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.

Bad Influence

April 28, 2011

The Jester recently attended yet another conference on doing good with ICT. He initially wondered whether he should attend, but went for three reasons: (1) the event happened only blocks from the royal palace; (2) several of his old pals were there (from the days before the Jester was rescued from his depravity by the royal court); and (3) in spite of himself, the Jester hoped there might be some enlightenment among save-the-world technologists.

Alas, there was little sign of nirvana. Although there were a handful of presentations by those who had attained moksha, their wisdom was lost among the many fancy plans to scale positive change with ICT (which the Jester doubts ever happens even in alternate universes).

One thing the Jester did notice, however, was the incredible bluster of some of the presentations. In fact, the less evidence there was that good work was happening, the more confidently the speakers seemed to project the future potential of their technology projects.

The only other context in which the Jester has witnessed this phenomenon is when business school types make venture capital pitches. The Jester is surprised not to have noticed it before, but there is a distinct tendency among ICT-for-doing-gooders to promote their projects in the same manner.

The Jester speculates that this happens for one of several reasons:

  • Some people are recycling some or all of their VC presentations, particularly in light of so much delusion about Prahaladian bottom of the pyramid.
  • Some people are recycling the presentations they made for the recent spate of dubious contests for mobile apps for development.
  • In the tweet-magnified ICT-for-good sphere, people come to think of every presentation as a VC pitch or a contest submission.

Even supposing that the underlying technology-for-good projects were worthwhile (a temporary supposition, the Jester assures you!), this is an abhorrent development. Other words to describe this phenomenon include lurid, execrable, putrid, detestable, loathsome, and whydontwealljustselloursoulstothedevilable.

Although the Jester appreciates attempts to make the world of do-gooding as efficient as the world of for-profiting, there are some very real differences. The for-profit world, for example, has a natural (eventual) check against pure bluster without substance, and that is the bottom line. In addition, the only people who lose in the for-profit world, if a start-up goes under, are the rich folks who bet on the start-up.

In the world of doing good, there is only a theoretical bottom line of positive impact. In practice, because impact is so hard to measure, rarely does impact figure in what receives support. Furthermore, there is an irretrievable opportunity cost when a bad project is funded over an impactful project.

Together, these two things mean that while in the business world, it’s perfectly ethical to pull all sorts of random numbers out of a hat and confidently claim them as the market potential, the world of doing good requires a bit more… doing good. More honesty and more humility.

Unfortunately, because social VCs and telecom competitions are judged by people drawn largely from the for-profit world, they bring their bad habits with them. Namely, they reward cleverness, confidence, and fake numbers over humility, genuine intent, and determination… exactly the opposite of what we want in good ICT-for-good.

So, what can be done? In a vain attempt to influence the juries of social enterprise competitions, and an even vainer attempt to influence the competitors, the Jester offers the following guidelines:

  • Above all, presenters should be up front about what is known and what is not known. Among the unknown, the process by which they might become known should be highlighted over attempts at speculation. Where speculation is necessary, the fact of its guesswork should be highlighted in neon colors. Judges should dock points for hollow confidence that comes ahead of real knowledge. Judges should award points for humility and interest in finding out the reality on the ground.
  • Presenters should highlight the role of organizational partners or efforts to build the non-technological requirements for success. If 80% of the effort is not technological, why should technology dominate the presentation? Anyone who thinks magic will happen without non-technological components should be required to do community service.
  • It should be made clear what stage a project is in. Those projects that are only planning to have impact should be presented and judged differently from those projects claiming a history of impact.
  • For projects claiming to have had impact, a good presentation should include evidence of concrete impact, lessons learned, and what open questions remain for the next stage. Judging should look at the quality of impact first, and scale second.
  • Early-stage projects will have limited evidence of impact. In its stead, there should be more discussion of open questions about what kind of impact is expected. Attempts to guess at the range of possilibities, the possible theory of change, what is known about impacts from related projects, should all be cast as question marks, and not exclamation points. Most importantly, the intended methodology by which open questions might be answered should be presented. Judges should assess the completeness of the list of questions and the plans to answer them, not skill in speculation. 
  • Presentations will presumably also include boasts about the technology, etc., but the less the Jester says about that portion of the presentation, the better.

