No Child Left Offline

Originally posted on Developed Africa

In his successful run for the presidency of Kenya earlier this year, Uhuru Kenyatta has promised to deliver one laptop per child to those attending primary schools from January 2014. This scheme has been met with some scepticism, not least for the potential cost as this article from one of Kenya’s largest daily newspapers put it,

However, given the cost implications, the ministry has proposed to roll out the project in three phases. According to the estimates tabled by [Education Secretary] Kaimenyi, each laptop will cost Sh28,000, a sum that may be out of reach of many parents in public schools whose children are covered by the project.

There are other criticisms out there. A recent excellent blog post by Will Mutua (co-founder for Nairobi’s Open Academy) summed up the main areas of concern for such a scheme very succinctly,

Lack of Supporting Infrastructure: Many schools in rural areas have no access to electricity, some have dilapidated classrooms and other amenities, not to mention some extreme cases where learning does not even happen inside a classroom. What’s the point of giving these students laptops? Their schools have other more pressing needs.

Lack of Capacity: There are teachers who are computer-illiterate. What happens when computers break down, who will have the technical skills to troubleshoot these laptops?

Timing: It’s just not the right time for such an initiative. There are other pressing matters that can be dealt with instead of ‘throwing away’ money in an impractical project. How about jobs, healthcare etc.? And even if it is a matter of enhancing education – why not first hire more teachers, there’s clearly a shortage of them, or pay teachers better?

It is interesting that such problems have been highlighted for a government project – if you didn’t know what they were about you would be forgiven for guessing that Mutua was criticising a poorly planned charitable project. It lacks sustainability, it lacks a proper appreciation of local context, and seems to seek headlines more than anything else. These are all classic complaints of donor-driven development models.

Promoting computer literacy is a great project, particularly for Kenya as it looks to become the tech hub of Africa. Giving a laptop to every child is something that has been attempted before (see Mutua’s article for some good examples of similar schemes in East Africa in recent years) but often falls on the tertiary aspects of promoting computer literacy – you can’t just give the equipment, you have to support that equipment and its users as well. Governments and NGOs can start projects like this but it is through commercial partnerships that African nations can really build a lasting, economically functioning tech sector. The talent is there, schemes something like Kenyatta’s one laptop per child can open up the opportunity – now it is up to business investors to bring those things together.

A Message To Jaded Or Newly Jaded Development Types

Made using

I have genuinely overheard this quote being used on a newly arrived EAW in a bar in Kampala. Brutal.

The other night, my flat mate and I were out aggressively making new friends in our new city. This process is, as you can imagine, vaguely embarrassing and unpleasant particularly because you spend quite a lot of time accepting/soliciting invites to events that you would normally have absolutely zero interest in but, because of your lack of socialising options, you think well alright I will go to this Hard House club night, I might enjoy it I suppose… It’s only when you actually arrive at said club night that you remember – oh yeah – I hate clubs. The less said about Hard House the better.

Anyway, after encountering the usual stock NGO type conversation (“How long have you been here?” + “What do you do?” + “How long are you staying?” + “Is this your first time in [insert geographic region]?” = a thorough assessment of any expat aid worker) and imbibing a little too much and exchanging all manner of field cred proving anecdotes we ended up having a conversation with a guy who mostly worked in Somalia for a mine clearance NGO.

As you can imagine, most people working in Somalia do so in pretty difficult circumstances. The work is dangerous, the country is dangerous, there’s very little infrastructure, little governance, even less effective governance and, as such, fairly scant short to medium term prospects for most of the population.Trying to affect positive and lasting change in such an environment is bound to be a difficult, frustrating and occasionally depressing process. You wouldn’t be human if it didn’t drive you crazy at least 50% of the time.

Drinking heavily is the favoured coping mechanism amongst the NGO crowd, of course, but there are a whole plethora of other options. Some people go on these mysterious disappearances where they secret themselves away at some campsite or the nearest resort with wifi for a week or so without telling anyone before rolling back into your regular bar or restaurant as though they never went away. A good one I haven’t experienced but definitely want to is ‘Boda Polo’ or Polo played on motorcycles (recently featured in the pages of the New York Times but having been around since at least 2008 when I first heard about it). Cathartic affairs, bombastic public arguments, cookery, home brewing, obsessive running – you name it; an EAW somewhere is using it as a way of combating work-based stress.

I should give a big plug for the Whydev peer coaching scheme which is aimed at giving EAWs and all the rest of the development world a way of dealing with stress and fatigue without resorting to alcohol – read about it here, donate here.

