Archive for the ‘Not Quite ICT4D’ Category

Why We’ll Keep Reinventing the Wheel in M4D and Otherwise

May 5, 2015

The Jester was recently consulted by consultants to provide input on a large upcoming mobile-for-development (M4D) project. At one point, it emerged that the client wanted to solve one of those problems that yours truly believes is “development-complete.”

And, what is development-completeness, you may ask? For this, the Jester must make a digression into technical computer science. One of the few areas of computer science that is actually a science (as opposed to hacking or engineering) is the theory of computation. Its practitioners prove mathematical theorems about different levels of problem complexity. For example, some problems like sorting a list, can be performed in a reasonable amount of time (with a non-quantum digital computer) relative to the length of the list. Other problems, like the canonical “traveling salesman problem” — in which the goal is to find the shortest possible route to visit a set of cities — are believed to take dramatically longer to solve as the number items in the list increases. What exactly is a “reasonable” or a “dramatically longer” amount of time? That’s one of the things that computational theorists explore, and in this case, they are quite confident (though not yet certain) that there is a hard line separating sorting from optimal route planning. In addition, on the more complex side of that line, there is a subclass of problems which have the following interesting quality: If you could solve any one of the problems in that class in a “reasonable” amount of time, you could solve all of the problems in that class in a “reasonable” amount of time. That class of problems is called NP-complete (where NP stands for “nondeterministic polynomial time,” in contrast to the polynomial time it takes to solve reasonable problems). Yes — until he was demoted, the Jester’s previous occupation was court Geek.

Thus, computer scientists have an admittedly poor inside joke in which whenever they encounter a situation in which in order to solve one problem, you’d have to be able to solve a set X of other problems, whose solving would obviate the need to solve the original problem, they call the original problem X-complete. So, if a problem is development-complete, it means that if you could solve that problem, you could solve all of international development itself. End of digression.

So, what in this case, raised the Jester’s development-complete alarm? In this case, it was that the consultants’ client wanted to end what is formally called “too many pilots,” or “reinventing the wheel,” or “total lack of coordination” among those who work on M4D projects. Ah, yes. The recurring problem of people ignoring history and each other in international development! Can’t we just spend a few million bucks and end this problem once and for all?!?!

Before the Jester goes into why this problem is development-complete, it’s worth considering its root cause. It’s very simple, actually: There is no single entity in charge of global development. There is no world government either dictatorially or democratically deciding what development projects will be undertaken or not. The “or not” part is essential, because in order to avoid too-many-pilots and reiventions-of-the-wheel, someone must stop those pesky other people (and they are always other people) who start unneeded pilots and reinvent wheels. But “or not” can only be imposed by an entity who can coerce compliance, and of course, there is no such entity on a global scale.

Without a world government, anyone who can afford an air ticket can fly to a random urban slum or rural village and start messing about. And importantly, they can do so without ever having studied or even having heard of any other development projects. It’s quite possible, for example, for someone to start a new cookstove project without ever having heard that the history of international development is strewn with failed cookstove projects.

Imagine if tomorrow, through some miracle, every M4D actor joined a single consortium, aligned with a single M4D standard, built on the same technology platform, agreed to a single set of interventions that is known to work, etc. Hip hip hooray! But unity would be shortlived. The day after tomorrow, you can be sure that some Silicon Valley entrepreneur will enter the fray and ignore the consortium because (1) he has never heard of it; (2) he once visited a poor village and realized he could be their savior; (3) he wants to build his own humanitarian empire; (4) he can in any case do it better than everyone else; (5) he has his own money and no one can prevent him from spending it how he likes; and (6) he may or may not actually have any humanitarian intentions at all.

Actually, this is pretty much what Mark Zuckerberg is doing with (Which, incidentally, further demonstrates how technology amplifies underlying human forces.) In designing his rhetoric, he has chosen to completely ignore the fact that providing poor villages with the Internet through telecenters really didn’t do much for them except in instances where there were significant, accompanying investments to nurture local human capacity. (In reality, he may just not care at all as long as those folks all get hooked on Facebook, too.)

There are only two ways to solve this problem of total lack of coordination. One is the aforementioned world government. The other is spontaneous total world coordination — by which the Jester means that all seven billion of us agree to a set of rules about how to engage in development and enforce it ourselves. You may laugh and say, “These are the pipe dreams of children or of a crazed monomaniacal dictator!” and you’d be right. But, let’s just suppose we could achieve either of these things in any meaningful way. If so, we might as well focus on development itself, instead of worrying about the minor problem of too many uncoordinated pilots.