Overall, judges should judge as VCs supposedly do — not for the idea or clever technology, but for the right qualities in the “management team.” For do-gooding, the key qualities are genuinely benevolent intent, determination with humility, and healthy respect for non-technological aspects of the solution. (For more along these lines, see the Jester’s comments on teaching ICT4D design.)

The Gap to Be Closed

April 21, 2011

The Jester now turns to the comments by Eric Brewer from a panel about ICT4D a couple of weeks ago (audio available here). Brewer started his comments with the following: “Technology is the only path forward, it’s not optional… if there’s a gap to be closed, there is no other mechanism.” He continued that economics might be an alternate mechanism, but that if so, it was so that people could become richer and then buy more technology.

This is an established line of thinking, and on the surface, it’s incontrovertible. Certainly, the incredible quality of life that most middle-class people in the world enjoy today is a direct consequence of incredible technologies. We’re freed from the tyranny of darkness because of lighting and power infrastructure. We can set up white-collar offices anywhere because of modern heating and air conditioning. We have terrific mobility due to automobiles and airplanes. We have much longer lives due to improved nutrition and amazing healthcare. And, we can know when some distant acquaintance has a hangover because of Facebook. As the cliché goes, the average person in a developed country today has a dramatically higher quality of life than kings and queens did even a century ago. And, it certainly is because of technology. The Jester cannot disagree.

So, if all of this is true, and it does seem to be irrefutably so, where is the error in thinking that “if there’s a gap to be closed, there is no other mechanism” other than technology? Ha, Jester! What do you say to that?!

The simple response is that the real gap to be closed is a gap of human intent and capacity, and not of temporary outcomes. Short of a technology that really could replace caring, capable parents and teachers (and no, Mr. Negroponte, even OLPC version 10 isn’t going to be it), technology doesn’t contribute significantly to closing that gap. In terms of the tired fish analogy, the goal is to show people how to fish, not to provide them with a turbo-charged robotic fishing pole.

In fact, at some subliminal level, Brewer is sure to understand this despite the words that come out of his mouth, because the Jester is certain that as a father, Brewer cares deeply about how his children are raised. They will get caring parenting and a great teacher-led education. Ironically, they will probably be limited in how much TV they can can watch, and Brewer will probably carefully monitor their use of mobile phones and the Internet as they grow up. The advantage Brewer’s kids will have over the children of a poor illiterate banana farmer in Uganda is that they will be well-educated and have access to Brewer’s Rolodex. Does Brewer really believe he could even begin to replace that with even the best of today’s technology?

The Jester anticipates two possible reactions…

First, technology could be deliberately applied to those with the least capacity. The Jester applauds progressive efforts; inequalities can only be reduced through them. But, the world being what it is, it is difficult in reality to design a progressive technology that isn’t desired by the rich and powerful (and which they could do more with) but which is still desirable and meaningful for the poor and marginalized.

Apparent examples of such technologies are not real examples on closer inspection. For example, a mid-tier farmer in the developing world would definitely benefit from a better treadle pump, which the Jester has no use for. But, that’s because the Jester’s court salary and the wealth of his kingdom buys him a much more expensive and sophisticated system of irrigation that he doesn’t even have to know about to benefit from. Whatever technology might benefit a very poor person, the rich will have better versions of. At best, progressive technology building is playing a never-ending game of catch up without addressing the core inequality of human capacity.

Second, even if inequalities increase in an absolute sense, isn’t it still better if very poor people benefit even a little? This is the core of neoliberal philosophy, embraced both by free-market economists and Rawlsian political philosophers. It says, as long as everyone benefits a little bit, it’s okay for the superrich to get richer.

