Taking the ideas from the last two entries (about mistakes in development/ aid – wanting to help but making things worse) – I wanted to share a coule specific examples that are representative of many of the mistakes I have seen here in Uganda with ICT4D projects (Information and Communication Technology for Development).
About 4 hours outside of Kampala, I drove with two friends to an area that was nick-named the “wireless village”. Essentially, in the middle of nowhere Africa, some people from the US (Inveneo) had spent a ton of money to create a way for 5 remote huts (in an area without even electricity) to receive wireless Internet access that the community could use for free.
The roads got so bad that we had to park the car and walk to the first “kiosk” location – actually a man’s home. Everything is powered by solar panels that the man of the house maintains, and works through high-powered antennae and satellites. And people from the community or rural areas come to access everything from market prices for goods to new farming practices to email access (email surprisingly was the least utilized, because most of the people they knew were in the villages). It was such a big deal that I was told even CNN came out to do a story on it, and (to my surprise), the people I talked with actually used it and really appreciated having it – at least for two years until about 6 months ago when one part broke and the whole system crashed. The part can not be found in Africa, and it seems like the American partners are less than responsive about coming to fix it any time soon. The village people now blame the local staff who were left in charge. The one person taught to maintain it has now moved on to a different city and job, the people continue to wonder if it will ever work again, and in the mean time the technology collects dust.
At the same time, children in a near-by refugee camp are dying at an alarming rate because of a lack of food, water, and inexpensive anti-malaria medication.
I visited a similar telecenter and community radio project (with initial funding by UNESCO and other big boys), powered by huge solar conductors – and once it was set up the partners pulled out. Now the simple costs of Internet access (which are way more than rent) are forcing the operation to raise and sell pigs and produce on the side to try desperately to stay operational. And in the mean time, they also have a part that broke which they need someone to come out and fix before the Internet is up and running again.
Similar to the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead’s observation regarding development in the 1950s – people brought tractors to developing countries to increase their productivity, but quickly fuel would run out, or part breaks and no one could fix it – so this wasted technology cluttered the ground like an elephant graveyard.
The main problem
As I see it, perhaps this is because most of development (especially in ICT4D) seems to come because people develop a pet project (and/or technology) and in order to make themselves feel good (and sometimes in order to capture an untapped market) they try to find poor places in the world to inflict it upon. It isn’t really done for the people, but for the donor or volunteers (to feel good). They literally want to help in the worst way.
It is easy for us all to see the world (and the lives of the people we are intervening in) through the lens of our discipline, or academia, or our business industry, etc… & asking what we can do to “help” these “poor people” who are “less fortunate” than us through those myopic lenses.
Any better ideas?
In trying to think of better ways to be involved in the lives of other people, here is what I have come up with – but I am interested in what you think about it.
Instead of what I described above — why not try as much as possible to take off your predisposed lenses, and just see people in developing countries as humans first (not potential recipients of your specific pre-determined project/research – but humans, with hopes and fears and dreams as real as your own). If you want to be involved in their lives, before predetermining a project or specific outcome, why not first discover what their most pressing needs are (in light of your own as well) and see if there can be some synergy. Instead of you being the benefactor and them the beneficiary – why not try to build relationships where you try to listen more than speak and you each work together (a two-way flow) in order to synergistically create something better than either could on your own!
After all, what is the most valuable use of our brainpower, resources, time, network, energy? And at the very least, how can we do more good than harm?