Category Archives: Development

On motherhood, careers, and having it all

I only talk about gender, motherhood, and families in the Foreign Service with other women. Is that weird? While I certainly have male friends here, I find myself reluctant to complain about the inequalities and difficulties that we face to what I imagine will be an audience made unfriendly by its blind privilege.

Maybe this isn’t the case! Maybe the men I know here at FSI would be thrilled to have an honest conversation about making the Foreign Service more diverse and more family friendly! But I’m unwilling to take the risk of exposing myself as a whiner, a complainer, an angry feminist by having this conversation.

Yesterday, Tales from the Hood hosted Angelica, an international aid worker and mother:

Fast forward a few months, I’m walking around the office with a big belly when I find out that a job I am perfect for is up for grabs. I start asking around and get positive reactions from the people involved. It’s really interesting and a step in the right direction for me. After a few of these positive informal talks I ask why this position is empty:

 

“The woman that used to chair this group went on maternity leave. She was meant to return this month but has decided to quit instead.”

 

As his last words echoed we looked at each other in silence. I am wearing large overalls and am but a couple of months away from maternity leave myself. It dawns on us that there isn’t a chance in hell I’m going to get that job. No one is going to say it, they are going to make me go through the steps (written exam, panel interview…) but no matter how well I do we both know that fight is lost. At the same time my husband is interviewing for a great job. The fact that he is about to become a father is irrelevant.

I think about this every day in terms of my State Department career.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestEmailShare

The road to where is paved with good intentions?

Why am I only now discovering the ICT4D Jester? Oh, lost hero, how well you express my doubts and fears about ICTs and development. One of the reasons I no longer actively blog about technology for development and in developing contexts is because I feel like an asshole when I criticize some of the big movers and shakers in the sector. There are occasionally other critical voices, but many (and by no means all) of these critical voices come across as assholes, jealous of others’ success.

It’s true that I am, in fact, an asshole, but not because I mindlessly criticize others who are more popular and successful than I am. My view on ICTs is formed by my experience as a business owner who doesn’t work with the bottom billion. Or even the second bottom billion. Our clients are firmly in the middle billion, and that’s OK. Our clients’ employees are in the second billion, and some of them (orphanages, schools, etc) have clients in the bottom billion.

But we never interact with them because it’s really fucking hard to scale revenue from people who only make a few dollars a day.

I’m an asshole because it’s easier for me to bow out of the discussion and just run my business than it is for me to jump right in and tell you why you’re wrong. Here’s the thing: nobody’s going to inner-city Baltimore and handing out iPads and iPhones and whosits and whatsits galore. Nobody’s saying that better access to technology is the panacea. Nobody’s saying that better bandwidth is key to a higher standard of living. And certainly, programs that make wild claims about their impacts, based on limited short-term results, aren’t taken terribly seriously.

The problem in Baltimore isn’t access to technology. But when you make a statement like the above one, except you replace Baltimore with, oh, the DRC, Nairobi, or another city of choice, everyone jumps in to tell you, “No, Theresa! It’s not like that! Small scale projects! Social entrepreneurship! Empowering communities!”

I don’t doubt that the road to hell is paved with the best intentions. There are some wicked cool tools out there, but I see many of the best minds in America struggling with issues of technology, power, consent, and decision making … in America. Linda Raftree has written some very smart articles on these dynamics in the developing world, but from where I’m sitting, I see a lot more “cool toy” out there than, “how can community members harness existing resources to make their lives better?”

Here’s what I know: Wealthy young West Africans are on Facebook. There aren’t very many wealthy young West Africans. All of the mobile monitoring and Facebook use in West Africa in the world didn’t change the international community’s opinion of election results in Nigeria or Benin.

Hmmm.

