Turning inward before looking outward

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To respectfully serve others, it goes without saying that we must first understand the context, culture, and perspective of those whose lives we wishes to impact. Without this appreciation, how can we truly claim to know what is in the best interests of another?

But to truly put ourselves in another’s shoes, we must be competent in using our internal tools of perception; otherwise, an attempt at understanding will result in misjudgment and error. Yet how can we know if we’re correctly using our intellect to appreciate others?

The utilities we need for this innate. In order to refine our ability to use them, though, they must first be honed on a subject whose thoughts and feelings we can access directly – our own. To do this, we must turn inward and recognize our own faults, biases, shortcomings, and fears. Only then can we understand the filter through which we see the world, and only then can we begin to see others in the correct light.

I wish I could say I did this well. I don’t. And most of us would say the same about ourselves. But with practice, and with time, perhaps that can change.

How crowdsourcing is (or isn’t) being used to map development

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When Spanish cartographers created the Padrón Real in the early 1500s, they constructed one of the most accurate and far-reaching maps of the day. Despite its crudeness in comparison to modern maps, the document played an enormous role in allowing Spain to explore the New World. A few hundred years ago, the term crowdsourcing obviously didn’t exist, but it still took place: maps at the time were constructed from the knowledge of hundreds of explorers and assimilated over decades.

Fortunately, the speed at which crowdsourcing takes place today is just a touch faster than sending information via sailboat allows, and we have some pretty powerful mapping tools as a result. Since we already have a pretty good handle on where dry land ends and the sea begins, new maps add value by layering data sets on top of physical spaces. The fancy word for this is GIS (Geographic Information Systems).

What does this mean for development work? Better and more up-to-date information about what is happening and where. Take a look first at the Haiti Aid Map, which plots development projects over a Google Map of Haiti to illustrate where work is being done, whom it is being done by, and what type of project is involved:

The concept is great – the user can quickly drill down into project types, organizations, and locations to find just what he is looking for. But there is a major shortcoming: projects done by local NGOs (who play a massive and important role of restoring the country) seem to be omitted entirely. Furthermore, since the site doesn’t allow users to publish directly to the site itself, I assume there is some curation taking place before content is placed online. This may limit the ability of the site to scale to other countries and to post real-time information.

To see a better example of a platform that does take advantage of crowdsourcing, take a look at Ushahidi, who “…built [their] platform as a tool to easily crowdsource information using multiple channels, including SMS, email, Twitter and the web.” On the surface, the mapping mechanism looks the similar to Haiti Aid Map, but dig a bit deeper and you’ll find a multitude of layers, filters, and reports that allow you to slice and dice the data in myriad ways. Uploading reports right through the site only takes a couple of clicks. Whereas Haiti Aid Map is built around what happened, Ushahidi is built on what is happening. Big difference.

Finally, let’s take a look what a big-name GIS firm can put together. ESRI, an Australian-based company, created a tool for assessing disaster relief (not longer-term development work) starting with the recent floods in Australia. ESRI’s map does a better job of crowdsourcing, too; in fact, they actually partnered with Ushahidi on this project. A more in-depth post at O’Reilly Radar provides the full background.

As mobile technology becomes more accessible to the rural poor, platforms like this will play an increasingly meaningful role in promoting collaboration and efficiency during times of disaster relief and during multi-year development efforts. I’m hoping to see further investment in this area (as I discussed further last Wednesday). Using mobile and social tools to build connections among disparate, remote locations in undeveloped regions of the world is a powerful mechanism indeed.

The sweet spot of inequality

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Income inequality is an increasingly common topic on the web these past few days. The discussion is worth reading about. Not only are there some moral issues at hand related to the poor’s access to wealth and opportunity, but there is also a practical debate related to where the “sweet spot” of income inequality lies in terms of allowing for global economic growth. The point is illustrated by Mark Thoma on HBR’s blog post: “Why Business is Stuck on Income Equality“:

There is an equivalent of a Laffer curve for inequality, but the variable of interest is economic growth rather than tax revenue. We know that a society with perfect equality does not grow at the fastest possible rate. When everyone gets an equal share of income, people lose the incentive to try and get ahead of others. We also know that a society where one person has almost everything while everyone else struggles to survive — the most unequal distribution of income imaginable — will not grow at the fastest possible rate either. Thus, the growth-maximizing level of inequality must lie somewhere between these two extremes.

