Posts Tagged ‘Macha Works’

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.