Why Macha Works Works

The Guardian just posted an article on Macha Works, a development organization that works in the rural area of Macha, Zambia. The article is like many other technology-for-development articles that appear in the media in that it highlights the impact of the Internet on a rural area. Unfortunately, this class of article occurs with such frequency that the Jester rarely comments on them. This particular article, however, has three redeeming features: First,  it quotes the Jester’s alter ego; second, it includes a little more nuance than the typical technology-saves-the-world article; and third, the subject of the article might very well be unique: Macha Works.

The Jester has never visited Macha Works in Zambia, so he hesitates to say too much about it with certainty. There are too many non-profit organizations whose visibility and reputation are not matched by their actual impact on the ground. Nevertheless, the Jester has heard several positive secondhand accounts and has met Gertjan van Stam, the founder of Macha Works. (If any readers have seen Macha Works firsthand, the Jester welcomes comments!)

When the Jester spoke with him, Van Stam smugly declared on the one hand that there was a miracle taking place in Macha, and on the other hand, that he was responsible for none of it – everything was due to the local community. The Jester is surprisingly willing to believe the former, but not the latter… yet, the Jester fully endorses the attitude by which the latter comment was made.

Quoth the Jester: “Technology magnifies human intent and capacity.” The theory says that if Macha Works is actually having a positive impact with technology in Macha, it is doing so by applying the technology either to magnify its own positive intent and capacity, or to magnify the intent and capacity of the communities it works with. How does Macha Works do this?

First, according to van Stam, he facilitates – and only facilitates – the aspirations of the local community. He neither fulfills them himself, nor imposes aspirations onto them. The Guardian’s article itself quotes Elton Munguya, the head of Macha Works’s ICT division: “It’s always up to the community to suggest what they want in terms of development.” The local community wanted a radio station, so van Stam helped them set one up. They wanted an AIDS clinic, so he’s facilitating that. When I talked to him, Van Stam claimed that he never turns down a request. He was particularly proud that Macha now has a landing strip and regular flight service. Whatever they ask for, he facilitates.

At first blush, this might not seem all that different from what many development organizations do – healthcare, community radio, transport – but there’s a world of difference in approach. Other development organizations are eager to do something they feel is necessary, and then they either impose it on the community from the outside, or they spend a lot of time trying to convince the community they need it. At least according to van Stam, Macha Works never does anything unless the request comes from the local community.

Second, what exactly Macha Works “facilitation” involves was not entirely clear to the Jester, and van Stam deflected multiple attempts by the Jester to get this information out of him. But, based on their website and what van Stam was willing to say, the Jester surmises that it involves fundraising, procurement of hardware, calling on social networks for expertise and help, provision of training, and other things that the local community could not easily do for themselves. Van Stam was, however, eager to stipulate that the goal was for the local community to be able to operate things on their own and not to depend on van Stam.

This approach has at its core, what the Jester believes to be the single most effective model of global development: mentorship. Mentorship has a number of important elements that make it different from the dominant forms of international development, namely charity or trade. Charity presumes a status differential between a benefactor and a beneficiary, and then pretends to close the gap through giving. There’s little reason for the Jester to belabor the weaknesses of this approach — charity is almost a bad word these days — but he will note that one of the chief critiques of charity is its paternalism. It comes with the implication, “I know what’s good for you.”

Often out of a fear of paternalism, emphasis shifts to trade, in which partners are considered equal, thus defining away the potential for paternalism. Unfortunately, pretending that inequality between trade partners doesn’t exist leads to all sorts of problems, also, among which is neo-colonialism, where the more powerful partner exploits the less powerful partner, all in the name of “free trade.” Kwame Nkrumah theorized that this was even worse than outright colonialism.  

Mentorship is neither charity nor trade, neither imposition nor exploitation. In mentorship, the mentor seeks to help the mentee achieve the mentee’s own aspirations. Mentorship’s ultimate goal is the independence of the mentee. Mentorship acknowledges an initial difference in status, but then works to eliminate it through growth of the mentee.

 The real reason why Macha Works works, then, is not that it brings the Internet into the community. It’s because van Stamm’s model of development is based on mentorship. If the Internet has value here, it’s because (1) it amplifies van Stam’s own enlightened model of development, and (2) it is called into play only where the community articulates its own aspirations. Point (2) is subtle because it might be that the information that the community pulls in via the Internet is exactly the same information that other development projects impose on a community – but it’s not the information that makes the difference; it’s whether it’s pulled for or pushed onto the community. Pull has the consent and motivation of the community; push does not.

(One caveat about Macha Works, though, is that there appears to be a lot of residual charity. Macha Works’s website seeks charitable donations, and much of Macha Works relies on van Stam’s social network, not the community’s. To the extent that van Stam is critical to the enterprise, much of Macha Works’s benefit will fade if and when van Stam leaves. True mentorship would ensure that van Stam’s own social network and his ability to bring funding to Macha is transferred to the local population.)

