Archive for the ‘Good ICT4D’ Category

Why Macha Works Works

February 5, 2011

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.

FailFaire in the NYT

August 23, 2010

The Jester is delighted to see the New York Times write about FailFaire, a series of events hosted by MobileActive, to allow ICT4D-ers to air project failures in the hopes of learning lessons. Katrin Verclas, the person behind MobileActive has always been a passionate, yet level-headed force in mobile phones for development. Hats off, with Jester bells jangling, to Katrin! Also to be congratulated is Mike Trucano at the World Bank, who apparently won the OLPC prize at a recent FailFaire; Mike is similarly level-headed in his work, advising governments on the potential pitfalls of national PCs for education programs. The Jester hopes to attend a FailFaire some day, but is currently stuck on the left coast.

The one comment the Jester has with respect to FailFaire would be for participants to consider the deeper reasons why certain kinds of ICT4D projects often fail — it’s not always that project implementation could have gone better if people had paid attention to X, Y, or Z. Sometimes, it’s that the project goal is fundamentally pointless or impossible — to fix what is at heart a human problem with technology.

Digital Green is actually People Green

July 4, 2010

In the middle of vast tracts of terraced rice fields, haphazardly partitioned into small half-acre-ish plots of land, villagers slowly begin to gather into the local primary school courtyard just around sunset. By the time it’s completely dark, a mixed-gender group of about fifty people ranging from infants to gray-haired grannies sit cross-legged on the ground, surrounding a 1.5’x2′ makeshift screen that is nailed against a schoolhouse pillar. A man stands next to the screen and begins to play a video using a portable pico projector — the only video-playback device in the area for miles around. The video demonstrates a particular method of preparing the soil before planting rice, and it features a farming couple from a nearby district building gridded plateaus of mud on their own land. Amidst the din of crickets, the audience strains to hear the underpowered audio; even the babies are quiet. Every minute or two, the session leader pauses the video, and asks the audience a question. Most questions meet with quick responses, but in a few cases, an extended discussion takes place. After about a half hour, the session leader takes attendance, responds to further questions, and asks if anyone plans to try the technique. About a third of the adult hands go up. The session adjourns, and the villagers disperse, likely not to meet again in a group like this until the following week. Perhaps a handful will actually implement the technique in their fields.

In an environment where there is no TV, no electricity, and no traffic (beyond the occasional NGO worker), such is pace of rural transformation. It might seem slow to city slickers, but apart from festivals, it’s the peak of community activity in this remote village of Kumadawahali.

The video sessions are the heart of Digital Green, a system for agriculture extension for smallholder farmers. DG uses a combination of locally produced digital video and mediated group instruction to teach farmers more productive, sustainable agricultural techniques.

The videos are a compelling instructional aid, even for a mostly illiterate audience, and they permit a greater range of influence for expert extension agents, who otherwise do their work only through verbal dialogue and posters. For many villagers, the sessions are as much entertainment as they are education — this is their only exposure to moving images every week. Pilot studies have shown that DG can increase adoption of newly introduced farming practices by 7 times the rate at which classical agriculture extension works, and at 10 times the cost-effectiveness.

If this were the typical sort of ICT4D journalism or grant proposal, the story would end here, and readers and program officers would likely be left with the strong impression that video is an effective means of agriculture extension. They might think, “If video projectors were provided to every village, and if a worldwide database of agricultural techniques could be built, we could improve farmer productivity and food security around the world!” Nincompoops who haven’t had the fortune of meeting the Jester would go further: “Gosh, let’s do this over mobile phones! Mobiles are all over the planet, and they’ll all have video and Internet capability soon!! We could crowdsource agricultural video content on the Internet!!! Farmers would become agriculture PhDs in no time!!!! Video-over-mobile-phone will solve hunger forever!!!!! Yes, yes, YESSSSS!!!!!!”

Ahem. With the sarcasm out of his system for the day, the Jester will now hold his critical tongue for a bit to provide the positive side of this story for those doing ICT4D work. Having just returned from two days of visits to DG field sites, he’s inspired to say a few things about ICT4D done well. (Full disclosure: The Jester has been involved with Digital Green from its inception as research advisor, organizational midwife, and board member. He receives no financial compensation from DG, but he does enjoy basking in the brilliant glow of this young, promising project.)

The field visits were to rural sites in northern Orissa’s Mayurbanj district, where DG works together with two NGO partners, PRADAN and VARRAT. The villages where these organizations work are populated by India’s tribal and low-caste communities. They are remote, but still reachable by car. Electricity from the power grid is rare. So are TVs and mobile phones. Incomes are in the dollar-a-day range, and much of the farming is subsistence agriculture. The dominant staple crop is rice, and thanks to the work of the NGOs, there is more and more growing of vegetables, both for income and nutrition. The visits took place during the wet pre-monsoon season, but the area is dry the rest of the year, and scarcity of water is an issue.

Let’s now deconstruct the single instructional session above. First, the 50-odd villagers all gathered within a 15-minute window of time, for a once-a-week session. Getting this to happen at all is no small feat, as anyone who has started a village self-help group (SHG) will tell you. Often, it takes months of constant engagement, to get an SHG together, to meet regularly, and to resolve any historical tensions that members might have with one another. Giri, a young PRADAN staff member was responsible for working with Kumadawahali, and he had spent much of the past two years there building rapport with the villagers. As part of PRADAN’s new-employee orientation, Giri spent weeks living with a family in the village; PRADAN encourages him to see his work as a partnership with the community. He and the villagers greeted each other warmly when they met.

