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Posts Tagged ‘new’

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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What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9

In my last post (Orgasmatron Moments) I compared re-hashed development and aid work ideas to re-makes of songs, lamenting that often people don’t realize that their favorite new innovation is more like a cover of an old idea.

Dave Algoso at Find What Works commented:

So my question is: Linda, what’s next?! … What principles of good development are already being implemented by smart groups, but are still unnoticed by the academics and other commentators? To continue the music analogy, if you’re the fan who liked the hip new band before they were big — what are you listening to now?

Hmm. A tricky question if you ask me. There are a lot of people who write and blog about development trends and who know a lot more about this than I do, (Owen Barder, for example) but I’ll take a stab at some things that I’m hearing about, working on, discussing and/or seeing nowadays.

The fact that I can link to most of these ideas means that they are not going unnoticed. Or maybe the development blogosphere is akin to the underground music scene.  In any case, none of these are totally new. There is nothing new under the sun, but there are lots of old things we don’t know. Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911).

Some mash-ups/re-mixes that together create a new, interesting and good sound to my ears:

Cynefin, aid, development. I first heard about Cynefin when reading @morealtitude’s post ‘Embracing the chaotic: Cynefin and humanitarian response‘. Cynefin draws the world’s systems into four paradigms:  Simple, Complicated, Complex or Chaotic. Each paradigm has its own characteristics, and systems can shift from one paradigm to another. Not new, as the concept is at least 10 years old… but I love the connection between these paradigms, development/humanitarian aid work, and the way that organizations market themselves. A good resource on complexity theories in aid and development is Aid on the Edge.

Social media and ICTs to broaden participation. I’m digging the use of social media and ICT tools to bring marginalized voices into discussions about development, aid, governance, accountability, corporate abuses and other related areas, and to get broader input from ‘beneficiaries’ on approaches, ideas and initiatives. I’m liking how they are being used to simplify information and expand the number of people with access to information that was hidden or inaccessible before. (Update: This cool effort to geo-code aid data could make a lot of foreign aid project funding data more available.)

Not a new concept, as people have been ‘popularizing’ and sharing information for ages (think town criers, jesters, printing press, cartoons or ‘child friendly’ versions of legal documents) but social media and ICTs continue along this path. Issues of accessibility, language, gender, literacy, electricity, and disability need to be overcome, but things are moving forward, and organizations are more and more thinking about how to use ICTs for these purposes. This makes aid transparency, budget transparency come alive, and it becomes easier to see who is doing what where and who is spending what where and who is funding what. Kind of like that cool website Source Watch where you can type in a name (eg., the name of the guy who did that research saying that climate change doesn’t exist) and find out who he works for and who pays his salary is spreading to new areas and new levels.

Crowdsourcing/crowdfeeding in humanitarian and development work. Linked to the above, I’m increasingly interested in approaches that combine broad and quick information gathering with good quality information gathering, are based on experiences in past emergencies or development initiatives, that find ways to speed up information processing and response, and that improve on quality. Those efforts that consider proper management of expectations and privacy; child and witness protection, and that do not create parallel systems score extra points. Use of these technologies internally in organizations and among/across organizations, and with /by affected populations all fall into this category, which is closely linked with the one above. Check out this cool presentation on interaction design and crowdsourcing or this brilliant piece on Social Media and Humanitarian Response.

Online + offline combos. Not everyone is online, and not every context is the same. I’m really interested in approaches that use a variety of communication tools and methods to reach their goals and that are flexible and seamless across the initiative.  Looking at how to better connect knowledge and information from the local level to the global level and back again, and to link horizontally is key. I’m a fan of initiatives that are goal, results, impact driven, but that also consider good process and take local context into great consideration. I like initiatives that are not technology driven, but where technology is incorporated strategically if and when and where it actually adds value.  An example of this is where hand drawn maps and digital maps work together in participatory mapping to meet the needs of different groups.

Data and information collection and sharing by mobiles. Data collection – not new. But use of low cost mobile phones and data decentralization to district and community levels is a relatively new phenomenon. When data is owned more closely to the source, it seems more likely that people will care more about data validity and that the data will become information that they can use to manage their own processes and their own development. This is happening in many areas, from health to education to financial transactions a la mPesa and mKesho, to civil registration (eg, birth certificates) to government budgets to emergencies.

