Posts Tagged ‘international development’

Why the Search for the Middle Class is a Waste of Time and Money

CJamzx5WsAANOgfOnce we stop focusing only on the search for the mythical middle class, we see the very real changes that have taken place, globally, over the past 25 years. The Pew Report in the previous post focused primarily on the middle income/middle class, overlooking in their haste that even this segment of the world’s population had almost doubled from 7% to 13%. Their rationale is based on conventional thinking which frames the importance of this middle income demographic so:

Developing a vast middle class is key to sustaining growth in emerging economies, whose comparative advantage in offering advanced markets products at a fraction of the cost is waning with new technologies.

Just a couple of days before this Pew report, the United Nations released an important global development report. Here, we can see the real changes that have taken place in historically poverty stricken populations like India’s and China’s:

More than a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty since 1990 with China and India playing a central role in global poverty reduction, a major UN report has said

The latest estimates show that the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day globally fell from 36 per cent in 1990 to 15 per cent in 2011. Projections indicate that the global extreme poverty rate has fallen further, to 12 per cent, as of 2015.

The poverty rate in the developing regions has plummeted, from 47 per cent in 1990 to 14 per cent in 2015, a drop of more than two thirds.

“The world’s most populous countries, China and India, played a central role in the global reduction of poverty. As a result of progress in China, the extreme poverty rate in Eastern Asia has dropped from 61 per cent in 1990 to only 4 per cent in 2015,” the report said.

“Southern Asia’s progress is almost as impressive — a decline from 52 per cent to 17 per cent for the same period — and its rate of reduction has accelerated since 2008,” it said.

Who cares about the middle class and their mythical relationship to economic growth and progress when the data shows that poverty has been halved, and a billion people can dream of hope. If this middle class were genuinely related to economic growth then we wouldn’t be seeing these conflicting headlines. From the same article that touts the need for a middle middle as critical to growth, already linked above, and referencing the Pew Research report.

India’s middle class barely expanded during the decade, increasing from 1 per cent of the population in 2001 to 3 per cent in 2011, an increase the study called ”small by any measure.”

While the Indian economy is currently said to be so:

India is seeing “stable growth momentum” even as economic activities are expected to slow down in China, the US and many other major economies, says Paris-based think tank OECD.

Last month, OECD — a grouping of 34 countries — had pegged India’s growth to remain “strong and stable” at 7.3 per cent in 2015 on the back of revival in investments.

India has surpassed China to become the world’s fastest growing economy by clocking 7.5 per cent growth for the three months ended March. In 2014-15, the economy had expanded 7.3 per cent.

Earlier this month, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the country is no longer satisfied being in the 6 to 8 per cent growth.

“It wants to transcend to another level and aim for 8 to 10 per cent growth… We wish to grow faster because we have a huge challenge of eradicating poverty ahead of us,” he had said.

Given the imperative to push hundreds of millions above the poverty line – far more important to a developing country like India, a historically poverty stricken country – worrying about the mythical middle class is the least of the government’s problems. India’s NREGA is the world’s largest public works programme, benefiting 182 million human beings, only 15% of the country’s population.

This begs the question: “Is growing a vast middle class really key to sustainable growth?

India didn’t grow one (sounds rather like a beard, doesn’t it?) as large as or as fast as China, yet India’s economic indicators seem to be healthier and its population emerging out of abject poverty.

One wonders whether the continued emphasis and focus on chasing the middle class dream not only blinds us to the very real social and economic developments taking place but also whether its a corporate imperative rather than a societal one?

In the long run, will more noodles and biscuits matter, or the fact that more girls are going to school, studying computers and English?

This same single minded search for a middle class is creating its own set of repercussions on the African continent. One gets the feeling there’s a bunch of folks wandering around dazed and confused, groping and grasping blindly for something called “middle class”. Again, overlooked in this game of blind man’s buff are data points like Kenya’s recent emergence as a lower middle income country – the World Bank upgraded it from low income last month:

“Our latest data show that in terms of this indicator, the world’s economic geography has changed a lot. In 1994, 56.1% of the world’s population – 3.1 billion people – lived in the 64 low-income countries. In 2014, this was down to 8.5%, or 613 million people, living in 31 countries. It is heartening to see that over the last one year itself four nations crossed over that critical line from the low-income to the lower-middle income category.”

