Tag Archives: aid

Corporate Narratives, ICTs, and Development

original image courtesyOnce upon a time, a very long time ago, before even Google or mobile phones and long before Facebook, there was just the Internet. And folk who created the Internet and its early users were filled with wonder at its potential. They foresaw a day when there would be true equality of opportunity because everyone would have access to knowledge, access to markets, and true democracy would reign as everyone had a voice in governance.

For those working in the complex world of International Development trying to bring about more equality in the world, through means misguided or otherwise,  information and communication technologies (ICTs) seemed to offer tremendous potential to accelerate positive change in the world.  And so new aid programs were born that attempted to catalyse development activities through the use of ICTs.

As the Internet optimists had foreseen, ICTs turned out to be very useful for everyone, even and most especially the poor.  But where there is utility, there is money and the communication infrastructure business soon became a multi-billion dollar industry.  Technology companies rapidly outpaced development efforts and soon mobile phone infrastructure had spread across the developing world.

Slightly embarrassed by their own efforts, development agencies leapt on board with mobile and Internet companies to partner in bringing access to the developing world.  A beautiful public private partnership was born. Sounds great doesn’t it?  Everyone go to Davos.

What is missing from this picture is the fact that large technology companies are not in the business of saving the world.  They are in the business of serving their shareholders.  And that means that the story they tell the world about their involvement in the developing world, is one that serves their shareholders.  What do I mean by “story they tell”?  Narrative is the basic unit of human thought and everything we do is constructed in the context of a story that we tell ourselves and that we tell others about what is happening in the world and what our role is in it.  Some years ago I was introduced to a beautiful quotation from Alasdair Macintyre (thank you Steve Denning) that has stuck with me:

“unless we have the critical tools to understand in which story we stand, our praxis runs the risk of prolonging not only the problem but the problem story. Often a problem will be solved only by dissolving the story”

In other words, if you don’t know whether your Hamlet or Rosencrantz or in King Lear or The Comedy of Errors, there is little chance of you successfully changing your role or the outcome of the story.

Corporations have been known to occasionally deviate from the very strictest truth in the stories they tell in order to serve their corporate interests.   An energy company might de-emphasise the danger of certain kinds of energy sources because of the vast profits to be made from them.  A mining company might obscure the provenance of minerals sourced from a conflict zone.  Otherwise upright corporations pay bribes where there is a lot of money to be made and an opportunity to do so without getting caught.  Where there is a lot of money on the table, corporations tend to act first in the interest of their bottom line.

And there is a lot of money in the world of telecommunications and the Internet.  Carlos Slim didn’t get to be the richest man in the world by baking cakes.  This turns out to be a problem because communication networks, thanks to the magic of network effects, naturally tend toward monopolies or at least oligopolies.  This makes it much easier for communications corporations to extract more than their fair share of revenue from the average customer.  Why do they do this?  Because they can, because it is what they exist to do, to maximise profits for their shareholders.

This is not about the developing world in particular.  It is true in the U.S. and Canada.  For an insight into the U.S. watch this chilling talk by Susan Crawford about the state of broadband infrastructure.  Communication companies have the chips stacked in their favour and absolutely require regulation in order to counter-balance the natural tendency toward monopoly.

When it comes to the developing world however there is an amazing dearth of critical discussion about the narrative put forward by communication companies.  Development agencies treat these corporations as if they were their friends.  They are not your friends.  They may have temporarily aligned interests but they are not your friends.  They may be staffed by excellent and well-meaning people but their collective interest, nay their responsibility, is to their bottom line and it is frankly amazing that development agencies have managed to maintain an apparent state of willful naivete for such a long time.

This obliviousness leads to pretty dubious activities like the funding of “mobile apps for development”.  Oh sweet saffron, how the mobile operators must have chuckled when they heard that one.  Honestly, they don’t need your help.  Curiously there is little funding going into supporting good policy and regulation of telecom and Internet markets in the developing world, to ensuring real competition and fair pricing.  There are some stand-out exceptions but they are just that, exceptions.

