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.

Where Should Your Dollars (and Hours) Go?

February 26, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People are the 99%!

February 14, 2012

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

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

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

(The Jester blames any oversimplification on lack of space, but anyone interested in the nuanced details is directed to the video of the event online http://newamerica.net/events/2012/mobile_disconnect.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Time, It’s Different!

November 16, 2011

The M4D “revolution” continues unabated, but new revolutions are already well underway. It’s been at least a year since Kindles and iPads have also gone 4D, and the latest news is India’s $35 Aakash. The Jester is now taking bets on when the first event, journal, or working group focuses on the topic of T4D – “tablets for development.”

Today, though, the Jester will take a break from decrying the hype that comes with each new wave of technology. He will not question the bizarre juxtaposition of an industry unable to produce hardware that lasts three years talking about sustainability. And, he will not cynically note how with each new ICT, technologists squeal, “This time, it’s different!” until it, too, ends up in a dump where the locals burn off plastic for metal, in the process getting a good carcinogenic whiff of the toxic fumes.

No, instead, the Jester will return to his roots as a computer scientist and daydream about future ICTs. He will extrapolate to infinity and beyond, where technologies might actually really be so different that they really actually would save the world. Why continue fooling around with Python and Javascript, when brainpower could be applied to real breakthroughs…?

  • Potential World-Saving Technology #1: The holodeck. Here is a technology that allows people to immerse themselves in any conceivable world, with animated characters that look, feel, and act just like real people. Forget TV, forget laptops… Just drop children into holodecks from birth until 18 years of age, and they would all pop out with world-class educations (as well as a host of imaginary friends)! This time, the technology is sure to make schools a thing of the past.
  • Potential World-Saving Technology #2: The kung-fu teaching machine from the Matrix. Why waste 18 years in the holodeck, when education could be beamed into a person’s brain in seconds? Illiterate parents could have their children do unpaid labor for the early years, and then, on the eve of their adulthood, instantly transform them into lawyers, doctors, *and* engineers.
  • Potential World-Saving Technology #3: Autonomous humanoid robots. The Jester claims “technology amplifies human intent and capacity” but with self-willed robots, he’d have to include “robotic intent and capacity.” With technology amplifying itself, pesky human beings would no longer be necessary for having impact. Hurray!

The Jester offers a few comments regarding these reveries. First, for the beginning Jester reader: Unfortunately, like a lot of pipe dreams, these technologies are a long long ways away. Too bad.

Second, for the advanced Jester-ologist who is not so easily fooled… That’s right, even these incredible future technologies won’t fix human problems. 

For example, unless society musters the will to fix its social challenges, it will only be the rich and powerful who will have access to holodeck hardware, good holodeck content, and time inside a holodeck. Meanwhile, without a good upbringing to begin with, rural holocenter users, particularly the male ones, will be inclined to spend hours in holo-orgies instead of productive educational lessons. (Some future development theorists will also suggest that this should be considered development because it is an exercising of the users’ agency and an expansion of capabilities.)

Similarly, direct-to-brain instructional machines will come with different levels of quality. Again, the rich and powerful will be able to afford high-caliber machines that maximize learning while minimizing negative side effects. On the other hand, a poor, marginalized user will only be able to afford the local knock-off brands. Also, she will not understand that while she might very well learn kung-fu, she also risks a 5% chance of coming out believing she is a duck.

Finally, with robots, it will still be people who decide what motivations are built into them. Robotic goals will only echo our own intent and capacity. Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics sound great, except that it’s not at all clear, in the absence of a wise, effective world government, how anyone could enforce the laws for all robots. Despots as well as clueless development “experts” will release their own robots into the world, eager to implement policies that are supposedly good for people via robotic fiat. (Meanwhile, clever roboticists will design robots that (1) form ad hoc wireless societies on their own, (2) are hackable so that smallholder farmers can reconfigure them for themselves, and (3) are secure from Three-Laws tampering, except of course, if their password is stolen.)

It appears that even in the future, technology only amplifies human intent and capacity. As for the present craze with mobiles and tablets, the Jester sees a silver lining: it is reassuring to know that no app will turn him into a duck.

ICT *or* Development, Part 3: The Jester Meets the White African

November 7, 2011

A blog post by the White African attacks the term “ICT4D.” As a card-carrying citizen of ICT4Distan, the Jester takes offense! No, wait, the Jester agrees with White African! Actually, no, the Jester still takes offense! Throwing pies at ICT4D is the Jester’s job!