But, no, lets go chasing the mythical middle instead. On paper, and in the numerous reports churned out by management consultancies, they might be easiest demographic to sell consumer goods to, but as I’d asked 8 years ago, is the holy grail of economic development only the creation of a consumer society? And, is it something that can be realistically aimed for, given the rapidly dwindling natural resources of our planet?

Global tipping point in development

Two years ago, I’d written the following words:

Finally, enough people in enough places have managed to lift themselves free of the gravity well sucking them down into completely insecure and uncertain relationship with the poverty line (aka the next meal or three for the entire family) that they can plan ahead for the next purchase or investment in their future economic status and social standing. One is not independent of the other, especially not in the closely knit, hyper local social networks in rural regions of the developing world.

What we’re in fact seeing are the metrics that demonstrate that tipping point I’d sensed a couple of years ago, while wandering around rural Kenya.

People, not consumers, are bootstrapping themselves out of poverty and feeling steady enough to make a leap for the brass ring of prosperity. The shift is so huge – 700 million people or 10% of the planet’s population – that we’ll be seeing the impact and influence of this emerge over the near term emerging future.

They’ll be neither the Bottom of any Pyramid nor the Middle Class – both measures use metrics too obsolete to account for the leapfrogging taking place in the eternally developing world. What they won’t be is stagnant, or satisfied with their achievements. Pew might say they haven’t come far enough, but who is to say that’s their own metric of success?

The ILO’s ‘historic’ informal to formal guidelines and framework: What does it actually mean?

Sustainable Value Chain 1

Illustration: JAM Visueeldenken

The big news this weekend is the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) first ever Recommendations and Guidelines on the informal economy. My first take away from all the documentation is that the informal sector is no more the enemy of good and, now, can finally be addressed with the consideration it needs and deserves. Here’s a key snippet from India’s Economic Times, using one of my favourite words:

“This is important because it is the first international labour instrument that covers the informal economy holistically including wage workers, small businesses, entrepreneurs and self-employed,”

Now, if only they’d also used the word Flexibly, I’d have died happy. But their objective isn’t to integrate the informal sector or bridge the chasm between the formal and informal economies, it’s to assimilate and contain. Anyhow, lets take a further look at what these guidelines are and what might they mean for Mama Biashara.

Section II – Guiding Principles (Page 13)

In designing coherent and integrated strategies to facilitate the transition to the formal economy,

Starts off with a very clear design brief – the choice of the word designing is significant and powerful, as it implies disciplined processes and methods and helps relate it to the holistically mentioned earlier. Next:

Members should take into account the following:
(a) the diversity of characteristics, circumstances and needs of workers and economic units in the informal economy, and the necessity to address such diversity with tailored approaches;

(b) the specific national contexts and priorities for the transition to the formal economy;

(c) the fact that different and multiple strategies can be applied to facilitate the transition to the formal economy;

We need to design for the specific context and conditions, for the to-be-discovered needs of the people, and, one size does not fit all.

Excellent beginning. And as the ILO’s DG is quoted to have said,

“It is not just the adoption of this Recommendation, it’s actually putting it into practice that will matter,”

After a bunch of inclusions and protections from (d) to (i) we have, what I believe, is the most empowering statement of all:

(j) the preservation and expansion, during the transition to the formal economy, of the entrepreneurial potential, creativity, dynamism, skills and innovative capacities of workers and economic units in the informal economy;

Let’s not lose teh hustle in the rush to regulate.

On the other hand, the need for flexibility during these transitions is overlooked and the closest framing we have that may apply to this aspect – as captured by the illustration above – is:

(k) the need for a balanced approach combining incentives with compliance measures;

which leaves it rather open for interpretation. You may call that being flexible, but the fact remains that negotiability of the system is an observed part of what lowers the barriers to adoption of measures for those who manage on irregular and unpredictable income streams and work primarily in the informal sector.