Hence, development-complete. QED

P.S. The commentary above does not appear in the Jester’s alter ego’s forthcoming book, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. Nevertheless, the book is worth pre-ordering if only for the photograph of its extremely handsome author on the jacket flap. Posts and Ripostes

September 2, 2013

Over at the TIER mailing list, the Jester’s last post was part of a swarm of fast-flying posts and ripostes about Now that the outbreak appears to have died down, it seems a good time for a post-mortem.

The Jester’s main point was that made almost no effort to explain how the indiscriminate spread of the Internet everywhere was a good thing. (Zuckerberg’s whitepaper alludes only to that bastion of expert, unbiased knowledge known as a McKinsey report.) In this, it was a striking step back even from the days of telecenters, whose proponents made direct attempts to aid agriculture and healthcare. Zuckerberg’s endlessly repeated premise is that the Internet is so important that he and his merry band of hardware companies will spread it farther and wider for the sake of “driving humanity forward.”

The Jester then implied that’s rhetoric was based in part on a misguided consumerist concept that deserves to be questioned much more often: That “giving people what they want” is necessarily a good thing; that’s what the machine masters of the Matrix do. So should we praise Zuckerberg for seeking to expand his attention-sucking, productivity-reducing machine across the planet? Quoth the Jester, nevermore.

“Kurtis” graciously rose to his newly appointed role as Fool for the Day to argue that he had personally seen positive uses of Facebook in Papua New Guinea and believes that Facebook is good overall. (The full conversation on mailing list is available here.)

Facebook is filling some fundamental communication need for people. It really is. The people in Papua aren’t playing farmville (though they might if they had bandwidth), they’re communicating over a closed facebook group representing the teachers. Media is shared on that page, sorta like a mailing list (as they don’t have emails). They also connect to their friends and family in other communities and abroad, as many teachers are shipped in. I am told it is a *critical* service; teachers, doctors and others would leave the community if they were not able to talk with spouses on the central islands.


I would wager though, that if you asked teachers, they’d say internet access makes their jobs easier. That’s good enough for me, and probably a net positive overall too.

The Jester concedes that this is a valid perspective – it’s not one that the Jester agrees with, but neither can the Jester prove otherwise. We will probably never have indisputable objective evidence about Facebook’s overall social value, but we probably can agree that there is disagreement. In fact, several people from developing countries (though all well-educated and with the leisure time to monitor ICT4D chit-chat), chimed in with conflicting views.

Assane (from West Africa?) expressed dissatisfaction:

I feel very frustrated when I enter to those internet cafe’s (in Senegal where I am from) and see all those young kids spending more than 2 hours with the “machine” using facebook, visiting p*** sites, watching photos etc…

The problem is not to bring Internet to the people, the problem is what they are going to do with it to have a better quality of life. I would rather vote for a program (with a sustainability plan) to help school kids learn how to “usefully” use the Internet!

Pablo (from the non-rural part of a developing country) focused on insufficient content and cost-benefit:

I think FB does not care only on rural and communications only, so it is fair to address the ‘content’ question (i.e. what will be done with this infrastructure?) and also the urban problems associated with the so desired ‘development’.  In other words assess the cost-benefit of this program in broader terms.

Donald from Indonesia argued that Facebook was an important force in building up the Internet:

Facebook (moral, corporate, credit aside) has been an enormous force of change in spreading internet (and broadband, with the help of youtube)…

Let’s just credit facebook for its ability to bring about the mobile internet revolution in indonesia and (hopefully) continue to drive the buildup of the data infrastructure. And let others build more socially responsible / beneficial applications of it.

“Ibrahim” (from Pakistan?):

Every solution requires variable amounts of Multi-directional information flow and i guess there is no other silver bullet. Putting your knowledge to test with the existing knowledge (www) spurs innovation which in effect promises better solutions to the daunting challenges faced by humanity. In my opinion connectivity is one of the most effective, if not the only, solution to these problems.

Having said that, no one denies that every giant has its primary profitability motives but this does not necessarily implies that these motives can’t coincide with the greater good of the people.

Two people struck a conciliatory tone. Keshav from India emphasizes the importance of having learn from the past:

Even the best-intentioned action, when carried out without adequate care, can lead to indifferent or negative results. We need to ensure that this initiative learns from the successes of the past.. and avoids making the same mistakes as many others.

