Archive for February, 2012

Where Should Your Dollars (and Hours) Go?

February 26, 2012

Speaking of 99%, although the Jester does find himself repeating much of what he says on panels and other public forums, he does try to find at least 1% that is novel.  This he does not so much because innovation is an unqualified good, as everyone seems to believe these days, but because otherwise, he and any returning members of the audience might, like some Edward Gorey character, die of ennui.

At the Mobile Disconnect panel at the New America Foundation, the discussion took an interesting turn around the use of public and donor funds. At one point, the Jester’s doppelganger felt the need to say something along the following lines: “It’s not that I’m against the existence of the technology itself, it’s more a question of how public and donor funds should be applied.”

The first half of this statement need not be explained to careful readers of the Jester. (For the rest: technology amplifies human intent and capacity; so, technology’s net impact might be good, bad, or zero, depending on the context.) The second half, however, deserves more explanation.

How exactly should public and donor funds be applied in international development? Well, one answer that seems hardly radical is to suggest that they be used to support efforts that other sources of money, i.e., that from the private sector, neglect. That is, to address market failures.

The private sector, of course, is renowned for spending its money on technology, but rarely does it fund the development of human capital. In fact, it wouldn’t be too great an exaggeration to say that the private sector hates to invest in human capital. For example, when the Jester was in the employ of a large technology company, he used to hear this bit of corporate mumbo-jumbo: “Your career development should be 70% on the job, 20% from others, and 10% from formal learning programs.” Translation: Any learning you do is incidental, except for a nominal amount we’ll spend on formal training. Even 10%, though, is a considerable overestimate – assuming people work a conservative 250 days a year, does any company actually pay to have 25 days of professional training for every employee?

Otherwise, most corporations do not pay for any significant portion of the schooling of the employees they hire, or for the education of their communities. Even job training is avoided unless absolutely necessary. Examples like India’s Infosys sending their fresh hires to several months of training are exceptions that prove the rule. (They’re also, incidentally, a sign of how poorly the educational system up until that point is meeting the demand for skilled labor.)

In development, this fact is even starker because the people concerned are so often unemployed by the formal sector. Thus, even corporations that might choose to invest in their own employees would have to be spectacularly foolhardy to contribute to the education of those not in their employ. (The Jester will not bother explaining why corporate social responsibility [CSR] initiatives hardly qualify, but readers are welcome to ask – there hasn’t been a Fool for the Day for some time.)

Of course, at this point, some readers will raise the question of privatized education. The Jester could go on and on about how efforts to privatize public schools have failed repeatedly, or that the famous low-cost private schools of India are still out of reach for many despite their ridiculously low tuitions, or that private tertiary schools tend to scam many of their students, but instead, he will cut through all such objections with one stroke: Let’s grant that some portion of education is privately run.

That still leaves the question of who will cater to the hundreds of millions of school children for whom education is a distant dream or a terrible joke. That still leaves the question of who will provide vocational training to the hundreds of millions of adults who could benefit from it. That still leaves the question of who will cover the basic healthcare for billions of those without.

Actually, the idea that public and donor funds should cover certain basic things for the least privileged members of global society is hardly new. But in this age of confusion about the capabilities of the private sector, there’s a tendency to forget that the private sector not only has strengths – of focus, of mission, of efficiency – but that it also has certain glaring weaknesses. The private sector, for example, swims upstream where the money is and towards products people like to pay for (which, alas, are not in health and education, especially among the undereducated). There’s always some line of household income below which the private sector fails to find profit. And, the private sector’s primary response to someone with subpar capacity is to fire them and hire a replacement. That’s right, if the private sector were in charge of development (even more than it is), it would fire the world’s smallholder farmers and their non-literate children.

In short, there are billions of people who could benefit from a boost in their human capital, and that boost is not coming any time soon from the private sector. Thus, for anyone even remotely charity-minded or progressively inclined, it makes sense to put resources not on what the private sector will take care of anyway – e.g., in the case of mobile… mobile handsets, mobile networks, mobile money, mobile apps, mobile start-ups, mobile mobile – but for those people, and towards those things, that the private sector routinely avoids.

And, this applies not just to public and donor funds, but also to public and donor efforts. Is it really worthwhile for people who care for the poor people of the world to invest their efforts helping mobile operators figure out yet cleverer ways to extract disposable income from their consumers? The private firms will do that themselves.

Meanwhile, there remain close to a billion people who are illiterate, whose illiteracy isn’t going to go away just because they can exchange money over their phones or contact friends on Facebook.

People are the 99%!

