different and much more advanced and innovative than what I’m talking about.  I mean, the White Stripes first album was a total Doors/Zeppelin rip off, but they did go on to develop their own sound as they matured, and their third album was brilliant.  Snoop’s Upside Ya Head is obviously drawing on the Gap Band’s Ooops Upside Ya Head, but both versions are excellent. I do actually like a lot of the re-makes that are out there and there are also some really good new concepts and ideas and some great people and organizations that I learn from on a regular basis.

However, Green Day are not the ‘godfathers of punk rock’ (sign the petition here and help settle that issue once and for all) – How could they be if they came out in the late 80s and punk started in the early 70s? And I keep having Orgasmatron Moments when I see people gushing over an NGO that hires local staff (no brainer) or has a child protection policy (implementing ours since 2003) or consults with communities (why wouldn’t you consult with local communities?).

I suppose, like with my students in El Salvador, it kind of sucks when you realize your idea or your version isn’t the original. But you can be annoyed or bummed out or remain in denial, or you can go back and do some research, and see what you can learn from the original and try to improve on it. With music, knowing about the original song (even if it’s horrible and the new version is much much better), usually scores you some points for legitimacy.

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HSBC Ad Campaign

If you’ve done any international travel lately, you’ll likely have seen the HSBC Ad Campaign on the walkway as you get on your plane. You know the one. It has 3 identical photos, each with one word or phrase written on it, showing different perspectives.

Well, last week in Ndop, Cameroon, I had a random and cool experience that I was a tiny bit hesitant to post about.  But thanks to HSBC Advertisements, I figured something out. (Note, I still really don’t know who HBSC is or what in particular they do nor do I have any intention of using their bank).

I was with some of the youth participating in the YETAM project, filming at a local craft shop called PresPot. When we’d finished filming, we walked down the road towards the local Fon’s (King’s) Palace to meet another group that was filming there. The plan was to eat our packed lunch together.

There were more people than normal out on the road we were walking on, so it seemed to me that something was up. Then one of the kids pointed down the road to show the reason why.

The Ndobo were coming. ‘Ndobo?’ I asked? I could make out what looked like small group of people, some of them dressed in brown grass skirts.

Ndobo

As they got closer, I remembered a blog post (perhaps ScarlettLion’s or maybe a link she posted?) a few months back, where someone had taken shots of people in different places – I think mostly in Africa and in Haiti – wearing similar types of costumes to the ones the Ndobo were wearing. In any case, the Ndobo were definitely something to behold, and since I’d seen that post, they were now sitting within some kind of broader framework for me.

[Update: Thanks to Meghan for her comment below, with this link to the blog post I am referring to with the stunning photos. They are by Phyllis Galembo and on exhibit at the Tang Museum: “These portraits of masqueraders build on Galembo’s work of the past twenty years photographing the rituals and religious culture in Nigeria, Brazil, Cuba, Jamaica and Haiti, as well as the homegrown custom of Halloween in the United States. Organized by Ian Berry, Malloy Curator of the Tang Museum, in collaboration with the artist.”]

‘So what are we supposed to do?’ I asked.  ‘Are the Ndobo scary? Are we supposed to run away? Stay here? Get off the road? Bow down?’

‘Just watch them when they come,’ one of the girls told me. ‘They will ask you for some coins and you just give them some.’ ‘Are we allowed to film?’ I asked. ‘Yes, once you give them some coins they will be happy and you can film.’  I dug around in my bag to find some coins.

There were about 6 Ndobo, all teen-aged boys and young men, and a bunch of excited younger boys with them.  They moved in a way that was part stealth, part walking and part dancing as they approached. Someone played flutes as they moved along.

‘Why are they here? Why today? Who are they? What do they represent?’ I wanted to know. The kids had all kinds of different answers. ‘They come out to announce the corn harvest season is here.’ ‘They are just looking for money, so they make those shirts and clothing at home, and then they become Ndobo.’

‘In my village,’ said one of my co-trainers, ‘only certain of the young men are allowed to be Ndobos.’ ‘No,’ said one of the girls. ‘here any boy who wants to can just make his clothing and go out. My brother, when he became that age, he made that clothing and went out just to get some coins.’ Another of the kids said ‘They come out when there is a town hall meeting to ask for money.’ ‘Ha, it’s an income generation project for the youth,’ said one of the other co-trainers.