Expanding innovation. ALNAP (Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance) talks about the 4 Ps model (pages 3 and 4 of this really relevant .pdf file) of innovation in humanitarian aid, and expands on the typical thinking that ‘innovation’ means ‘creating a new thing/product’.  ‘Innovations can be directed towards improvements or new developments of four aspects: (i) products, such as improved cooking stoves or food products to counter malnutrition; (ii) processes, such as methods for stockpiling goods, improved coordination, or improving learning and quality assurance; (iii) the position of an organisation and its work in relation to key stakeholders, for example by changing an organisation’s public profile or by changing attitudes to an area of work such as shelter; (iv) paradigms or combined attitudes and beliefs determining the fundamental approach to humanitarian work, such as the calls for paradigm shifts in humanitarian business models towards beneficiary participation, local ownership and capacity development. Exploring these ideas in the context of humanitarian work gives a new way of understanding and harnessing organisations’ creative potential.’ Yeah. I guess Marketers have their own 4Ps, (product, price, place, promotion) and marketing innovators have theirs (population, penetration, price, purchase frequency), so having 4 P’s is not new, just maybe it’s new when thinking about innovation in humanitarian aid.

Questioning capitalism’s influence on aid and development. By that I mean looking more closely at things like Corporate Social Responsibility (sometime I think that term is an oxymoron — check this animated video version of Slavoj Zizek’s Marxist reading of charity). Questioning capitalism is not new. (Hello Marx). But it’s still relevant to pick apart capitalism and to wonder if things will ever change if we keep pushing the same system with all its flaws and inherent inequities.  Questioning CSR includes thinking critically about ‘philanthrocapitalism’ in the sense of 1) the application of business models/ approaches to aid and 2) doing things to benefit the poor at a profit.

Related to that, thinking critically about cause-based marketing and its link to consumerism and the destruction of the planet and having clear program-driven policies on if, when and how to engage volunteers, take gifts in kind, and work with corporations and other funding bodies; and having mechanisms in place to ensure before accepting them that the above are actually necessary and contribute to program goals and actually benefit communities in the long run. Then again, a lot of people are on the trade-not-aid kick (thanks to Dambisa Moyo) and the two sides are a bit at odds with each other. It’s a battle of the bands that I’m still not ready to vote on yet. Can someone please come up with a new political and economic system that is fair and works?

Along these lines is questioning models of social entrepreneurship, social innovations, innovation contests, and design for the BOP, design for the ‘third world’ and other similar initiatives. There is a great article that opens a lot of questions around that model and a cool initiative called “Design for the First World.” Not to mention the Bruce Nussbaum et al. debate around ‘Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?

Transmedia activism. I first heard about Transmedia Activism from Lina Srivastava (@lksriv) and I still don’t fully understand it, but then Lina is way smarter than I am, so that could be why.  I quote: ‘Transmedia Activism is a framework that creates social impact by using storytelling by a number of decentralized authors who share assets and create content for distribution across multiple forms of media to raise awareness and influence action.’ Again, not new is the concept of transmedia storytelling, used in marketing and product sales for quite some time, but it’s only recently that it’s being applied and used in advocacy work and non-profit causes.

Organizing your workers with the times. Rather than top-down, super structured, cubicle-based working environments, some offices are (and IMHO, all should be) looking at management styles that encourage innovation, collaboration and global teamwork.  Time Magazine, a  mainstream news source, talks about “global teams that use social media and collaborative decision-making that might involve team members scattered around the world, from Beijing to Barcelona to Boston, whom the nominal leader of a given project may never have met in person…. By 2019, every leader will have to be culturally dexterous on a global scale.”  If you ask me, not enough INGOs are paying attention to this and are still embracing old-fashioned structures and work environments. (Update: Google is known for stimulating innovation, and Netflix also seems to be doing this well.) (Update #2: Recommend subscribing to the Aid on the Edge of Chaos blog. Love this post – now, can I just get the organization where I work to see the light?)

Global warming and climate change. Whether because of the global meetings (COP15), because of the increase in disasters, because a younger generation is entering the workforce, or because we are finally realizing that it is for real, there are more programs dealing with climate change and its effects, especially looking at the differential impacts on women and children. Organizations are starting to think more about how they themselves contribute to climate change. Again, this is not a new thing, but it’s coming into vogue again. It makes us think about consumer based advocacy and cause based marketing, travel and carbon footprints, and starts asking why people are still coming up with ‘send your old crap to Africa’ schemes rather than working on changing consumer-based cultures in their own territories to stop buying so much stuff and producing so much waste.

Continuum between emergency and development. The gap between what is an emergency/humanitarian program and what is a development program continues to close up a bit more as organizations realize the importance of community ownership and engagement as soon as possible after a disaster. Again, not new. This was signaled as early as the 90s with the Red Cross Red Crescent Code of Conduct, but it’s taken awhile for it to hit home. The dangers of too much doing by external agencies and the damage it can cause to longer term development are coming more to the forefront and entering mainstream conversations a bit more. Here’s one blog post and related discussions that sort of gets at what I mean…. I’m sure there are many other discussions happening in the humanitarian world that I’m not currently participating in.