And “Paul” (who said only that he was from…, in a private e-mail suggested an alternate analogy:

facebook is more like mcdonalds. it’s great that it exists because it fills a real human need more cheaply and conveniently than almost any other option. but it’s addictive, the side effects of overuse are not very attractive, and the vendor has an incentive to get you in there as often as they can.

in america nobody needs to starve to death because there are dollar meals. but fast food basically creates a lot of fat people. fast food is widely considered to be an industry that needs reform, not promotion as a social good.

The Jester agrees that this is a far superior analogy. However, the same argument can be made with just about any product or service with debatable merit. It’s not clear, for example, that it would be praiseworthy to make unconditional cash transfers universal, for example, even though there will certainly be cases of positive use, and almost everyone would say they benefited?

So, to summarize, anti-indiscriminate-Facebook-spreading sentiments focus on (1) its negative effects (many of which the Jester believes the company actively encourages); and (2) other factors which are necessary to make Facebook a positive force.

Pro-Facebook arguments focus on (1) the existence of positive uses of Facebook (which the Jester does not deny); and (2) the importance of universal infrastructure even before it is clear what to do with it. (2) is an interesting perspective, and it deserves to be taken seriously, but the case against it is complex. For now, the Jester will summarize and leave the discussion for another time. The two issues are whether the Internet/Facebook is among the primary aspirations of the people of a country as a whole, or just that of a tech-excited elite; and, whether it makes sense to focus on universal Internet first simply because it can do good things, even if the foundations for its positive use are not in place. As the Jester’s alter ego has written elsewhere, “can” is not “is.”

To put this long post out of its misery, the Jester will answer a question raised by Ibrahim, who is appointed Fool for the Day for his happy innocence within the ICT bubble…

[The Jester says that] “there are many, many other more morally credit-worthy ways than the indiscriminate spreading of [Facebook.]” Jester can you please enlighten us with some?

Again, there are many possibilities. But if the Jester had gazillions of dollars, he would build on his currently meager support for favorite efforts like…

  • Shanti Bhavan, an Indian boarding school that takes children of very poor dalit families and nurtures them into smart, capable, well-adjusted, socially aware young adults. (The last time the Jester visited, the school had no Internet, but there was a computer lab for teaching a computer class. The first batch of graduates are now working as accountants, software engineers, and teachers at organizations like Goldman Sachs, Ernst & Young, and the Indian Army.)
  • Ashesi University, Ghana’s first private liberal arts college whose founder has a clear vision for how to impact Africa: Patrick Awuah is a former Microsoft employee who mercifully decided not to use his technical skills to build a gadget to save the world, but instead to do what Silicon Valley companies really don’t like doing: investing in people’s education.
  • PRADAN, a north Indian NGO that helps rural communities form effective self-help groups and guides them to realize their livelihood-related aspirations.

And, for ICT lovers…

  • Digital Green, an international non-profit that uses digital tools and unique organizational processes to amplify the impact of organizations like PRADAN. The Jester previously wrote about DG.

The Jester thanks the court for an interesting conversation!

Actual Headline: “Cows Send Texts to Announce They’re in Heat”

October 2, 2012

In the previous post, the Jester mentioned, purely hypothetically, “a wireless udder monitor that sends cattle owners an SMS when their cows are due for a milking.” Just weeks later, life imitates blog. The New York Times reports, in all seriousness, that Swiss researchers are working on a device that sends SMS text messages to farmers when their cows are in heat. Despite its serious reportage, the article mocks the Jester by leaving him with little room for comedic improvement. Nevertheless, some excerpts below from the article with Jesterly annotation.

  • “The results are combined, using algorithms, and if the cow is in heat an SMS is sent to the farmer.” (Whoa, algorithms! This quote from a computer scientist is sure to seduce non-technical technology lovers.)
  • “Our recognition rate is about 90 percent.” (Pretty good, unless you’re a cow in the 10%. For example…)
  • Occasionally, the device would send a false signal that a cow was in heat, he said. Other times, it failed to detect when one of the cows was in an amorous mood. (The Jester wonders how this works with artificial insemination.)
  • The device, known as a heat detector, raises concerns among animal rights advocates, not so much because of its intrusiveness in the private parts of the cow — its use involves inserting a thermometer with a tiny transmitter and antenna in the cow’s genitals — but because of what it says about the stressful lives of Swiss cows. (The article also mentions some interesting tidbits about the animal-rights awareness of the Swiss, by the way.)
  • It also prompts skepticism among dairy farmers, who are startled by its cost, which is expected to be at least $1,400 per unit. (No doubt, someone will start working on a low-cost version for the developing world any moment now.)
  • “It happens fairly frequently that you miss the right moment.” (Common problem in international development.)
  • “With greater productivity there is a drop in reproductive activity.” (Heretofore unknown problem in international development!)
  • “The first attempts were not trouble free,” he said. “The problem was with the sensors. They were not sturdy enough.” (Ruggedness! Cow context differs from human context.)
  • “Cost is important” … “It’s a cost-benefit question.” (Calling all ICT4D-ers! Opportunity for BOP innovation to impact the Global North!)