The answer to the abstract question is, it depends. It depends on how much the absolute inequality increases over the benefit to the poor. Rawls’s conception is nice in pristine theory, but given human nature (“power corrupts”) and limited resources (which gives global economic growth elements of a zero-sum game), many situations that appear to lead to minor benefit for the poor and major benefit for the rich actually lead, in the long run, to no real benefit for the poor and often increased ability for the rich to do as they wish. For example, note that in technology- and free-market happy America, the poor have not actually gotten any richer for some decades.  

The answer to the specific question of whether there are ICTs that would be of value to the very poor, even if rich owners of mobile telecoms get even richer is also, it depends… but the opportunities are preciously few, because the value of information and communication technologies is so dependent on information processing ability and social capital, two things which poorer, less educated people have much less of compared with richer folk. Unlike technologies like roads, electricity, and running water, it takes a lot more to extract value from them.

In the end, ICT is more a consequence than a cause of development. Technology correlates with development and it does contribute to development. But, a greater cause of both technology and development is human intent and capacity. The critical gap we want to close is not the having of technology, but the ability to design, build, and support technology. It’s again the difference between having access to Google products and being a potential employee at Google.

One way to see this, is to consider a genie who offers you one of two options at the snap of his fingers:

  1. Every poor person in the world immediately has free access to every ICT that could conceivably be invented over the next decade.
  2. Every poor person in the world immediately has the mental equivalent of a first-rate bachelors degree.

Knowing what will happen to the technology, knowing the costs to maintain the genie’s gifts, knowing that a good university degree grants far more than knowledge, and anticipating the impact on the next generation… which would you choose?

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 Google.org), 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 Google.org 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.

Why Macha Works Works

February 5, 2011

The Guardian just posted an article on Macha Works, a development organization that works in the rural area of Macha, Zambia. The article is like many other technology-for-development articles that appear in the media in that it highlights the impact of the Internet on a rural area. Unfortunately, this class of article occurs with such frequency that the Jester rarely comments on them. This particular article, however, has three redeeming features: First,  it quotes the Jester’s alter ego; second, it includes a little more nuance than the typical technology-saves-the-world article; and third, the subject of the article might very well be unique: Macha Works.

The Jester has never visited Macha Works in Zambia, so he hesitates to say too much about it with certainty. There are too many non-profit organizations whose visibility and reputation are not matched by their actual impact on the ground. Nevertheless, the Jester has heard several positive secondhand accounts and has met Gertjan van Stam, the founder of Macha Works. (If any readers have seen Macha Works firsthand, the Jester welcomes comments!)

When the Jester spoke with him, Van Stam smugly declared on the one hand that there was a miracle taking place in Macha, and on the other hand, that he was responsible for none of it – everything was due to the local community. The Jester is surprisingly willing to believe the former, but not the latter… yet, the Jester fully endorses the attitude by which the latter comment was made.

Quoth the Jester: “Technology magnifies human intent and capacity.” The theory says that if Macha Works is actually having a positive impact with technology in Macha, it is doing so by applying the technology either to magnify its own positive intent and capacity, or to magnify the intent and capacity of the communities it works with. How does Macha Works do this?

First, according to van Stam, he facilitates – and only facilitates – the aspirations of the local community. He neither fulfills them himself, nor imposes aspirations onto them. The Guardian’s article itself quotes Elton Munguya, the head of Macha Works’s ICT division: “It’s always up to the community to suggest what they want in terms of development.” The local community wanted a radio station, so van Stam helped them set one up. They wanted an AIDS clinic, so he’s facilitating that. When I talked to him, Van Stam claimed that he never turns down a request. He was particularly proud that Macha now has a landing strip and regular flight service. Whatever they ask for, he facilitates.