3.1 Mb downloads in Benin? For 15 000 FCFA/mo? Are you out of your mind?

Kanakoo Liberty + Netbook

Somebody must have put Benin Telecom’s feet to the fire because they’ve launched a series of impressive initiatives to lower the price of bandwidth for Beninese consumers. They have:

  1. doubled the bandwidth for all DSL consumers. That means users who were paying 25 000 FCFA ($50) for 256 kbs are now getting 512. Users who were paying 80 000 FCFA ($160) for 512 now get 1Mbs. Pretty impressive.
  2. repaired the WiMax network, and we are now getting the 256 kbs that we pay 25 000 FCFA ($50) for, even during peak periods.
  3. launched a new CDMA service (Kanakoo Liberté), promising users download speeds of up to 3.1 mbs for 15 000 FCFA ($30) a month. The USB key to access the CDMA service is 45 000 FCFA ($90).

Suspicious of the good news, I borrowed a new Liberté modem from a friend and spent the weekend putting the service through its paces.

Benin Telecom’s customer service is horrifically bad. As in, I called and asked what the password to connect is, and they told me that not only is there not a password, but that I must be doing something wrong if the software’s asking me for one. A few emails to the Beninese tech community later, and I had a solution. Yes, there is a password, and yes, it’s the same password for every modem: 11111111. Don’t lose it, y’all.

This modem, unlike the previous Kanakoo version, works with Ubuntu out of the box. No more mucking around with wvdial. This is huge, as none of the GSM modems play well with Linux.

The modem consistently downloads at 600kbs. I got speeds of up to 1.2 mbs off-peak. Not as good as 3.1m, but definitely better than 256k.

I’m hesitant to call the new service an unmitigated success because I was in love with WiMax until Benin Telecoms overloaded the network, and oh! hey! weekly (sometimes daily) downtime is awesome. So let’s call this a reserved recommendation. It’s cheap enough to make it worth a try.

On flooding in Benin, and how to help

This year has been a rough one for Benin, and it’s not about to get any easier. ICC, the LEPI, and now catastrophic flooding are combining to make this fall one of the hardest since I’ve been here. The whole country has been affected, and to say that one region has it worse than another is to fundamentally misunderstand how Benin’s economy and social fabric work. Two thirds of the communes in Benin have flooded zones.

The rains stopped in the North several weeks ago, but that doesn’t mean that the flooding from the Niger river and other northern waterways has stopped. Karimama, Malanville, and any towns around major bodies of water have been affected.

The Ouemé-Plateau is now really just the Ouemé river. The river, Lac Nokoué, and other bodies of water have flooded the plain.

The Zou has also been heavily flooded.

The Mono-Kouffo, with the Mono river and its thousands of lakes and rivers is equally flooded.

And then there’s Cotonou. My neighborhood is OK. We’re on a hill that gently slopes down towards a swamp. Those who live on the border of or in the swamp have been affected, but to be honest, they’re affected every year. Other parts of the city have not been so lucky. Lac Nokoué and the lagune have risen by several inches, flooding whole neighborhoods.

There are parts of Cotonou that can only be reached by pirogue (canoe), including major roads. You know the back route between the Stadium and the old Peace Corps office? Where they used to make foosball tables, on the left there, over the small bridge? That’s been flooded out for weeks, as has the surrounding neighborhood. There’s a guard-vélo to keep an eye on your bike or moto while you take a pirogue to wherever you need to go and come back. Akpakpa is equally flooded.

There are hundreds of dead, thousands missing, and hundreds of thousands displaced. People don’t have lodging, jobs, food, clean water, or mosquito nets. All of Benin’s most fertile plains have been flooded. Nigeria, a crucial food supplier, is also flooded. Pineapples? Beans? Rice? Wheat? Corn? Tomatoes? Prices are already climbing, and this season’s harvest is going to be a disaster.

How can we help?