In short, what makes Macha Works work is van Stam’s encouragement of the community’s aspirations + van Stam’s social network + van Stam’s choice of local leaders to nurture + van Stam’s nurturing of them + local aspirations + local capacity + charitable donors + a bunch of other things + the Internet. To call this “ICT-led development” is a misattribution of cause, even if van Stam sells that story, which strangely, he does. But if any one thing must be credited, it should be van Stam.

Incidentally, the Jester is intimately familiar with another aid organization called IICD and he finds a similar mentality there. IICD takes pains to act primarily as a mentor and facilitator for the organizations they work with. It is a model that focuses first on the beneficiary organization’s growth in capacity. Macha Works and IICD are both Dutch organizations, so perhaps there’s something in the Holland water that brings about this enlightened view of development.

Finally, the Jester notes that the Internet is undoubtedly useful in the Macha context, but it’s not clear that it’s necessary or cost-effective. The Jester’s mantra is that technology magnifies intent and capacity, not that technology is pointless. Without the underlying intent and capacity on the part of both van Stam and the community, though the Internet’s impact would be minimal. The other issue is opportunity cost. Other non-profits, such as PRADAN in India, also adopt the methodology of facilitating local aspirations, but they do it without the Internet. And, as the article states, so far, Macha relies on outside grants to pay for the Internet. Is $1500 a month really best spent on connectivity? Possibly, but only if someone like van Stam is there to facilitate the rest of what’s necessary to bring healthcare, education, and flight service to the community. To scale this model, we need to clone van Stams, not Internet cafes.

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8 Responses to “Why Macha Works Works”

  1. pma4d Says:

    o jester,

    the observations that working with local demands is key and that it takes a lot of facilitation on the ground to make anything happen seem like good ones.

    but it strikes me that there is a vast space in between mentorship to obtain desired goods/services that are relatively well understood and air-dropping crates of laptops onto rural schools and telecentres. even the step of including an LED light in a mobile phone could be seen as a form of design-led paternalism; that is, when making *stuff* for developing regions, there is a top-down, essentializing, reductive force that results from the economics of manufacturing at scale. but sometimes, when it plays out right, nascent van stamms on the ground can see the opportunities afforded by (thoughtfully designed, or sufficiently flexible) stuff for themselves and their own communities.

    i suppose i am mostly reacting to the vision one gets here of cloning altruistic white dudes and air-dropping those into villages instead of laptops. i know you don’t mean it that way but it just feels like another deficiency model. forcing tech onto people where there is no “pull” or mentorship is stupid. designing new tech that affords opportunities and for which best practices can be socially shared doesn’t seem stupid. (at least not in the same way. perhaps it is still overly optimistic or naive but i just can’t let myself believe that the people we’re talking about have so little agency that it’s impossible and one must have the western facilitator to mobilize them.)

  2. Adam Oxford Says:

    Interesting post Jester, and thanks for the feedback on the original article. I did want to write more about the non-technical side of Macha Works, but word counts and a slightly more mainstream audience meant I wanted to stay quite focussed.

    It’s a really good point about van Stamm – I didn’t get chance to meet him (I believe he was in Lusaka at the time). Quite an extraordinary chap, by all accounts – but if you ever get chance you should try and meet Fred Mweetwa, who’s now leading the project. There’s hard evidence of van Stamm’s ability to pick and nurture the right people right there – a man whose personal journey is almost as unique as Macha itself (http://www.machaworks.org/en/fred.asp).

    I do think he has to get some credit with some of the vision – although that’s not to take anything away from van Stamm. Interestingly, everyone I spoke to talked about how invisible the Dutchman is these days and how ‘hands off’ his involvement is… then I checked his Twitter feed and found him tweeting from the top of the water tower where he was fixing an antenna.

    Hmm. Maybe you have a point.

    Couple of things I would add, though:

    1) Do you really think Macha may be unique? That’s quite sad – it seems to be getting a bit more profile these days, though, so hopefully someone will rise to the challenge of replicating its successes soon.

    2) Cloning the people is key – I agree – but I was surprised by how fundamental internet access is to the Macha vision. I’d say it’s an ITC-led project, with emphasis on the ‘I’. My impression was that the communities are responsible for the direction development takes, but the important first step is arming them with information so they can do their own research. And that means net access, with the promise of more resources to come. It’s sort of carrot and stick, without any sticks.

    One anecdote I wish I’d had chance to include in the orginal article was when I asked Elton: ‘If the community are in charge, how come you always start with internet access? Do they always ask for that first?’ Elton’s answer was brilliantly understated: describing the internet to people who’ve never seen a typewriter can be ‘quite hard’ (it’s worth mentioning that there’s no mobile phone signal in most of Chikanta, for example). So that was one of the reasons they started building LAN cafes into shipping containers. So that during the second or third sensitisation meetings they could bring it in to demonstrate the benefits.

    Of course, just the fact that Macha Works own a truck big enough to haul a shipping container brings us back to your other point about van Stamm’s involvement – how many other grassroots organisations have access to resources like that? $1500 a month for net access could be seen as good value for money if other Macha Works villages are able to replicate the growth of services that Macha has around the internet (the bank and training hospital spring to mind as examples of this). But it’s not the only big expense involved.

