The Skills Exist, Use Them!

One of the headlines that came out of my trip to Freetown was “The Skills Exist, Use Them!”

First, a bit more about what I was doing there. I was on a contract with the Health Metrics Network, which is a project running under the auspices of the World Health Organization, but funded by the Gates Foundation. HMN is supposed to go around building a network, not of routers and switches, but people who understand the challenges of constructing and running health information systems. Those people should be researchers, technologists, and public health people. And those people should be a mix of those talking about it (easy to find in Geneva, they are douze pour une centime) and those doing it. The latter are a little harder to find…

Which brings us back to the headline, and what I was doing in Sierra Leone. Our colleagues in Sierra Leone were stuck. They have the will to be doers, but the project wasn’t moving. I went to give it a kick in the rear, and man did I. I had a great time, and I enjoyed getting to know my colleagues. It remains to be seen if we’ve unstuck the project and gotten it going. But for sure we’ve delivered something that has the potential to be transformative and to unlock people’s curiosity and creativity.

What I did was remarkably like what I did after Hurricane Katrina. I arrived in a hot and humid place, quite unfamiliar to me, and go to work. I dug through the boxes of stuff that my colleagues had ordered. I figured out what people there knew, what they wanted, what they were capable of, and what they needed. As usual, it is the consultant’s job to listen to people tell you what they want, then make them feel good about it when you give them something different. After the first day’s work (“the rapid assessment” in consultant-speak) we got to work.

We hired an electrician to install a big honkin UPS they had. I supervised that work, saying a quick prayer of thanks that MSF’s log school had given me a good lecture on three phase power. Our electrician did pretty good work, though he was a little unclear on the concept of ground. Once I remembered my British English (which I learned from RedR), and pointed out the “earth wire” he’d cut off and neglected to connect to anything, then he got with the program and we fixed things right up with a few quick patches.

I installed a little network, then went to do some network archeology and found an old network that had been forgotten and turned off. We got it back in service, then hooked it up to our little network extending all the way to the Minister of Health’s office. When the new zippy VSAT link is installed and stable in a few weeks, my colleagues will schedule a meeting with him to show him his snappy new access to the Internet and to the national health information system, and he’ll be blown away!

At least, that’s the plan. But why was I there? What sense can it possibly make to send a white dude from Leeds thousands of miles for only two weeks to run around yelling and throwing dollars at problems? Wouldn’t it be better to have local people do it?

In fact it would, and what it takes is a project manager with vision, able to engage and manage a local IT firm. I went to see if we had those pieces, as much as I went to kick the project in the butt with a concentrated bit of white-dude energy. What I found is some of the pieces. I found a local firm named Tiwai Memory Masters founded by two guys from the returned diaspora after the civil war. They know their stuff, and they’ve trained their young employees right. The boss of Tiwai wasn’t afraid to give me a little ribbing either: “My partner is going to complain about how you did that ground wire, but don’t pay any attention to him, he’s just picky.”

I didn’t bother pointing out that the ground wire was the electrician’s fault, not mine. I just took my lumps and smiled. I was smiling because I’d just seen the future of Sierra Leone: a smart techie, with a sense a humor, and pride in workmanship.

I came back and gave a presentation to the Talkers in Geneva. I told them: There are Doers in Sierra Leone, get them under contract and watch this thing fly!

Before I forget, if you want to see some pictures of African doers doing, take a look at these two links:

God I love those guys… they can make anything work. All they need is a reason to believe in themselves, and in their project. The Nigerians get paid their reason to believe every day — they hack hardware for profit. How can we get that energy redirected to work that makes lives better? Profit won’t be enough… what will?


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