But back to our night out. The way this Somalia-Mine-Clearing (SMC) guy handled it was by comparing his nights out to the ones his brother had. His brother worked in ‘the City’ (the financial district in London) and earned piles of money. In fact, most of his family were engaged in business or finance in some lucrative way that meant the amount SMC was pulling in could be found down the back of the sofa in most of his relatives’ houses. Obviously, this makes sibling rivalry a little difficult. The way he retaliated it was this: on a night out with a bunch of EAWs you’re more than likely to have at least one interesting, intelligent conversation that isn’t about your own area of work. Because a) the people attracted to the field tend to be well travelled and have a wider range of interests than people in other fields like banking (i.e. are not focused on dough) and b) the industry, such as it is, is a huge and diverse one so you’re quite likely to meet someone who does something you’ve no idea about but which interests you. Which is actually pretty great. Essentially it comes down to this somewhat paraphrased sentiment:

If I was working in the City, making 250 grand a year, I’d also have to do long hours and would be just as stressed as I am at the moment. I’d go down to a bar after work and, what, spend a couple of hours talking to another asshole who makes a lot of money. What would we talk about? Making lots of money? No thanks.

So, to eventually come to some kind of a point, for all you jaded or newly jaded development types: it’s a frustrating and poorly paid world for us but at least you’re pretty much guaranteed some good conversation every once and a while. You just have to get out there and talk to people.

Who’s for another drink?

Compassion Fatigue Is A Double Edged Sword

I recently had the pleasure of attending a casual drink with some NGO types from an organisation around the corner from my office. The evening began with a brief presentation from one of their field workers who had recently returned from South Sudan, which was interesting to see, before turning into a nice chance to have a chat and a pint with some other young development workers.

Discussions turned, as they so often do when development nerds and a few drinks convene in one location, to topics like international mandates, humanitarian assistance vs development aid, the importance of local stakeholders and partners in project implementation. Traditionally, that last issue is more likely to be discussed, through gritted teeth, by irritated local stakeholders and partners who feel undervalued by Western NGO types – it was heartening to see how many of those Western NGO types were concerned about this and were keen to improve the situation.

The next morning, I found that I had received the latest issue of the UN Asscoiation UK magazine, New World. I was, at first, skeptical of how interesting something as quaintly archaic as a quarterly print magazine could be. The cover prominently displayed the phrase ‘A sustainable future?’ complete with some slightly weak graphics – not a particularly auspicious beginning. But, inside, the layout is clear and modern and the theme is picked up, particularly in the opening two editorial articles, in quite a refreshing manner. In the second editorial article, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Chairman of the UNA-UK, makes the following point,

“Since 2000, the development agenda has been refreshed by two things: the Millenium Development Goals initiative and a growing sense among ordinary people that problems are shared, exemplified by both the financial and climate crises.”

Somehow, combined, perhaps, with my slightly drunken discussions on a similar topic the night before, identifying the second ‘refresher’ struck me as insightful. More than sharing the problem, it seems to me people are desperate to own them, even when they are the mistakes of others. From burgeoning regional political mechanisms to a desire for greater inclusion in global organisations like the World Bank to new, global south led approaches to development – inclusion and wider ownership of issues and solutions are all the rage. Take Project Diaspora, an organisation headed by Teddy Ruge who was recently honored by the White House, whose mission takes on the central problems of Africa that Western development organisations have taken on in the past,

We here claim our political struggles as our own; our short comings as our own; our unrest as our own; our dissidence as our own; our broken infrastructure as our own; our diseases as our own; our uneducated as our own; our corruption as our own; our unfed children as our own.

Recently, Chris Blattman and Ian Thorpe, prominent development bloggers, have written about the problems of simplistic narratives driving the development world, looking at how selling simple problems creates simplistic solutions, solutions that have failed too often. Now, there is an increasing backlash against NGOs and aid in the global north because of the ongoing expense of help that doesn’t seem to be helping very much – sometimes referred to as ‘compassion fatigue’. When it responds to the questions from donors about this issue (all of us who gave money to ‘Make Poverty History’ in 2005), it is called ‘donor fatigue’ – how long will people happily contribute money to failure? To quote the blog Aidspeak on this issue,

I don’t mean to say that the house of cards will come crashing down tomorrow. But the sea has changed.

The problems of compassion fatigue are also beginning to be shared. Even in an organisational sense, what was once the problem of fundraisers has moved to new areas of work, as those articles in New World show us – one was written by a Communications person, the other by the Chairman. Perhaps, as outlined by that first article, this signals a change from the idea that donor fatigue is the only or most significant problem that comes from being “left wondering if, not how, we will address problems” because “too many policymakers and activists continue to rely on a narrative of gloom”*.