 Section III: Legal and Policy Frameworks (Page 15)

9. Members should undertake a proper assessment and diagnostics of factors, characteristics and circumstances of informality in the national context to inform the design and implementation of laws and regulations, policies and other measures aiming to facilitate the transition to the formal economy;
I don’t think, after this sort of framing and direction giving, that formal economists can overlook the need to dive deeply into understanding people, pesa and place, or the need for a systematic, rigorous, methods based approach to people-centric design of policies and programmes. There’s a huge difference between someone swooping in to do it all for you and someone figuring out a way for you to do it more efficiently yourself.  That’ll be key going forward, imho.

If you’ve read this far and are interested in my prior work in this space, feel free to reach out for some reading materials or for a conversation on how we can collaborate to make a positive difference for those who’ve been overlooked all this time.

People, Pesa & Place: A Multidisciplinary lens for innovation in social & economic development

ideo model

This original Venn diagram visualizing the sweet spot of innovation success is a familiar one, with as many variations as there are practitioners. One of the most common is the one below, where business, people (or, as often, design) and technology replace the human centered qualities of viable, desirable and feasible.


I’ve used them both for years, particularly the latter, evolving it incrementally in the project for the Dutch govt where we looked at barriers to adoption of new agricultural techniques (technology) introduced in international development programmes.


Yet, I still struggled with this framing when actually considering solutions for programme design and development, or rather, any  products and services meant for the poor in the developing world.

Innovation, this Venn Diagram said, happens at the intersection of the attributes of viable, desirable and feasible. A solution that met these criteria would have greater chances of success. This made sense and it still does.

However, when it came to solutions meant for the lower income demographic, particularly where the majority were managing on irregular, often unpredictable, income streams, from such activities as informal trade and subsistence farming, there were additional issues to be considered. These were often critical to the success or failure of the newly introduced innovation.

For instance, inadequate infrastructure is a fact of life. Whether is variability in electricity supply in the urban context or lack of it in the rural. Things we take for granted in the operating environment in which these lenses were first framed – pipes full of running water, stable and reliable power, affordable, clean fuel for cooking, credit cards and bank accounts – are either scarce, inadequate or unreliable for the most part.

Feasibility, thus, takes on an entirely different meaning in this context. Each location or region (place) may have different facilities. Launching a service in Kenya or Tanzania, even for the most rural and economically challenged, means we can think of using mobile money solutions in the business model, while a similar service in India would have to be designed to adapt to the local context. On the other hand, India has an extensive postal system as well home addresses, while this is still a barrier to delivery in many African locations.

Similarly, the viability of a concept, in this context, must look beyond just the conventional definitions of business, business model or marketing. The embedded assumption here is that a marketplace already exists, with all the support services, information flows and distribution networks.

Further, the current version of this framework, does not offer cues to the research and design team to look for, and take into consideration, elements such as cash transactions, cash flow, lack of formal financial instruments, seasonality, and a myriad other underlying reasons that drive preference for payment plans such as pay-as-you-go or credit based on future harvests.

And as we all tend to promote these diagrams as a means to anchor our explorations and discovery process towards identifying the design drivers for innovative solutions, it seemed to me that we needed more obvious cues to signal that these issues not only exist, disparate from what we may be accustomed to, but also need to be clearly and realistically described. There is far too much tacit knowledge and too many critical assumptions embedded in the current process.


This diagram is my prototype of the next generation of the original Venn Diagram, where the attributes of the lenses have been interpreted in the context of the difference in operating environment. While it has emerged from a focus on the erstwhile Bottom or Base of the Pyramid or the poor – both of these terms are anathema to me when referring to people – I believe that it might very well make sense to use it for a wider range of incomes and consumer segments, particularly in the African marketplace.

People, of course, does not change from the original, and desirability – that is, creating something that will resonate with them – permits us to lower as many barriers to adoption and minimize the dropout rate. This element came to fore in the Dutch project where the question posed was related to the sustainability of donor funded programmes to effect positive change after the funding ends.

Place replaces Technology, as a lens through which to consider the feasibility of a solution. Furthermore, the benefit of this is that it opens up the framing of the solution space, away from technology per se, and lets us consider a broader range of interventions. Technological solutions may be only one factor, and not a given, as the current framing assumes from the outset.

