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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.
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17-24 November is International Working Out Loud week (#wolweek).
This celebrates and promotes the idea of “Working out Loud” i.e. making your day-to-day work more visible to others and narrating your work – so that others can see what you are doing, give feedback, get involved or learn from what you are doing (This short blog by John Stepper outlines the 5 key elements of working out loud for those who want to know more about what I’m talking about here).
This is a powerful idea, and as you can see from the working out loud week site, there are a lot of social collaboration and knowledge management experts and thought leaders doing exciting things in this area.
But while we have a lot of experts and advocates who are practicing this, and those of us who try to do it can see the tremendous benefit, it’s still proving challenging (for me at least) to persuade a critical mass of people inside my own organization to give this a serious try.
The #wolweek site has requested contributions from practitioners to 5 questions (see my responses here) which were quite helpful in framing my own thoughts about why this is difficult, but also what steps to take to make it happen.
Some people are naturally open or curious about the idea and are willing to give it a try – for them it’s enough to explain, show examples and help them use the tools. But for most there is a great deal of reluctance or even fear about this idea – and a lot of questions. How do I do it? What is the benefit of doing this? Aren’t I just spamming people? How can I share what I’m doing before it is completed and fact-checked? Won’t people steal my ideas? Won’t I get into trouble if I make a mistake?
So here’s what I’m learning about how to encourage those who are more reluctant. It is important to start with a small and relatively low risk opportunity to give it a try. This could be trying it on a specific project or with a small team, or for a fixed period of time. In any of these cases both the effort and the risk is relatively low, yet there can still be some added benefits. Over time as people become more comfortable working out loud within a small team or project then they can be encouraged to do this more broadly such as within a department or professional community. Eventually they might even feel comfortable enough to share what they are doing to the whole organization, and then possibly even a few of them might work or think out loud in public. The more you share the greater the potential benefit, but also the greater discomfort and even risk – so if you are not a “natural” it makes sense to start quietly and slowly turn up the volume.
Another important element is to have relevant examples of working out loud to show how it can be done from within your organization or in others – you need a few champions to lead the way – and it can’t be bad to create a little envy – why are people talking about these guys? (because they are talking openly about their work and you can too). It can also be good to try doing it as a team to share experience and provide mutual support.
But realistically speaking not everyone is going to be willing to share all their work in public, and I also think sharing in public is something that is qualitatively different from sharing within the organization. I’ve been tweeting and blogging for several years – but for me the act of sharing in public is quite different from sharing inside the organization. In some ways I can write about things publicly that I don’t write about inside because the audience and the purpose is different – in fact I write what I like here because I now that most people inside my organization will not read this or are aware that I blog (or that anyone else that they know does either). Sharing publicly for me is a way of reaching out to people who have similar interests, experiences and challenges to me, of which there are many more outside the organization than inside, whereas working out loud inside the organization is more about helping disseminate what we are doing and looking for people to work with where there is mutual benefit but where our work is different.
Among the people who work out loud in public – while I admire the trailblazers who promote the idea of working out loud, those I admire the most are not those who write and promote this topic, but those that are working out loud in their area of expertise without explicitly talking about it – but who are just using it as part of their work. In the world of international development these are the aid bloggers who write about their work covering what they achieve, but also the process and the discussions and their challenges and failures – not explicitly to promote their organization as marketers, but as authentic voices for the work. There are not to many of these in large aid organizations and some of the best ones are anonymous – but a few more obvious public cases that come to mind are the World Bank bloggers, or the Oxfam bloggers (including Duncan Green and Jennifer Lentfer) and UNDP’s Voices of Eurasia and then there is a much larger number of independent blogs by individuals (see this list here from Aidsource which, although incomplete, includes many of the more popular and frequently updated ones). The aid bloggers deserve a shout out as part of work out loud week since they write what those of us working in this field know are the challenges of our work, but which you rarely hear from official sources – a comfort for aid workers and the beginning of an education for those who don’t work in our field about some of the misconceptions about what aid workers do – the challenges they face – and what works and what doesn’t.