It is not enough to want to change international NGO behaviour because donors are less interested – we should be focusing on how our end-users, the recipients, the local stakeholders are losing faith. Without the input of the people we are supposed to be helping we are risking not only wasteful, ineffective projects but a complete dismissal of the usefulness of development entirely. There are those who are already at there and more will follow. But it is combined that we are strongest because, like it or not, problems and issues do not affect one part of the world alone.

The decline of the West is being played out on the front pages of newspapers all over the world: the Eurozone debt, the rise of BRIC powers, the crisis of US party politics all coupled with ever rising unemployment and civil unrest. Contemporaneously, attention has increasingly turned to truly global issues. Climate change, corruption or economic inequality are all just as likely to be the subjects of mainstream broadcasting or parliamentary discussions in the UK as in Uganda. Globalisation has made everything about our lives close than ever before – we would be mad to waste that when it comes to designing and delivering solutions to the problems that, in one way or another, belong to all of us.

*Let’s add journalists to that list of guilty parties.

What Is It You Actually Do?

This is an extended version of my column for the University of Bath’s student paper, a lighthearted look at my placement job. See here for the previous one.

I’ve been at my job for two months now and, with each and every passing day, I find it more and more difficult to explain what it is I’m doing. I tend to fall back on a vague description of what the organisation does which is fairly obscure – the human rights sector is basically pretty obscure – and tends to illicit one of two responses. The first and most common is a mostly disinterested “oh that sounds great, good for you,” meaning that I am labelled as a generic do-gooder which tends to lead straight to literally any other topic of conversation. The second response is much rarer but is also double thickness – anger and mockery. People who read The Daily Mail with a straight face tend to tip out their scorn bucket all over my head when I reveal that I work “in human rights”, challenging my decision to do so with elegant put-downs like,

“Oh right you’re one of them who protects terrorists?”
“Fucking human rights, what have they ever done for anyone? Get a real job.”

In these situations the ability to coherently outline what you do and why it is important would be extremely useful. It’s quite difficult to do that when I find it almost impossible to articulate to normal human beings how my working hours are filled. The problem is jargon.

As anyone who has ever encountered annoying management speak or attempted to do a degree in the social sciences (Sample: “The black is a white construction, he admits, that is a consequence of a social world that stands between phylogenetic and ontogenetic forces”) will know,there are relatively few things that still seem particularly complicated after you’ve translated them into a recognisable human language. In fact, I would say that the main thing my degree programme has taught me this far is how to do these jargon-to-human translations.

For a mesmerising few minutes of NGO nonsense take a look at this video

Unfortunately, the world of international development is one of codes and acronyms, so many acronyms that it makes a lot of the conversations infinitely less accessible. There are seventeen UN agencies (plus numerous other UN affiliates) all of which are commonly referred to by their acronyms. Seventeen! And those are just the ones you’re expected to know. Last week I overheard a bit of conversation that went almost exactly like this,

“We need to insert the RTI agenda into the post-MDG landscape.”
“Yeah, we’ll get it on the table at Rio 2012, see if the TI guys will back us up.”
“Do we know if DFID or OHCHR are behind this?”

Needless to say, I do a lot of Googling.

After looking up acronyms and translating my activities into vaguely understandable words the people who have mocked or dismissed my working life have normally gotten bored and wandered off. It’s a little disheartening.

In the last instalment of this column I made a triumphant reference to the seemingly modest achievement of not being regarded as a complete simpleton by my colleagues and thus being engaged with by them and getting more involved in some of the activities of the organisation. I stand by this being a wonderful thing but it has led to new problems. When I first got here basically all I did was convert old PDF files into HTML (acronyms ahoy) files for the organisation’s website. It was a riot. My ability to not obviously break anything while I did that task allowed me access to some more interesting work – copy editing press releases, researching topics for interviews, building up contact lists – which gave me access to still more acronyms: hey, Rowan, can you upload this letter to all the UN agencies on the website? Make sure you put the full name of all the agencies!

The more I am allowed to participate with what the organisation is doing, the more impenetrable jargon there is and, therefore, the harder it is to explain to non-development people. What is quite nice is that the number of awkward social situations I find myself in is directly proportionate to how engaged I am with my job – the lack of party small talk is because things are going well at work.

At first the alignment is (roughly) 1:1 but then there is a magical (and, thus far, entirely imagined) moment where either a) I develop a pithy one liner that charms all and sundry or b) vaguely mumbling about human rights work becomes cool

Now all I have to do is properly convince myself that this is a good thing. I’ve adopted that phrase as a sort of mantra, repeating it to myself as reassurance that things are as they should be. Now I think about it, constantly muttering ‘this is a good thing’ under my breath might skew my data somewhat… Coming across as a mad person doesn’t necessarily make things socially awkward does it?

With thanks to @hschwing & @TeaAndSleep for proofreading/help.