Archive for October, 2010

ICT4D Mad Lib!

October 27, 2010

The Jester’s biggest fan, Nicholas Negroponte, was on the Colbert Report a couple of days ago. (Incidentally, the Jester’s alter ego will be sparring with Negroponte in Cambridge, MA on Dec. 2, at an Ideas Matter event put on by the Boston Review and MIT. The Jester has already reserved on-stage seating for himself.) The combination of Negroponte’s broken-record rhetoric and Colbert’s heckling inspired… 

The ICT4D Mad Lib! What better way to encapsulate the mindless fill-in-the-blank style of technological determinists? For best effect, have someone else prompt you for each blank, have them record your responses, and read out the completed work only after all blanks are accounted for.



Low-Tech, High-Value Schools

October 25, 2010

Thanks to Nitin Chaubey for forwarding the following article to the Jester: “Brilliance in a box: What do the best classrooms in the world look like?” which appeared in Slate. (By the way, the Jester encourages court messengers to send him relevant articles via e-mail, whether they support the Jester’s sublime wisdom about technology or are techno-stupidian techno-utopian. Both provide good fodder for jestering!) 

The article is summarized by one of its interviewees: “‘In most of the highest-performing systems, technology is remarkably absent from classrooms,’ says Andreas Schleicher, a veteran education analyst for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development who spends much of his time visiting schools around the world to find out what they are doing right (or wrong).” It turns out that South Korea and Finland, both of which have high-performing schools, don’t have a lot of technology in their classrooms. And, the Finns manage this by spending even less time in school and doing less homework than Americans (how that is possible, the Jester doesn’t know).  Schleicher continues, “I have no explanation why that is the case, but it does seem that those systems place their efforts primarily on pedagogical practice rather than digital gadgets.”

This is a great entry point for the Jester to engage in his favorite activity: redundant pontification.

Wait, wait, wait, you say. Since you’ve heard many times, you can imagine what will come next: The Jester will say this is obvious because technology amplifies human intent and capacity, and that the problem with underperforming schools is deficient human intent and capacity. Then, he will say that the critical thing for underperforming schools is building or bringing in better human intent and capacity. Of course, he will continue, if you had the human intent and capacity, you would already have good teachers delivering good education, so that would obviate the need to improve education and fewer technologists would be knocking on the door selling their wares. The Jester will conclude with one of his favorite analogies… that if you had a failing company, you wouldn’t imagine that things would turnaround by buying employees new PCs; so, why does anyone think this solution will work for schools?

You took the words right out of the Jester’s mouth. Since you’ve left little for the Jester to say, he will add that the article hints that technology is distracting us from focusing on what’s important in education. And, why are we being distracted? Because technology is particularly good at amplifying the freak factor of gadget freaks. It’s interesting that Schleicher claims to have no idea why the best school systems aren’t drowning in electonic gadgets, because in the same sentence he answers his own question. The schools focus on “pedagogical practice rather than digital gadgets.”  Wow, what an idea!

The Madness of Crowdsourcing

October 23, 2010

Paul Currion, guest-blogging on Mobile Active, performs a detailed deconstruction of crowdsourcing for development, using Ushahidi as an example to make his points. The Jester applauds!

The Jester thinks of Ushahidi as two distinct entities which happen to be named the same thing… (1) Ushahidi, the technology platform; (2) Ushahidi, the individuals who built the platform who are dedicated to international development.

Much of the excess hype around Ushahidi comes from people who think that (1) is the secret sauce, and that it offers a new hope for development. But, actually, it’s (2) that makes Ushahidi great, and it’s not particularly new. It’s people like Eric Hersman, Juliana Rotich, and Patrick Meier who are the real hope, and they are doing it with good old-fashioned positive intentions and elbow grease. It’s their devotion to development causes that, for example, allowed Ushahidi’s rapid set up for Haiti. (Even if the content wasn’t ultimately of value to aid workers, as Currion notes, it still raised global consciousness about the relief efforts, as well as what was still needed. In fact, the Jester believes much of Ushahidi’s positive value to date has been in raising public consciousness about certain global events.) Without (2), (1) would have been just another map mash-up tool, of which there are gazillions online. Technology (1) magnified the intent and capacity of people (2).

Paul Currion’s key insight, though, is that for aid purposes, even (1) and (2) only go so far, because (3) is missing. And, what’s (3)? (3) is human/institutional intent and capacity on the ground. As wonderful as Ushahidi (1)+(2) is, it makes no difference if there isn’t (3), a force on the ground that can actually respond meaningfully to the noisy information (1)+(2) produces. In the case of Haiti, response teams were already overwhelmed. Additional information, per se, was only adding to the unread mail. Ushahidi’s debut in Kenya provided a lot of insight into violence that might not have otherwise been known, but did it do anything to quell violence? That seems unlikely, because the same government that should have taken that information and responded, wasn’t even responding to violence pre-Ushahidi.