Rest in Peace, Verghese Kurien

September 12, 2012

The news this week in India is full of tributes to Verghese Kurien, the father of the “white revolution” there. Thanks to his life’s work of helping form milk cooperatives throughout the country, dairy farmers thrived, and India went from milk deficiency to production titan over the last several decades.

Kurien’s death on September 9 even caused the Amul girl to shed tears — she’s the cartoon mascot of the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation who anyone who’s bought butter in India knows well.

The Jester believes the story of Amul is exactly the kind that the development community needs to tell more of: helping those at the roots of the global economic tree self-organize so as to improve their bargaining power with respect to those who control the trunk. It’s notable that in awarding him the World Food Prize, the committee cited “his recognition that feeding the world’s citizens includes coordinating breakthroughs in production with effective management and distribution strategies” (NYT Sept. 10, 2012). The Jester can almost hear the sound of one hand slapping… the collective palms of the WFP officials striking their foreheads when they realized it’s not just chemicals, new seeds, and artificially inseminated cows! You need effective management and distribution strategies! Whoa, what an idea! Did you hear that, Rich Philanthropists and Multilateral Policy Makers?

Apparently, Kurien didn’t stop at milk: In the 1980s, he began working to expand vegetable oil cooperatives. If there were a Kurien for every smallholder farm product, “international development” might very well go the way of “groovy” and “far out” in the American lexicon.

“Thanks, Jester, for stating the obvious,” the old-hat reader might say. “But why is this topic of interest to the Jester?”

What caught the Jester’s eye was a little sentence buried in an obituary by the New York Times (thanks to Melissa Ho for sending). It said, “Mr. Kurien returned from doing graduate work in mechanical engineering… and began working at a government research creamery.” That’s right — Kurien studied mechanical engineering!

Looking back from 2012, it’s incredible that Kurien didn’t feel the crushing internal pressure “to put his technical skills to use for society” as the Jester all-too-often hears from idealistic technology graduates (who are obviously not reading the Jester’s archives!).

It’s amazing that he didn’t decide to design a fancy-but-affordable contraption to milk cows more efficiently (cow-milking machines designed in the developed world are not sensitive to the subcontinent’s local context — there are lots of buffalos in Mother India, don’t you know? And, buffalos from different states respond to different languages, to say nothing of the varying dialects from district to district.).

And it’s absolutely, positively stunning that he didn’t invent a wireless udder monitor that sends cattle owners an SMS when their cows are due for a milking, thus saving dairy farmers the arduous task of squinting to see if an udder is full. (Then again, Kurien had the great advantage of having been exposed to the challenges of dairy farmers well before time division multiple access communication protocols.)

Yes, that’s right — it is actually possible to apply the problem-solving skills that one hones through a good engineering education towards helping people organize, own, and manage their own production capacity, as opposed to helping design fancy gadgets that streamline production capacity that otherwise barely exists.

This week, the Jester’s hat flies at half mast. Verghese Kurien — the Jester wishes that you are resting in a deep, profoundly well-deserved peace.

How Jester Sachs Would Lead the World Bank

March 4, 2012

Inspired by an irresistibly fun-inviting move by Jeffrey Sachs last week, the Jester throws his own bell-embellished version of a hat into the ring for the top job at the World Bank.

How I Would Lead the World Bank

by Jester Sachs

My quest to help end poverty has taken me to so many countries that I’ve caused a noticeable contribution to global carbon emissions. I’ve visited really exotic places such as 7-star hotels, corporate boardrooms, business class on Emirates, and imposing Geneva buildings. Now I’m applying for the job at 18th and Pennsylvania, the presidency of the World Bank. I am doing this in the traditional way by sending my cover letter to The Washington Post.

Unlike previous World Bank presidents, but like approximately 6.999 billion other people on the planet, I don’t come from Wall Street or U.S. politics. I am a practitioner of economic development, an unrecognized genius, and did you know that I’ve also written a few books? My track record is to side with the poor and hungry, though I’m happy to take money from corporations, governments, and rich patrons. My solutions would save all of us — the poor, companies, governments and the rest of us — because I am really just that smart.