UNICEF also recently launched its first official public blog, led by Jim Rosenberg who helped get the World Bank blogging before coming to UNICEF. Let’s hope we can use this to get some strong authentic voices who will be willing to share more about what they are doing as they do it to an external audience – not just for the sake of fundraising or building a strong brand, but to help inform those who are genuinely curious about how we get our work done and from whom we could inform, partner with and learn from by opening ourselves up.
We just put out a consultancy announcement to hire someone to work on a knowledge exchange toolbox for UNICEF. Creating a flexible set of simple tools that staff can use for different challenges they have with knowledge sharing is part of our overall approach to foster a culture of greater knowledge sharing and to give them the means to do it.
The consultancy advertisement was widely retweeted (many thanks to all) – but I was also called out for trying to reinvent the wheel.
A good question – why try to create our own toolbox when there are already a number of other perfectly good toolkits in existence already? UNDP, Swiss Cooperation, OHCHR and IFAD and many others have already produced some sort of knowledge toolkit and UNICEF is even a partner in the Knowledge Sharing toolkit which Nancy links to in her tweet.
But, I think there are actually a few good reasons to reinvent or at least adapt.
People working in an organization tend to have more trust, and are thus more likely to use something that has been specifically created for them and has some form of official endorsement. This sounds like “not invented here syndrome” – but it’s not quite that.
The advantages of developing your own toolkit (or platform, strategy, bibliography, taxonomy etc.) include:
- It can be written in the kind of language (and jargon and buzzwords) people in the organization understand
- It can include tools selected to meet the specific needs of the organization, and the tools selected (even when sourced from elsewhere) can be adapted and tailored to the organizational context.
- The tools can be tested on real organizational problems and the feedback obtained can be used to improve them and help communicate them better.
- The tools can go through a quality review and sign off process that the organization understands and respects.
- The fact that the toolbox is developed together with internal as well as external expertise means that staff know who they can follow-up with for advice and support on when and how to use them.
Overall these points mean that there is a sense of organizational ownership of the toolbox meaning not only is it officially sanctioned, but also officially supported and adapted to what the organization needs.
I’m a big fan of crowdsourced tools like the KS toolkit but it isn’t sufficiently adapted to meet our organizational needs – precisely because it is for everyone – and it’s not clear how to get help on when and how to use some of the tools in the UNICEF context. I’ve actively tried to promote use of the KS toolkit within the organization but with limited success – it’s a very valuable resource and reference, but not something that most of our staff seem willing to use as a daily guide.
I’m also a big fan of some of the existing agency toolkits but again they are not adapted for us and it’s not always clear how to apply them or where to go for help.
But to be clear, this doesn’t mean reinventing the sake of it. A lot of good work already exists, the key is to reuse it, build on it and adapt it where needed (and not just because). Much of the work will be in packaging or repackaging existing approaches, testing them out in practice in our organizational context and then adapting them to meet our needs. Quite a lot like regular knowledge management and sharing work in fact!
An additional element is to continually improve the tools based on experience in using them, and to slowly add to the tools over time as different approaches are tested. This will include the creation and prototyping a few new approaches but will mostly be incremental learning on the use of existing ones. A final point with all of these is to make the tools publicly available so anyone else can copy them share them – or more likely re-adapt and reconfigure them for their own use rather than just taking them “as is”.
A couple of days ago I listened to an interesting webcast organized by UNICEF in its “Activate” series of talks – in this case on innovative approaches to advocate for child rights.
In a refreshing style, rather than asking some seasoned experts on how to advocate on youth issues they asked actual successful youth advocates themselves.
The speakers all had interesting and inspiring stories to tell about their own advocacy projects which carry a lot of useful insights for other would-be youth advocates and the organizations that seek to work with them and to support them.
But what struck me most as a person working on knowledge sharing, with a side interest in transforming the UN, was how relevant some of the key ideas were to our continual discussions on how to improve development organizations themselves.
A few relevant take-aways:
1. Not being afraid of failure. One of the speakers Erik Martin (@Eriklaes) spoke about how education often discourages failure but should instead encourage children to experiment and take risks and how it is important to have a safe space to fail in order to learn. But this too is a challenge for aid organizations where the pressure is to deliver consistently, but not to risk failure in order to achieve greater gains.
