KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Archive for December 2010

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before

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It’s that time of year again. Time for New Year’s resolutions – to lose weight, drink less, exercise more, keep in touch with friends better. Or in the workplace – time for a new big push for the MDGs – this year we will make it happen, or perhaps we will eradicate polio, or maybe even just get our travel planning system in order or get all our donor reports in on time.

But wait a minute, didn’t we say all that this time last year? What’s so special about a new year that means we think we can start anew and do all the things we have been meaning to do before – and why if that’s the case didn’t we get them done last year.

It’s a nice conceit to use a specific day or time of year to reflect on what we have done, and what we would like to do differently, and to take a fixed moment in time to resolve to do things differently. After all, we all have things we know we ought to do better or differently in all spheres of our lives. The track record of New Year’s resolutions isn’t very good though – and we all know it deep down. After several years of broken promises to ourselves it’s easy to get disheartened, we might even start to believe its not possible to make any positive changes at all, or not be willing to take the risk or put in the effort.

If you really want to do something different, I think the key is not to resolve to do it at the beginning of the year, but to make that same resolution again every day. One year won’t eradicate polio, or find a vaccine for AIDS  – it might happen this year or it might not. One month of regular exercise won’t make you lose weight and keep it off. This year might be the year of some big personal or professional breakthrough – and on the other hand it might not. But it’s continually making the effort throughout the year and across the years that leads to the payoff in the end.

Other things that might make those resolutions and goals easier to keep to:

1. Set realistic, measurable goals so that you have a chance to be able to keep to them, and to be able to see progress. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have fuzzy, ambitious long term goals – but that if you want to get there you also need shorter term specific goals to get you started and allow you to show and feel good about the progress you make.

2. Do them with a buddy – find another person (or organization) to work with on the same goals so that you can help each other, advise each other and provide moral support for one another, as well as to stir up a little bit of friendly competition about who can do better.

3. Find a critical friend to keep you honest, remind you, cajole you, criticise you and encourage you. Key to this is honesty, transparency and trust. You need to be honest to your friend about your progress and setbacks, they need to be honest with you about how well you are doing. You need to trust them as they should be critical but also supportive. At an organizational level this translates into being honest with your board, your donors and beneficiaries and seeking their critical support in improving your performance.

4. Raise the stakes. People respond to incentives, so give yourself some positive incentives (rewards) and negative ones to help keep you on track. Tim Harford had  a great piece on this a couple of years ago in which he featured a website where you can set yourself a target, get an independent referee to monitor your progress, and if you don’t fulfil your commitment you donate a pre-determined sum of money to your favourite charity. This makes use of peer pressure and economic incentives to keep you on track. Cash on delivery aid anyone?

As for me, my resolution is to update my blog on a regular basis. Anyone care to take a bet against me?

Happy New Year to you all, here’s wishing that in 2011 all your realistic, well defined goals come true.

Written by Ian Thorpe

December 31, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 12 comments

I’ve seen a lot of interesting blog posts discussing aid, development, aid workers, NGOs etc. recently that highlight an important problem.

While we all use these terms, we frequently don’t understand them to mean the same thing, and this leads to a lot of confusion in our debates with others which might be as much about semantics as it is about actual meaning or opinion.

Below I’m throwing out a few terms and how I define them – not because there are the “right” definitions – just because this is how I currently see things. I’d be interested to hear what you all think.


Development – The improvement of the economic and social wellbeing of a country including the realization of the economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights (i.e. human rights) of its citizens. I should probably add  environmental sustainability to this. This is a process which is ultimately driven by the citizens and government of a country itself, although there are many external and internal factors which can affect it. ONE of these is aid. It’s not the only one – it’s not even the most important one.  Some of the other important external factors that influence development include security, trade policy, migration policy, intellectual property and technology transfer arrangements, investment and the environment. The Center for Global Development’s Commitment to Development Index has a good explanation of this and ranks donor countries not only by their aid, but by the sum total of how their actions in all these areas affect development. Of course there are a whole host of internal factors that affect development such as climate, geography, natural resources, culture, history, governance etc. which aid scholars will long continue to hotly debate.