I don’t seek the bank presidency because of its financial muscle or in the vainglorious hopes of winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The bank’s net disbursements were only about $16 billion in fiscal 2011, which by gosh is a paltry sum, when my calculations say $195 billion a year is necessary to end poverty.

The World Bank is potentially far more decisive than a bank. (Banks, after all, only make multi-billion dollar loans on a regular basis.) At its best, the bank serves as a powerhouse of ideas and a meeting ground for key actors (and musicians like Bono) who together can solve daunting problems of poverty, hunger, disease and environmental degradation. The World Bank should create a truly international meeting of the minds (a point underscored by the fact that its highly esteemed lead economist is from China; so I guess, it is kind of already doing that).

I know what I’m talking about. I have been a trusted problem-solver for a lot of countries, many of whom didn’t even realize I was solving their problems – like Bolivia, for example, which would have descended into a Dark Ages without me, and Russia, which would have done a lot better had they really taken my advice. And then there’s China – they got far by doing exactly what I would have told them to do, if they had asked. My good fortune to see the world through my own perceptive eyes while working on some of the world’s most vexing problems, has allowed me to understand that various regions’ challenges need tailored solutions – an entirely new idea that I came up with. This is why I’ve started exactly 14 Millennium Village clusters – once the right solutions are figured out for those 14 sites, they can be applied, cookie-cutter fashion, to the remainder of the world’s 2-3 million villages, which are more or less exact replicas of those 14. There are reasons why what works well in the United States might not work in Nigeria, Ethiopia or India, which is why I recently wrote that America needs civic virtues, but those other countries don’t.

Yet the World Bank is adrift (for one thing, we’re talking about the institution that once hired people like that rascal William Easterly). It is spread too thin (like peanut butter). It has taken on too many fads (which the Millennium Villages aren’t). It is too disconnected from critical areas of science and knowledge (like my field, economics, which a science, really!). Without incisive leadership, the bank has often seemed like just a bank (amazing, given its name). And unfortunately, Washington has backed bankers and politicians who just don’t take me seriously. Come on guys, it’s time you let me join your reindeer games.

The World Bank presidency should not be a training ground in development – that would imply I might learn something on the job. Its leader should come to office with unshakeable convictions about what to do with flooded villages (like the one I once stepped foot in), drought-ridden farms (like the one I once stepped foot on), desperate mothers hovering over comatose, malaria-infected children (like the one I once spoke to through a translator), and teenage girls unable to pay high school tuition (translator, again). More than knowing these realities, and caring to end them, the bank president should believe single-mindedly in his own infallible theories of their causes and interconnected solutions. In any case, he should not be chosen from a pool of international candidates and through a sensible, transparent process like some have suggested.

Solutions to critical problems such as hunger, AIDS, malaria and extreme deprivation remain unaddressed because not everyone listens to me. Those who do listen include scientists who allow me to take credit for their powerful ideas; powerful bankers with ample finance who give me a little cash to play at microfinance; business leaders with powerful technologies who set up shop in the Millennium Villages; civil society with powerful community roots who fawn over me; and powerful politicians in whose constituencies I have built the Millennium Villages. Did I mention, these folks are powerful? But I also have many powerless friends who are poor, black, gay, female, disabled, and religiously persecuted – all at once, of course – we often hang out over a beer.

Finding the graceful way forward, becoming a part of my grand plan to create global change should be the bank’s greatest aspiration. I’ll stand on my record of having already gone a long way to save the world: to have written about how I would go about it; to have flown in agricultural experts to help farmers in 14 villages; to have flown in public health experts to redesign community healthcare in 14 villages; to make mobile technologies (which are absolutely not a fad) the new edge of development practice; to have accepted donor funds allocated to telecenters (which were absolutely not a fad); to have staved off all those crazy folks asking us to rigorously evaluate our approach; and to have written a book that doubles down to offer a solution not only to poverty but also to climate change.

My role has been to help bring together vastly diverse communities of knowledge, power, and influence to tell them what works in practice and then to bend to the will of my donors.

I am ready to lead the bank into a new era of problem-solving (after all, it’s the bank that should solve developing country problems, not developing countries themselves). I will work with industry, governments and civil society to bring broadband (another critical non-fad) to clinics, schools and health workers, creating a revolution of knowledge, disease control, quality education and small businesses (because dang it, everything else that we’ve been trying has been too expensive). I will work with agronomists, veterinary scientists, engineers and anyone else who is willing to join my cult to build prosperity in impoverished and violence-ridden dry lands. Yes, now I’m going to end violent conflicts, too.