Pesa is the word I’ve chosen to designate viability. It means money in more than one language across the developing world and thus implies more than just the marketplace which may or may not exist in the formal sense assumed in the first generation diagram. In the context of new products and services, it can cover all aspect of the business model including revenue generation, payment plans, pricing and timing of introduction. And in the context of programmes, it brings to the fore the need to look at means for economic impact, and, uncover a way to measure this impact. Irregular income streams tend to make it difficult for people to know what their monthly income may be or whether, this week, they’ll have that mythical $1.25 or $2 or $5 to spend today.

I look forward to your feedback on this and will be writing more on the diagram separately pertaining to both innovative products and services for the emerging African consumer market as well as a framework for social design innovation for the economically challenged.

International development in the year 2015: Q&A with a 3rd world brown woman

Naomi, posing for my camera in her role as poor African farmer’s wife

Naomi was my first exposure to poverty as expediency in rural Africa. She and her husband are the responsible family unit for a multi kitchen homestead in Makueni, Kenya. They themselves own a Maruti van which he runs as a matatu plying a regular route to the county seat, Wote; a butchery and bar with a colour television and diesel generator in the nearest market town half a kilometer away as well as a healthy plot of land including an orange grove and a well.

Still, she insisted, they were just poor African farmers deserving of a handout from me, the mzungu. Due to the paucity of South Asians in this part of Kenya, I was often treated as a white and once asked if I was Chinese!  Her attitude was “Here take this photograph of us in our farm like your sort want to do but be sure to leave your largesse behind for me”.  As an Indian, born in Calcutta, I am no stranger to poverty and any family in the process of building a brick house, owning a vehicle, a storefront and a diesel generator to run the colour TV is firmly in the middle class in my eyes. No poverty here, Africa or no Africa.

Thus began the saga of my traumatic experience as a “rich white man” in rural Africa, where market women grabbed at my gold chain while insisting I spend money in their shops as a matter of entitlement and farm wives sneered at my meagre offering of a small solar lantern. Makueni falls in the drought prone and food insecure region that receives international food aid as a matter of course each year. Big name NGOs and their shiny white vehicles can be seen in most decent restaurants at lunchtime and the local populace have their scripts memorized by heart. We’re poor African farmers, give us food, O Walking Sack of Grain. Just ignore that TV blaring in grandma’s room or junior’s shiny bicycle.

Whose fault is this expedient shift in demeanor and roles? What happens when everyone looks the same to the humanitarian aid worker, equally needy and equally deserving of a handout? The pink fuzzy veil of altruistic do gooding blurs the world’s vision of what poverty means, after all, who ever heard of a rich Indian or an African with her belly full?

This is the result of decades of indiscriminate largesse; well meaning but unfocused humanitarian aid, my client tells me. He is an ex NGO type from Europe, who stayed behind in magical Africa (cue Toto) after 20 years in emergency aid and founded a couple of lucrative social enterprises. Not profitable businesses. There’s a difference. Of course she’s an experienced beneficiary, who wouldn’t be if you heard there was a free lunch to be had. The undermining of individual agency and the cynical view of dumb donors are two sides of the same unhealthy coin.

As an Indian abroad, I have dealt with my share of assumptions on my economic status. The shock of realizing that I was not poor enough to satisfy my European hostess’ need to uplift the 3rd world brown woman standing in front of her made me dig deeper into the motivating factors behind this phenomena of charitable good works and the bottom of the pyramid. Naomi, the middle class businesswoman in rural Kenya had already figured out this secret and learnt to play her assigned role when required. Expedience is a cloak one can quickly wrap around oneself.

Once I noticed this, a pattern emerged among those I met in the social impact industry, bent on helping the Bottom of the Pyramid cook, clean and poop the modern way.  One that leads me to pose the very same question that Regarding Humanity asked me:

3. What does dignified, respectful humanitarianism look like to you in the context of the power dynamics you mention?

Given what I have described of my experience in rural Makueni in eastern Kenya last spring (February 2012) and given that these behaviours were more likely to be due to the benefiary experience, what does it tell us about the way the we need to change our approach?