2. The need listening to and engaging with the people you wish to influence or to advocate for in order to better understand their needs and constraints, and to involve them in producing solutions that will be relevant and effective for them. This is a good practice for all parts of aid work not only youth advocacy, and something that aid agencies need to do more systematically. But this lesson also applies to internal organizational issues – when you are making strategic plans or carrying out organizational restructuring, or pondering about the future of the organization in the post-2015 world, it also makes sense to listen to and engage the staff of the organization who are the ones who will be expected to make these changes happen – but too often the engagement is only superficial.
3. The importance of building networks of people for mutual support as well as to work together and share their insights and experience, particularly across different locations or groups of people. Just as international youth networks can be stronger through the creation of large diverse networks of supporters, similarly for professional aid workers there is a lot of benefit to having strong networks of peer professionals with whom to share ideas, get advice and provide mutual support – and yet often this is left to individuals when it is in an organization’s interest to support and strengthen these networks to help their staff be more effective. An important element that came up in the discussion was the benefit of bringing a diverse group of people together from different backgrounds and expertise in order to generate innovative ideas. Subject matter silos which stifle new ideas are also a well-known phenomenon in organizational culture and finding ways to create cross-sectoral networks and connections is also something we need to pursue.
In this blog I’m just picking up on those points that were particularly resonant for organizational change and knowledge sharing, but there were a lot of other interesting points on youth engagement and advocacy so if this interests you I’d recommend the whole webcast which is available on UNICEF’s Activate talks site here, and on the UN webcast site here.
Last week we ran a session in our office on “Building the evidence base, and evidence based reporting” which was identified as one of our priority areas of work for this year. The purpose was to unpack a little what we mean by “evidence“ in UN coordination work and what are we lacking and what can we do about it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the biggest gap we identified was evidence of the impact of what we do. Donors have been willing to invest in UN Coordination with the assumption that it will lead to better results, but now under pressure from their own constituencies are starting to ask for the proof.
But what do we mean by results? Some have specifically asked us to show evidence of impact of UN coordination on development results. Ideally we would love to show this, it is after all what motivates us to do what we do, but trying to prove (with hard evidence) how many children’s lives were saved, or how many jobs were created, or how much economic growth occurred as a result of joint workplans or pooled funding mechanisms or regular sector meetings is tough job – rather like looking for the impact of a butterfly’s wings on hurricane patterns.
Why is this so difficult? Well for starters, there’s a lot of debate about whether or not aid contributes to development at all – but even assuming it does – attribution is difficult. Development is the result of the actions and resources of many players – bilateral donors, multilateral banks, NGOs, private sector and not least the government, so identifying what the contribution of the UN is to development versus the other actors is very difficult. Now imagine trying to determine what the impact of particular process changes in how we work together affect our ability to contribute to those results. Furthermore the real development results of an action are only fully apparent many years after an action is taken. So the impact of what we do now might only be measurable in 5-10 years time or more. We also don’t have a control case against which to compare i.e. you can’t randomly choose to coordinate half of your offers and not coordinate the other half and compare the difference.
So if it’s next to impossible to answer the development impact question with confidence what can we do? A few thoughts:
1. Lower your expectations – measure what you can actually measure. Look more at outputs or process outcomes rather than development impact. Look at those things where the change is more easily quantified such as greater efficiency (e.g. reduced number of person hours to do something), faster response time, reduced prices through joint procurement, reduced duplication, greater population reach through joint work. Those things can be measured and can demonstrate the value of coordination assume they do if fact improve – but we can and must measure them to see whether they do make things better and how big the gains are.
2. Use what we have in terms of linking coordination to development results however limited it may be. All UNDAFs are supposed to be evaluated and although the time frame is too short to show impact they can look at both coordination and delivery and see how they relate to one another. Similarly a number of evaluations of joint programmes have been done on country and global programmes (for example all joint programmes funded by the MDG Achievement Fund were evaluated – a treasure trove of information if someone had the capacity to do a meta-analysis of them all) – again these can help us to determine the relation although they are far from the complete story.