Next, the session leader. This person needed to be identified, recruited, paid, and trained. Session leaders must be moderately educated, and willing to travel to local villages on a regular basis. They need to see their work as a job that requires a regular commitment. They need to be remunerated for their efforts. Additionally, the session leader needs to be trained in video instruction and simple record-keeping — skills akin to those of a school teacher in a place where teachers are few. They’re recruited from nearby villages and trained by PRADAN and DG staff. Nihar Ranjan Maharana, another young PRADAN staff member who is the point person for DG within PRADAN’s Mayurbanj office, works closely with session leaders in multiple village clusters.

During the session, there was lively discussion (which was partly translated for the Jester by his NGO hosts). This might not seem like anything special to someone raised in a modern, progressive educational system, but in a place with few formal organizations, and where classrooms believe in discipline over engagement, it’s another considerable achievement. The Jester has been to many village meetings elsewhere where little dialogue takes place at all, or where one or two village leaders monopolize the discussion. In Kumadawahali, many people, both men and women, actively participated in discussion.

As for the video, it was produced by PRADAN in a nearby village (tens of kilometers away) just weeks prior to the screening. Because agriculture is sensitive to season and soil conditions, content is only relevant for a short while and in a limited region, though it can be reused annually. This particular video was shot in Oriya, the language of Orissa, and versions of similar video were also available in Ho, another language common in the region. Using DG’s standard processes, the video was based on a storyboard constructed and verified by PRADAN staff. Chandra Shekhar, an enthusiastic member of DG’s staff, stayed with PRADAN’s Mayurbanj office and helped PRADAN produce a range of such videos.

The use of the pico projector was suggested by Matt York, an informal advisor to DG, who runs a non-profit in the United States that makes it its business to be aware of electronic gadgets that could be useful to NGOs like Digital Green. The projectors are highly portable, but require frequent maintenance, in no small part due to power surges that fry batteries. PRADAN and DG staff are constantly moving projectors back and forth to villages for this reason. Where projectors are scarce, they resort to TVs, DVD players, batteries, and inverters. DG is currently facing a shortage of pico projectors due to some manufacturer delays, and both DG staff and Matt are working on getting cheaper, brighter, pico projectors more quickly into India.

Finally, to track its impact, session leaders and PRADAN staff keep track of DG session attendance, technique adoption, and questions that arise during sessions. Over time, they hope to measure gains in agricultural yield and household income, as well. Collecting this information is again, no easy task, and it requires process and discipline.

All of this has been done under the capable leadership of Manas Satpathy, PRADAN’s regional head in Orissa, Surjit Behra, PRADAN’s team leader in Karanjia, Rikin Gandhi, CEO of Digital Green, and Avinash Upadhyay, DG’s regional leader in Orissa. Rikin himself helped initiate PRADAN into DG techniques over a year ago, and Surjit and Avinash have successfully overseen its spread in 17 villages across Mayurbanj; DG sessions are otherwise happening in hundreds of villages in four states across India.

This is a brief, incomplete description, but even so, it’s evident just how much human effort is required to make things work, and it’s effort that can’t be replaced by technology. Whatever impact DG has depends first on well-intentioned, competent people. In the case of the story above, the people are members of PRADAN and DG’s staff. The Jester has visited quite a few villages of comparable socio-economic status, and he has rarely seen the kind of promptness and organization that he saw with the DG session in Kumadawahali. That is due almost entirely to PRADAN’s expertise, methodology, and dedication — all traits for which they are well-known and respected. (Incidentally, although the Jester didn’t see as much of VARRAT, they seemed equally capable and integrated with their communities.)

Contrast this with what might be the ridiculously misguided, but unfortunately more common, forms of ICT4D: Donate a bunch of pico projectors for a lot of villages, or perhaps attempt to design a $50 pico projector, so that more villages could afford one. Or, set up a website so that agriculture experts all over the world could upload videos, presumably in languages and seasons completely irrelevant to anyone but themselves. Or, dream up clever variations of NetFlix for farmers, for financial “sustainability.” Etc. But, none of it would actually work, except to win social-enterprise business-plan competitions judged by Silicon Valley tycoons.

Again, it’s not that technology is pointless. DG itself uses technology extensively: low-cost video cameras, microphones, PCs and a mishmash of software for video production; TVs, DVD players, and pico projectors for instructional sessions; and a sophisticated online tool for tracking of its own activities even over poor Internet connectivity. But, none of these tools are worth anything in the absence of a PRADAN. Conversely, PRADAN accomplishes a lot without these tools. The tools are, again, magnifiers of human intent and capacity.

DG is well aware of this and strives to identify good partners with which to work, effectively seeing its role as assisting other organizations’ ability and amplifying their impact. That certainly has value in development.

DG is thus a textbook instance of the right kind of ICT4D. It studiously avoids any illusion that it or its technology can accomplish anything on its own. Instead, technology is consciously applied to magnify the impact of dedicated, high-caliber people and organizations… ultimately, the only things that really make a difference.


(The Jester thanks the staff of PRADAN, VARRAT, and Digital Green for hosting a great visit to rural Orissa, and for answering lots of pesky questions!)