I don’t know if this conversation will continue, right now, in the short term, on my blog, but I am grateful to the folks at Regarding Humanity – Lina Srivastava, Linda Raftree, TMS Ruge et al for this thought exercise and opportunity to introspect and ponder.

Question 1
Question 2

Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are…

The worst mistake of first contact, made throughout history by individuals on both sides of every new encounter, has been the unfortunate habit of making assumptions. It often proved fatal.” ~ David Brin

2. How can technology best be used to change humanitarian practices that may appear to you to be evolved forms of imperialism?

This is the second question in the series posed by Regarding Humanity. [see Preamble & Question 1]

I cannot answer this question as it is posed because I am increasingly beginning to question whether the basic concept of using technology as the go to answer for everything is in itself not an evolved form of imperialism.

For is it not the first world that lives immersed in a highly technological society, where Progress has been raised to godhood and this assumption demonstrably implicit in the very framing of this question?

Humanitarian practice that is an evolved form of imperialism

 How many thousands of mPilots and eSolutions do you know of that have never moved beyond pilot stage? Do we know why none have scaled? No, don’t point to mPesa, it is a commercial product aimed at every mobile phone user in the ecosystem, not targeted at the poor alone. There must be a reason why there is such a consistent barrier to adoption by the audience on any sustainable scale. Has anyone cared to find out?

In fact, lets step back even further, has anyone cared to take a look at the whole ecosystem that exists, in its day to day life, in which this technology* will be introduced to make its world changing impact? The glamour of shiny bling blinds the technophiles to everything else – the OLPC saga being a great case in point.

When you begin solution finding with a gizmo, gadget or other mod con innovation already in mind

it tends to blind you to the context, the need, the situation and the conditions. All you can see is this technology and how world changing it is, regardless of whether it is or it isn’t. Anyway, I’ll stop this question here because Kiwanja has been saying this far better than I and for much longer, that M4D and ICT4D are broken. Yet nothing changes. Today I wonder what my part in enabling this has been?

This conversation continues…

Question 1
Question 3

The black box of international development

This post continues the conversation begun in the previous post by attempting to address the spirit of the first question posed by Regarding Humanity:

1. Is the ball already rolling to change the “Development Industrial Complex”? What sorts of shifts needed for process to happen?

When I was first encouraged to speak up on the topic on international development, I hesitated as it was not an area I am familiar with beyond what any of us can read in mainstream media. My exposure to humanitarian organizations had been limited to what I have seen whenever I have immersed myself in some rural location or the other – signboards proclaiming vast irrigation projects or big white vehicles parked outside a highway eatery at lunchtime. Long time readers will know I’ve been knocking the rose coloured spectacles off any number of well intentioned award winning products without viable business models or qualities desirable to their intended beneficiaries. But since I’d accepted the challenge, I realized that I needed to do some homework in order to do these questions justice and not make a complete fool of myself on my own blog. After a quick immersion into assorted links covering the vast subject of the Development Industrial Complex (DIC), here’s my circumlocutory dive into the deep end of pondering.

The first thing that struck me after coming away from the rather well written and comprehensive Wikipedia entry on DIC and its various theories was just that. The field of International Development seems to be very much a theoretical one, given to ideologies and policy making, based rather heavily in academia and other non profit organisations.The closest related field of study is Development Economics or Public Policy – lofty subjects indeed, which to someone like me, sound very remote adn hands off from the actual problems in the field. From what I have read, aid workers in the field may not always be the ones with the advanced degrees and those implementing the programs tend not have much say in them.

That is, there doesn’t seem to be a process or methodology for designing intervention programmes, though there are myriads of methods for measuring the impact. In fact, here’s where I find the contents of the Wiki entry most enlightening to a n00b like me – I’ve made sure you can’t miss the subsection on practice:

    1 History
        1.1 Post World War II
    2 Theories
        2.1 Millennium Development Goals
        2.2 Other goals
    3 Concepts
        3.1 International Economic Inequality
        3.2 Dignity
        3.3 Participation
        3.4 Appropriateness
        3.5 Sustainability
        3.6 Capacity building
        3.7 Rights-based approach
    4 Practice
        4.1 Measurement
        4.2 Migration and remittance
        4.3 Sectors
            4.3.1 Water and sanitation
            4.3.2 Health
            4.3.3 Education
            4.3.4 Shelter
            4.3.5 Human rights
            4.3.6 Livelihoods
            4.3.7 Finance
    5 Concerns
    6 See also
    7 Notes
    8 References

For an engineer, industrial designer or MBA in strategic planning this “practice” is no more than than a laundry list of focus areas and their measurements. HOW do I practice international development? Or rather, how and where do I begin designing a specific program? Is there a process to follow or a checklist of things to do? Is there a system or a method? Just competing ideologies.