How very confusing.

Never fear – whenever the Jester is confused, he takes a few deep breaths, practices mindful self-awareness, centers himself in a place of deep humility, and then looks for other people to blame. In this case, the White African is a convenient Fool for the Day (FftD®)!

It should first be noted why he is not Fool for the Year (FftY®): The White African is absolutely right when he says that “ICT4D” is a terrible term. As communication researcher Jonathan Donner notes, critiques of the term abound. Among the most stinging critiques is one by the Jester himself, that the abbreviation sounds too much like a coinage by the dyslexic cousin of rock/pop singer, Prince.

In fact, when the Jester was thinking about what domain name to purchase for his blog, he considered many slicker, more appropriate names such as “TBBITW” (The Best Blog in the World) and “Un-OLPC,” but a book on branding strategy noted that if one is handsome enough to turn heads on the street, sexy names are superfluous; it’s better to go with an accurate descriptor. The Jester chose “ICT4D Jester,” because “ICT4D” is the most recognized of the many bad buzzwords circulating in the field. “Japan,” too, is a Western mispronunciation of a word that means “the source of the sun,” which is ridiculous from many perspectives, but the word is too thoroughly ensconced. The country is not about to change its name to something more appropriate such as “the source of really sexy people.”  

So, ICT4D remains a terrible non-acronym whose only redeeming quality is that it is a lot better than ICT4E, ICT4A, ICT4YAT, (“Yet Another Thing”) M4D, YAT4D, RHOK, OLPC, and BOP. The FftD White African is right to call out its patronizing, condescending tone. (Though, that particular accusation coming from a man who calls himself “White African”… well, let’s just say it gives the Jester a new blog idea: “Yellow American” – a blog highlighting technologies invented by clever white Americans. Tagline: How did they manage to invent those things on their own?!)

But paternalism can’t be helped in development, as the Jester believes. When rich, powerful, educated people interact with poorer, less powerful, less educated people with the intent to somehow help them out, it is necessarily paternalistic and condescending, even if one learns a lot more from the spear-chucking natives than the converse (a cop-out defense that competes with “Some of my best friends are X!” for the world’s least-convincing excuse). If we really wanted to avoid paternalism and condescension altogether, we’d stay out of international development entirely. But even the Jester doesn’t have that level of wisdom.

So, if the White African is right to criticize the term, why should the Jester call him confused?

 

This question dovetails nicely with the other series of blog posts that the Jester has been remiss in completing (labeled ICT *or* Development and ICT or D, Part Deux). In those posts, the Jester has been trying to explain why it is so difficult to succeed at making a profit and serving poor customers with the same activity. Due to a karmic connection, those posts are based on a talk the Jester’s alter ego gave at the iHub, home of the White African.

The underlying issue is a deep one that goes straight to the heart of economic development. To compress the last century of economic history into a nutshell,* countries that attempted centralized socialism lost to capitalist countries in the contest to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible. That is to say, the United States won the Cold War. The victors and their economists then proceeded to commit the classic error of overgeneralization and extrapolated the lesson that free-market capitalism is an unalloyed good (buoyed by another overgeneralized hypothesis known as the Kuznets curve).

In the last few decades, however, countries like the United States have been running the experiment of rampant free-market capitalism. Among other things, this led to the dramatic financial crash of 2007-2008, a population unable to wean itself off of resource consumption, and increased inequality, not only economically but also in terms of health, education, and well-being. If that’s what happens under what could be argued is the closest thing to a “pure” free-market capitalism, any reasonable person should be reconsidering the lesson of the Cold War victory.

While capitalism is terrific for economic growth, something else must also be present to ensure other values we care about. In the context of international development, for example, we particularly care about mitigation of inequality. In that context, the something else that is necessary to counterbalance capitalism is progressive activity – which the Jester defines to be any activity that provides more for people who have less. Thus, a progressive tax is progressive activity, because it taxes poorer people less. Also progressive are additional educational resources for children of less educated families and free healthcare for those who can’t afford private care.

Capitalism grows the whole pie, so that there is more for everyone, but it also tends to concentrate wealth, so that only a few actually get the additional slices. Progressive activity distributes wealth and capacity more evenly, but in and of itself fails to generate growth.

And, here is the big secret that everyone knows deep in their hearts, but few seem able to articulate: Both capitalism and progressive activity are good and important; the key is a delicate balance. (The reader who understands this is certain to have an IQ with at least one more digit than that of the average American politician.)