Some ideas I’ve been listening to a bit less/conversations I’m not very engaged in and (in keeping with our metaphor of music) where I’m trying to figure out if I want to buy the album:

RCTs: There is quite a lot of debate around RCTs (Randomized Controlled Trials) and the importance of evaluation. This is one of AidWatch’s favorite topics, and there’s a lot of debate every time they do a post on it. Here’s one such post by Alanna Shaikh.

Cash transfers… conditional or un-conditional, universal or targeted. Not new. Lots of agencies have done cash transfers in the past. Sponsorship agencies for example used to do only that, but they moved over to community based development in the 1970 and 80s. I’m trying to find some information on why, but haven’t been successful yet. Also trying to figure out what exactly is new about the current cash transfer model, and what makes it work better than the old sponsorship line-up-to-collect-your-$20 models. There’s more information on cash transfers here.  If anyone has concrete information from back in the day on why sponsorship organizations made this change in how they work, it would be much appreciated. I plan to do some more homework on this when I have time, as I do agree with giving people more control over the ‘aid’ and ‘development’ that is coming their way, but there must be a reason that organizations stopped giving out cash, and I’d hope some studies on that decision and its impact on ‘beneficiaries’ for better or worse.

Cash on Delivery aid is being discussed quite a bit. I don’t know enough about it to have an opinion one way or another, but you can check out the Center for Global Development’s site. As I was in the middle of composing this post, Amanda Makulec commented on my last post, saying: In some ways, CGD’s Cash on Delivery Aid idea isn’t entirely new either (and I’m not the first to call them out on this), though it’s gotten a lot of press from everyone from DfID to Nick Kristof who have heralded it as a “new” way of doing development. Programs in Haiti, Rwanda, and other countries have relied on the idea of making either financial incentives or even specific percentages of an annual budget contingent on meeting specific service delivery targets. I’d have to go back into old files from my grad school internship for specifics, but, for example, in a past program in Haiti funded by USAID, NGOs received funding to accomplish certain program outcomes (vaccinate X children, for example). By meeting their targets, the NGOs ensured they received continued funding.

The CGD proposal does, however, advocate for taking the principles behind performance-based financing (or results-based financing, if you work for Abt or the World Bank), and applying those ideas to how governments spend aid dollars. So perhaps it could be held up as a good example of a new way to apply an existing idea, elevating it from a program to a policy.

So, time will tell which of the song categories each of these development trends will fall into…. and there are certainly many more trends. Feel free to add your own in the comments section or challenge the ones I mentioned above… But maybe more fun than that, what do you think? Which of the ideas above or the new ideas you’re seeing will fall into which of the categories below?

  • Instant Classic –good enough to get played on the Classic station even when it’s only been out for a year
  • Alternative – but eventually you’ll hear it at the dentist office, or feel obliged to comment when you see the next generation be-bopping to it at wedding receptions because it used to be so provocative
  • Underground – edgy and radical, still waiting for pop stars to water it down or to cover it when the time is right for it to go mainstream
  • One Hit Wonder – great idea, doesn’t last past evaluation stage or burns out
  • Child Star — forced to mature before its time by too much media attention and too much donor money
  • Pay to Play –not necessarily bad, but forced on everyone because it’s backed by big corporations/ donors and crowds out the other ideas that have less financial backing
  • We are the World – feel-good idea that most people buy into that is actually bad development / bad aid and a waste of everyone’s time
  • Next  Bono  – seemed pretty cool at first, but overrated

PS: thanks to everyone who contributed directly or indirectly to this post for constantly challenging my thinking and taking it to new levels.

Related post on Wait… What?

Orgasmatron Moments

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I’ve been following the debates surrounding professionalism, amateurism, innovation and good practice in aid and development work on the blogosphere and Twitter for awhile now.  In their most extreme and exaggerated form, they go something like this:

Extreme side 1: Amateurs are evil

Aid is about the poor.  Amateurs and would-be overseas volunteers should stay home, give money to experienced international organizations, volunteer locally, and stop getting in the way of professionals who are trying to get some serious work done. Aid and development are complicated and there is no silver bullet. They require experience and expertise. Amateurs, voluntourists and unskilled volunteers do more harm than good — they are clueless, showing up with no experience or concept of good aid or development processes. They bypass coordination structures, create confusion and duplication, repeat mistakes and don’t follow known best practices or proven ethical and industry guidelines. You may be a brilliant designer, marketer, manager or engineer but if you don’t have experience in aid and development, please use your skills elsewhere.