So people are homeless, kids aren’t going to school, and disease is rampant. What can we do from our armchairs? I checked with the USAID director and several other international donors to find out what they’re doing. The relief effort is being lead by Caritas, who works in partnership with the Beninese government to get supplies and support to areas affected by the flooding. The American mission is funneling funds through Catholic Relief Services (CRS), who in turn work with Caritas. Caritas has already begun distributing mosquito nets, food, and much needed medication. They have also helped to build temporary housing for thousands of people who have lost their homes.

Because we’re all smart development workers and activists, we know that sending in-kind goods is a terrible way to help populations in need. Donors on the ground have far better supply chains and know where they can source supplies locally. Donating to CRS will guarantee that the funds reach Caritas Benin.

Donate today.

8 ways to create an inclusive work environment for women

Last week, I gave some concrete suggestions for improving participation by women in technology. Among them were exhortations to create an empowering environment to get work done. All of the mentoring and social networks in the world won’t help you if the atmosphere sucks. If men are actively silencing women during discussions you facilitate, you have failed these women. You have not lived up to your responsibility to create a non-oppressive safe space to explore and learn about technology. You may have failed to create a safe and harassment-free work environment.

Here are some concrete suggestions for creating a work environment that is inclusive to women.* Note that the vast majority of these suggestions have nothing to do with technology, and everything to do with creating an atmosphere that is not only non-oppressive, but actively encourages participation by women.

  1. Do not permit men to call women honey, dear, sweetheart, mama, or cherie. Be aware of local titles like aunt, uncle, and young woman, and pay attention to how they’re used. If all of the women are being referred to as “Young lady,” and all of the men are called “Uncle,” you have a problem.
  2. Do not allow men to tease women about whether they are single or married or have children. Yes, men will also tease men about this. Women will also tease women about this. It becomes oppressive when done by those with a vested interest in treating women like sex objects and primary child care providers instead of respected individuals.
  3. Do not allow men to make sexually suggestive remarks about women. Women are not great mothers, they are not beautiful, and they will not make a good wife some day. They are efficient, smart, and good business women. Focus on complements that complement who they are and what they do, not what they look like or their role in society.
  4. Women should not always be group secretaries (“recorders”). Men should not always be group reporters, nor should they always set the agenda for group work.
  5. If you will be serving refreshments, do not expect program participants to serve themselves. The women will end up bringing food and drinks to the men. This reinforces their social inferiority and their status as service objects. Find a fair way to pass out the food or pay for host(esse)s to distribute it.
  6. Call on women, and do not allow male voices to drown out female voices. The moment a conversation turns into an aggressive debate, women are silenced. They will not speak up in a confrontation with men and it is not fair to expect them to.
  7. Women may not be able to come in early, stay for lunch, or work late due to family obligations. Do not permit this to exclude them from social activities or possibilities for advancement, training, and advice. This is harder to do than you think.
  8. Women have been bombarded with messages about their inferiority and instructions to be submissive to men for centuries. It is not fair for you to expect them to throw off the yoke of cultural expectations because you want to “empower” them. It is not the fault of women that they have been socialized to react to men in any particular way. It is your fault for not knowing enough about their culture to facilitate the conversation.

I have not discussed child care, transportation, or timing because I believe that these things are very basic and very obvious. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Young children are not yet in school, and poor women may not have a domestic or a family member that can care for them. Babies are breastfed.
  2. Women often do not have their own means of transportation. They either pay for transportation, ask their husbands to bring them, or walk. They are vulnerable to assault and attack if your program is meeting at night or far from their homes.
  3. Women have family obligations at meal times.

Many of these suggestions are common sense; however, 5 years of designing and implementing ICT projects in Benin has showed me that common sense really isn’t, particularly when it comes to including marginalized groups. How do you make groups you lead comfortable for members of either sex? What should I add to this list?

* This is a heteronomative list that assumes a gender binary. I admit to having no idea how to account for a gender spectrum in a West African context and would love for readers to contribute suggestions.

Concrete steps to make your ICT(4D) projects more gender inclusive and woman-friendly

Are you looking for a woman working in IT? Someone who’s bright, innovative, and ready to take risks? Someone who’s already trained in the basics and is excited to learn more?

