Posts Tagged ‘iHub’

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.