Aid – Support given from one country to another. It can come in many forms  – it could be financial and/or technical assistance, supplies, services, goods in kind or direct assistance and action. It can be provided to different actors:  governments (central and local), civil society organizations or to individuals. It can be provided for the purposes of long term-development, it can be provided to deal directly with an immediate crisis or some combination of the two. It can come from different sources  – from government donors, from multilateral organizations and international financial institutions, from non-governmental organizations of various sorts including religious groups, from private enterprises, and it can come from individuals. People frequently use the term aid to refer to some subset of these activities but not all of them.

A corollary of this is that development is about much more than aid – but also not all aid is directly about development. I’d divide aid into broadly two types with plenty of room for overlap.

Humanitarian aid/emergency aid – This is aid provided in the immediate aftermath of some type of emergency situation whether a “man-made complex humanitarian emergency” or a natural disaster.  The main purpose of this aid is immediate relief in order to save lives and mitigate the worst effects of the emergency as quicky and efficiently as possible. Often this means that participatory approaches, local ownership and long term development ans sustainability concerns take a back seat to  the need to the need for speed to save lives. Over time as the situation stabilizes aid transitions from emergency aid to longer term development aid. Humanitarian aid is kind of like “give a man a fish”, which if he is close to starvation might be preferable to teaching him to fish in a dried up stream.

Development aid – Aid aimed at supporting a country in its long term development. This generally means that its aim is to strengthen local resilience and capability to develop by helping build skills and provide missing inputs with a longer term aim of making  a country, community or individual self reliant. This is the “teach a man to fish” including “teaching him how to sustainably manage his fish stocks” as well as give him the possibility to be a better fisherman than you are. For more ruminations on the difference between aid, relief and development see “Appropriate aid vs aspirational development” from James Bontempo’s blog (and read the comments).

So who works on aid?

Aid organizations – an organization whose main function is the provision of aid, whatever type of organization it is, government, multilateral, not-for-profit, for-profit. Some organizations provide aid, but that isn’t one of their primary function – so for me that means they are not aid organizations (The military might be a good example of this!).

Aid workers – so it follows that this is someone working in the field of international aid, most likely, but not necessarily for an aid organization. I don’t think you need to be a front line worker risking your life in a war zone to be an aid worker. If your work supports the delivery of aid – then for me that makes you an aid worker. Alanna Shaikh put this very well in her recent blog “So I’m an Aid worker“. Yes you are and so am I.

You might ask, what about drivers, finance people, procurement specialists, human resource managers? For me this then comes down to attitude. If you do one of these jobs with the attitude that your aim is to try to support the delivery of aid to those that need it, and how you do your work and why is based around doing this as well as possible then I think you are an aid worker. If you do it only because it’s a steady paycheck, a nice 9-5 and you are qualified to do it, then maybe you are not.


I’m guessing a lot of you will disagree with me on some of these, or can point out holes in my logic. Please do, I don’t think these definitions are anything near perfect -they are just working definitions I have in my head., and I’d love to improve them. Also, if we could all stop for a moment and think about what we mean when we use these terms, and how others are using them too,  then I think we might be a lot clearer in our thinking about aid and development issues more generally.

Written by Ian Thorpe

December 30, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Social media odds and ends

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I wanted to put in a final blog post before I take a break from work for the holidays. But since I’m too busy/lazy to put in the effort to write something myself, I’m going to share a few things which interested me over the past week in the world of social media. It was quite a busy week!

First the bad news – A leaked slide from a Yahoo staff meeting showed that they are planning to discontinue delicious the social bookmarking site as part of their current round of layoffs.  This is sad news since a lot of bookmarks have been shared using this tool, and it is a great resource that will disappear. It’s also sad for nostalgic reasons since for many people  this was one of their first introductions to the social web. There’s a nice Eulogy here.