So when the ITU develops a global next generation broadband strategy and it fails to mention WiFi, do you think it might be because mobile corporations have an interest in promoting their own infrastructure rather?  Do you think that when Google launches a campaign to Save the Internet that it is altruism or self-interest?  When Facebook offers free access on mobile phones, is that because they care about the poor?   Please don’t get me wrong, I am not some whining lefty moaning about how corporations are evil.  Corporations are lovely.  Google, in particular, in serving its corporate interest of having more bits consumed globally is in a position to do some very useful  disruptive things in both the rich and poor worlds.  Disruptive corporations in particular are lovely as they pry out the roots that monopolistic corporations dig in the ground.  However, they are still not your friend.  They need to be watched and called to account when they behave badly, especially when a big fat pile of money is on the table.  And this is what the international development community is signally failing to do.

So what’s the tl;dr?  Fewer apps and more support for ICT policy and regulation, please.  It’s not sexy, it takes a long time, and often it fails to succeed against the massive advantage that huge communication corporations have.  But it is where a more ICTD support should be going.  Naturally I speak with a degree of self-interest.  Simply making WiFi and VoIP legal everywhere would be a big leg-up for Village Telco.  Where would I be without my own little corporate narrative?  :-)

Original image courtesy Philip Martin.

African Women and American Academics

I find myself wondering if I am the only one dismayed by the “mudwrestling” going on among Dambisa Moyo, Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly… and others. In case you haven’t heard, Dambisa Moyo has written a provocative book on the merits of development assistance. Her book, Dead Aid, challenges some of the accepted wisdom about how to help poor countries out of poverty. I love provocative books. I love people who can stand the world on its head and say maybe the world isn’t flat after all.  We all need shaking up on a fairly regular basis, especially in the times we live in now.

For me, what ought to have happened after the publication of Dead Aid would be for more pieces like the balanced Francis Fukuyama review in Slate to find prominence and for a stimulating, constructive, multi-dimensional conversation to begin about what this might mean for development policy. Conversations that start by seeking points of agreement in the other’s work and that try to build on those points of agreement.

Instead, what I see is the sort of, winner-take-all, academic sniping that destroys without creating. To pokes holes in the foundations of  another’s argument without acknowledging or building on the sturdy parts of their foundations is not really constructive. Don’t get me wrong. I am a fan of Karl Popper. I believe that disprovability is the cornerstone of the quest for truth. Yet I also believe that compassion is as important a part of academic discourse as rationality.

George Lakoff, author of Metaphors We Live By, points out that the dominant metaphor for argument is that of conflict and struggle. And indeed, William Easterly validates this when he says that the “purpose of debate is to facilitate the emergence of the best ideas and to shoot down the worst ideas” and “it is clear to me intellectually that Sachs’ ideas are wrong, and I will combat them accordingly” (emphasis is mine).  Hat tip to another World Bank alumnus, Steve Denning, for making me aware of Lakoff’s work.  But why the metaphor of conflict?  Why not a metaphor of mountain climbers roped together scaling a summit?

I am reminded of a page from Sam Kaner’s excellent Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making in which he explores two different modes of problem solving:

Either / Or Both / And
Value System Competitive Collaborative
Type of Outcome Expected Win / Lose Win / Win
Attitude toward “Winning” To the victor goes the spoils Your success is my success
Attitude toward “Losing” Someone has to lose If somebody loses everybody loses
Attitude toward minority opinions Get with the program Everyone has a piece of the truth
Why explore differences between competing opinions? To search for bargaining chips, in preparation for horsetrading and compromise. To build a shared framework of understanding, in preparation for mutual creative thinking.
Essential Mental Activity Analyse: break wholes into parts Synthesise: integrate parts into wholes
How long it takes It’s usually faster in the short run It’s usually faster in the long run
Underlying philosophy Survival of the fittest Interdependence of all things

Ethan Zuckerman’s pointer to a thoughtful post on the blog What an African Woman Thinks is what actually compelled me to write this.  The author, Rombo, has a fresh, critical yet compassionate take on the debate.  It reminded me that compassion and critical thinking will take you a lot further in the social construction of knowledge than critical thinking alone. So, Dambisa, Jeffrey, William how about a little less invective and a little more compassion or dare I say ubuntu?  Africa certainly has no need of aid when it comes to philosophy, perhaps the other way around.