Ideologies mentioned in the wiki entry are acknowledged to be faith based in nature, while theories seem to be developed in ivory towers based on gross assumptions and lots and lots of numbers. The whole industry sounds like its emphasis is only on measurements and metrics of what can be measured (problematic in its own right wrt program design) and vast sums of money are thrown at the next snake oil salesman who claims to have the silver bullet for solving the world’s most wicked problem. This sounds harsh but is simply the takeaway of this humble layperson attempting to understand how the DIC works.

This is what seems to be the current process for design of development programmes.

There is a gaping void in this approach which relies completely on experts and their opinions on what farmers need or NGOs to speak on the behalf of women or girl children or youth living half a continent away in a wholly different world altogether. And that world, that operating environment where the majority of the DIC’s beneficiaries live, is one that I am familiar with, through my own work of the past half decade or more.

The picture painted is one that anyone living in the Western world is familiar with – hapless foreign looking folk with desperation in their eyes or their laughing children with flies in their eyes. An image that is increasingly become obsolete everywhere else but for those who rely on the kindness of strangers to pay their bills. The patronizing arrogance is itself obsolete in today’s interconnected world where social media and mobile phones are changing the way the world perceives itself and others.

Obsolete worldview or unvalidated assumptions? (all image credits: JAM visueeldenken)

Who wouldn’t immediately pull out a check on hearing these carefully crafted stories of heart rending misery and blunted opportunity?

The problem arises when its time to judge the results. Why do they not continue the changes we trained them to make? Why don’t they adopt these innovations in technology or processes? Why are the programs not sustainable once donor funding ends? Why don’t they buy my smokeless stove/solar lamp/water pump and improve their worthless miserable lives, the ungrateful scavengers?

And so it continues. A vicious cycle of unfounded assumptions based on an obsolete worldview driving the design of programs theoretically meant to uplift the passive recipients of top down generosity whose impact is only assessed at the end of the entire process, often years after implementation.

Aligning impact with intent and actions needs a rigorous validated process for solution design

To summarize my first impressions:

  1. Assumptions drive decision making and design of programs
  2. Ideology is more important than process, planning or strategy.
  3. There is no standardardized system or methodology but theoretical models abound.
  4. Anyone can walk into any location and “do good” – no license to practice.
  5. Everybody else knows better what the end user needs to do or use to change their lives.
  6. Taken together, the existing system seems to be designed to disempower the very target audience its meant to uplift. You cannot be my equal if I need you to be my supplicant. 

I haven’t answered the question as it has been asked. I don’t think we are there yet. Of course, things need to change but I don’t have the answers glibly tripping off my tongue. On the other hand, I do believe we have the tools to help us ask the right questions, of the right people, for the right reasons. And I also believe that we might need to frame the problem [situation, scenario, opportunity, challenge, insert your favourite word here] with greater accuracy and respect for people’s context, conditions and needs. Nobody ever asked the target if they wanted to be lifted up the way we thought they should be nor did they stop to discover what aspirations or ambitions their beneficiaries held closely. Is it any wonder everything stops the minute the money does?

 This conversation will naturally continue as this is only the part 1, section 1, chapter 1. I’ll also add links to similar questions raised on social enterprises and their market entry behaviour, assumptions and attitudes at the end of this multi part thought exercise.

Question 2
Question 3

Preamble to a Q&A on international development: Charitable donations, silver bullets and the hapless beneficiary.

If you don’t ask me what I need then is it my fault I don’t use what you gave me the way you wanted me to?