I will work with engineers and financiers to harness the solar power of the deserts (because I learned on my many travels that the one thing they have in the desert is sun) in the service of hundreds of millions in Asia and Africa who lack electricity (though how to connect the desert sun to those living hundreds of miles away is another issue). I will work with urban planners, architects and community organizations to help ensure that the developing world’s mega-cities are places to live and thrive like in that cool movie Slumdog Millionnaire.

This and much more is within our grasp, just like I insisted in The End of Poverty. Properly led (that is, if and only if led by Yours Truly), the World Bank can build bridges among science, business, civil society and finance, and also hopefully across the gaping canyon between my underappreciated intellect and my stunted emotional quotient. Let’s, and by that I mean let me, get started.

WSJ says OECD says “Technology Widens Gap Between Rich and Poor”

May 5, 2011

Sebastian Moffett of the Wall Street Journal has an article headlined, “Technology Widens Gap Between Rich and Poor.” (Non-paywall version at Morningstar.) The Jester shouts “Hurrah!!!”… not, of course, because the rich-poor gap is widening, but because the Jester, like any joker overly ego-invested in his intellect, loves to say “I told you so.”

Quoth the Jester, “technology amplifies human intent and capacity,” and that leads to the unfortunate conclusion that even an equal distribution of technology magnifies inequalities. (For more, see the Boston Review article by the Jester’s doppelganger.)

Moffett’s article summarizes the findings of an OECD report released this week. The WSJ headline is actually slightly misleading. Technology is only one of the things that the report cites as a cause of greater inequality in OECD nations. The primary one is simply that high-skilled workers have seen greater growth in pay than low-skilled workers. Under Jester Theory, this means that giving both equal access to technology will only further increase the disparity.

Also according to Jester Theory, the best way to deal with this disparity is not to level the technology playing field, but to provide good training to the players. The OECD report concludes, “Policies that promote the up-skilling of the workforce are therefore key factors to reverse the trend to further growing inequality.”

I told you so.

(Well, the Jester has little more to say about this. The original OECD report is brief and worth reading. One provocatively titled section was strangely skipped by the WSJ: “Does it matter for inequality whether rich men marry rich women?”)

Jester hat tip to @BostonReview for link to WSJ article.

Talent is Not Universal

April 14, 2011

The movie Being John Malkovich features a wacky wormhole where people slide down a chute originating in a Manhattan office and end up occupying a portion of John Malkovich’s psyche (and later get dumped near a highway in New Jersey). The person who finds the wormhole is played by John Cusack, an aspiring puppeteer, who discovers that the wormhole allows him to enter Malkovich’s mind and experience what Malkovich experiences. Then, he finds that with effort, he can manipulate Malkovich’s behavior, as well. At one point, Cusack takes over Malkovich’s body and uses Malkovich’s platform as a famous actor as an opportunity to express his own puppeteering talents. At the end of the movie, though, Cusack’s character ends up “locked” in the psyche of a baby, whose experiences he has access to, but whose actions he is entirely unable to control. (The Jester thanks Christoph Derndorfer (@random_musings) for tweeting his appreciation for the previous movie-related post. Derndorfer may have created a monster for which the Jester takes no responsibility.)

The Jester felt a little bit like the trapped Cusack as he sat on a panel about ICT4D last week at UC Berkeley (audio available here). The panel featured Megan Smith (head of, Eric Brewer (head of TIER),  Wayan Vota (head of Inveneo‘s education efforts in Tanzania), and Kentaro Toyama (head occupied by the Jester). Toyama made a valiant effort to counter the surprisingly unrestrained technological utopianism of the rest of the panel, through his well-worn and by now utterly snooze-worthy claim that technology only amplifies human intent and capacity.

The Jester would have loved to jab at the more insidious claims being propagated by the other panelists, but he proved to be no Cusack in his ability to control Toyama. Toyama muffled this poor Jester. But, now that the Jester is back in his own mind, he’ll have his say!

Two statements stuck out for the Jester. First, Smith mentioned an old adage (apparently quoted in a recent book on social entrepreneurship by Rye Barcott), “Talent is universal; opportunity is not.” Then, Brewer followed up with, “Technology is what makes development possible.” These statements are remarkable for their clarity and their apparent truth. They seem unassailably true. And, they lead to a conclusion that working on technologies that deliver opportunity is the most sensible thing.

Yet, they mask complexity that if carefully disentangled, would suggest altogether different policies. Since both are huge Gordion knots, the Jester will save the second statement for another post, and consider just the first here. Appropriately, it addresses a theme raised by Being John Malkovich: Could every puppeteer have a successful career, if they could just have the opportunity to be John Malkovich? Is opportunity really the only thing that dollar-a-day people are missing?