This delicate balance is at the heart of good international development, at least in an economic sense.** Developing countries need a healthy capitalism to grow their pies. Being without a capitalist engine dooms a country to an empty crust. But developing countries also need healthy progressive activity, or the existing inequalities will compound, just as is occurring in countries like India.

ICT4D, being a subset of international development activity, theoretically includes the promotion of both capitalism and progressive activity, but in practice, it tends to embrace the progressive side of things. (The Jester would argue that it is right to do so – business will take care of itself in the end, but progressive activity always needs more allies.) Few people consider that when Infosys – India’s most successful IT company  – uses computers, it is engaging in ICT4D. Yet, the company is undoubtedly contributing to India’s development at a scale far greater than any non-profit ICT4D project, and it is doing so with ICT. It’s contribution, however, is solely on the growth side.

Balance requires weight on both sides, and it’s the difficulty of splitting one activity to serve two purposes that makes it exceedingly difficult to make a profit while serving a poor population. ICT4$ is needed, but someone also needs to focus on D. (The Jester, of course, does not necessarily say that D should proceed via ICT4D!)

 

And, this brings us to the point of confusion of our FftD. In his activities, the White African splits his time between progressive activity and for-profit capitalism. In projects like Ushahidi, he is explicitly using donor money and self-subsidized labor to create software and adapt it for explicitly progressive use, such as crowdsourcing for Haiti. (Self-subsidized because he and his colleagues could conceivably be earning a lot more if they applied their energies towards purely for-profit ends.) On the other hand, at the iHub, he is trying to encourage African technologists to grow for-profit businesses. Among them are folks who’d like nothing more than to become the next Bill Gates.

Much of the developing world needs both – capitalism-fed economic growth and progressive activity catering to its least privileged – and the White African is laudably contributing to both sides. His difficulty with the term “ICT4D” is not due to terminology, however, but rather because of confusion caused by engaging in both types of activity without keeping them conceptually separate. To this day, the White African is juggling two spheres in the same space – the iHub grew out of his success with Ushahidi, and Ushahidi still operates out of the iHub.

Since juggling is something the Jester knows a lot about, here are some unsolicited suggestions, not just for the White African, but for anyone caught with one foot in development as progressive activity and another in development as economic growth…

The Jester notes first that the White African should acknowledge the value of being associated with ICT4D. Ushahidi is a non-profit effort that runs on grants from donors such as the MacArthur Foundation, the Knight Foundation, Humanity United, and the Omidyar Network. Its renown is intimately tied to its non-profit goals; map-and-mobile mash-ups are otherwise a dime a dozen. It’s the progressive use to which Ushahidi is put that makes it unique and why wealthy philanthropists want to make grants to it. Without the ICT4D face of Ushahidi, there would be no Ushahidi.

The iHub, on the other hand, is all about incubating for-profit technology companies. This aspect of the White African’s double life is all about start-up companies and capitalist growth. Of course, no one who wants to make money wants to hear about ICT4D – investors want profit, and the successful ones have long recognized that the most profitable ventures cater to rich people, maybe middle-class people, but definitely not to poor people, or heaven forbid, charitable causes. (Impact investing and the World Bank’s infoDev notwithstanding – those folks (1) lower their return-on-investment expectations, because they know they can’t make as much profit as otherwise, and (2) are anyway living in some la-la land where oil is unlimited and poop doesn’t smell.) To make the iHub successful as an incubator, the smart thing would be to dissociate it from Ushahidi. The Jester would go as far as to get Ushahidi staff a different office, so that their do-gooder ways don’t taint the ambitious capitalists. Maybe one day, cohabitation will work, but it’s not easy when at least one party is struggling to establish itself.

As to the White African’s complaint that foreigners pouring in money towards development efforts are killing the local business scene, that would hold only if they were aiming for the same target market. But, they shouldn’t be. Foreign aid money aims for the bottom of the pyramid, yet it’s the middle and the top of the pyramid that African start-ups should aim for — that’s where the disposable income is (ignore C. K. Prahalad). It’s important to keep business goals separate from doing-good goals. (The White African’s comment  that foreign aid is a cause of atrophy of local governments is closer to the mark, as Dambisa Moyo and others have noted. But, the issue here is not in the giving or accepting of aid, as much as how it’s done. The Chinese often took foreign aid, but then did the hard work themselves with good results.)