Impact assessment metrics for this donor funded project will show how many thousands of households in the region received their chemically treated malaria prevention kits consisting primarily of brand new mosquito nets. The photograph above was taken in Eastern Province, Kenya in July 2012.  And shown below is a photograph taken in Western Province a few weeks earlier.

Chemically treated mosquito nets enabling healthier lives by improving food security for beneficiaries.

The first impulse is to blame the beneficiary of this well meaning largesse, paid for by school children in rural Yorkshire or well meaning hausfraus in Bonn, for the lapse but closer examination of the homestead will show that each bed already has its own mosquito net. These are surplus. And one cannot argue that they are not being put to good use, just like the recipients were urged to do so by various well wishers and VIPs in attendance. A good meal of sukumawiki and chicken will do wonders for your health, if you ask me and any Mama in the village. Yes, this is wasteful abundance and a scandal. But there is always another side to the story, and like Kurosawa, we’ll discover many points of view as we attempt to understand the conundrum of continuing scarcity of resources in a world over flowing with good intentions.

On top of the media rankings right now is a recently released biography of Jeffrey Sachs, the Lord of Poverty himself, author of the Millenium Development Village programme – that silver bullet meant to change the world. Instead, the daughter of the founder of a notorious mining conglomerate takes aim straight at the heart of international aid, and, according to rival economist William Easterly, ends the debate on “Big Aid” once and for all. While I’m no fan of any of this and certainly no wide eyed youngster with rose coloured glasses seeking to uplift the downtrodden in my spare time, I do wonder where this leaves us today with respect to social and economic development and what kind of market forces will rush in to fill the vacuum left behind.

In a moment of synchronicity, Regarding Humanity, a conscience driven collective, posed these  questions to me after a particularly powerless stream of tweets:

1. Is the ball already rolling to change the “Development Industrial Complex”? What sorts of shifts needed for process to happen?

2. How can technology best be used to change humanitarian practices that may appear to you to be evolved forms of imperialism?

3. What does dignified, respectful humanitarianism look like to you in the context of the power dynamics you mention?

While I have my reservations on the way the questions have been framed, and my disclaimers include a complete lack of relevant education or experience of humanitarian aid and the international development industry, I’m foolish enough to leap without looking how deep the waters might be. They offered me some definitions on my request and I’ve been doing my homework on this topic. Stay tuned for the answers.

Projected Impact of recognizing and integrating end-user’s agency on innovation adoption rates

Rajasthan, India January 2009

Our problem statement for the recently completed, two phase project on sustainable agricultural value chains, was framed as follows:

What are the barriers to adoption of sustainable agricultural practices that limit their spread and scaling? What are reasons and/or causes of the existence of these barriers?

 The complexity and wicked nature of the problem space – why do farmers stop using innovation (new agricultural technology and methods)once donor funding ends in large scale public private partnerships (PPPs) for social and economic development at the base of the pyramid (among subsistence farmers in rural Africa, for eg)- meant that we had to step back massively in order to grasp the entire process of PPP initiation and conceptualization all the way through to impact assessment after the usually multi-year projects ended.

Our aim was to identify the potential barriers to adoption i.e. the problem areas, in current day program development processes, at the systems level, rather than overwhelm the problem space with attempting to identify situational challenges unique to each PPP proposal.  Were there generalizable problems that could be identified, first, in the existing process, broadly speaking, and if so, could they be framed for solution finding at the individual project level?

We began with the premise that putting the user at the center of the program design would exponentially improve adoption rates as programs would seek to fill gaps in the existing infrastructure or services or validate and enable the end user’s aspirational goals. When we assessed the existing situation against this lens we discovered that in the majority of the cases, the first time there was any contact with the end-user of these programs (the beneficiaries) was at the impact assessment stage of the project, usually after hundreds of thousands of dollars and many months or years later.

Observations during our fieldwork on this project as well as from past experiences have always demonstrated the joy of recognition or appreciation end-users always expressed when the context of of user research and its relationship to a problem solving outcome of some sort (device, app, biz model etc) has been explained to them as background to our intrusions into their daily life. This project’s particularities emphasized this aspect and threw up the role of the end user’s agency in choosing to adopt an innovation in their daily work or not, as opposed to such programs tending to impose participation and outcomes as the only means to document measurable impact. 

