In Search of Deviants

Positive Deviance is a somewhat unnecessarily complicated name for something deeply humane and useful:

In every village, there is at least one woman (usually a few) whose children are healthier than the rest. For whatever reason, that woman is better at navigating the complexities of village life and child nutrition. That woman has knowledge and skills which can be taught. You find her, you learn from her, you support her to teach her peers. That is positive deviance.

I’m collecting references to what Aid-Work 2.0 looks like, and this is part of it, I think.

Ethan Zuckerman’s Rules for Innovation

Ethan just posted some rules for innovation which are interesting. The one that speaks most to me right now is #7, which states, “problems are not always obvious from afar”. That’s a big problem with the kind of “innovation” that happens with first-world government-funded NGO IT for Development work. It is easy for a programmer to sit in an office and say, “what Africans really need is more data collection via PDAs!” It is something else entirely for Malian Linux enthusiasts to say, “Downloading is too expensive, I bet I can make money distributing Open Source via a kiosk”.

The former type of “innovation” is (1) colonialist, (2) ignorant, and (3) a theft from the tax payers funding it and from the beneficiaries who need results (not another failed project). The latter is about people, taking a hand extended to them, and lifting themselves up. In the case of Kunnafoni, the hand is a vibrant expat and African IT culture (probably centered on alumni from Geek Corps Mali), and the cornucopia of free content available to them.

Which type of IT4D would you rather be involved in?

Shame and Aid Work

This is a story a bit like mine from Chad, though we were not faced with bandits/rebels/soldiers directly. The feelings of shame and regret she has are related to the complicated feelings I had on leaving Chad as well.

In my case, we had nothing to be ashamed of — we took good care of ourselves and our staff and were not bad guests anywhere. But it does give you a sense of shame that as an expat you are different: you’re allowed to just go away, and your colleagues can’t.

When Not In Control, People Imagine Order

Science Friday did an interesting story recently:

New research shows that when people perceive they have no control over a given situation, they are more likely to see illusions, patterns where none exist and even believe in conspiracy theories. The study suggests that people impose imaginary order when no real order can be perceived.

The first caller reports on how the conditions he experienced working as an aid worker in Somalia showed this. Also, he comments on the rough ride back to normality after suffering a situation with loss of control.

A Call for Help

Something very wrong is going on on South Africa, and the world is missing it:

“It is better for us to be here than go for reintegration. The South Africans want to kill us and the government is trying to kill us. Reintegration’s a death sentence. We’d rather die here together,” said Johnny Kaka.

MSF is only one voice, and though they are speaking out, the immigrants in South Africa need more people to speak for them.

Shame on the African majority of South Africa that they’ve come to this: dehumanizing the African immigrants in their country. There’s no racism here, just nationalism and the simple human stupidity that comes from fear and greed. People on this planet can be remarkably rude to each other, and it’s just an accident of history or fashion if it is due to racism, nationalism, or tribalism. Until we learn to love “the other” as we love our own brother, we will not be able to stop it.

Wow, that was almost biblical. Perhaps this is where the human instinct for religion came from, not that I believe organized religion is really necessary to understand how to live a just life.

Same conversation, different venue

The dirty secret of aid work… it always comes down to this… the navel-gazing, “why am I here”, “why is it so ineffective” conversation.

Usually it happens around the campfire, over a bottle of locally made beer, or perhaps for the lucky coordination team in the capital city, at the nearby expat-only restaurant over a nice bottle of South African wine. As with everything this century, it’s moved onto the Internet. But the essential tone of the conversation, and the impossibility of resolving the problem remains.

For me the solution is radical. We need to cut the profligate aid budgets and instead put concentrated effort on what’s important: respect for human rights, economic growth, and individual expression and inventiveness. Give a healthy person a chance at education and a stable economy into which to pour his inventiveness and effort, then reward him with results. We know this works. How? Because it’s what happened to Switzerland in the 1800’s, to Brazil in the 70’s, and to Malasyia in the 80’s.

MSF should keep working to put out burning fires — no one is interested in economic growth when there is a cholera epidemic. MSF should cut it’s fundraising and budget down to the point it can only afford do emergency work. (MSF has a lot of make-work projects, where they are looking for and finding an excuse to work in order to burn up the cascade of cash falling on them.)

USAID and DFID should suffer budget cuts of 99%, and should use the remaining 1% to teach good governance. Food aid should be phased out, the WFP should be shut and the core of its expertise should be moved into HCR, another agency that, regrettably, has to keep existing to put out fires.

Places like the Gates Foundation should invest in fundamental advances in healthcare, but should stay out of the field. Their sole work in the field should be along the lines of Mo Ibrahim, who’s foundation rewards good government. Africans need to live in a context of several generations of good government before they will have the confidence to stretch out their entrepreneurial muscles and reach for their dreams.

I am not saying that nothing any of these agencies do is of any value. What I’m saying is that until Africans are living in a world where they are held responsible for their future, and supported on the path, the problem won’t be solved. (And the problem holding us back from universal justice on this planet is Africa, not Asia… watch the videos at Gapminder to be convinced.)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again just so no one misunderstands me: Africans are smart enough and hardworking enough to change their continent for the better. Our job, as residents of continents that developed a few 10s or even 150 years earlier is to stand by and support them when they ask for help.

Let’s Map Africa!

I found a great post on Google’s Africa blog today announcing Map Maker, a wiki-like way of increasing Google Map’s coverage of places where there’s very little data available for them to start with. As with everything Google, the launch version is a little not-smooth, and it is hard to understand how the moderation feature works. Am I supposed to be able to moderate other people, or is it the invisible Hand Of Google that moderates me? I can’t figure that part out yet, but I assume it is community moderation. That’s Not Evil, and when I last checked Google was Not Evil…

So take a look at my first addition, the huge cemetery in the middle of Monrovia, Liberia… so huge you can see it from space.

This is big, cool news. See downtown Nairobi for what it looks like when lots and lots of features have been added by people (a concentrated push by a group of college students that Google hired this summer). Click on “more info”, then “history” to see the wikipedia-like history of the Motor Vehicle Inspection Unit. It was added Oct 27 by Ken and approved by Afrin.

Too bad Google Maps is so hard to use with low bandwidth and high latency. It would sure be nice to have a much better offline story for Google Maps. Perhaps the MapMaker team(s) in Google’s Africa office(s) will be the ones to finally push this dream enough to make it reality.

I’m Back!

After an extended downtime due to lack of give-a-shit on my part, my blog is back, and I am back to blogging. Expect something here daily, which is my goal.

Lots and lots of news… where to start? I suppose at the last post. Since then, Marina and I were evacuated from Chad due to fighting in the town where our project was located. We then found a nice little meningitis emergency in DR Congo. When we came home we had a little vacation, then I went to the USA to see family after close to a year away. We found separate postings with MSF for the summer, which was hard but worthwhile. Marina worked in Myanmar doing mobile clinics from boats, and I went to Oromyia, Ethiopia to participate in an nutritional emergency intervention.

In August, we made a whirlwind tour of all of our various families in various parts. This grueling tour was for a worthwhile purpose: we announced our engagement! We’ll be married sometime in mid- to late-2009.

We are now living in Leeds, England. Marina is studying for a Masters in International Public Health at University of Leeds. I am the house husband, though I am doing work too; some IT contracts if I can find them, lots of self-training to get caught up to the tech landscape, and maybe some volunteering for various places too. Of course, I am a blogger again, and I’ll give some time to that.