Amateurs make major mistakes and get themselves into trouble, and then professionals have to waste their time dealing with them instead of on the people in most need of help.  They parachute in ideas and technologies designed from afar that have no basis in reality because they don’t have any experience in aid, development or the developing world and they don’t listen to past experiences or lessons learned. They come up with stupid ideas, take away paid jobs from local people, create hand-out schemes and other unsustainable and inappropriate models of helping, and then leave. In no other field are amateurs allowed to go in and muck around in other people’s lives with no preparation or experience just because they have good intentions, so why are they allowed to barge into poor communities and bumble around just because they feel guilty about their own wealth and privilege or think it’s their right to help? The poor deserve better than that. Aid should be left to professionals who know what they are doing.

Extreme side 2: Aid and aid workers are evil

There’s no point in talking about professionalism because aid workers and aid and development in their totality have been an utter failure, regardless of how professional aid workers think they are.  Aid is aid, how hard can it be? We need to get things done! Everyone can and should get involved in helping, because it’s everyone’s right and responsibility to help. How will things advance if new ideas and innovations aren’t tested? And by the way, my latest product/ invention/ idea would easily solve that issue that aid workers have been struggling with for centuries…. I just need a place to test it out, got any communities? Volunteers and people with good intentions can do just as good a job as professional aid workers, who have made a total mess of everything anyway with their outdated models and bureaucratic, slow, top down procedures.

New ways of doing things and ideas brought in by youth, volunteers, design students and for-profit innovators from different sectors are beneficial to aid, which is currently stagnated and ineffective and needs an overhaul, or better yet, total annihilation. Aid workers drive around in giant SUVs and don’t have any commitment to local people because they live in fancy ex-pat houses with servants, getting rich off of the backs of the poor they profess to help. It’s just a big business that is perpetuating itself and preventing the poor from developing.  On top of that, the only way you can get into it is to start as a volunteer, but volunteering is discredited by those same aid workers. The dying field of aid and development is a closed and exclusive club. Aid should be abolished, and/or bypassed by small groups of dedicated, good-hearted, every-day individuals and/or social entrepreneurs and capitalists with good intentions who really care about people in the developing world, and can bring in new ways of working and innovations.

Hmmmm.

I’m finding the arguments really interesting.  A little mixed up and too generalized sometimes, but both sides resonate with me because I’ve seen concrete examples of a lot of the above.  (By the way, I hope no one takes offense at how I’ve portrayed the sides – this is just an exercise here – I love you all).  So I was trying to step back and look at the discussion.

It struck me that the arguments sound a lot like the old media – new media arguments.  New media is less professional, less rigorous, and sometimes unethical and low quality. But it often it brings innovations and truths that old media misses. It’s quick, accessible, open, less controlled and often pretty freaking amazing and right on.  Old media is solid and has a long history of quality and impact, but it’s also slow, unresponsive and conservative at times. Old media that’s not finding a way to integrate and learn from new media is dying.

So how might old aid, old development and new aid, new development work together? What can traditional non-profits learn from traditional media outlets that have embraced new media or morphed their old models into something that is still solid and proven, yet offers a space for participation and innovation by the public?

What general standards and knowledge need to be out in the public to help amateurs or people from non-aid and non-development backgrounds who want to engage avoid pitfalls and known errors, and avoid breaking laws or forging forward unethically or foolishly, and doing damage? Can old and new come to terms and work together? What examples are there of this already happening in a way that both old and new agree is working?  Or are these two sides totally incompatible and doomed to work against each other?

[Update] See Deconstructing volunteerism and overseas exchanges for a Part 2 to this post.

For more background….

Update:  Penelope has written a great post called “On Entrepreneurship and NGOs

Saundra over at Good Intentions are not Enough does a great job of sharing standards, practices and educating on how to select good charities/organizations, and has published a “Smart Aid Wish List” you can add to.

Check out this excellent chapter (.pdf) by ALNAP on Innovations in International Humanitarian Action (thanks to @talesfromthhood for sharing).

[update] Michael Keizer at A Humorless Lot wrote a great response post here:  The professional volunteer (impossible in aid?) and how about the salaried amateur?

Check out the #smartaid and the #1millionshirts hashtags on Twitter.

Follow some of the bloggers on my blogroll — they pretty much span the different sides of the issue in less extreme and more nuanced ways than I’ve done in my exaggerations above.

Related posts on Wait… What?

Deconstructing volunteerism and overseas exchanges

Mind the gap

The elephant in the room

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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.

ICT Works and The 4 C’s of ICT Deployment

Mobiles for Development Guide by Hannah Beardon

IDEO Human Centered Design Toolkit

Changemakers and Kiwanja collaboration: SMS How To Guide

Mobile Active‘s case studies

ML4D:  Mobile learning for development’s design narratives

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:

7 (or more) questions to ask before adding ICTs

Finding some ICT answers in Benin

Meeting in the Middle: A good local process

It’s all part of the ICT jigsaw

I and C and then T

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