Tag Archives: Development

Good reads for March 21st

Good reads for February 20th

Did you know the sky is blue? Obvious and less-obvious in ICT4D conversations

I have a confession to make.

I’m not a development worker.

I work with ICTs in the developing world, but I am driven by profit. This is both a luxury and a burden. It’s cool that people think I have something to say about ICT4D. I don’t. I have a lot to say about ICTs in the developing world, but much less to say about ICTs in a development context. Because I don’t know a bloody thing about development. My world view is skewed towards profits and markets.

In my line of work, ROI is very clear. Either the project makes (or saves!) my client a lot of money, or it doesn’t. Either it increases exposure by X number of readers a month or it doesn’t. Either it brings in advertising revenue, or it doesn’t. Either it brings in new clients, or it doesn’t. Either it fills a market need or it doesn’t.

Our clients are not poor. Broke, sure, that’s normal for small businesses everywhere in the world. But not poor. Their clients are rarely poor either. We don’t work with the BoP.

We don’t have to worry about quality of life.  We don’t have to worry about development indicators. We don’t even have to worry about government buy-in. While we do worry about ethics, we don’t have to worry about negative externalities that will make life worse for a large number of people. Our projects just don’t work that way (and thank goodness for that).

On the other hand, because our clients are paying for the tools we build, I don’t have the luxury of choosing an expensive tool that may or may not work. I can only choose tools that work. Otherwise, I lose clients. Not taking end-users needs and wants into consideration results in failed projects lessoned learned. “Lessons learned” = “very expensive mistake” for clients with limited cash flow.

Seems people still thinking, develop in West and take it to Africa who lags. Need to develop in Africa within resource & context #ICT4D

It’s a luxury to be able to work exclusively locally. Even when we deal with the government, there’s flexibility that doesn’t exist in development and aid sectors, because we’re a private sector firm being paid for our services. As a businesswoman, I cannot imagine designing a tool for local businesses without ever having set foot on the ground and spoken to the end users.

Technology is a tool that allows users to do many many things, including becoming more informed about the world around them, improve rural heath care, encourage citizen journalism, clean water, and a million other things. Tools have to be appropriate to their context.

In some ways, it’s limiting to only do work for money. There are a lot of cool projects that pass us by, including projects that could improve quality of life for a lot of people. Our work is almost exclusively small and local, which means that we rarely work on country-wide implementations. We don’t do large-scale public health projects, for example. Even when we work with development organizations, we’re very focused. We’re hired to accomplish very specific goals: build X tool that accomplishes Y within Z budget, or train X number of people to be able to accomplish Y.

Technology is easy. Issues around geography, language, culture, true empowerment and paths to adoption are challenges. #ICT4D

On the other hand, it’s liberating. My job is to look at the market and find new ways to fill market gaps, and that’s easy to measure. Either we’re profitable or we’re not.

ICT4D fills the space between “market demand” and “making lives better.” There are a million ways to improve quality of life that don’t have obvious revenue models. I like to use crisis mapping as an example of this, but there are many others (public health, education, etc). Projects like this are what government and development do best. Entrepreneurs aren’t moving into this space because we can’t figure out ways to make them profitable (yet).

It’s appalling to me that there are people who design projects without accounting for local needs. It’s appalling to me that we even need to discuss why this is important. Those who took part in yesterday’s Twitter chat are aware of this. But for me, it’s like being aware that the sky is blue. Of course it’s blue. There’s a reason it’s blue. Everybody knows it’s blue. Why are we running around talking about how blue the sky is?

#ICT4D #FAIL is corp. IT firms installing high end Cisco + Blades + CO2 fire supression in crumbling gov ministries. IT is not Magic.

The answer is, of course, that there are a large number of people involved in ICT4D who are not aware that context-appropriate solutions are the only solutions that work. Which is crazy. I actually don’t know anyone in #ict4d who isn’t having intelligent conversations about appropriate technology. I do, however, have evidence that such people exist, because Beninese ministries keep paying me to clean up their messes. Someday, I would like to meet these folks.