When Smith mentioned the quote, there was a hush in the room. Everyone wants to believe that talent is universal. Smith went on to comment on the second clause, as if the first clause was obvious and to be taken for granted. Decades of progressive and politically correct thinking have pounded this belief into so many of our neurons, that no one questions it. 

The unfortunate reality, however, is that talent is NOT universal. There’s a tendency to take a truth that is meant to apply to whole groups — i.e., that no particular ethnic group has more or less talent than others — and apply it to individuals. But, people are not equally talented, by any reasonable definition of “talent.” Whether one believes talent to be fully inherited or sculpted by a range of environmental forces (including genetic endowments, nutrition, upbringing, education, social influences, individual efforts, etc.), talent is universal only in the same way that height is universal. Sure, everyone has some height. But, some people are taller than others.

Smith, as a VP at Google, is herself well aware of talent disparities. Her company goes to great lengths to hire people based on talent, weeding out anyone who cannot pass a few IQ tests or muster the many talents needed to impress interviewers. If talent really were universal, and were hoping to do something about equalizing opportunity, why don’t they randomly select people from the low-income parts of the world and hire them to fill out the team? Why waste the opportunity of a high-paying job on someone who needs the wealth less than another person of equal talent? Obviously, talent is not universal.

Obviousness doesn’t prevent us from wanting to believe the fairy tale that talent is universal, though. It’s romantic to believe we are all equal in talent. It aligns with traditionalists wanting to believe that outcomes are due to personal effort alone, and it jives with progressives who want to believe that we are all inherently equal. The fairy tale allows us to believe that we deserve what we have (convenient for readers, who are likely to have more than what 99% of the planet’s population has). It allows us to believe that meritocracies reward diligence, not luck. It allows us to believe that inequality is a purely social construct, and not dependent on a throw of genetic or geographic dice. But, none of this changes the fact that it’s still a fairy tale.

What’s the danger of believing that talent is universal? It leads to the foolish implication that we only need to worry about providing opportunity, and be largely unconcerned about developing talent. It allows ICT4Ders to believe that providing an online international market is a great service, because talent is universal, but the opportunity to sell to rich people is not. It allows ICT4Ders to think that giving out laptops with Internet access is necessarily an education, because the talent to learn on one’s own is universal, yet the opportunity to access Wikipedia is not. It allows ICT4Ders to pat themselves on the back for building mobile financial services, because the talent of business entrepreneurship is universal, but the opportunity to deal with formal financial services is not.

Unfortunately, though, exactly the opposite of these statements is true. As Smith noted, opportunity is becoming increasingly universal. (The Jester stresses “increasingly,” not “universal.”) But, talent remains as inequitably distributed as ever. The Jester tends to accept a view of talent that incorporates many factors, and under such a definition, poorer people, who generally have less exposure to good education and to social values that appreciate a broad range of talents, are at a great disadvantage in nurturing their own talents and that of their children. Sure, there are some poor families that counter this trend, but they do so exactly by fostering talent.

Talent universalists like to tell stories of a clever village child they happened to have met who managed to build a solar-powered SMS-activated robotic hand-pump from scrap metal. Yes, such talented individuals exist here and there, and the Jester sees nothing wrong with catering to them and giving them an extra boost through opportunities, ICT or otherwise. (That still doesn’t justify any rhetoric along the lines of “devices for all” — why not just “devices for the self-starters” and save some cash for other purposes?)

The deeper problem of prioritizing opportunity over talent development, though, is that it doesn’t address the real question, which is… what does it take to nurture everyone’s talents? People with rare talents in otherwise talent-starved environments have often had subtle but unusual support in their upbringing, whether it was a grandmother who overruled parents to send a boy to school, or an uncle who secretly bought books for a girl to read at home.

If there is something that we can do to contribute to international development, it’s not to pretend that equal access to some technology will offer the opportunity for people to transform their life despite a 4th-grade education. It’s to confront the reality that what we really want “for all” is a universal nurturing of talent. If talent isn’t universal, can we make it more universal? Giving a person access to Google is a minor accomplishment; helping a person become a viable job applicant at Google is the real and meaningful challenge. And that takes a whole lot more than anything any current technology — or any techonlogy on the horizon — can deliver, Nicholas Negroponte not withstanding.

