If I Had 50 Million Dollars

Money TreeIf I had any poetic talent, I would have done this in rhyming couplets set to the music of the Barenaked Ladies but sadly today you are left with my prose.  Hum along with me anyway.

If you work in the area of Open Government, Open Data, Transparency,  or even just ICTs and Development in general, you have probably heard of the Making All Voices Count (MAVC) initiative.  MAVC is a Grand Challenge for Development which brings together the UK Department for International Development (DFID/UKAID), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Omidyar Network (ON), and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) to create a $50 million fund to “support innovation, scaling-up, and research that will deepen existing innovations and help harness new technologies to enable citizen engagement and government responsiveness.

On Saturday, in response to an increasing number of interactions around MAVC that I’ve had over the last few weeks, I tweeted the following:

which garnered a few reactions.  Most interestingly @wayanvota issued a challenge to speak up and say just what was wrong with MAVC.  I was a little surprised by his reaction as I thought there were some fairly self-evident problems, mostly related to what happens when there is a large pot of money on the table.  It then occurred to me that perhaps this was perhaps not self-evident to all or perhaps even that I was simply jaded and cynical.  My first thought was to blog about the challenges that I think MAVC will face.  But frankly it’s easy to be a critic and anyone engaged in the field of philanthropy knows that it is hard, very hard indeed to do well.  If I had the time, I could pick holes in development initiatives all day.  Like shooting fish in a barrel but not as much fun.

So, perhaps more challenging, more constructive, and more fun would be to say, well *what would I do*. That is to say if someone said, here take this bag of 50 million dollars and go forth to create more open governance in the South.  A challenging prospect.  Achieving impact through the giving away of money is much more difficult than achieving impact in the private sector. Philanthropy lacks that marvellous feedback loop called the market which provides plenty of data for self-correction.  This doesn’t, as some suggest, make philanthropy bad. It just makes it more challenging.  So herewith my suggestion as to how to most effectively spend 50 million dollars on Open Government in the South.

My recipe is very simple.  I would pick 10 universities, one each in 10 countries in the South.  I would endow a chair for Cyber Law and Governance in each university for 10 years giving each university 5 million dollars.  That’s it.  Maybe I’d keep a million or two back to fund and facilitate networking among the universities but that’s it.  Here is my rationale:

  1. Open Governance, if it happens at all, has to be home-grown.  The power imbalance in development assistance hasn’t gone away.  Putting southern researchers in control of the agenda is a start towards mitigating that problem.
  2. Open Governance is still in its infancy.  There is no significant body of evidence of it making a difference in the South.  Granted MAVC plans to fund research, as do others, but what is really needed is sustained dialogue in the south between informed civil society and government.  Think of the role that someone like Michael Geist plays in Canada or Rufus Pollock in the UK.  Universities were and are the critical enablers for them.  We need more of that in the South, that is to say dialogue not solutions.  Solutions emerge naturally from constructive dialogue.
  3. Open Government is complex.  There is a kind of naive optimism around Open Government which comes from the forty thousand foot view that many donors have.  Kenya, the poster child for Open Government in Africa, has experienced its own challenges with Open Government. There are vested interests, entrenched centres of power, contradictory priorities (protection of privacy, cyber security, etc), lack of capacity and many other issues, all of which take time and engagement to deal with.  This calls more for sustained local dialogue, engagement, and capacity building than for entrepreneurs building open data apps.
  4. Most countries in the South have a critical lack of institutions that can engage on cyber governance issues.  It is not just Open Government but digital privacy, surveillance, cyber security, Internet governance and a host of other issues that demand a generation of researchers and policy-makers with the interest and capacity to lead their countries and probably the world to better decision-making on these issues.  Invest in those institutions and you will get Southern leadership on these issues and make it easier for future funders to find the right places to engage.
  5. Policy work is a long game.  Institutions need to know they can commit beyond a few years.  This would allow them the time and resources needed to bring about real change.

My 2 cents or 50 million dollars as the case may be.

 

  • http://www.facebook.com/phat.controller Tony Roberts

    Thanks for this post Steve. I am sure that you are right when you say that “There is a kind of naive optimism around Open Government”. I think that it is linked to our naive optimism that there might be a neat technocratic solution to what in reality are deeply-entrenched social and political problems. I am convinced that you are right when when you say the solution must involve “more for sustained local dialogue, engagement, and capacity building than for entrepreneurs building open data apps”. But that’s why I think you are probably unwise to bet $50 million on the solution to ‘closed governments’ being African universities. I don’t see any evidence that they are successful in transforming government and would expect them to ‘eat’ the money without disrupting exist power and privilege in any meaningful way. I would rather invest in political advocacy/action organisation in civil society that have a track record in taking on “vested interests, entrenched centres of power”. Tony Roberts

  • stevesong

    Thanks Tony. You are not the first person to critique my suggestion of funding African universities and I respect the point that you make that the money could just be swallowed with little impact. In my previous life as a research funder, I have run into the challenge of institutional capacity in African universities. It was always easier to fund a smaller organisation that was more accountable and had less baggage associated with it. I can think of some South African universities in particular that seem to go out of their way to make it hard for funders, especially small to mid-size funders. There are other problems too where the existing infrastructure in a university may need to be upgraded just to be able to cope with a grant. Not to mention the inevitable dead wood that accumulates in any bureaucracy.

    However, in the rest of the world, as I look around at ICT policy activism, it is being driven in some cases by academics and in others by people who grew up with the digital benefits associated with a well-connected tertiary institution. Aid agencies have, to some degree, damned African universities by making the sort of decision I have made in the past, to by-pass the problem. Perhaps it is just that I feel some culpability and desire to redress that problem.

    Another aspect of this is simply the extent to which we have no idea what exactly the right answers are. Privacy, open data, surveillance, all of these things are complex and demand not just dialogue, but research, evidence. Most NGOs don’t have that sort of capacity. And while we are on the topic of capacity, where are the civil society organisations in Africa that one might fund as an alternative? They largely do not exist. There is a fantastic dearth of ICT policy NGOs across the continent.

    I agree that funding African universities successfully to do this would take some real thought to do well but to me it still seems to me to be the best approach to tackle this problem.

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