It’s odd to participate in conversations about development where everyone’s like, “Yeah! Local! Small! Low-tech! Sustainable!” For a businessperson, these things are so painfully obvious, they even don’t need to be said.

What’s the difference between social entrepreneurship and plain old entrepreneurship?

Hmmm.

The difference between “social entrepreneurship” and “entrepreneurship” can break down quickly. When we’re talking about African students building new web applications to make it easier to send money to families back home, what should we designate that? Entrepreneurship or Social Entrepreneurship? Or does it not matter? Should it perhaps make us wonder if we should instead be holding up that type of work to argue that real entrepreneurship is about the creation of all types of value – not just about financial wealth. In other words, maybe our view should be about the inseparability of “social” from “entrepreneurship,” and perhaps that’s easier to understand in the emerging market context.

At the end of his article on Rwanda and the Infrastructure of the Future, on the excellent Social Entrepreneurship blog at Change.org, Nathanial Whitteman raises an interesting point, namely, at what points do starting a business/ earning money start and stop being social?

A business that sells mosquito nets is providing a product important to the health of his village. But why is this business more social than a woman who sews wedding dresses? Both are providing a necessary service to the community, and both are often marginal (less so in a city). A cybercafe? An accountant? Why is someone who makes and sells artisanal goods to westerners starting a social enterprise, but a thriving dressmaker not?

Is the difference a commitment to non-exploitative labor practices and giving back to the community? If so, most micro and small businesses are social businesses, whether in the developing world or not! They could not continue to exist in their communities if the communities felt exploited.

  • Businesses create employment.
  • Financial stability creates demands for goods and services.
  • B2B services make business easier and more profitable for other businesses.
  • Small businesses mean a rising middle class, which means a higher standard of living.
  • I’d like to add that investors can pressure governments to improve investment and business environments, including reducing corruption, but I actually don’t know if there’s any research on this or not.

The more I hear “social enterprise,” the more I’m convinced that it’s just a more palatable phrase for, “people are willing to pay for goods and services that make their lives better and this market is not being exploited as well as it could be.”

Hmmm.

I’m still not sure what I think about this subject, especially as an entrepreneur in a developping country. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!

In which Theresa is anti-authenticity.

I don’t get the hate.

If you’ve never been to “Africa” (don’t forget to refer to the continent, never a specific country), you may never have encountered the volunteer pecking order that serves little more purpose than reinforcing guilt and perpetuating stereotypes.

Graham North works on the island of Zanzibar, and his disgust for volunteers who aren’t as “real” as him is quite evident on his Squidoo page.

Seriously, what’s wrong with coming to Africa because you hate the cold? What’s wrong with getting here and enjoying the low cost of living? What’s wrong with volunteering to pad your résumé? What’s wrong with visiting Africa because you want to travel?

I think we can all agree that volunteering is inherently selfish. Helping people makes us feel good. I guess some people also get a kick out of proving that they’re more “hard core” than the rest. Graham isn’t the first to be contemptuous of weekend volunteers, or those unwilling to make long term commitments to living in un-air conditioned malaria zones where the water is often unsafe. I’m sure he won’t be the last. But what gives him the right to judge?

These kids come over, spend a few weeks working with orphans or teaching ICTs or delivering babies. Or they just spend a few months getting wasted at local bars. They go home, and maybe their worldview has expanded a little bit. There’s nothing inherently wrong with not being “hard core” about your volunteerism. These people are still coming over and pouring dollars (or Euros) into local economies that desperately need the cash. These people are still going home with stories that humanize this too-often misrepresented continent. These people are still doing their best.

P.S. I’m going to spend the rest of my life in West Africa, and I hate the kids who come up and ask me for candy. Just sayin’.

I’m not knocking on Graham personally. I’ve been thinking about posting on this subject for a few weeks now, and his Squidoo page was simply the tipping point.