Have you talked to a secretary lately?

People Online works with a lot of secretaries. It’s all well and good to sell the boss a shiny new website, but when it comes to maintenance and content, he (and it’s always a he) isn’t going to be the one updating content. Or checking email. Or responding to inquiries. Or analyzing statistics. Or editing graphics.

His secretary, on the other hand, knows how to turn on the computer. She probably prints out his emails every morning. She responds to everyone who fills out the contact form. She knows Word. She’s familiar with Excel. She knows how to do an Internet search, and she’s definitely on Facebook. She’s smart, she’s organized, and she knows that learning a new skill is her ticket to more power or a better job.

Directors are often skeptical when we request that their secretaries be include in our training sessions. Employees are equally skeptical. She’s “just” the secretary. She’s a “just” woman. Or worse, “she’s not a man”. She’s not well educated. She’s not. She’s not. She’s not. Sometimes, clients refuse. 3 months later, these same directors are paying us additional fees for another training session. For whom? You guessed it. Their secretaries.

I wish that secretaries would be a little bit less grateful for the attention and the confidence. I wish that their patrons would trust them right away to manage a website, instead of grouchily conceding the work to her for three months, then enthusiastically embracing the fact that they can shove all of the work they didn’t want to do anyway onto a woman who’s excited to do it.

The career paths of secretaries that we train change dramatically. They’re able to insist on better paychecks for the overtime they’re putting in maintaining websites. They earn more respect from their coworkers. Anyone can figure out Word, but the Internets are a scary and magical place, and she’s got the power to navigate it. And she has profesrole models. And she has a social network of similarly trained secretaries. And why is she still working as a secretary anyway, when she can move into design, documentation, or web production?

There are a lot of systemic barriers to women using technology. Linda speaks of many of them, and suggests reading the Plan report on girls. I agree. I also think that we, as innovators and pioneers in the technology space, have a responsibility to make sure that the discussion of women in tech here doesn’t devolve to look like the discussion back home in the States.

If you’re an entrepreneur in Africa, and you’re scratching your head about how to include women in your tech start-up, your ICT4D project, or your training sessions, I have a few concrete suggestions for you:

  1. Check out the secretaries and assistants of whatever organization you’re working with. Good ones have their finger on the pulse of an enterprise.
  2. Provide a social network of women in addition to any training. In societies where women are constantly bombarded with messages of inferiority and expectations of submissiveness to men, it helps to have a network of professional equals that you can go to for advice.
  3. Stop thinking of a non-technical background as a liability. Many of the entrepreneurs and managers you’ll be working with don’t have a technical background either, but because they’re male in a strongly patriarchal society, they’ve learned how to confidently bullshit about it. Also, hey! no bad habits to break.
  4. Find woman role models that can help those you’re working with navigate the complex maze of power, relationships, gender, and technology. These women don’t have to have a formal relationship with your program, but they should be part of the social network you’re making available to your trainees, employees, and project beneficiaries. If you cannot find any woman role models you are not looking hard enough and it is your fault, not the fault of women who aren’t visible enough.
  5. Create an inclusive social atmosphere. It is not the fault of any woman that she has to go home and cook for her family, instead of joining all of the men for drinks in the evening. It is not the fault of any woman that she cannot come to lunch-time bull sessions because she is breast feeding. It is not the fault of any woman that she is uncomfortable wearing sports clothes and playing basketball in a mixed gender setting. It is your fault for making these activities part of your project’s social expectations. Fix that.
  6. Listen to women. They’re not going to want to talk to you, a man, but you need to figure out the most culturally appropriate way to get them talking about the difficulties they face as women. It is not ever up to you, as a man or as a foreigner or as someone with a higher social status than them, to insist that something, anything, is not misogyny, sexism, or oppression. Just listen goddammit.

What are you doing to include and empower women in your technology projects?