Meanwhile the Ndobo were approaching, and everyone was waiting and kind of excited to see what they would do. It was one of those amazing and random moments that make me love life. It was not scheduled purposely so that a white person could see some ‘local traditions’. It was not a tourist show. There were no tables with locals performing for respected visitors. It would have happened regardless of me being there or not. In my line of work, those moments can be rare and I was savoring this one.

We stood off the road in a clearing, and watched the Ndobo arrive, their entourage of overexcited sparkly eyed young boys with them watching us from a distance, flicking their eyes at me regularly. Maybe they wanted to know what I was going to do also, how I was going to react to the Ndobo and vice versa. I wondered also if it was going to be somehow weird because I was there. I was thinking how surreal it was, and how cool their ‘costumes’ were, remembering that blog post about young men in similar dress with photos that seemed to be from some kind of museum exhibit… thinking that this was real life, not a museum…. Then thinking about how in museums things from Africa are often called ‘handicrafts’ or ‘anthropological exhibits’ whereas things from Europe are called art…. Wondering what the difference really is.

The Ndobo  took their stance for a moment in front of us. They were carrying little sticks and whips made of grass and palm. They surrounded us and started lightly thrashing me and my colleague Georges with their sticks and whips in a vaguely threatening way, but not one that caused any fear. The feeling was someplace between theater and in-your-face reality. I found my coins again, and several hands came forward to collect them. The kids with us were watching and laughing, the little boys accompanying the Ndobo were giggling.

After I’d given out my coins I looked behind me and saw that one of the Ndobo had a stick against the back of Georges’ neck and another was holding his grass whip against Georges’ shins. Georges rolled his eyes and dug around to find some coins for them, also laughing. He dropped the coins into the outstretched hands and the Ndobo let him go. One of them stood in front of us to get his picture taken, and then they moved off down the road. We carried on towards the Fon palace.

When we arrived to the Fon palace, the other group of youth asked ‘did you see the Ndobo?! They came here and danced right in front of us! We took pictures and films!’  They were pretty animated too, so I felt less like a silly foreigner, getting excited about seeing ‘local tradition’.

We sat on the steps of the local council’s building and started in on lunch – boiled plantains and koki bean. The rest of the day, all the kids could talk about was the Ndobo. I kept thinking that the Ndobo reminded me of Halloween… harvest time festival, costumes to hide your identity, playing tricks and asking for treats.

I posted a picture of the Ndobo on Twitter. But I hesitated before doing it. A colleague saw it and said something about Africa stereotyping. So she had the same reservations.

I held off on the blog post… but then HSBC came to the rescue.

African Tradition

African Stereotype

African Entrepreneur

It’s interesting how uncomfortable ‘Africa’ can make us. But I guess so can anything, anyone or anyplace that is complex and involves human behavior and culture… I guess you could say the Ndobo are a small piece of a much larger ball of string, just like high heeled shoes, plastic surgery, tattoos and henna, and shaved heads. Ask HSBC.

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As part of our ongoing work around using ICTs (information and communication technology) in our programs and general operations, 10 staff in Plan Uganda did a 2-day workshop in March, 2010.  The workshop was based on a distance learning pack that my colleague Mika Valitalo (Plan Finland), Hannah Beardon (Mobiles for Development report) and I put together. It includes some narrated slide shows, short videos, and a series of questions and exercises to guide discussion around strategically incorporating ICTs into our work where and when it is appropriate and feasible.  So far the workshops have been conducted in 6 countries with 2 still to come.

Anthony Makumbi, from our Regional Office for Eastern and Southern Africa, facilitated this Uganda workshop (and credit for the information below goes to him). Anthony is the Regional Community ICT Advisor and has a long experience working on ICTs and ICT4D in the region.  He’s also just written up a pretty impressive draft document which will guide Plan’s ICT strategies in Eastern and Southern Africa.

“We initially thought that when you talked about ICT you were referring to the computer guys, but our minds have now been opened further on the topic. We’ve learned that ‘ICT’ does not equal ‘computers’. Instead, the term ICT encompasses any technology tool that enables information flow and communication.”  (participant)

This always seems to come up in these trainings – people realize that thinking about and using ICTs is not something that is limited to technicians, geeks, network specialists, programmers, the IT Department, etc.  Demystifying this term is so important in order to get people interested and to open up to thinking about how ICTs can support their every day work.

