Beware development geeks bearing gifts
Yes, this is another review, or perhaps more of a rumination on “Geek Heresy” by Kentaro Toyama (available on Amazon!)
I’ve long been a fan of the ICT4DJester’s snarky tweets about ICT for Development (Toyama’s alter ego) and have been looking forward to this book. Here is a quick overview and a few thoughts about his conclusions.
The first half of his book is a critique of techno utopian promises in development and in particular on technology based packaged interventions (One Laptop per Child, Community technology centres etc.) that have been variously touted as being the keys to ending poverty. Development veterans will probably be nodding vigorously in agreement with his critique which is strengthened by not only drawing from examples of his own work in the area of information technology but also on examples of non-IT “technologies” such as microcredit and even elections to show the weaknesses of focusing only on the intervention (the “silver bullet”) without looking at the ecosystem in which it is placed. He also takes a satisfying swipe at some of the hype around social marketing using the example of the two for one programme of Toms shoes.
His basic thesis is that technology (or any packed intervention) acts as an amplifier of human intent but not as a good in of itself. In other words technology can enhance whatever purpose humans choose to put it to, but it will not do good by itself, only when the people using it have the motivation and the capacity to use it. The problem in development is that the people who have the greatest need, are also often the least equipped to take advantage of technological fixes.
This also reminds me of the conundrum in knowledge management that the main focus is often on scientific evidence around the design of interventions and how to generalize them using hard data, and rigorous research and evaluation – but there is much less focus on the importance of tacit knowledge – know-how in what it takes to actually get things done which revolves more around the people and the environment. Unfortunately while you may be able to replicate the design of an intervention, it’s much harder to replicate the qualities of the people and environment which it can be implemented successfully.
Toyama’s proposed solution for this is to foster “intrinsic growth” in the communities and individuals with which you work on a development project. This sounds like capacity building – but Toyama breaks this down into three critical components i) intention or heart (the desire to improve things) ii) the skills and judgment to pick the right opportunities and strategies to advance their cause and iii) will or self-control i.e. the ability to resist distractions, temptations as well as to put off present day comfort for future gain.
The second half of the book looks at how intrinsic growth can be developed, drawing on a number of inspiring real life examples. He quite rightly stresses that this is difficult and takes a lot of time and investment. He proposes several methods through which this can be done including education, mentorships and deep engagement with the communities we seek to help, as well as a focus on supporting them to meet their needs rather than trying to get them to pursue our externally imposed goals. While I think he is on to something important here – this part is less satisfying as I think he is on thinner ground in terms of evidence and experience. In fact this is a common trait of books on development – a first half of well crafted and strongly sourced critique of current practice together with a convincing theory – followed by a second half which uses the theory to propose a way forward – with useful ideas but incomplete or insufficiently concrete to either convince or to implement.
In this case the challenge is that while education, mentoring and long-term engagement and focusing on the needs of the community and not the donor are clearly important factors in nurturing intrinsic growth, it’s not clear to me that they are the whole picture – nurturing “self-control” is especially challenging (I know I struggle with it at an individual level!). He’s also dismissive of societal nudges i.e. incentives by governments (or donors) to encourage citizens to behave a certain (hopefully more productive) way – while I think there is a fair amount of evidence that this can work – albeit not without some of the other elements in place too.
An area I wish he had elaborated on further was the potential of new complexity based approaches such as human-centred design and agile development to improve how development programmes are designed and implemented. These are promising in that they are designed with the users and the context in the forefront rather than simply introducing externally packaged ideas. They also emphasize the importance of prototyping and continual iteration to improve fit. However they still often result in technological fixes even if they are designed for the specific context, and do not directly address the underlying issues of will and judgment which Toyama rightly emphasizes.
Overall the book is a quick and easy read, and well worth the effort. The biggest take away is an important and too often overlooked aspect to development – that packaged interventions (whether ICT related or not) have an important role to play in development – but this needs to be combined with a strong focus on building the capacity and intrinsic motivation of the communities where they are delivered so that the interventions become an amplifier of a self-propelled desire for progress rather than an externally imposed solution. They are not the cause of change in of themselves but are key enablers when the right conditions for change are already there or are being carefully nurtured. And if we want to reach the most excluded we might want to start out focusing on the intrinsic growth rather before delivering technology.