UPDATE: It seems Yahoo aren’t closing down delicious just yet. Looks like they are hoping that some public-service minded business will offer to buy it from them.

On the more uplifting side – McKinsey just released a very interesting research report “The rise of the networked enterprise: Web 2.0 finds its payday” which highlights how companies adopting social technologies are gaining competitive advantage. Let’s hope aid organizations are the next ones to benefit.

Pew released their “Generations 2010” report on how different age groups in America use the internet. It is showing increasing usage of social media by all generations, and still the ubiquity of e-mail. It also shows how blogging is on the decline, although reading blogs isn’t. As always I’m late and against the trend by only just setting up my blog now! This infographic gives a nice summary of how different age groups spend time online. I’d be really interested to see whether similar or different patterns emerge in other countries – and particularly how people are using the internet in the developing world.

Common Craft (creators those great videos explaining in simple terms what twitter, facebook and other social media tools are and how they work) have come out with a video that explains social media in the workplace. It’s so easy that the bosses will get it, that is if we can get them to watch it in the first place.

Socialcast put out these great tips on how to use microblogging to ask questions based on their analysis of how people use their tool. Although the tips are designed for their own office microblogging tool they also look helpful for Twitter, Yammer and other microblogging tools.

Saundra of Good Intents gives some great practical advice to bloggers on how to make their blogs more readable, with some additional tips in the comments. I already made some changes to this blog as a result.

According to Google’s David Girouard  2011 will be the year where everything goes 100% Web. Read-Write-Cloud’s Alex Williams thinks this might not be such a good thing, given recent events such as the demise of delicious, and Amazon and Youtube arbitrarily denying service to their customers.

And finally Ben Ramalingam thinks Dilbert is having a potshot at the Millennium Development Goals. I think the target is a broader one – that of Results Based Management. Either way it’s pretty funny as well as uncomfortably familiar.

That’s it for now. There are lots of other good articles that I missed here – but I think you have got yourself some good weekend reading. Catch up with you in a week or so.

Written by Ian Thorpe

December 17, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

How to appear smarter than the average aid worker

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People sometimes say to me “you work on knowledge management – you must be really smart” or “there you are managing all the organization’s knowledge, boy you must need to know a lot”.

Sorry to disappoint – but in fact rather than actually being smart, or trying to know a lot, I’ve found that I can just look smart by learning and applying a few simple skills, that everyone could do – but for some reason most don’t.

So here’s my advice on four skills you can learn to make you look smarter:

1. Reading – Keeping on top of major developments in your fields of interest by scanning a few key sources mainly blogs, twitter feeds and a few journals and news sources. Yes, of course everyone should be doing this already- but in reality people do it less than you’d expect. Dave Algoso recently did a great post on why you should read blogs which was remixed for development workers by Linda Raftree. This is a great place to start – I’d advise anyone to scan through these to pick some blogs to follow. For most people the volume of suggestions here is a bit daunting though – I’d suggest just picking a few you like that most reliably cover the range of topics you are most interested in. It might also be good to pick just one or two for any particular topic, but follow several topics rather than picking all in a single topic – bloggers quite often refer to each other in their blogs or tweets anyway. In our organization we also have “Strategic Dissemination of Information bulletins” which provide summaries of the latest research on priority topics, another great way to stay on top  of the latest thinking. Some libraries and and academic institutions offer similar services. Eldis and Zunia are two such services that people can sign up to receive thematic updates on specific topics.

2. Searching the internet. This is not that hard a skill to learn – but it is surprising how few people know how to find things easily, even with Google.  There are lots of tutorials out there, but this one from Beaufort University is quite good, and you can skip right to chapter 7 for some quick tips.