Staff also said that they needed more exposure to new ICTs and innovations. “People need to be informed of something in order to be able to seek further information about it.  If we know about available technologies and what they can offer, we will further explore them.”

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Below is a summary of the Uganda team’s general reflections from the workshop:

Multi stakeholder approaches are necessary to promote innovation and a favorable climate for integration of ICTs.  It is vital to work with governments as the main regulators, the private sector to effectively explore the use of technology, and civil society to ensure that the services are accessible to the population. (For example, the Seacom cable was meant to reduce the Internet costs yet there has not been a notable reduction in costs for the general population – what is the role of civil society in making sure this happens?)

Participatory community assessment around trusted information sources. Before embarking on a community ICT initiative, it’s critical to do a participatory assessment of what the trusted information sources are at the community level. This is important especially if you plan on building awareness on particular issues within a community and would like this information to reach as many people as possible.  A participatory assessment can help gain a better understanding of how people communicate and what communication tools  are most effective to reach a particular goal.

Access for women and girls. Cultural practices, the availability or cost of acquiring a tool, and access to that tool or source of information need to be taken into consideration.  Women in many areas are excluded from accessing ICT tools because they do not handle money. A key focus in ICT programs in Uganda should be to strengthen access to information sources, including programs that mitigate women’s and girls’ barriers to use and access. Another tactic might be programs that promote access to basic information for women so that they are also informed and able to utilize information for their own purposes: eg., nutritional information for their children, the need for girls to go to school or avoid early marriages; programs that share information from other sources that influence women’s decisions.

Building on what is available.  Organizations should look at what is around them and leverage available opportunities. In Plan Uganda’s case, for example, this could mean looking at mobile money transfer services linked to Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLA); closed user group (CUG) services that define private networks and allow calls made within the private network at large discounts; and services such as the Pakalast promotion on Warid Telecom, which gives users access to each other on the same network for 24hrs for about 80 cents. Awareness should also be built about tools that can provide radio signals apart from a radio, such as a phone with radio access.

Literacy levels and local language. In Uganda, literacy levels are low.  Many people do not manage English. Technologies need to be made available in local languages. Fast track learning could also be considered, such as the development of an integrated education program to address technology and literacy. A close look at mobiles phones — which have taken off at their own pace with the existing literacy levels – could help us to think about how other technologies might fare similarly well.

Electricity.  Solar power should be built into all of our initiatives.

Mobile tools. Mobile data collection could be used instead of paper systems that are currently in place and very laborious. Services like use of SMS for accessing national exam results could serve as a stimulus to further expose communities on what these technologies can do for them.  SMS services could also be used to acquire basic quantitative data in, for example, VSLAs to collect information about group portfolios, or gender ratios or youth participation by age. This can then be vital for designing further programming.

GPS. This could be a useful tool in a program like Community Lead Total Sanitation (CLTS). Latrine coverage could be mapped at the start of a CLTS project in a community and after the project has been implemented over time. This could be linked to health programs that could track a reduction in diarrhea cases in the community, and then this information could be linked to home improvement campaigns as evidence based approach.

ICTs in Governance. ICTs can give communities a platform to provide feedback on services rendered and also know of services available to them.

New ICTs or ICT applications that staff found most interesting:  SMS and mobile data gathering, platforms such as Village Diary for managing confidential legal services and potentially HIV/AIDs program information, blogging to open up channels for discussion on issues and bringing together social movements and organizations working on similar issues, wikis for writing reports, podcasting which could be used in capacity building interventions for multiple groups.

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Plan Uganda staff felt that this type of training on ICTs should be expanded to more people in the organization, and to partner organizations, to build more buy in. They recognized the importance of organizational commitment to moving forward in this area, and asked for continuous training on new ICT tools and innovations.  Ongoing evaluation was suggested to measure the value added by ICTs to program activities, and a follow-up workshop was requested to check progress on the ideas that were generated.

Related posts on Wait… What?

It’s all part of the ICT jigsaw: Plan Mozambique ICT4D workshop

I and C and then T

ICT4D Ideas from Plan Cameroon

Mambenanje and the Village Diary Project

ICT4D Kenya:  “ICT and community development is real”

Chickens and Eggs and ICTs

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