Random Hacks of Partial Kindness

Tate Watkins at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University prompted the Jester with the following question for a post to AidWatch: “Is it reasonable to expect that Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) and similar events will produce ‘solutions to development problems’?”

The Jester’s simple answer to that direct question, of course, is “no.” Anyone imagining that a day or two of hacking will produce solutions to development problems, even in some small part, is either a technologist drunk on her own self-image who believes that she’ll solve a mindboggling social challenge with technology, or a World Bank officer drunk on his own self-image who believes that he’ll solve a mindboggling social challenge by motivating some technologists. In any case, it seems clear they are the kind of folks who don’t learn from history.

Surprisingly, the Jester has a more complex answer to the underlying question, which might have been posed as, “Do events such as RHoK do any good?” The answer to that question is far more complicated, because these events have multiple goals, and some of the goals are not half bad, even if they could still use some course correction.

The first and most obvious surface goal of events like RHoK is to end up with a body of software that could somehow impact international development. The Jester has written extensively about this notion (for example, through his puppet, at the Boston Review), and the short answer is that exactly where we most want such technology to have impact, the required human intent and capacity to make the technology itself work is low. Combine this with the fact that very little successful software in the world gets written via a two-day hackfest, and the likely interesting impact will be zero.

The second goal of RHoK is likely to support the building of software programming capacity in developing countries. Of their currently posted 20 or so physical hosting sites, 6 or 7 are in developing countries (and of those, about half by groups well-known to the Jester), and to the extent that these events generate excitement around the ability to develop software in developing countries, they are fantastic, as the Jester implied in a previous post. Among the things that makes a country “developed” is its intrinsic capacity to create, adapt, and master technology, and to the extent that the efforts highlight the aspiration of those within country to do so, the Jester applauds. (However, as long as developer development is the goal, why not have the contest be around software that would really be useful?)

A third and less obvious goal of RHoK is to encourage software developers in the developed world to engage on problems in the developing world. The Jester has mixed feelings about this, because on the one hand, it’s great to encourage people anywhere to care about others who are in less privileged circumstances; on the other hand, further contributing to the vain belief that that intention can manifest through random hacks of software development is dubious. Good software developers would have more value by mentoring less experienced software developers in the developing world, than attempting to solve a developing-world problem through technology. The latter is still just another kind of charity, and another kind of “giving people a fish.”

A fourth goal might be build to a community around software developers in the world who care about international development. The Jester strongly believes in the value of community, and often times, the development of community — even if it for a misguided instrumental end — can be redirected later to more useful purpose. Strong communities have value, especially to the extent that their mission is really to solve development challenges. However, as with the other goals, the end impact of the community will depend on what it decides to do with its social capital.  

So, to different RHoK stakeholders, the Jester has different things to say:

  1. For budding software developers: Use the event to learn more about software development. And, for those coming from a developing country, involve more friends. The ability to write good code is exactly the kind of capacity that will help individuals earn good incomes and help countries grow economically.
  2. For experienced software developers hoping to “do good”: The intention is laudable. The most meaningful impact, though, will come not from technological artifacts, as much as from the mentoring of people in the first category.
  3. For sponsors: If the goal is practical software, the phrase “barking up the wrong tree” appears next to the Jester’s head as a thought bubble. If the goal is to help developing countries gain software-developing capacity, shift focus to the end-to-end supply chain of human capital for engineering, i.e., education defined very broadly. In the current global economy, there is no shortage of demand for capable software engineers. But, supply is hurting. And, if the goal is to kill multiple birds with one stone, try hitting one bird first; no point aiming for their empty center of gravity! (The Jester does not wish to promote violence against animals, but the available proverbs along these lines are limited.)

And, to wrap up with a single sentence: The most meaningful way for the RHoK to have impact is for everyone to focus on increasing the software-developing capacity of the least experienced developers (wherever they’re from) who come to hack.

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3 Responses to “Random Hacks of Partial Kindness”

  1. Random Hacks of Partial Kindness – Ethnos Project Crisis Zone Says:

    […] Link to the original site Filed in ICT4D by Mark Oppenneer SHARE THIS Twitter Facebook Delicious StumbleUpon E-mail « Homestead Allocation in Odisha No Comments Yet […]

  2. Mike Says:

    For what it’s worth, I find that the fourth goal you identify (“build to a community …”) can sometimes be the one with the most long-lasting developmental impact — although I note that this is seldom the case imho when it is the/a primary goal goal of a particular activity.

    I was involved for many years with the World Links project. When people ask me about the ‘impact’ today of World Links, I often note that (among other things) it helped identify, give support to, and connect like-minded people passionate about a given topic (in the specific case of World Links, it was ICT use in education in developing countries) in the very early stages of interest in the topic in certain places. While the program may no longer exist in most of the countries where it once operated, it did without a doubt help catalyze lots of movements and activities that were perhaps already nascent, but which were largely unconnected (and which could benefit from some additional assistance from ‘outsiders’).

    I am regularly amazed at the number of people from the ‘World Links alumni network’ I run into in leadership positions in government, civil society or the private sector — or who are just doing really cool stuff. Would they be where they are today if not for their involvement in World Links? Who knows. But if RHoK helps connect and support groups of developers who aren’t already connected and supported in ways that RHoK can help facilitate, we might well see some some very cool things happen in the future, no matter what the specific, easily identifiable ‘outputs’ or outcomes of the official RHoK initiatives turn out to be.

  3. Apps for development? Says:

    […] should also note, as ICT4D expert Kentaro Toyama alluded to in a post I cited, that calling Random Hacks’ over-hyped is not the same thing as calling […]

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