My own very quick tips would be:

  • You can stick mainly with Google (or Bing if you must) for most queries unless you are looking for something specialized (such as for academic papers, print publications, patents, restaurant reviews etc.) in which case you should used a specialized search tool or site.
  • Search for a document or site using multiple search terms (at least 3 or 4), try to pick distinctive words which don’t frequently occur together that will uniquely identify what you are looking for. Keep trying different combinations of words until you get the results you are looking for.
  • Use author names and publisher names if you know them, but only if you know how to spell them correctly.
  • Similarly you can use document titles in “quotes”, but again only if you are sure you know the exact title.
  • You can use boolean logic (and/or/not) if you know it or any other syntax supported by your search engine of choice – it’s not hard to learn – but in most cases you don’t need it.
  • In most cases I’d avoid using the search engine on a organization’s website to search for content on that site, unless it has a lot of options for narrowing down content – you will almost certainly find it more quickly just by using Google if you type in the organization name plus the search terms you want (inexplicably YouTube is an exception to this where the onsite search is actually better than Google search).

3. Scanning social media – there are several platforms that might be useful to follow including facebook, friendfeed, twitter and dedicated online communities. If you are looking for specialized knowledge then it might be worth looking to see if there are dedicated online communities devoted to your topic of interest. Otherwise, probably the one where you will get most payback for your time invested is with Twitter. There are people tweeting about every topic you can imagine. You can follow topics through hashtags, i.e. keywords or acronyms preceded by the # character (e.g. #smartaid) although people don’t use these reliably or consistently. Your best bet is to identify prolific and well regarded tweeters in your topics of interest, follow them and read their tweets and the articles they link to. To find these, look to see if well respected names, or organizations in your field are tweeting. You can also look at a combination of who gets retweeted frequently (i.e. people quote their tweets using the retweet function or by repeating their tweet preceded by RT and their twitter name), and who has a lot of followers, and whose tweets you like.  When you find people, to follow its also good to look at who they are following to see if you also find them interesting. Don’t worry about reading everything – just read those things you find interesting (selective reading or “skimming” will be the topic of a forthcoming blog post). To seem “smarter” its also good to follow people on different sides of the same issue, not just those you most agree with.

Actually following people in twitter can be a great way to keep up with blogs and news as well since the most interesting blog posts and news stories are sure to get tweeted so this can cut down on the number of blogs or news feeds you need to follow regularly.

4. Connecting – Often one group has knowledge that another unconnected group needs but is not aware of.  Helping connect these groups and ideas together is a great service you can perform if you are a member of a couple of intersecting groups or networks or have interests that span different topics. This is particularly useful in large organizations where you can help transfer relevant knowledge between different parts of the organization or between the organization and the outside world.

This is something I try to do routinely and might be the “smartest” of all these skills. For example I often find an interesting blog post on a topic related to our work which I forward to relevant colleagues, who more often that I would expect have not seen it (since it is in their subject area). Similarly I often see discussions on twitter and elsewhere  on topics where we have experience and have produced materials, but these are not well known outside the organization. Just sharing what we have helps inform the debate plus make our work better known. My work also straddles aid effectiveness and knowledge management and I often find that one discipline has important insights for the other, yet the two are not often combined. Similarly I find people in the private sector working on Enterprise 2.0 or innovation are talking about things that are very relevant to development but which people in the aid sector are not aware about.

What surprises me is that more people aren’t practicing these skills. They can be easily learned, and if more people were doing them we would have a much better informed workforce who are easily able to find the knowledge they need for their work. And I won’t look nearly so smart  (maybe you should hold off on this a bit after all).

Written by Ian Thorpe

December 15, 2010 at 8:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Stairway to smartaid heaven?

with one comment

OK – this is a bit of a departure from my usual blog posts having nothing to do with knowledge management.  It does relate to smart aid however so bear with me…

My son’s religious school had a family programme this weekend on charitable giving where each child was asked to select a charity, and then research and make a presentation on their choice. In addition the parents and children were given the text below to discuss (known as Rambam’s ladder):

The ideals of Tzedakah (charity) were summarized and taught by Moses Maimonides (RaMBaM), a great teacher who lived in Spain and the Egypt in the 12th Century. Maimonides believed that Tzedakah is like a ladder. It has eight rungs, from bottom to top. Each step you climb brings you closer to heaven.