The Risky Philanthropist

Last week I attended the MobileActive08 conference in Johannesburg which I have to say is one of the better conferences I have attended in a while.  Partly because of the turn-out of remarkable people, partly because of the non-talking-heads format of the event and partly because of the interesting initiatives that I think are going to come out of it.  Most interesting for me is likely to be the Open Mobile Consortium which brings together developers for mobile platforms to improve interoperability of applications on mobile platforms.

A surprise bonus for me was a donor round-table that I participated in.  Having been involved in “donor panels” before, my expectations were very low as donors are generally the last people you want to consult about what to do in development.  I suspect that people attend mostly because they want to sniff out which way the fickle donor wind is blowing.

Having said that the conversation did get interesting.  It re-awakened a conversation that Mark Surman had started and prompted me to think further about what philanthropy for a small foundation should look like.  In general I think it is true that most philanthropic institutions are more conservative than they intend to be and not as nimble as they imagine they are or they should be.

Pushing A String

Philanthropy is a bit like business in reverse.  In business, you try to create value that people are willing to pay for.  No value, no payment.  In philanthropy, you make payments in the hope of creating value.  Sometimes this works but sometimes it is like trying to push a string.  If you have someone pulling on the other side, everything works fine but if not all you have is a pile of string i.e. funding and no change.  I have funded my share of projects that turned out to be piles of string.  So how do you ensure that the person / organisation on the other side is pulling as you are paying out string.  I sometimes envy bankers and venture capitalists.  There is always someone pulling the string.  People come to you and if they meet the criteria, they can borrow money.  The string is kept tight because the consequences of failure for either side keeps people honest.

With philanthropy, what is the consequence of failure?  If you are a good spin-doctor, quite possibly there are no consequences.  It is not that hard to exploit the fact that most donors (I am by no means exempt) quite naturally don’t like to acknowledge or admit failure.

Lessons from Venture Capital

When I joined the Shuttleworth Foundation about 10 months ago, I was quite excited about the prospect of being co-located with Mark Shuttleworth’s Venture Capital company (HBD Venture Capital).   I imagined this might be an opportunity to blend Venture Capital thinking with philanthropic thinking.  The reality was a little different than I imagined.  HBD have a great team of people but it became immediately evident that the values of HBD were quite different from the Foundation.  The mandate of HBD is to provide an impressive financial return on investment whereas the mandate of the Foundation is social transformation.  These don’t fit easily together, at least not in the obvious way I imagined they might.

Having said that, the rigour with which venture capitalists scrutinize their clients is something worth looking at.  We just need to move that rigour from a single bottom line to a triple bottom line. One idea we have thought about trying here is to have the Foundation staff pitch their development ideas to the HBD fund managers in a Dragon’s Den style in order to start opening up that discussion.

Philanthropy Has a Place Beyond Venture Capital

At the Foundation, one of the criteria we have for projects is the potential for “viral” growth.  The increasing connectedness of the world opens up the possibility for large scale impact, assuming you find the right recipe.  Part of finding the right recipe is trying stuff that banks and venture capitalists would never fund.  Giving a crazy idea a chance to become sufficiently mainstream in order to attract the attention of more conventional sources of funding.  Doing this requires a conscious decision to withstand the naysayers and conventional wisdom types who may argue, for example,  that openly licensed materials will never achieve the quality of commercial products.  Being consciously risky is a good place for philanthropy, at least for a foundation the size of this one.

Failing with Style

The corollary to taking risks in philanthropy is recognising and dealing with projects that don’t succeed.  This week’s Economist has an article about technology start-ups facing the downturn which I think has a clue for philanthropists about how to deal with failing projects.  Have some rules!

Another useful strategy is to shed projects that are not central to a start-up’s business. Executives at Jive Software, which produces online collaboration tools for corporate clients, say it is now far better at scrapping initiatives that do not seem to be paying off. Once these have been placed on a “kill list”, there is no further discussion about them. In the past the lack of a formal process for canning ideas meant that many lived on, absorbing time and resources better spent elsewhere.

Have a formal process for killing ideas. Now that is a sensible idea.