At first blush, this might not seem all that different from what many development organizations do – healthcare, community radio, transport – but there’s a world of difference in approach. Other development organizations are eager to do something they feel is necessary, and then they either impose it on the community from the outside, or they spend a lot of time trying to convince the community they need it. At least according to van Stam, Macha Works never does anything unless the request comes from the local community.

Second, what exactly Macha Works “facilitation” involves was not entirely clear to the Jester, and van Stam deflected multiple attempts by the Jester to get this information out of him. But, based on their website and what van Stam was willing to say, the Jester surmises that it involves fundraising, procurement of hardware, calling on social networks for expertise and help, provision of training, and other things that the local community could not easily do for themselves. Van Stam was, however, eager to stipulate that the goal was for the local community to be able to operate things on their own and not to depend on van Stam.

This approach has at its core, what the Jester believes to be the single most effective model of global development: mentorship. Mentorship has a number of important elements that make it different from the dominant forms of international development, namely charity or trade. Charity presumes a status differential between a benefactor and a beneficiary, and then pretends to close the gap through giving. There’s little reason for the Jester to belabor the weaknesses of this approach — charity is almost a bad word these days — but he will note that one of the chief critiques of charity is its paternalism. It comes with the implication, “I know what’s good for you.”

Often out of a fear of paternalism, emphasis shifts to trade, in which partners are considered equal, thus defining away the potential for paternalism. Unfortunately, pretending that inequality between trade partners doesn’t exist leads to all sorts of problems, also, among which is neo-colonialism, where the more powerful partner exploits the less powerful partner, all in the name of “free trade.” Kwame Nkrumah theorized that this was even worse than outright colonialism.  

Mentorship is neither charity nor trade, neither imposition nor exploitation. In mentorship, the mentor seeks to help the mentee achieve the mentee’s own aspirations. Mentorship’s ultimate goal is the independence of the mentee. Mentorship acknowledges an initial difference in status, but then works to eliminate it through growth of the mentee.

 The real reason why Macha Works works, then, is not that it brings the Internet into the community. It’s because van Stamm’s model of development is based on mentorship. If the Internet has value here, it’s because (1) it amplifies van Stam’s own enlightened model of development, and (2) it is called into play only where the community articulates its own aspirations. Point (2) is subtle because it might be that the information that the community pulls in via the Internet is exactly the same information that other development projects impose on a community – but it’s not the information that makes the difference; it’s whether it’s pulled for or pushed onto the community. Pull has the consent and motivation of the community; push does not.

(One caveat about Macha Works, though, is that there appears to be a lot of residual charity. Macha Works’s website seeks charitable donations, and much of Macha Works relies on van Stam’s social network, not the community’s. To the extent that van Stam is critical to the enterprise, much of Macha Works’s benefit will fade if and when van Stam leaves. True mentorship would ensure that van Stam’s own social network and his ability to bring funding to Macha is transferred to the local population.)

In short, what makes Macha Works work is van Stam’s encouragement of the community’s aspirations + van Stam’s social network + van Stam’s choice of local leaders to nurture + van Stam’s nurturing of them + local aspirations + local capacity + charitable donors + a bunch of other things + the Internet. To call this “ICT-led development” is a misattribution of cause, even if van Stam sells that story, which strangely, he does. But if any one thing must be credited, it should be van Stam.

Incidentally, the Jester is intimately familiar with another aid organization called IICD and he finds a similar mentality there. IICD takes pains to act primarily as a mentor and facilitator for the organizations they work with. It is a model that focuses first on the beneficiary organization’s growth in capacity. Macha Works and IICD are both Dutch organizations, so perhaps there’s something in the Holland water that brings about this enlightened view of development.