1. The person who gives reluctantly and with regret.

2. The person who gives graciously, but less than one should.

3. The person who gives what one should, but only after being asked.

4. The person who gives before being asked.

5. The person who gives without knowing to whom he or she gives, although the recipient knows the identity of the donor.

6. The person who gives without making his or her identity known.

7. The person who gives without knowing to whom he or she gives. The recipient does not know from whom he or she receives.

8. The person who helps another to become self-supporting by a gift or a loan or by finding employment for the recipient.

I’m not sharing this to try to convince anyone to accept it based on where it comes from, or that it inherently has merit because of that, but because it seems to me to be quite a thought provoking piece with relevance to some of the #smartaid debates of today, even though it was written around 900 years ago. And it led to some interesting discussions in the room.

Among the important insights that I took from this are that i) it is a duty for all of us to give to help others and to give adequately ii) attitude matters iii) greater anonymity in giving is better.

The preference for anonymity is about not giving just to show off about it, or to expect some personal gain (if you visit any synagogue or hospital in New York it seems they haven’t given this much thought since everything has someone’s name on it who paid for the priviledge). It seems very reminiscent of discussions on donations by major philanthropists, or green or blue washing by corporations who make highly visible donations to try to bolster their brand image, have greater influence over charitable activities in  particular sector or even cover up some of their less charitable actions.

Another key benefit of anonymity is respecting the dignity of the recipient by not making them feel they need to be indebted to the person who helped  them, which is much easier when you don’t know who they are, or when someone can’t identify you (and pity or judge you) as an individual recipient of charitable support.

Interestingly, for Maimonides, the highest form of charity was to help someone to become self-sufficient – even if (or maybe especially if) this is a loan not a gift. Here even anonymity was not as important as promoting self-sufficiency which perhaps in order to work well needs a partnership between the helper and the helped. In fact real self-sufficiency probably comes from  mutual benefit  – including for the giver who might get repaid on a loan, might have a new worker, or might get public credit for their charitable efforts. But this is more excusable when the benefit is long lasting, and is something that empowers, rather than demeans.

I don’t think this tells you everything about what smart aid should be, in fact one challenging aspect is that in listening to the voices of beneficiaries – which is much harder to do when there is anonymity between donor and recipient. But at the same time, I still find it is a nice text to make you think about your charitable giving, what you give, how you give it,  why, and what is the ultimate result you are looking for.

Written by Ian Thorpe

December 13, 2010 at 2:59 pm

Posted in smartaid

Black and White

with 5 comments

[A short rant for a Friday]

It’s human nature to categorize things. We like our arguments broken down into yes and no. Right vs. Wrong. Aid debates are no different:

  • Planners vs. Searchers
  • Government vs. Private
  • Fee vs. Free
  • Amateurs vs. Professionals
  • Local vs. International
  • Conditional vs. Unconditional
  • Transparency vs. Secrecy

What’s more our style of learning and argumentation encourages us to take a position then to stand by it, at least until it becomes untenable. Our political, academic and legal systems encourage  us to be adversarial and opinionated.

The problem with this approach is that we tend to ignore evidence that does not back up our existing worldview, and we tend to be combative with people who hold an opposing view, finding every way to defend our beliefs and to counter those of our “opponents”, rather than looking for common ground.

Why is it so difficult for us to accept that the answers might be nuanced. Maybe the evidence doesn’t all point int he same direction, maybe what works in Uganda doesn’t work in Angola, what worked in the 1990s doesn’t work in the 2010s. Or sometimes two seemingly inconsistent ideas can coexist side by side – Maybe the State Department is against Wikileaks but really is in favour of press freedom, and maybe Julian Assange has selfish motives, but is still advancing freedom.

The world is a complex place, and there is so much we don’t know for sure. We need to make simple models in our head of the way the world is in order to help us understand it, to help us make decisions without being paralysed, and to help us identify who we are as individuals.

For small things this doiesn’t matter. I mean in the development world who cares if we don’t agree on our favourite flavour of ice-cream or whether Bristol Palin should have been kicked out of  “Dancing With The Stars” sooner or whether Russia deserved to host the World Cup in 2018 – and who cares if we can backup our opinions with any evidence.