Along similar lines, the Jester would advise keeping all other social-impact activity separate from for-profit activity. Conferences should either be about social impact or for-profit start-ups, but not both. Evening mixers should involve development organizations or high-tech entrepreneurs, but not both. Branding should make clear which goal is served, with clarity either on business or social impact, but not both. Staff should be hired by one or the other kind of organization, but not both (the last thing a start-up needs is the anchor of non-profit salaries for its staff). Even dress can conform to the stereotypes of each community: T-shirt and cargo pants might be okay for the dusty development types, but start-up geeks ought to consider at least dress shirts and slacks.

To sum up, the Jester says to the White African: “Yes, ICT4D is a four-letter word (with a number), but wear it proudly in your progressive technology activities, and cast it off – way,way off – for your for-profit ones. Meanwhile, don’t forget that the world needs both types of activity. Of course, the one thing you can’t do is split yourself in two.  And, that, perhaps, is another reason why it’s so difficult to make a profit and serve a poor population simultaneously.”

(*) It’s good to be the Jester!

(**) The Jester does not attempt here to answer the very relevant and extremely hairy question of whether international development should support the economic growth of developing countries when we all know that will only add to the world’s resource crunch and accelerate our date with global economic crisis. The Jester’s hunch is that we should do so, anyway — the demographic transition is our best hope, and not doing so is morally hypocritical. But, that’s just a hunch.

ICT *or* Development, Part Deux

August 22, 2011

“It is very difficult to make a lot of money by selling goods or services to poor people in a way that has meaningful, positive impact on their lives, particularly with ICT,” quoth the Jester in a previous post. In this post, the Jester explains why.

 (The Jester imagines a day when millions of college students will learn to quote the Jester when they take the mandatory course, “Technology and Society: How to Avoid the Mistakes of Your Technologist Parents, Grandparents, and Great-Grandparents,” but for now, he will have to be satisfied with quoting himself.)

The Jester suspects there is another Top Ten List in here somewhere, but for now, his meager brain can think of only six reasons why it is so difficult to make a lot of money and serve the poor by selling them stuff. And, here they are…

  • The “Two Birds” Problem: In general, it is much more difficult to simultaneously meet two goals, rather than just one, especially when there is a tension between the two goals. It is hard enough making a healthy profit by itself (ask any Silicon Valley venture capitalist). And, it’s perhaps even harder to have meaningful impact in development. So, setting the goal of both making a killing and having positive impact makes things much harder than either goal by itself.
  • The Ethics Problem: Selling to poor customers raises the question of what to charge them. In making this decision, one can lose money, break even, or make money. Obviously, the first two options do not make anyone a lot of money. If, on the other hand, one makes money, then it leads to the same question faced by Compartamos Bank and SKS Microfinance: Are they laying the conditions for commercial investment, or profiting off the backs of the poor? Muhammad Yunus says of them, “I never imagined that one day microcredit would give rise to its own breed of loan sharks.”
  • The Cost-of-Business Problem: Prahalad pooh-poohed the “poverty premium” – the higher prices that poor communities often pay in comparison to rich ones. Clean drinking water is widely considered “free” in the United States, but anyone living in Kibera will tell you it costs money and/or effort. But, he was wrong to think it represented a major money-making opportunity. The poverty premium exists exactly because poor communities are harder to serve (e.g., bumpy roads to rural villages), riskier (e.g., no credit history), and more likely to buy in small quantities (e.g., sachets). All of these factors contribute to a higher cost of doing business, and while there might be value in trying to shave off every shilling in the cost of a product, shaving is exactly what it will be.
  • The Competitive Pressure Problem: Given the above, any social entrepreneur will be at a disadvantage in the market against not-so-social entrepreneurs. Who will win the fight in the long run? The social entrepreneur tying one hand behind their back so that they can have a positive impact on their poor customers, or the pure entrepreneur ruthlessly chasing higher margins and greater share? The Jester cannot think of a single category of product in which the industry-leader is a social enterprise. (Readers are encouraged to submit exceptions that prove the rule.) Then, guess what industry leaders do to their slower counterparts?
  • The Branding Problem: In the Akshaya telecenters mentioned earlier, the entrepreneurs often faced a branding dilemma: Do they swim upstream and market to wealthier clients who are seeking a higher-class product? Or, do they target their advertising to the very poor as a social service? The dilemma is that it is difficult to both convincingly at the same time. Poorer customers are often scared off by glitzy things that seem out of their reach, anyway. Meanwhile, the last thing that the rich customers want is a product associated with poor people. Don’t believe it? Continuing the unfortunate stream of references to Snooki, the Jester happened upon a news article, which claims that luxury brands send Snooki competitors’ products as a way to lower their appeal. (The Jester refuses to divulge how he came upon this article, for fear or incriminating himself.) The lesson? It’s not easy to market the same product the same way to rich and poor.
  • The “It’s Good for You” Problem: Finally, the Jester arrives at his favorite claim: Given the choice (and there’s always a choice), most people – rich or poor – tend not to purchase things that are “good for them.” How many needs assessments in international development come back with healthcare, education, and skills training as desperate needs of poor people? Almost all of them. And, how many poor people actually pay beyond what they’re already paying for better versions of these goods? Almost none of them. And, this point is doubly true for information, that stuff that is channeled through ICTs. Normally, human beings are precariously perched between self-improvement and sloth. Then, when you have to pay for it, sloth looks pretty good.