Finally, the Jester notes that the Internet is undoubtedly useful in the Macha context, but it’s not clear that it’s necessary or cost-effective. The Jester’s mantra is that technology magnifies intent and capacity, not that technology is pointless. Without the underlying intent and capacity on the part of both van Stam and the community, though the Internet’s impact would be minimal. The other issue is opportunity cost. Other non-profits, such as PRADAN in India, also adopt the methodology of facilitating local aspirations, but they do it without the Internet. And, as the article states, so far, Macha relies on outside grants to pay for the Internet. Is $1500 a month really best spent on connectivity? Possibly, but only if someone like van Stam is there to facilitate the rest of what’s necessary to bring healthcare, education, and flight service to the community. To scale this model, we need to clone van Stams, not Internet cafes.

Schadenfreude for Google

January 31, 2011

The New York Times published an article titled “Google Finds It Hard to Reinvent Philanthropy” (the Jester thanks Bill Thies for forwarding). The Schadenfreude in the title permeates the entire article, and the Jester will join in the Freude. Not so much because an entity with deep pockets failed to do something good for the world (that would only merit Traurigkeit), but because that entity started it all with so much hubris… perhaps the greatest sin of international development. Larry Page wanted Google.org to “eclipse Google itself in terms of overall world impact,” and to somehow do it with only 1% of its profits.  

The Jester Googles just like anyone else, and has few doubts about the company’s smarts as a technology company. The Jester’s previous employer viewed Google as a competitor, and so he had reason to keep an eye on Google’s attempts to engage the poorer parts of the developing world.

The Jesterial conclusion is that Google’s strength as a Silicon Valley juggernaut is exactly its weakness in the developing world, and this is a lesson not just for Google, but for other technology companies. Google has a tendency to see everything as a technology problem. Lawrence Simon, a Brandeis professor who is quoted in the NYT article, puts it perfectly: “They were looking for something like a new algorithm — but there isn’t any algorithm that’s going to eradicate guinea worm.” Google, however, persists in the illusion: The title on www.google.org reads, “Technology-Driven Philanthropy.”

Anyone (that may include the reader) who thinks the differences between the developed and developing world can be solved through engineering is overlooking a very obvious flaw with that thesis: The world already has all of the technology it needs for the developed part of it to be developed. The problem isn’t that poor people need culturally appropriate climate control systems. The problem is that the ability to acquire, produce, support, and capitalize on technology is unequally distributed in the world. It’s not a technological challenge, any more than the uneven distribution of gold in the world is an alchemy challenge. (And, the Jester hasn’t even mentioned physical and infrastructural problems, which are decidedly not challenges of bits.)

The corollary of Google’s techno-fetishism is that the company abhors paying for non-creative-class human labor. Google has succeeded in the developed world largely by hyper-automation, by removing or avoiding human labor as much as possible. It all started with Page Rank, which brilliantly recognized that people’s ideas of webpage importance were already embedded in the hyperlink structure of the web, and that that knowledge could be automatically crawled and analyzed. This inclination also explains Google’s beta-itis, where products are left in trial state for centuries. What better way to keep customer service costs low? Even when it does have to pay humans, like the ones who monitor illegitimate content on YouTube, it does so with shame and secrecy.

In the developing world, though, this tendency is the exact opposite of what is required. Google’s attempts to win more eyeballs in poor rural areas, for example, consistently try to bypass intermediary human beings in the communication chain, whether it is delivering health information by SMS in Uganda or setting up rural announcement boards in India. But, as readers of the Jester know, information isn’t the bottleneck! (As proof of that thesis, note that Google’s one attempt to work with live human intermediaries was a telecenter project. If the world’s supposedly smartest company can’t be bothered to learn from the vast critical literature on telecenters, then what chance does an undereducated wage worker have with information dribbling in over SMS?)

Even where information is immediately helpful, it still requires human mediators in the “last mile” who can establish trust relationships, work the human-computer interface, manage cash if necessary, and possibly even provide a little education. That would mean hiring human labor, though, and Google doesn’t want that line item. (Meanwhile, a clever service called “Just Dial” in India uses a variation of Google’s revenue-sharing business model, but over voice calls and with a human-operated call center. Just Dial has turned it into a useful, lucrative business.)