But when these things touch on our work – and how we act to promote development and human rights then it starts to matter a lot more. We too often forget that the theories, ideologies and grand approaches  (or best practices) are just models, they are not reality. They are only useful in so far as they are helping us move forward with our work. When they don’t keep delivering results for us, or when they lead us into debate which becomes about the people and the positions, about being right rather than supporting us to make progress, then it’s time to take a step back.

Am I wrong?

Written by Ian Thorpe

December 10, 2010 at 8:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Jumo! what is it good for? ….

with 4 comments

Like many working in the aid and development business I eagerly signed up for an account on the new “Social Network for do-gooders” Jumo (oohh shiny).

While others have done a more thorough job than I can (see this article from SSIR or this from Amy Sample Ward for good analyses), and I’ve only had a week of experience, I can’t resist a quick critique.

While I like the idea of having a good tool for social networking among those working in the not-for-profit world, I have to say I am a little disappointed with what I’ve seen so far.

Here are a few things that I think they didn’t get right:

1. Making people create accounts via facebook. While I like facebook, I like to use it mainly for private purposes, and so am not happy about the back and forth of information between the two systems. Some people I know have two facebook profiles, one for private and another for work, but like many, I can’t be bothered to do this. Of course many people I know in the not for profit world don’t have a facebook account at all and don’t want to have to create one just to join Jumo (apparently it will be possible to join without having to join facebook first at some point in the future).

2. Bugs – there were a lot of problems on the first day, but even now, a lot of things don’t seem to work properly. When I follow someone it doesn’t seem to work consistently, and even when it is noted on my profile page, it still says I’m only following one person by my avatar. If I look at other people, then it’s clear their follower followee details are incorrect. Notifications seems haphazard. I also don’t like that it only shows you a handful of the followers of any individual or organization. It often discover potential contacts by looking at someone else’s follow lists, but it doesn’t seem you can do this here.

3. Functionality – there seems to be a lack of any really useful functionality that distinguishes it from other platforms. An obvious question is why create a new platform at all, couldn’t we all just use facebook, twitter or something else that already exists? Maybe the advantage is that all the extraneous things from Facebook are stripped out (no farmville, or mafia wars), but also some of the useful functionality from other tools is also missing such as discussion boards, message threading, photo/video sharing. I also wonder whether it might have been good to have specific functionality relevant to the sector such as appeals, volunteering opportunities, vacancy announcements and maybe even ratings?

4. The network effect –  One big element of any platform such as this is that there needs to be a sufficient network of people who are actively using the tool for the connections it facilitates to be useful. Right now, despite a lot of sign ups by the curious and a few names, I don’t see there being enough momentum. This isn’t helped by the lack of accurate visualization of people’s networks, so as to be able to make use of them.

5. Purpose – perhaps most importantly it’s not clear to me what Juno is for. Is it for fundraising  and building relationships with donors? or is it for networking among those working on or concerned about not for profit issues? Right now it seems a bit of both but not fully either – and I’m not sure if the two are fully compatible. If it is for fundraising then it would need a much broader base of users from the general public – although its not clear why people would prefer to donate here rather than elsewhere except possibly because if they are successful you can find all organizations you might wish to donate to in one place.  In this case  think I’d want to find a lot more information about people to donate to than is currently being offered up on the site though (including user feedback).

If it is for networking among individuals and organizations involved in social good, then the donation aspect would need to be dialed down, and the network would need to be configured as more a kind of meeting or market place where people can form groups and share information around common interests, and where people could easily find interesting conversations, projects and opportunities.

While it’s early days, and many of the issues above could be fixed (especially given the strong backing Jumo has),  first impressions count for a lot in the current crowded landscape. While Jumo may yet take off and become an indispensable tool for not-for-profits –  unfortunately right now I’m not seeing a lot of added value.

Written by Ian Thorpe

December 8, 2010 at 3:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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