3. Collect individual case studies that illustrate the impact of coordination and explain the chain of events through which they do it. Case studies help illustrate in a real life situation how coordination takes place and what are the potential and actual gains. They illustrate both the challenges and the gains in a way that is tangible and credible. While they are not “scientific” they can have a strong explanatory power. The key here is to present both the successes and the failures – this contributes more to future learning and improved approaches and is also more credible – we need to avoid the temptation of only sharing the positive thinking that this is what donors want to hear. To overcome the limitations of the individual examples whose success my be contextual its is important to collect many case studies from different contexts. This improves the confidence in the observations, and also can be a basis for meta-analysis to look for broader patterns and lessons (see an example here of case studies on human rights mainstreaming).
4. Make a plausible case to look at how process impact can lead to actual impact e.g. if joint procurement of vaccines reduced prices by 10% then this means we are able to vaccinate 10 % more children. If we reduce reporting burden by 50% then staff have 50% more time for programming (or we need 50% less staff). This is of course theoretical impact but it does clearly demonstrate the opportunity cost of maintaining the status quo, strengthening the case for change (and investing in it).
5. Take a look at perceptions – even though we can’t always generate solid quantitative measures of improved effectiveness and efficiency, it’s worth looking at qualitative measures. Government counterparts and other partners often have a sense whether we are working more effectively with them and reducing the burden on them, delivering better advice etc. based on their regular interactions with us. Ongoing dialogue and periodic feedback surveys or polls can be very informative as to how well our main clients think we are doing and whether we are improving over time. We can also anonymously ask our staff the same questions to see whether or not we feel we are doing better. The good news is we have the tools to do this or can easily set them up.
6. The last, and possibly the most important point is that we need be get real with donors and the public. We need to have a hard, truthful conversation where we explain what we can and can’t say about coordination and development, particularly what we can’t say. Often we try to please without facing the truth. In fact most of our donors and partners are struggling with the same problems in showing the impact of their own work to a skeptical public. Maybe it would be better to work with them to figure out how to make the most of what we can do with the information we have, and how to educate the public on what we can know and what we can’t, and share experience on how to communicate this more effectively. Ultimately we need to reassure donors and the public that their money is in good hands, and the reforms we are undertaking are making a difference without being misleading about how much we know about the magnitude of this difference or the exact formula which delivers development. A lot of this is not just in how we measure results, but how we communicate them – something I’ve written about in more detail before.
Measuring and transparently sharing what evidence we can gather, being honest about what we don’t know and sharing real stories and examples of our work is probably the best we can do with this difficult challenge.
A few days ago Dave Algoso posted an excellent blog (Who’s afraid of imported solutions) which looks at whether outside knowledge and models are useful for development (versus home-grown solutions) and considers how issues of power affect the exchange of knowledge, often for the worse.
I just wanted to share a few observations of my own on the intertwined nature of knowledge sharing and power:
- The debate about local versus external “solutions” is often a false one since almost all development work revolves around introduction and adaptation of new ideas from elsewhere. Almost no project or idea is entirely home-grown. But the role of external knowledge and how it is acquired and used varies enormously with important implications. External knowledge can range from the transfer and application of specific technical knowledge (e.g. the formula and procedures to manufacture and preserve vaccines) i.e. direct copying of a solution, transfer of models (e.g. adoption of a particular approach or design of social security and cash transfer programmes) with contextual adaptation, or just the use of a methodology to support a locally created design such as application of human-centred design approaches – this might create a local solution but often the methodology used to develop it is an external “solution”of its own.
- Power is critical in knowledge exchange and can impose limitations on it. One of the most obvious ways that power influences use of external knowledge is through money – if a donor country organization is providing aid to another country, then most likely the models and approaches they suggest will also come from the same country. This might be deliberate, but it is often also unintentional. If I’m a donor providing resources, I’m naturally inclined to also share the knowledge I most readily have access to which is of course my own. Aid conditionality adds to this power imbalance. Making aid conditional upon certain actions by the government makes sense for the donors in order to insist their money isn’t wasted and that the government follows what the donor believes is good practice in taking the necessary steps on its side to ensure the programme is successful. This is nevertheless a form of coercion which can lead to resentment or unwillingness to “speak truth to power” to explain why the conditions imposed might not be appropriate to a given situation. And this can also mean that the solutions of those donors with more resources (e.g. World Bank, DFID, Gates Foundation) are more widely adopted than if merit were the only consideration.