Pink partners with community radios to get the word out about breast cancer

Registration table at the hospital

This past weekend, PINK BENIN went up north to Parakou. We’ve been struggling to get out of Cotonou, and more importantly, get the message out to more women in order to a) start tracking breast cancer cases throughout the country and b) create a force strong enough to pressure the Beninese government into making cancer treatments more accessible to the rural pour.

We’re running the pilot with Peace Corps because they’re well integrated into their communities and are well placed to identify reliable partners. We invited 7 villages to send a Peace Corps Volunteer, a community health worker, and a community radio host to learn about breast cancer. The radio hosts will return to their communities and do short shows and PSAs talking about the importance of early testing. They’ll send the women to their community health workers, who will do a physical screaning and teach women how to self-exam. The Peace Corps Volunteer will act as a coordinator and will organize awareness raising sessions. Continue reading Pink partners with community radios to get the word out about breast cancer

PINK goes to Zagnanado for breast cancer screening

PINK BENIN is a big fan of International Women’s Day. Breast cancer is a marginalized illness in Benin, like many places in the world, because it’s something that primarily affects women. So it’s nice to do work on a day where we don’t have to defend ourselves for primarily working with women (What? We don’t treat prostate cancer? Isn’t that sexist? NO IT IS NOT).

Check out that gorgeous banner
Check out that gorgeous banner (ok, also the gorgeous dancer ...but really, the banner!)

This year, Ivy, a Peace Corps volunteer in Zaganado, invited us to participate in activities she and other volunteers had planned for March 8. We had already been planning on doing screenings and trainings, and so jumped at the chance to blah blah blah win-win partnerships, synergy, etc (aka letting someone else deal with the logistics instead of having to do everything ourselves). Awesome.

Ivy did a fantastic job! The day started out with speeches (oh so many speeches), and then two short awareness raising sessions, one on breast cancer (given by PINK), and another on women’s rights under the “new” Beninese Family Code.

Prisca COFFI, sage-femme, talking about breast cancer
Prisca COFFI, sage-femme, talking about breast cancer

After lunch, Prisca, our sage-femme, set up shop in our makeshift screening room, and she began screening women over 35, while everyone else participated in Moringa and micro-enterprise trainings.

Overall, the day was a success, although we weren’t able to screen nearly as many women as we’d hoped for. We’ll be following up with those cases that need it within the next few weeks.

Things that could have gone better

I should have arranged for two sage-femmes. We could have screened more women AND/OR split the screening and showing how to self-examen.

Having a camera crew along to show that yes, we did actually do stuff on March 8 was cool, but now that we’ve done it once, it will be largely unnecessary in the future. However, being on TV is awesome.

Things that went really well (just about everything, really)

We specifically requested that the doctors we work with send us a woman who speaks Fon (the predominant language in Zagnanado). Prisca was one of the only speakers to speak exclusively in local language, as opposed to giving her speech in French, then doing a quick translation into Fon. The women loved it, and we didn’t have to deal with translations and misunderstandings due to language.

Rapt audience members in Zagnanado
Rapt audience members in Zagnanado

Ivy did a great job with the logistics. It was really an interesting change to be part of a larger event celebrating women, rather than focusing solely on breast cancer. I think PINK should do more of this kind of thing. It’s easy, it’s inexpensive, and we can touch a lot of women we don’t normally interact with.

PCV Ivy in front of the screening station
PCV Ivy in front of the screening station

Zagnanado’s Int’l Women’s Day celebration was a much needed reminder that small projects can be just as effective as big ones, and that you don’t have to change the world to make a difference.

Browser statistics and Commentary for Benin (or, IE6 isn’t going anywhere fast, so we might as well stop complaining and get back to work)

People Online still guarantees IE6 compatibility for almost 100% of the sites we develop. We don’t even charge extra for it! And this is why:

We’ve spent an awful lot of time in cybercafés in West Africa, and an awful lot of these cybercafés are still running Windows XP (or Windows 2000! Or Windows 98!) and IE6. Anecdotal evidence aside, the default install for Windows XP is IE6, and most offices here never upgrade (why should they?).