So while too much income inequality is unwanted, perfect income equality isn’t a great situation either. But what’s it like for the impoverished to make the transition into the middle (or lower) classes? AidWatch has a great analogy, using a situation we are all familiar with: being stuck in a slow lane of traffic while the lane next to us passes us by:

At first, movement in the other lane may seem like a good sign: you hope that your turn to move will come soon, and indeed that might happen. You might contemplate an orderly move into the moving lane, looking for suitable gaps in the traffic. However, if the other lane keeps whizzing by, with no gaps to enter and with no change on your lane, your reactions may well become quite negative. Unevenness without corresponding redistribution can be tolerated or even welcomed if it raises expectations everywhere, but it will be tolerated for only so long.  Thus, uneven growth will set forces in motion to restore a greater degree of balance, even (in some cases) actions that may thwart the growth process itself.

The Economist chimes in regarding tactics for adjusting inequality itself, pointing out that the best way to move towards a more equitable distribution of wealth is to bolster the resources of the lower and middle classes, and not bring down the wealthy:

[T]he right way to combat inequality and increase mobility is clear. First, governments need to keep their focus on pushing up the bottom and middle rather than dragging down the top: investing in (and removing barriers to) education, abolishing rules that prevent the able from getting ahead and refocusing government spending on those that need it most. Oddly, the urgency of these kinds of reform is greatest in rich countries, where prospects for the less-skilled are stagnant or falling. Second, governments should get rid of rigged rules and subsidies that favour specific industries or insiders. Forcing banks to hold more capital and pay for their implicit government safety-net is the best way to slim Wall Street’s chubbier felines. In the emerging world there should be a far more vigorous assault on monopolies and a renewed commitment to reducing global trade barriers—for nothing boosts competition and loosens social barriers better than freer commerce.

The good news is that more people than ever are moving out of poverty, at least according to Heifer International’s recent post on the topic:

“A lot has changed in the past six years. The economies of the developing world have expanded 50 percent in real terms, despite the Great Recession. Moreover, growth has been particularly high in countries with large numbers of poor people. India and China, of course, but also Bangladesh, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Uganda, Mozambique and Uzbekistan – nine countries that were collectively home to nearly two-thirds of the world’s poor in 2005 – are all experiencing phenomenal economic advances.”

The new Brookings Institution report, available to download here, updates the World Bank’s official figures to show how the global poverty landscape has changed. The editorial says “we estimate that between 2005 and 2010, nearly half a billion people escaped extreme hardship. Never before in history have so many people been lifted out of poverty in such a short period.”

Working without a network?

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I always enjoy reading Beth Kanter’s blog because it does a good job of reminding me how important connectivity and building networks is. The relationships we’ve built in Haiti came to fruition largely because of references our existing contacts have provided. New contacts beget further introductions, and the effect multiplies upon itself. To illustrate this concept, LinkedIn introduced a mapping tool that helps users visualize the extent and structure of their own networks (at least those whom you know through LinkedIn’s platform). Here’s mine:

Pretty powerful, huh? LinkedIn tells me I can connect to about 60,000 people through those I know directly, and about 4 million more through those connections. Yikes! Now – think about what that network might look like for someone who lives in a country or community without access to social media and the internet. A lack of connectivity would put these people at a huge disadvantage in being able to leverage the knowledge and resources of others. So why isn’t more being invested here, especially in places where it’s needed most?

Furthermore, I’ve been reading more and more that while effective development work must incorporate feedback from local people who are being served, it’s not always solicited. The project we worked on in Bonneau, Haiti was a good learning experience to see how this is done well, but as AidWatch points outs, it’s not always focused on, even in big-budget, high-level initiatives like the Millennium Villages project. But what better way to incorporate local community feedback by providing access to social media tools throughout the project?