We offer the hypothesis, to be validated in the next phase of research in the field, that this explicit recognition of the end-user’s agency that the upfront design research conveys to the participants (and the general community) as well as the integration of their context and its constraints and conditions into the program design, inspires and motivates far greater rates of adoption of the “innovation” (whether a pruning technique or a new seed or even equipment) which then tends to be perceived as a custom tailored solution.

A tale of two Africas

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

By the middle of the year 2013, the continent of Africa finally put her foot down and said to the world that enough is enough, “We’re taking over the reins of our future and giving voice to our own story.”

Ghana and Kenya took control of their elections, so much so that Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) monitored international media online, going as far as to use their collective voice to force reporters to validate the veracity of their stories (#someonetellCNN).

Ugandan born Ashish J Thakkar, the entrepreneurial businessman behind The Mara Group and The Mara Foundation recently made headlines for telling Donald Trump off  on his ignorant comments publicly on Twitter.

In the meantime, Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo dukes it out with billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, exchanging ad hominems online while Bono gets asked why he thinks he should speak for the “poor African” among the world’s most powerful people. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg of pushback getting louder as globalization and connectivity finally begin to level out that flat playing field so beloved of Bangaloreans and Thomas Friedman.

This is the tale of two Africas.

One, belongs to the NGOs and the philanthropic foundations of charity and goodwill, seeking to uplift the downtrodden even while giving voice on their behalf, relegating them to pitiful images of hunger and misery.

The other, the other belongs to the African herself, grabbing the mic and speaking out loud and strong on what is really needed to be changed on the global platform, be it the lost revenues from taxes as pointed out by Kofi Annan or simply tweeting en masse in order to be heard.

The democratization of technology and the rise of social networks have done far more to empower the everyday African than they themselves currently realize. From a passive acceptance or even, ignorance, of the media’s narratives around Africa’s poverty, hopelessness, disease and backwardness, the instant access granted by the handheld computer in every pocket has also opened their eyes to their image and reputation on the global stage.

Just yesterday, I was requested not to use the term “sub Sahara” by some folks on Twitter, offering up citations and links to articles that pointed out the subtly racist nature of the phrase, whereas I’d been completely ignorant of the baggage and only considered its geography and common usage. But today I find myself conscious in my choice of words and I doubt that I would ever use these words again. All because of a few 140 character tweets exchanged with virtual strangers.

These are only the first drops in the bucket, poised to become a deafening flood of voices, as Africa – all 53 countries, hundreds of languages and myriads of peoples – roars loudly against the misrepresentation and yanks back the reins of her own narrative and agency.

The Truth About Disruptive Development in the Digital Village

After a quick Twitter interaction, I find myself having agreed to write this caveat to Ken Banks’ recently published article The Truth About Disruptive Development published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

So I’ll start by taking a step back to ask myself what aspects of his proposed points make me hesitate with a second thought before whole heartedly supporting the whole concept, unargued?

My immersion in the so called “prepaid economy” or the prevalent purchasing patterns in the informal economy’s lower income demographic, over the past 5 years, helps me to see some holes in Banks’ theory.

What international ICT4D mega million bucks type of initiatives do is in fact a very expensive and elaborate song and dance show around your little developer community, screaming to be heard over the babelfish noise of the global internetworked web of humanity.

That offers a kick start that is not only much needed but about all that is really needed. The problem becomes when increased competition from more experienced entrepreneurs start arriving as expats funded by these socially patient backers.

The other aspect that bothers me is that Banks’ title should be rewritten as The Truth About Disruptive Development in the Digital Village, thus taking into consideration the key constraint and differentiator that this situation may only apply to ICT and not, say for example, agriculture.

So what is the compromise outcome that well meaning global development funding and independent, indigenous innovators can arrive at?

Open lavish offices locally and share a taste of the global mainstream professional culture with up and comers across selected developing nations. It went a long way in changing corporate India’s attitude towards women professionals. I saw it in 1990 at OMC Computers Ltd and then the dramatic difference at Hewlett Packard India in 1996.

This conversation really needs to be taken up further by more people sharing their personal experiences with the table.