Archive for the ‘mentorship’ Category

Random Hacks of Partial Kindness

May 14, 2011

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.

“Altruistic White Dudes”

February 6, 2011

The 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 “Paul,” and promptly elect him to the long-empty position of FftD: Fool for the day!

And, why does Paul deserve this title? In his comment, he writes…

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.

Apart from Paul’s apparent inability to press two keys simultaneously, Paul’s foolishness comes from his assumption that “cloning altruistic white dudes” isn’t what the Jester meant. Actually, it is exactly what the Jester meant, at least if “altruistic white dudes” is understood to mean anyone (not necessarily white or dude) whose definition of altruism is of a particular sort. 

Our FftD highlights the flaw in his own thinking when he says, “this just feels like another deficiency model.” (Incidentally, the Jester believes this is a widely held flaw by many well-intentioned people in international development, so readers would be wise to pay attention.) Ah, the quixotic romance of denying deficiencies!

Critics of international development have seen so many instances where white dudes have parachuted in with their burdens only to impose, exploit, or walk the road to hell with their good intentions as they drag along entire nations, that they are understandably wary of white dudes on the whole. The Jester is sympathetic to this view, and often wonders if white dudes (or, rather, rich people desiring to do good) should just keep away altogether. Though perhaps he will grow wiser in the future, for now, the Jester still believes international development efforts are worthwhile.

Under the latter assumption, the Jester notes that paternalism is simply unavoidable in international development. The fact is that there is a deficiency. If the goal is “to help,” that immediately assumes a status differential between the helper and the helped, even if it is only for that instance (and in development, alas, that differential is likely to persist for a long time). People wary of the bad things white dudes have done have a kneejerk response against this, and then go through all sorts of intellectual contortions to rationalize to themselves that the undereducated villagers they work with are their equals. (Among the most silly are an insistence on “partnerships” in which the rich white dude comes in with all the funding and all the education, and then pretends to be equals with his partners while condescendingly talking about all the stuff they’ve learned from the cute villagers.) Unfortunately, this focuses attention on mitigating symptoms rather than root causes, and sometimes causes more damage than the original problem.

(At this point, the Jester must ward off other fools. The Jester is not claiming that anyone who is a candidate for “development” is morally inferior to supposedly “developed” people, or that they are to blame for their situation. It’s very possible, indeed common, to have deficiencies in comparison to others that are no fault of one’s own. It’s possible to be born into a household that couldn’t provide good nutrition; it’s possible to be born into an environment that offers no formal education; it’s possible to be brought up in circumstances that don’t nurture self-efficacy and empowerment. None of these are a person’s own fault, and yet they result in an effective deficiency.)

Note, incidentally, that Paul’s attempt to get around this by providing a technology that is ingeniously designed is just another kind of provision that assumes a deficiency. (Why else must outsiders design said technology? Why can’t supposedly non-deficient people develop the technologies themselves? Well, because with regards to technological capacity, they’re… deficient!)

Now, at this point, the Jester has harped on “deficiency” so much that he sounds arrogant and insensitive. The Jester notes that it was our FftD who brought that horrid word into the conversation. But, people who could benefit from outside help are only deficient in the same sense that a eleven-year-old is deficient with respect to a seventeen-year-old. It’s not that they are deficient in potential, but that they are deficient in current absolute capacity.
What does this mean for development? It means that we must accept that paternalism is inherent to the situation, but then adopt a model that minimizes harm and maximizes good. There are many good models of paternalistic relationships… good parenting, good teaching, good managing, good mentoring. These all assume a differential in status, but then proceed to work towards eliminating the differential by nurturing the growth of the beneficiary. It is not charity, not trade, not engineering, not provision… it is nurturing.

So, going back to air-dropping “altruistic white dudes.” The Jester believes strongly in doing this as long as they are not constrained to being white or dudes, and as long as “altruistic” is defined to mean “very inclined towards development as mentorship.” Mentorship avoids all of the negatives of bad paternalistic relationships, while focusing on the nurturing of those capacities that developing communities often lack on their own. The Jester has plenty more to say about mentorship, so he will leave it to future posts, but for now, he concludes by responding to a parenthetical comment from Paul:

([…] 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.)

As FftD, Paul is entitled to a little naivete. The fact is that “the people we’re talking about” often are in a state of such learned helplessness, that they lack agency, but even among those who have agency, the issue is still that they lack the overall capacity to mobilize themselves effectively. If they had that, we’d be back to asking why anyone bothers with international development.

The real issue is that they have never had the opportunity or the encouragement to develop mobilization skills! That’s exactly what people like van Stam do… they help mobilize, encourage mobilizers, and mentor everyone into growing into the potential they have. The air-dropped person doesn’t have to be a Western facilitator, of course. They could be Eastern, Northern, Southern, or From-the-same-countryern. But, they need to be superb mentors — and only superb mentors — which means that they are good at helping people identify their own aspirations, and then facilitating their ability to pursue them, with the eventual goal being an independence that obviates even facilitation.

That’s development as mentorship, about which more will come from the Jester as he channels his alter ego and his book.

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.