As a result of its developed-world attitude to solving developing-world problems, Google has taken to offering what the Jester calls “thin technology” in the vain hope that just putting good software in the cloud will transform the developing world. Thin technology is technology that isn’t thickly integrated into a working institution. It’s mobile search without trained healthcare workers who can interpret medical information for undereducated patients. It’s Google apps for schools without any attempt to support teachers, administrators, or students. It’s crisis response tools without crisis response teams. To the extent that thin technology is for a world that uses Google and Gmail, some of it might be useful. But, that’s not the vast majority of the developing world.

So, what should Google, or any technology company, do? Strategically, here are the Jester’s recommendations:

  • Ringfence resources, so that the company’s primary business considerations don’t influence what is done. Specify the budget up front, then don’t touch.
  • Allow for a separate goal and strategy. In another technology company the Jester is intimately familiar with, one DotOrg-like group couldn’t decide whether they were philanthropy or business or PR or incubator. Pulled among different objectives, they had difficulty achieving any of them, and the group folded.
  • Disregard mumbo-jumbo about fortunes at the bottom of the pyramid or eradicating poverty through profits. If revenue is the goal, don’t bother with the poor world. Even if revenue flowed in, it will be by profiting from poor people. Is that the real intent? (For more, see the Jester’s post on the BOP.)
  • Emphasize impact over scale. Scaling something with impact makes sense, but shooting for scale before impact is confirmed is pointless, and possibly evil in development, where resources are scarce.
  • If any of the above don’t appeal, stay out of the game. Match employee donations, sure, but don’t pretend to do good while “increasing shareholder value.”

Next, more tactically…

  • Recognize that a technology company’s biggest asset isn’t its technology. It’s its people. What the world needs is more people nurturing, and less technology to solve their problems. Send out engineers to train engineers, managers to mentor managers. Etc.

The Jester doesn’t believe that providing technology solutions is effective in long-term development. In the end, it’s just another kind of charity — instead of giving money, it’s giving technology. However, the Jester is fully aware that technologists desperately want to prove their ingenuity. (Why they aren’t excited about mentoring others to be brilliant is beyond the Jester.) If this is the case…

  • Find organizations that are already effective. (Note here that “well-known” doesn’t necessarily mean “effective.” Any fool can have good PR.) Partner with them in the full, messy sense of the word. Thoroughly understand what they do and see whether anything can be done to contribute to their goals. Technology amplifies existing intent and capacity.
  • Set up (pro-bono?) consulting services for any tools built. Free software is useless to most non-profit organizations unless it comes with training, engineering, and support.

Not a lot to excite a profit-maximizing CEO, alas, but any CEO with real intent in philanthropy should consider pulling a Bill Gates: drop the technology job and move to philanthropy full-time.

Tweets don’t foment rebellion; rebellions get tweeted.

January 29, 2011

[A shorter version of this post appears at TheAtlantic.com.]

With the backdrop of political unrest in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, Roger Cohen mocks Evgeny Morozov’s book, The Net Delusion, as an ill-timed book in the same category as Dow 36,000, which was published just before the dot-com crash. (The Jester thanks Anno Saxenian for forwarding the article.) Cohen epitomizes technology utopians when he writes, “The freedom to connect is a tool of liberation.”

Predictably, the Jester sides with Morozov, however, whose point is subtler. (The Jester confesses he hasn’t yet read Morozov’s book, but he has thoroughly studied the back and inside covers.) Morozov’s goal is to highlight the negative uses of the Internet, often by powerful governments to achieve their own nefarious ends. Morozov’s real intent is to deny the simplistic, one-sided view that dissemination of communication technologies necessarily supports democracy.

Morozov doesn’t provide an overarching theory for when technology supports democracy and when it doesn’t, but by now, the Jester’s readers can shout in chorus: “Technology amplifies human intent and capacity.” This, of course, extends to human-run institutions like democracy.