The Jester often hears, “That makes sense, but it’s a huge effort to educate a person. Shouldn’t we do something that can easily impact a lot of people, even if it’s a lot less effective?” Ay. It’s exactly this kind of reasoning that has led to trillions of dollars on foreign aid leading to so little result. The mad rush to broad impact biases us towards solutions that scale, not solutions that work.

The Return of the Jester

April 8, 2011

There’s a scene in the movie Fight Club, where Ed Norton’s character has blurry dreams of Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter romping in the bedroom. Norton wakes up from those dreams in a disoriented haze. The Jester has had similar experiences recently, except that instead of wild nights with Bonham Carter, the dreams were of blogging for The Atlantic online on topics beyond ICT4D.

Maybe “similar” isn’t the right word. In any case, all this is to say that the Jester apologizes for two months of absence. To recover from his own disoriented haze, he will attempt to recapitulate what his alter ego has been up to, some of which is relevant to readers in that it begins to attempt to answer a question that the Jester is asked frequently: “I get that human intent and capacity is what matters. So, what then is worth focusing on?”

In six parts, the Jester’s other (better looking) half, tried to answer this while guest-blogging for James Fallows:

  • Technology Is Not the Answer: Standard Jester fare about technology amplifying human intent and capacity, but hinting at generalizations beyond technology to other packaged solutions called TIPS — technologies, institutions, policies, systems.
  • The Enduring Power of Virtue: Trying out the word “virtue” instead of the cumbersome “intent and capacity.” Confucius’s view of it; virtue as benevolence, self-control, and wise judgment. How virtue is the ultimate controllable cause of good outcomes.
  • The White Lie of the Self-Made Person: Tackling the hairy question of “blaming the victim” that immediately arises when successful outcomes are ascribed to virtue.
  • Why Can’t We Talk about Virtue? Entrenched Cynicism: Why many smart people don’t like to talk about virtue.
  • Fostering Virtue: Virtue is not easy to grow, but it’s not impossible. What can be done to foster virtue.
  • Lost in Transition: Virtue for people in developed countries.

Of these the “White Lie” article received the most feedback, and the Jester agrees that it is the most interesting of the series. It attacks head on, the sensitivity around any suggestion that character traits matter in international development. The Jester recommends passing it on to anyone who says that people are equally capable, but differ only in the opportunities available to them. (Just two days ago, the Jester heard repeated that “Talent is universal; opportunity is not.” More on that in the next post.) Of course, the other articles are also worth committing to memory.

The Jester is not sure whether “virtue” really captures the idea of “human intent and capacity” that is amplified by technology. Intent and capacity, at least as the Jester understands it, seems to involve a little more than good intentions and the self-control to follow through. The Jester welcomes other suggestions for a word or phrase that succinctly captures the essential element that makes development work. He promises to mock those only ideas that are not thoroughly exemplary.

“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.

The Beginning of the End?

January 18, 2011

The Jester thanks his alter ego’s high school computer science teacher, Mr. Ron Dirkse, for forwarding him the following story from the New York Times: In Florida, Virtual Classrooms with No Teachers. The story relates the experience of some secondary school students in the Miami-Dade Public School system (generally considered very good — the Jester has firsthand experience!), who found to their surprise that they were enrolled in classes equipped with PCs for online, self-paced, distance education, and no teachers. Apparently, there are 7000 students enrolled in these “e-learning labs.”

If there’s consolation for the Jester, it’s that the story is careful to note that the labs are not completely supervision-free, and it also emphasizes the potential downsides of the program (including its use as a cost-reduction strategy!):

“A ‘facilitator’ is in the room to make sure students progress. That person also deals with any technical problems.”

“None of them want to be there,” [one student] said, “and for virtual education you have to be really self-motivated. This was not something they chose to do, and it’s a really bad situation to be put in because it is not your choice.” (Emphasis added by the Jester)

“The way our state is dealing with class size is nearly criminal,” said Chris Kirchner, an English teacher at Coral Reef Senior High School in Miami. “They’re standardizing in the worst possible way, which is evident in virtual classes.” … “I think there should be learning on the computer,” Ms. Kirchner said. “That part is from 2:30 p.m. on. The first part of the day should be for learning with people.”

“There is no doubt that blended learning can be as effective and often more effective than a classroom,” said Mr. Moore, who is also editor of The American Journal of Distance Education. He said, however, that research and his experiences had shown that proper design and teacher instruction within the classroom were necessary. A facilitator who only monitors student progress and technical issues within virtual labs would not be categorized as part of a blended-learning model, he said. Other variables include “the maturity and sophistication of the student,” he said.

“Despite some complaints about the virtual teaching method, administrators said e-learning labs were here to stay.”