This last point touches on the harebrained idea that poverty is something that is alleviated through consumption. Of course, consumed goods can add convenience, pleasure, and some other good things to life. And, sometimes, there are products or services that help a person earn more. But, consumption is the result of having the ability to consume, not the primary cause of that capacity. What matters in development is increasing that capacity, not selling people stuff. In short, you can’t consume your way out of poverty. (Incidentally, this is a major error in standard economic thinking, which routinely conflates the metric – amount consumed – with its underlying cause, which is income and, further, the means to earn income. Consumption correlates with income, but they are not the same!)

In the next post, the Jester outlines his simple-as-possible-but-no-simpler view of development as a way to explain that selling people things and doing development are two very distinct, even opposing, activities.  

ICT *or* Development

August 14, 2011

[The Jester is in a rambling mood. Those who wish to get straight to business should skip to sixth paragraph, just after the break.]

It’s been over two months since the Jester last wrote, and he returns with renewed amazement at bloggers who blog every week, Facebookers who update each day, and Twitterers who tweet once an hour.

It’s not that those two months have been without comment-worthy incident. The Jester’s notebook is filled with notes to self: “write post on ridiculous belief that associating with a for-profit guarantees breaking even”; “blog about non-profit crisis of faith in non-profit model”; “add Seva Mandir to list of NGOs keeping their eye on the real target of human growth”; “do Q&A entry for people thinking about an ICT4D PhD”; “spank Thomas Friedman for superficial analysis of role of IT in global problems”; etc.

So, the intention to write those posts was all there, and so was the technology. So, the Jester is left to conclude that it’s his own lack of capacity that is at fault. He will conveniently place blame on his advancing age.

Instead of starting with his backlog, which would (in the manner of the Indian rail system) cause all entries to fall behind by two months, he will instead reschedule his backlog to some as-yet-unknown future date (also in the manner of the Indian rail system), and continue with his most current thoughts. (To be fair to the Indian rail system, their on-time rates, particularly on express trains, has improved dramatically in just the few short years the Jester has known it.)

This week, the Jester finds himself in Nairobi, where he will debut a new act titled “ICT or Development: Why It’s So Difficult to Get Rich and Help the Poor Simultaneously.” Those fortunate enough to be in Nairobi can catch the talk at the iHub on Aug. 18. (The announcement does not yet indicate the time of the event, but not to worry – the Jester doesn’t know, either!) Throughout this week, the Jester will, if his advanced age doesn’t prevent him, post portions of the argument. So, to begin…

*

In 2004, the Jester visited some of the Akshaya rural telecenters in the Malappuram district of Kerala, India. These centers were initiated and subsidized by the state government, who sought “100% computer literacy” for the state, meaning that one person in every household should learn the basics of PC operation, e-mail, and Internet browsing. The state saw it as a development project, but unusually for communist-leaning Kerala, the telecenters were meant to be run as for-profit businesses by local entrepreneurs.

The telecenters the Jester saw on that trip varied in their apparent success. One had a row of shiny new PCs in a swanky air-conditioned office space and bustled with customers furiously working through a computer-literacy curriculum. The owner boasted that he was already making a good profit. Another stacked computer equipment floor to ceiling, so that at most one PC was actually usable. The owner said that he dragged members of low-income families in his village to his center to learn about PCs, even if they kicked and screamed. When asked about breaking even, he demurred, “What I care about is the development impact of this project.”