Consider this: If the Internet by itself were the key to causing democracy, then you’d expect a country like China, with its 420 million Internet users to be a fecund breeding ground for democracy-minded activists, eager to cast off their totalitarian government. But, although there are dissident voices in China, and they do often make use of the Internet, the Chinese populace on the whole doesn’t appear prone to overthrowing its government any time soon. Nor do the citizens of Singapore, where Internet penetration is nearly 100%.

It’s also worthwhile to remember that plenty of revolutions have taken place without electronic ICTs, and that not all tweeted attempts at revolution succeed. Remember the American revolution? People wrote paper pamphlets and succeeded. And, how about Iran? People Facebooked and YouTubed, but bits are no match for atoms.

These counterexamples show that the claims of communication technologies as the primary cause, or even the catalyst, of large-scale positive social change are misleading. The Jester believes they lead to poor policy in foreign affairs and international development. They commit the classic error of confusing correlation with cause. It’s not so much that tweeting foments rebellion, but that in our age, all rebellions are tweeted.

What, then, is the cause? If the Jester may engage in a bit of armchair political science, three points emerging from Egypt and Tunisia offer clues. First, the protesters express years, if not decades, of frustrations with their government. People need to be deeply unhappy before they march. The Internet only spreads news. It doesn’t spread unemployment.

Second, the protests are led mostly by educated, middle-class people. It takes an educated population that isn’t living hand-to-mouth, to risk an upending of the status quo. In contrast, there are many oppressed but starving populations that don’t put up a fight. You can’t eat freedom; better a dictator who feeds you than a democracy who doesn’t. (Kevin Bales, an expert on modern slavery, tells a story of a couple who buy themselves out of slavery, and then promptly sign back up with their old master, because without him, they have neither food nor secuirty.)

Third, the governments’ physical might, or their will to use it, appears to be weak. In Egypt’s case, the Jester wagers that how it all turns out will depend on the willingness of the army to be ruthless. So far, it seems the army itself is reluctant to hurt citizens. Must have been because of Facebook!

(Broken record warning.) Technology magnifies the underlying intent and capacity of people and institutions. But, it doesn’t in and of itself change human intent, which evolves through non-technological social forces. Successful revolutions are tipping points, which mark the point when the power of capable citizens frustrated with their governments exceeds the will and physical might of a government intent on power. An avalanche’s underlying cause is a flake-by-flake accumulation of snow; similarly, the tipping point of revolution is the culmination of a person-by-person accumulation of frustration and middle-class security.

The Jester accepts that it’s hard to predict how technological magnification comes out. Different capacities are magnified, and so government and citizen intent will be amplified differently. But, on the whole, the tipping point is determined not so much by technology, but by other forces often buried deep in human psyches. Witness how little FoxNews and MSNBC converts opposing opinions in the United States. If “connecting people” or “making people aware of the plight of others” through technology were the primary cause of peace and equality, then America ought to converge to consensus with all the communication happening over TV, radio, Internet, and mobile phone. But, if anything, the technology is creating greater polarization. Democrats are Democrats, not primarily because they are exposed to left-leaning ideas online. Republicans are Republicans, not primarily because they hear right-leaning ideas on FoxNews. This is again, confusing correlation with cause.

Technology can communicate frustration, but it also amplifies government propaganda and misinformation. Technology can accelerate a revolution once it begins, but it can’t feed or educate an enfeebled population to the point of rebellion (PCs for schools notwithstanding). Whatever extent technology helps revolutionaries communicate, it is a minor contribution compared to the circumstances that made them revolutionaries.

What does this mean for policy? Technology policy should be more selectively applied. It helps most when the social balance is already in favor of a desired outcome. Otherwise, there are other conditions we might push for first – good nutrition, viable healthcare, and universal education – most of which are less controversial, even for dictators. And, in any case, technology-for-all policies require extreme care, as Hilary Clinton found with WikiLeaks and “Internet freedom”: Technology’s blade is always double-edged.

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.”

Oof!