    Having said that – there’s a lovely story about bricks and home grown diesel as an example of saving money which I’ll go into another time.

    • Jester Says:

      The Jester thanks you, Adam, for your considered reply, as well as for your original article in the Guardian. The Jester is envious that you had the opportunity to visit Macha Works. He was intrigued by van Stam’s claims, and wanted very much to visit Zambia last summer, but trips to Kenya and Uganda took precedence.

      Macha Works is perhaps not “unique” in the precise sense of the word in that it is the *only* organization of its kind. Nevertheless, it is extremely rare in its approach. Extremely. Please forgive the Jester for poor diction.

      He also appreciates your willingness to disclose a lot of information that supports the Jester’s thesis. He only wishes that those elements were what were highlighted in the article, not the Internet. These days, the Internet in a rural village is not at all rare — the previous decade saw the failure of plenty of rural telecenters — but what is rare again, is van Stam’s approach.

      Note that none of this means that the Internet isn’t valuable to Macha Works’s work. But, its value is contingent on van Stam, Mweetwa, and other human beings who are dedicated to the growth of Macha. The problem in other impoverished environments is that the latter is missing, so providing the Internet by itself does little.

  3. Tony Roberts Says:

    Hi Jester.

    I’ve been fortunate to visit Macha four or five times. I agree with both your starting point of scepticism about ICT4D and with your premise that technology magnifies human intent and capacity. It is certainly true that there are some unique features about Macha that mean successful replication is not a given; this includes the VSAT provided by John Hopkins University and the considerable talents of Mr. Vanstam.

    However when I last visited in November Gertjan Vanstam was out of the country and I can assure you that in his absence there was evidence of a surfeit of local intent and capacity. Fred Mweetwa the CEO of Machaworks and his team took us to the neighbouring chiefdom of Chikanta to update us on progress at the implementation there (one of six current ‘replications’).

    Each new village implementation is led by local talent: women and men mentored and trained at Macha and supported ably by Machaworks. The research that we did found many much-vaunted ICT4D initiatives failed to measure up to claims made for them. So far Machaworks has exceeded expectations. They definitely face many challenges ahead, and there will naturally be setbacks along the way, but they are not short of intent or capacity and I expect them to continue putting technology to the best of use in pursuit of their local development agenda.

    Personally I wouldn’t begrudge them a little charity either.

    Tony Roberts

    P.S. I’m pretty certain that although originally reliant on grant support it is now the case that the cost of connectivity in Macha has been sustained for two years now from within Macha (contributions from the schools, hospital, nurse training school, malaria research centre and others in addition to domestic user fees).

    • Jester Says:

      The Jester thanks you, Tony, for your comments and your personal account of Macha Works. It is not in the natural inclination of the Jester to agree with others, but in this case, he must defy his temperament and wholeheartedly agree. Even on the point about not begrudging Macha Works and van Stam their charity.

      Given the tenor of the comment, the Jester feels he should emphasize that he DOES believe in human potential. He’s delighted to hear about high intent and capacity in Macha, and that the community is increasingly independent of van Stam. The Jester hopes van Stam is also ensuring that they are being deeply connected to his own developed-world social network, both in and out of Zambia (and certainly not just through Facebook!). That would be a difficult task, but all but necessary for things to continue as they are now, should van Stam ever leave.

  4. “Altruistic White Dudes” « The ICT4D Jester Says:

    […] Jester thanks someone who signed in as “pma4d” for a wonderful comment on his previous post. For the sake of giving this person a human face, the Jester will call him […]

  5. macha works Says:

    Hi Jester,

    Thanks for your active participating within the discussion and your well placed thoughts and explanation about mentorship. We were not successful yet in finding one word to describe our methodology, so it looks like that we have found it now.

    The real development of Macha happened between 2003 – 2007. Since 2008 we have invested significantly in Macha to be ready for duplication to other rural communities. And capacity building is the key to duplication. Two important enablers for the duplication are the Zambian organisation that is headed by Fred Mweetwa and the ICT training campus in Macha. Both are operational now.

    We know that success that only can be linked to a person will not last. To create a wave you need a specific type of innovator. The same person that is absolutely key within the first phase, could easily destroy the same wave when he or she doesn’t know when to step out. So the real success depends on the timing of the innovator to know when to step out and when to delegate responsibilities. So we don’t agree with you that the whole development will stop when the initiator leaves, it is even absolutely required to do that, to make it last.

    Continuation will not come automatically when the initiator steps down. And stepping down is not a one day activity. The last years have been the years of train the trainers. Building a Zambian organisation around the core values of the innovator has been our aim. And Fred and Elton are just two examples of some of the diamonds that we are mentoring in Zambia. So the future will learn us whether we have succeeded.

    We will follow your future blogs about mentorship with a lot of interest and are keen to welcome you in Macha in one of your nexts visits to Africa.

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