Fortunately, more attention is being paid to this trend, as evidenced by this interview with the Praekelt Foundation on the Rising Pyramid blog. And don’t forget to watch this great video by Shawn Ahmed, who will be talking about this concept further at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland:

Unexpected heroes

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The last two days I spent in Port au Prince marked the fourth time I’ve traveled to Haiti in about a year. Regardless of the itinerary I have and the people I plan to see, each trip I have ended up meeting with an unexpected person who provides their own fascinating story of their dedication to Haiti. It’s easy to find heroes who have devoted their lives to service in the news – the big names who’ve won awards, written books, and spoken publicly about their work. But for each public persona, there are dozens, if not hundreds of unknown but heroic individuals who have sacrificed their own comfort, taken risks, and made a bold decision to devote all or part of their lives to serving others.

I can think of at least four or five people I met this last trip who can claim such a background – but I would have never known of such exceptional men and women unless I happened to stumble across them while in the country. These aren’t individuals who had assurances of pay, stability, or even safety in their transition to Haiti, but they had faith that they were doing the right thing and moved forward anyway. These behind the scenes role-models are the people I’ve come to admire most; they care only about service, not recognition. If you know of such a person, or happen to meet one, be sure to thank them – it’s the least we can do to honor those who are setting the example for the rest of us.

Admitting a shortcoming

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A well-known and large-scale charity held a conference in Florida on Thursday and Friday, which I had the privilege of attending. The organization focuses on doing one thing very well: develop, manufacture, and distribute inexpensive and easy to prepare meals to support malnourished children in impoverished countries. Most of the time, their food is donated to NGOs operating in the field, who then distribute the prepared food to local children in need. Certainly, there are myriad situations in which the only way to save the life of an infant or child is to provide nutrition, and having a supply of free, purpose-designed food like theirs is the only way an NGO can make this happen. Undoubtedly, this organization serves and real and pressing need.

However, it is not uncommon for organizations that donate food to fall under criticism. Why? Common reasons are that donated food disrupts the local economy, makes it more difficult for farmers to make a living, and increases dependence on aid. Those criticisms have their place, and may reflect reality in some situations. But this post isn’t about the merits of food distribution compared to other approaches.

Instead, I wanted to point out how impressed I was with this charity’s response to this criticism. Rather than dismiss their detractors and blindly defend their work, the organization use part of the conference to address these issues squarely and with a frank, honest response. They stated that while their critics are not always fully informed, they realize that their piece of the food security puzzle is just that: a component of a larger solution, but not the solution in and of itself. Handing out food, as a solution on its own, they admitted, will not systemically reduce food insecurity in the long term. Thus, they pointed out the need for partnerships, so that the whole spectrum of food solutions, starting with donated supplies and ending with self-sustaining economic activity, can be addressed holistically.

It’s rare that you hear an organization admit that it’s own work has its shortcomings. Doing so is an admittance of the need to depend on others, a value especially uncommon in American business and non-profits alike. However, such a realistic assessment of one’s own effectiveness is needed is the world’s problems have any chance of being solved. If more organizations adopted this viewpoint, how much more effective would development work be?

Moving Beyond the Good Samaritan

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Consider the various human development efforts taking place throughout the world. Thousands of organizations are devoted to feeding the hungry, healing the sick and the injured, freeing those in bondage, and serving the myriad other needs of the marginalized and the helpless. No doubt that this type of work, that which focuses on redressing immediate inequities and access to basic needs, plays a crucial, and necessary role in helping others take another step towards being able to care for themselves and ensuring human rights. The parable many of us are familiar with that exemplifies this type of work is that of the biblical Good Samaritian: a traveler in a foreign territory is robbed and beaten, cared for not by the religious clergy, but by a marginalized and second-class citizen, a Samaritan. While that particular traveler is cared for, we don’t find out if that dangerous passage was ever made safer. When would the next robbery take place? What was done to prevent another crime? Martin Luther King, Jr. poses this question himself, in his 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence”:

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

His point is that unless we include efforts to address human suffering at its sources (making the road to Jericho safer), then we’ve shortchanged the people we’re trying to serve, and failed to live up to our own moral obligations. A tough message from Dr. King, but one worth heeding