It’s all good and well to say that only stuffy corporate offices in the States are using IE6, but my experience has shown otherwise. I analyzed a sample of People Online’s 10 most trafficked websites, all aimed at both local and international audiences This criteria actually didn’t exclude anything, as none of the sites aimed exclusively internationally or locally made the top 10.

Browser share number crunching for Benin

19% of our traffic is local. Not bad, but not great. We should probably work more with clients to publicize the sites in country and optimize for Yahoo!, which gives us far more local referrals than Google (note to self: possible later blog post).

18.8% of our traffic uses IE6. This number by itself is relatively large, but still small enough that we could start quietly dropping support, warning our clients not to expect pixel-perfect results. Except that …

35.5% of our Beninese traffic is IE6. That is, over 1/3 of a major target audience is still using IE6. Oops. That’s far to large to drop support, especially considering that many sites have much higher percentages (up to 49.6%). In this sample, opposition newspapers tended to have the lowest IE6 usage rates, while pro-administration newspapers had the highest. That too probably merits its own blog post.

27.9% of Beninese users are using Firefox, and 16.6% are using IE7. Only are 15.4% using IE8. That might sound like good news for open source, but what it really means is that we’ve got a pretty even distribution of browsers, dominated by IE6. I imagine that Firefox will overtake IE6 by the end of 2010, but as long as IE6 is still overing around a third, we don’t have have a choice but to support it.

I think it’s marvelous that there are markets in Sub-Saharan Africa where IE6 holds a small enough share that developers can drop support. That’s wonderful! IE6 is a buggy disaster and it makes for both CSS and JavaScript nightmares; however, our market does not allow us to do the same. It doesn’t even allow us optional support.

Most of our local users connect from cybercafés and government offices. They don’t download the latest and greatest versions because it’s not their job to do so. If you’re in a developing market and you’re considering dropping IE6 support, take the time to study your analytics (you’re doing that anyway, right?). Africa’s Internet market is not monolithic.

Facts, lies, and conjecture: Benin Telecoms’ latest blow up

What we know (facts):

  • Our Internet connection has been out since last Friday.
  • So have those of all other WiMax clients.
  • Non-WiMax clients of Benin Telecoms have been having problems since Friday for certain types of downloads and have experienced unusual bandwidth shaping.
  • Connections from other ISPs sometimes work, and sometimes don’t. There is probably a pattern, but we don’t yet know it.
  • .bj domains are up and down and up and down (currently down).

What we’ve been told by Benin Telecoms employees (lies, truths, and half-truths):

  • Benin Telecoms isn’t recognizing WiMax customers’ passwords.
  • Employees of Benin Telecoms shared their passwords with friends so that said friends could use services for free.
  • Benin Telecoms employees are having password problems (including the only person there who can check account status).
  • Benin Telecoms has never seen a problem like this before (and is panicking).

What we think (100% conjecture):

  • Sharing passwords that give access to sensitive information is BAD BAD BAD.
  • Benin Telecoms has no idea how to fix this.
  • This seems to be a perfect storm of overselling bandwidth, poor security, password sharing, cheap equipment, and lack of expertise.

I’m currently using Moov’s USB modem (GPRS) to connect. It’s not bad for checking email, web stats, and occasional blogging, although I wouldn’t recommend it for anything heavy duty, as the connection’s quite unstable.

Hopefully the connection will be back next week, and we’ll be in the free and clear. Otherwise, Bertrand and I will be in the uncomfortable position of looking for a new ISP. For now, we’re using Moov, and hopping around Cotonou looking for cybercafés that work. An hour or two here, an hour or two there—it’s expensive, but it’s the only way to stay in business.

What a way to end the year, Benin Telecoms.