This is a common lesson in ICT4D: is limited not by its technology, but by its microfinance institution partners on the ground. Government hotlines are limited not by call volumes, but by the quality of the response team. PCs in schools are limited not by their clock speed, but by the capacity of teachers to integrate them into curricula.

Crowdsourcing has a place, likely in helping well-meaning rich people share information about development with each other. But poor countries aren’t going to crowdsource their way out of poverty any more than they can broadcast-TV their way out of poverty.

So, too, in Microfinance

October 22, 2010

The Jester is attending the “Microfinance Impact & Innovations Conference” in New York City this week. It was organized by economists and practitioners for economists and practitioners, with star representation from each set.

A recent round of research with randomized controlled trials, led by Dean Karlan, Abhijit Banerjee, and Esther Duflo, had cast doubt on the overall impact of microcredit’s ability to increase entrepreneurial capacity of borrowers as the rhetoric claims. On average, microcredit clients don’t appear to get richer over time. Those results were a springboard for the rest of the conference.

A lot was covered, but what stood out most was what seemed to be a sudden recognition among the academics (mostly economists) in the room — that human capacity of the clients is critical to making any microfinance program work. This is something that many practitioners have learned over the years through trial and error, but which the public microfinance rhetoric rarely mentions. For example, to this day, Muhammad Yunus continues to claim that borrowers don’t need training; they just need credit.

The papers presented mostly contradicted Yunus (the Jester hasn’t nominated a FftD recently, so Yunus is it!)…

Dean Karlan opened with several lines of work, where among the findings, one that stood out was the considerable heterogeneity in what microcredit clients did with their borrowings in the Philippines. There seemed to be an effect of male entrepreneurs increasing profits while women didn’t, but the results were hard to interpret, at least for the Jester. Karlan also noted that loans are used to manage risks, rather than necessarily to grow businesses.

Esther Duflo noted three different groups 15-18 months down the line of microfinance in Hyderabad, India. Those with existing businesses tend to expand their businesses. Those who want to start a business appear to take steps to do so. Those with low propensity to become entrepreneurs don’t start new businesses.

David McKenzie talked about $100 cash awards given to microentrepreneurs in Ghana. Male microentrepreneurs and more successful female microentrpreneurs used their grants to grow their businesses, while less successful female microentrepreneurs spent the cash with little visible impact.

Greg Fischer presented research on pushing microentrepreneurs to implement “rule of thumb” accounting practices. He found that more driven, more educated entrepreneurs were more likely to sign up for the program; that the program had large impact on revenues for everyone; and that among those who received a more complex accounting training, only those with high-school educations showed benefits.

Asim Ijaz Khwaja reported on efforts to see how psychological traits correlated with better entrepreneurial activity and found that some traits, such as drive and business acumen make a difference.

Taken together, these results all highlight the critical value of human capacity, both that which is already present with a microfinance client, and that which could be gained through training. If the overall value of microfinance comes out roughly even, there is nevertheless heterogeneity in the impacts, with some clients winning and some clients losing. (It’s not that different from the developed world, where some people misuse credit cards and others get real value out of them.) The real question is not “does microfinance work?” but how to get the losers to become winners.

This might seem obvious, but economists and policy makers are notoriously focused on what happens to the mean. They figure that to effect large-scale change, only movement of the large body at the center of a presumed normal distribution is meaningful, and they’re forever trying to construct incentives to manipulate the mean to do something good for themselves. I believe this attitude frequently blinds them to questions of why positive outliers are outliers, and leaves out solutions in which the goal is not just to change behavior, but to change underlying preferences.

What does this have to do with ICT4D? Well, in the Jester’s more grandiose moments, he likes to pretend that his kingdom is larger than ICT. In that larger domain, “technology” encompasses not only physical technology, but also systems, institutions, and policies. For any of them to work, the Jester claims, the magic sauce is always human intent and capacity. (As an aside, it’s also the ultimate thing that matters… Positive human intent and capacity is desirable in itself; technology by itself is just a hunk of junk.)

ICT amplifies human intent and capacity. Microfinance amplifies human intent and capacity. You can spread ICT, but not much happens without human intent and capacity. And, you can spread microfinance, but not much happens without human intent and capacity.

The Jester was heartened by this apparent turn in the microfinance conversation among economists to a focus on training, hand-holding, and other interventions that change intent and build capacity.

On the other hand, the Jester still finds that technocrats are technocrats. For the most part, the speakers spoke of these things as secondary issues. The term “microfinance plus” was frequently used, where “plus” was meant to include training, etc., in the same way that ICT4D-ers think of good design, cultural sensitivity, and political alignment as the “plus” part of “technology plus.”

But, neither technology or microfinance are the main event. It’s the “plus” — increasing human intent and capacity — that matters!

The Jester wonders when this recognition will come to agriculture, education (i.e., teachers and administration), governance…?