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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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Last week some 40 people from more than 20 different organizations with national and global humanitarian and relief missions attended a Google Partnership Exploration Workshop in Washington, DC, to share information in an interactive setting and explore how the organizations and Google geo & data visualization technologies can further each others’ missions.

Lucky me – I got to go on behalf of Plan.  Much of the meeting centered on how Google’s tools could help in disasters and emergencies, and what non-profits would like to be able to do with those tools, and how Google could help.

The meeting opened up with a representative of FEMA talking about the generally slow and government centered response of FEMA, and how that needed to turn into a quick, user generated information network that could provide real information in real time so that FEMA could offer a real, people centered response.  I loved hearing someone from government saying things like “we need to look at the public as a resource, not a liability.” The conclusion was that in a disaster/emergency you just need enough information to help you make a better decision.  The public is one of the best sources for that information, but government has tended to ignore it  because it’s not “official.”  Consider: a 911 caller is not a certified caller with a background check and training on how to report, but that’s the background of our 911 emergency system. Why can’t it be the same in a disaster?

We also heard about the World Bank’s ECAPRA project for disaster preparedness in Central America.  This project looks at probabilistic risk assessment, using geo-information to predict and assess where damage is likely.  The main points from the WB colleagues were that for SDI (Spatial Data Infrastructure) we need policies, requirements, and mandates, yes, but this is not sufficient – top down is not enough.  We also need software that enables a bottom up approach, aligned incentives that can drive us to open source agenda.  But not just open source code software, we’re talking mass collaboration – and that would change everything.  So then the challenge is how we help civil societies and govts to share and deliver data that enables decision making?  How do we support data collection from the top down and from the bottom up?  The WB is working with developers on some collaborative data collection mobile applications that allow people to easily collect information. In this system, different institutes still own the data but others can update and add to it. WB hopes to embed this within Central American national disaster planning systems, and to train and support the national systems to use these tools.  They will be free to use the elements that most link with the local situations in each country.  Each country is developing these open source applications themselves, and can choose the tools that work best for them.

Google stepped in then to share some Google Visualizations — Google Fusion TablesVisualization API, Chart API and Motion Charts (Gapminder).  With these applications, different sources can share data, or share some data and keep other data private.  You can compare data from different sources.  For example, there is a chart currently residing in Google Fusion Tables that pulls GDP data from the CIA Fact Book, the World Bank and the IMF, and allows you to compare data across countries from different sources.  You can then use that data to create your own data visualizations, including maps, tables, charts, and the fabulous Gap Minder/motion visualization charts (first made popular at TED by Hans Rosling). These can all be easily transferred to your own webpage.  If you have public data that deserves to be treated separately you can become a Google trusted source. (Click on the “information for publishers” link to see how to get your data made public) For a quick tutorial on how to make your own cool Gap Minder chart check out this link.  *Note Gapminder is not owned by Google. Gapminder is a foundation of its own, totally independent from Google. Google bought the software [Trendalyzer] to improve the technology further.

Next up was the American Red Cross who shared some of the challenges that they face and how they use geo-spatial and information mapping to overcome them.  Red Cross has a whole mobile data gathering system set up and works via volunteers during disasters to collect information.  They also have over 30 years of disaster data that they can use to analyze trends.  The ARC wants to do more with mapping and visualizations so that they can see what is happening right away, using maps, charts and analyzing trends.  What does the ARC want to see from Google?  A disaster dashboard – eg using Google Wave?  Inventory tracking and mapping capability.  Data mining and research capabilities such as with Fusion tables.  They want people to be able to go to the ARC and see not what the Red Cross is, but what the Red Cross does.  To use the site for up to date information that will help people manage during disasters and emergencies.

Wow, and this was all before lunch!

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Related posts:
I saw the future of geovisualization… after lunch
Is this map better than that map?
Ushahidi in Haiti:  what’s needed now

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