A year or two later, then-PhD-student Renee Kuriyan went back to the same district to explore in depth, and among other things, she confirmed what the Jester had seen informally – that most Akshaya entrepreneurs fell into one of two categories: Those who made money by marketing to richer clients, and those who had some impact on poorer clients, but made little money. A very small minority made money and served poor clients.

Since then, the Jester has seen or heard of myriad attempts to make a profit by serving the poor, or as C. K. Prahalad put it, “eradicate poverty through profits.” Yet, despite the ongoing excitement around social enterprises and the bottom of the pyramid, in actuality, it is very difficult to make a lot of money by selling goods or services to poor people in a way that has meaningful, positive impact on their lives, particularly with ICT. The Jester made a similar point last year as ICT4D Myth 4, and will delve further this week, by explaining why impact through profits is so difficult, why the development world should stop being distracted by this mirage, and what the alternatives are.

But, before he does so, he will insert a few clarifications for those contentious readers who have cued up potential counterexamples. The hope is that this will save the Jester from having to name more Fools-for-the-Day than are strictly necessary.

First, the statement contains a hedge: The Jester only says that it is very difficult, not that it is absolutely impossible to make a lot of money by selling meaningful goods or services to poor people. One or two counterexamples do not falsify the assertion. Even with the hedge, though, the Jester pushes back against bandwagon-jumpers who assume every development challenge can be solved with a for-profit solution.

Second, the thesis is about making a lot of money. A little money is easy. Of course, what is a lot depends on the eye of the beholder, but it seems reasonable to suggest that “a lot of money” is not what microentreprises make when they primarily serve poor communities. There are also some interesting social businesses, of the kind that Muhammad Yunus advocates. For example, Yunus says that microfinance organizations should charge no more than 15% above operating costs (that does not allow for profits a la Compartamos Bank in Mexico). Another example is Aravind Eye Hospital, whose sincere focus on ending preventable blindness keeps the owners from becoming Sir Richard Branson.

Third, the claim is about profit and impact made by selling goods and services to poor customers. Specifically, it excludes instances where the buyer is not the beneficiary. The most prominent cases of this are when governments or charitable donors purchase goods or services on behalf of poor customers. Here, it’s possible to get rich, as some “beltway bandits” do in the United States – these firms, so called for the circular highway that runs around Washington D.C., earn their primary income by winning development contracts from USAID, the World Bank, and other large funders. Bandits raise two kinds of issues: One, do they deserve credit for serving the poor, if someone else is footing enough of the bill to make them rich? If a Good Samaritan pays full price for a loaf of bread to feed a hungry child, does the baker get to claim to have aided the child? The Jester thinks not. Two, if the beneficiary isn’t paying, then does it count as social enterprise or public service? The Jester says public service. The only enterprise in such cases is the outsourcing of a task – that part of it is not social. Conversely, the social intent lies between the funder and the beneficiary. Anyone getting rich in the middle is a profiteer.

Fourth, the net impact must be meaningful and positive. Coca Cola is certainly making a lot money by selling to poor clients, but is their impact positive? Does the joy from carbonated sugar water outweigh the consequences of lost teeth? Is the cost of changing a ring tone really worth the money spent?

The Jester has so far avoided the possible counterexamples of the mobile phone (voice call) and M-PESA, both of which appear to be making lots of money and serving the poor. Indeed, if their net impact on the poor were conclusively positive, the Jester would concede that they are valid – and powerful – counterexamples. But, the Jester would not be the Jester if he accepted conventional wisdom without a fight. He denies, rather, that all the evidence is in yet.

He can’t help but think of the case of television, once hailed as the means to bring education to millions, but now the means by which millions self-lobotomize by watching Snooki. Mobile-watchers rhapsodize about the rapid proliferation of GPRS and the ironically named smartphone, but won’t they just become another channel for Snooki? And, what will corporations with large marketing budgets do when the world’s least educated people can transfer money by phone? It’s almost enough to make this nut long nostalgically for market imperfections.

In any case, the Jester’s core point is a warning for those hoping to get rich by selling to the poor and a caveat for those thinking breaking-even is the only, or the effective, route to scale. In the next post, the Jester will enumerate why it’s so difficult to make a lot of money by selling goods or services to poor people in a way that has meaningful, positive impact on their lives, particularly with ICT.