February 14, 2012

On Thursday, the Jester donned his civilian clothing, took a red-eye to Washington D.C., and participated in a panel hosted by the New America Foundation (NAF). Mobile Disconnect was among the best panels the Jester has experienced, either as panelist or attendee, due a combination of good organization, moderation, and mix of panelists. The audience was also excellent, with good questions during Q&A that stayed on topic. Missing was that one guy who manages to appear at every panel discussion, who raises a “question” that doesn’t end in a question mark, and whose irrelevance and incomprehensibility is only matched by its length. An associated debate-style forum appears on

The other panelists were Maura O’Neill of USAID, Katrin Verclas of Mobile Active, and Michael Tarazi of CGAP. The Jester would summarize the panelists’ positions thus:

  • O’Neill: M4D might be overhyped, but it’s all upside from here.
  • Verclas: M4D might be overhyped, but the important thing is mobile security.
  • Tarazi: M4D might be overhyped, but everyone loves mobile money, and it should be made available to everyone.
  • Jester: M4D is overhyped.

(The Jester blames any oversimplification on lack of space, but anyone interested in the nuanced details is directed to the video of the event online

The Jester, being his compassionate self, will avoid a boring play-by-play, as much of the discussion will be all-too-familiar to ICT4D enthusiasts. Instead, the Jester will focus on two things that occurred to him during the panel – one in this post, and another in the next.

First, for almost a year now, the Jester has not heard or read public comments that express total naïveté about the potential of ICTs for development. Nobody seems to believe that ICT4D is a slam dunk any longer. Discussions of project successes are qualified with their challenges. The idea that “the technology is only 10% of the solution” has gone viral (though Nicholas Negroponte appears to have a unique mutation that confers on him a robust immunity). Is it possible that the broader ICT4D community is becoming ever so slightly more sophisticated? Is it possible that social scientists, FailFaires, and Yours Truly are actually having an impact?

The Jester certainly hopes so. But, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. And while a little knowledge is a necessary way station on road to true wisdom, this part of the path might be a low point on the journey. Most worrying is the trend where clever rhetoric is way ahead of actual practice, due to cluelessness, marketing, hypocrisy, or outright mendacity.

An example of the more innocent brand of this disjunction was demonstrated a couple of weeks ago on the TIER  and Change mailing lists. A young man, let’s call him “Ashish,” started a thread about the Raspberry Pi, a $25 “computer.” (The price in practice is considerably higher since the device requires additional investments in a display and input device, but the Jester will avoid mentioning this fact which is irrelevant to the larger point.) Ashish then proposed that the Raspberry device was superior to the Aakash tablet and the OLPC XO3, as a device for education.

A group of experienced ICT4D-ers descended on the hapless Ashish, and in a positive sign of the increased sophistication of the ICT4D community, chided him for his techno-fetishism.

Ashish, though, responded with a comment along the following lines: “I get that technology only amplifies human intent and capacity au Jester, but seriously, won’t the Raspberry work a lot better than the Aakash in changing rural Indian education?”

This caused the Jester to wonder what exactly Ashish means by the word “get.” Does this word mean what Ashish thinks it means?

On the NAF panel, O’Neill and Tarazi displayed another version of the rhetoric-practice mismatch, which is all-too-common in D.C.  In both cases, they were happy to mouth the facts of “ICT failures” and “partial solutions,” while remaining in the thrall of the techno-deterministic delusion that technology is largely good in and of itself. When it came down to it, both seemed to believe that expanding access to certain technologies or services is, in fact, the primary issue.

The Jester believes that these are analogues of the oft (but perhaps not oft enough) criticized Washington Consensus: O’Neill is a pusher of what might be called the “ICT Consensus” that assumes that the great benefits that America gains from ICT would naturally follow elsewhere and without any of the negatives. Tarazi backs the “Banking Consensus” that imagines that a formal bank account for all is a pressing need in international development. At one point, Tarazi let slip that this was the first event he had attended where anyone even questioned whether being connected to the formal banking system was a good thing.

This caused the Jester to wonder which events Tarazi had been attending. Were there, in fact, underground ecopods where whole groups of people have been blissfully unaware of subprime mortgages, European debt crises, and credit default swaps?

To return to the rant, people appear to have internalized the notion that at the very least, ICT4D is not an easy win, and that some qualifiers are necessary to be credible. Unfortunately, this ushers in a new era of doublespeak, where everyone says the right thing, while continuing to throw resources into their one killer app that will undoubtedly save the world.

Just before the panel, the Jester heard an interesting story from Greta Byrum, a policy analyst at NAF. She mentioned meeting an ICT4D practitioner on a recent trip to Delhi. This man apparently told her that it’s not that the technological is 10% of the solution and the rest – social, political, institutional – is 90%. It’s that technology is 1% of the solution, while the rest is 99%. This would be an admirable level of comprehension, except that it apparently caused no cognitive dissonance for this IT consultant.

Why do so many of us want to keep supporting the 1%, which would really take care of itself, if the remaining 99% were in order? The Jester is tempted to start a new protest called “Occupy ICT.” Its motto: “People are the 99%!”