- Knowledge is used most effectively when it is based on demand and meets the users specific practical needs. This seems obvious, but is often overlooked. This means it’s always going to be better when countries demand specific expertise than when it is foisted upon them however well-intentioned. At the same time waiting for demand isn’t enough – it may well be that governments in a country are not sufficiently aware of external approaches which could be useful to them to demand them or may not know how to ask. Also it’s not always obvious when an external idea will be useful, sometimes you also need external advice to see it. Also in some areas there may not be government demand, even if it comes from populations themselves (e.g. for sensitive human rights topics) So while demand is essential, it also needs to be stimulated.
- And of course those with greater ability to market their solutions (often western led experts, NGOs and advocates) will be more effective at stimulating demand for their solutions. And the surer they seem about their solution the more appealing it will be politically, even if the evidence isn’t there to back it up (thinking here of examples such as OLPC or Millennium Villages which were able to take off through the sheer conviction of their creators). Sometimes whole countries can be a marketing asset i.e. people might want to adapt approaches from a particular country just because of their positive views of that country as a sign of quality regardless of whether the tool is actually successful or whether or not it is applicable in the new context.
- One way to try to level the power imbalance, and also improving the chances of successful transfer of solutions or models is through South-South cooperation. This is generally more demand driven and can be a learning partnership where both sides benefit from sharing experience and the solutions might be more easily replicable as the contexts might be more similar. The downside is that it is harder to fund when both sides have more limited capacity both in terms of finance and in availability of expertise (experts are often more busy implementing their own country’s systems to have the time to help someone else). Historically much South-South cooperation has been about solidarity and political more than mutually beneficial knowledge exchange – and sometimes with similar power imbalances to conventional aid.
A few thoughts on approaches to (partially) address these imbalances:
1. Making more visible the experience and models that are out there and whatever evidence exists about them – in particular finding ways to share more information about what approaches and models come from the South and/or how they have been adapted. There is a wealth of valuable knowledge that is largely untapped just because it is less visible. Supporting more research is promising approaches is also important, although just because and idea doesn’t have a body of rigorous evidence supporting it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be shared – since the fact that some things are more studied than others is also often as a result of a power or financial imbalance.
2. Decoupling funding and source of expertise. The discussion around untying procurement is long in aid, but is much less advanced in the area of technical assistance. It could bring tremendous benefit if external funding was not tied to the expertise it procures and instead allowed the most relevant, and demand driven models and expertise to be used. This could potentially give a huge boost to South-South technical cooperation without waiting for countries to pay to provide their own technical expertise.
3. For those working in aid or in partner countries as “beneficiaries” of aid it’s important to see models as inputs to programmes not as the programmes themselves i.e. should look to identify and learn from the best models out there – but not to believe the hype of others or ourselves that we have a ready-made solution. And we need to be aware of how power affects our conversations and what solutions are considered and who is listened to. We need to be guided in contextualizing a model or solutions by participatory approaches to accept, reject or redesign them. But even the process of participation needs to be locally designed or refined.
An interesting conclusion from all of this is that for development to be successful it has to be both locally owned and driven– but it also has to successfully integrate external ideas and knowledge. This is a challenge since externals can bring in the outside knowledge but will struggle to understand how to apply it in the local context whereas locals may struggle with fully embracing the new models and the need for change. Successful integration of new ideas may well be a partnership, but with the balance of power shifted more firmly towards the person seeking to change rather than the person helping. But it may also be best led by someone who can straddle both worlds i.e. someone who lives in the current situation and understands the context and challenges, but who has also taken time way to learn and experience the new possibilities and who can mentally integrate the two (I wrote about this a few years ago as outside-in development). As I concluded then “the real heroes of development come from within, but at the same time need to undertake their personal journey to absorb the new ideas from the outside and figure out how to reconcile them with their existing societies. Aid workers can be allies to help smooth this journey, but they cannot take it for themselves.”
So let’s get over our own power trip when providing support with models and ideas (or innovation techniques) and not assume we know what is best, leaving that to the local heroes of change.