My Internet, Right or Wrong

June 8, 2011

The stars have aligned for the Jester, who is fortunate today to have four Fools for the Day (FftD). Jaume Fortuny and Tony Roberts, both of whom commented on the Jester’s previous post, were joined by Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan and U.N. Special Rapporteur, Frank William La Rue, in affirming the need for the Internet to be a human right. (Thanks to @jeffswin and @fortuny for bringing the Pakistani and U.N. news to the Jester’s attention. The Jester chuckled at @fortuny’s triumphant tone, and appreciated @random_musings’s wry remark about the U.N. ignoring the Jester. The Jester demands that his country be recognized by the United Nations!)

In light of both grassroots and grass-tops support for the Internet as a human right, it might seem all too foolish for the Jester to rant against the idea. Nevertheless, ranting is the Jester’s favorite pastime. If only some queendom would actually pay him for it!

The Jester has already posted his arguments against human-right-ism of ICT. So, he will focus on rebutting rebuttals.

Fool-for-the-Day Jaume Fortuny begins, “Human rights must ensure an environment of social harmony and personal development that dignify the lives of people,” and continues with several such platitudes. The Jester is certainly not against social harmony, personal development, or dignity in the lives of people, and actively believes that these things should be worked on very directly.

The real question is not whether these things are important, but how best to achieve them. ICT, alas, is simply not even a partial cure for challenging social problems. Technology amplifies human intent and capacity. Consider social harmony: if people want to fight rather than to reconcile, then the Internet only makes the fighting more intense. Witness the phenomenon of cyber-balkanization in the United States, for example, where conservatives and liberals each have their vocal representatives and blogs, and only scream more loudly at each other. Just a quarter of a century ago, it was common for Republicans and Democrats to collaborate on legislation. Today, with the miracle of the Internet, politicians are even more beholden to their constituents, and constituents isolate themselves in parallel Internet universes that never intersect. Is that ICT-enabled social harmony?

Mr. Fortuny is on firmer ground when he suggests that developing countries might want to learn from the Finnish capacity for innovation. The Jester agrees, but capacity for innovation and use of technology are two different things. It’s relatively easy to drive a car; it’s much harder to engineer one (and then to profit from it). Not understanding that difference is at the heart of much ICT confusion.

FftD Tony Roberts asks, “In a world where oppressed groups with the volition and potential ability to overturn dictators and challenge injustice, chose the internet, or other ICTs as the most efficacious tools in a stage of their struggle, should we deny them the right?”

The Jester has two responses to this question: First, Mr. Roberts may have misunderstood the nature of a declared “human right” as the Jester was critiquing it. The Jester never said that anyone should be actively denied the use of the Internet. Though it may come as a surprise to readers, the Jester doesn’t go around sabotaging telecenters as a side hobby!

The question is whether the Internet must be actively made available to everyone, which is the implication of something being a human right. There are many things that are desirable, but which cannot practically be provided for all, and are not absolutely critical to dignified human life. For example, if Twitter ever becomes necessary for dignified human life, the Jester will likely take the blue pill and go back into the Matrix.

Note that the United Nations has not issued a declaration of the human right to gasoline-powered vehicles, even though it could be argued that physical mobility is an even more fundamental need than the ability to watch YouTube. Despite the immense utility of transport, human beings can, amazingly, live decent lives without automobiles (unlike food, water, air, shelter, or basic healthcare), and it would likely burst  developing country budgets to provide transport to every citizen.

A second interpretation of Mr. Roberts question might be that for the very sake of fighting for human rights, shouldn’t we make the Internet a human right? This point of view is particularly relevant given the current uprisings in the Arab world. Unfortunately, it is also very circular. It falls into the category of the most common response that the Jester receives: “If X, not ICT, is what’s important in development, then how about using ICT for X?”

If the Jester had a dime for every time someone asked him that, he would simply fund a T1 line for everyone on the planet, just so that we could all move on to the real challenges. Of course, it would be nice if freedom fighters everywhere (the good ones, anyway) could have access to the Internet so that they could communicate with each other and the world, while their evil oppressors are stuck with carrier pigeons. Maybe if declaring the Internet a human right got us one inch closer to that possibility, we ought to do it. FftD Frank La Rue in his report writes, U.N.“ Special Rapporteur calls upon all states to ensure that Internet access is maintained at all times, including during times of political unrest.” (The Jester would like to know, where did they come up with his fancy title, and can he have one like it, too? Perhaps, Special Royal Gluteal Ache to the U.N.)

But the reality is that any dictator willing to shut down or censor the Internet is already engaged in violating other more important human rights, such as the right not to be shot in the head or tortured by secret police. Mr. La Rue filed his report on May 16, a couple of months after the Syrian uprisings began.

The Jester likes to imagine President Bashar al-Assad having the following moral quandary: “In order to stay in power, I’ve killed a thousand of my fellow citizens, detained tens of thousands, and even had one 13-year-old tortured and killed. But, the U.N. says the Internet is a human right. Gosh, maybe I shouldn’t shut off the Internet. Hmm, what to do…?”

On June 3, al-Assad reportedly shut down much of the Syrian Internet.

The Internet: Human Right or Human Wrong?

May 31, 2011

About a year ago, the Jester gave a version of his “Myths of ICT4D” talk to an audience of Indian students. Among them was Samujjal Purkayastha, who in an follow-up e-mail asked what the Jester thought of Finland making the Internet a human right. The Finns passed a law requiring that every household in the country have access to a 1Mbps broadband connection. Estonia, France, Greece, Spain, and Costa Rica have followed suit with similar legislation, providing further fodder for self-unaware techno-utopians like Nicholas Negroponte, and fueling ongoing public discussion in international development.

The rhetoric of human rights is emotionally powerful. Anyone who argues against X as a human right must answer the challenge, “How can you deny someone X, when X is so essential?” And of course, few people — not even the Jester in his most Luddite of moods — are explicitly for denying anyone the Internet. (The exceptions are dictators losing their grip on a country making a last-ditch effort to stymie the opposition by cutting communication lines. It does seems to the Jester, though, that any dictator willing to suppress his opposition by force and shut down the Internet will hardly be concerned about public shaming by some foreign diplomats.)

But, the question is not whether to deny someone something that they’ve never had, but whether, of all the things they could have next, the Internet should be it. Unfortunately, when the list of things they don’t have includes reasonable access to clean water, quality primary and secondary education, basic healthcare, and basic sanitation, the Internet falls far far behind in the list of priorities. (Nor, incidentally, can any of those things be meaningfully addressed via the Internet. The Jester does not encourage young ICT4D PhD candidates to work on a mechanism by which to convert bits to water, at least not if they wish to finish their dissertation within the third millennium. )

Human rights rhetoric admits no greys. It allows no ordering of priorities. In fact, the whole point of anyone arguing for X as a human right is to turn what is in fact a question of when and how much into one of black-and-white either/or. Proponents hope that once something is accepted as a right, those in power will spare no expense to provide it universally. 

Unfortunately, this logic is short-sighted and counterproductive if true development, and not the selling of some technology product or service, is the goal. As the Jester has written ad infinitum, the Internet is of minimal value to a poor, undereducated farmer earning less than $2 a day. Countries with the highest rates of Internet penetration today are those that happened to be rich already (and which, incidentally, often also have the highest penetration of lots of other things requiring money, such as automobiles). The belief that the Internet makes a country rich is not far from the belief that sticking one’s tongue out makes one Michael Jordan.

Even if broadband access were to cost as low as $5 per month (the current cost of a monthly broadband subscription in India, likely among the lowest in the world), at $60 a year, that is a sum that could be put to use much more meaningfully towards other purposes, such as contributing to a clean-water kiosk, hiring assistant teachers for classes to boost educational outcomes, purchasing decent medical insurance, or installing a latrine.

Furthermore, by adding yet another item to the growing list of human rights, Internet-rights activists diminish the emphasis on those rights that might truly deserve special status. The world is very far even from guaranteeing clean water and minimal nutrition to all 6.7 billion people on the planet. Given that, it’s pure delusion to suggest that international development is ready to take on an information technology as a universal right.

And, if none of that is convincing, consider that the world is marching steadily and quickly towards a world in which everyone will have access to the Internet via their mobile phones. The latest figures are around 5.3 billion mobile phone accounts and 2 billion Internet users. Hungry telecoms will make it happen, anyway, so why should good people interested in development waste their time when other development objectives are being neglected?

None of this is to suggest that Finland, or any other country in particular, is  wrong to provide the Internet to all. For countries that have secured water, nutrition, sanitation, healthcare, shelter, and education for every one of their people (as Finland has more or less done), the Internet seems a reasonable next step. But, if developing countries have an aspiration to be more like Finland, it seems clear that there are many other priorities before universal broadband. To start, countries ought to learn from the Finn’s terrific educational system, which, incidentally, uses relatively little ICT.

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.