29 July 2013

International Development Needs to Disrupt Itself

A few months ago, I heard Joi Ito, the current director of MIT’s Media Lab speak. One of the points I found the most telling in his talk was the idea of how the Internet has disrupted the traditional order of operations in creating a new technological innovation, especially at the global level. Due to heavy research and development costs, overhead, and patent protection, technological innovation pre-Internet often came in a very top-down approach at the behest of large government organizations or private corporations.

The Internet changed all of that; the Internet allowed individuals or small groups of people with little to no assets to create something and find investors to bring it to scale. One of Ito’s examples was YouTube, which was hatched by three software developers in 2005. Not knowing what the precise use of YouTube would be, the developers concentrated on creating the product, and eventually attached it to an online dating service that allowed customers to upload video clips. With time, YouTube migrated to MySpace before becoming its own platform that was eventually bought by Google.

This sort of disruption is seen on a daily basis in New York. In fact, Mayor Bloomberg even started a large campaign called Made in NY, which gives media backing to more than 3,000 tech start-ups in the city. From social media, to analytics, to online shopping, to crowdfunding, interactive mapping, and more, the transformative potential of the next wave of Internet behemoths is well known and well documented.

Indeed, this wave of innovation and entrepreneurship extends far beyond the reaches of major tech cities; in fact, it goes beyond small cities in the States – including my hometown of Richmond, VA. GSMA’s Mobile for Development Intelligence recently published a report on scaling mobile technology in economically developing contexts. In the report, they write about seven Internet innovation centers across Africa, including iHub in Nairobi.

If Internet technological innovation at this level has made it this far, if Internet technology is so pervasive in our lives, why then has it not been embraced at a strategic level in much of the international development community? ICT brings efficient, low-cost solutions, which are two characteristics continually sought out by an increasingly financially strained donor community. Among many other reasons, I believe one of the driving factors is that the disruption that has occurred in the ICT community has not happened in international development world.

One of the favorite international development expressions is,

            “In the context of.”

We as development practitioners are taught to build a “context” – a case – for everything that we do, and often for good reason. Solving one small problem in an environment with little infrastructure, high gender inequality, the majority of a population impoverished, and with highly imperfect systems means that nothing can be looked at in isolation.

A lack of due diligence before deploying a solution could very easily negatively affect those we are trying to help. Distributing computers to slum-dwelling youth to better education resources might put them at high risk for violence by non-recipients trying to steal the computer. Connecting adult females to job boards targeting women might ostracize these new workforce participants from their community. Automatically distributing internationally sourced food at the end of a bad crop season might crowd out farmers who cannot afford to sell their stocks at a lower price.

It takes time to understand a context, to understand how a solution to one problem can and should work in conjunction with solutions in the same community. It takes time to conduct literature reviews, secure ongoing donor funding, find political support, and build an argument as to how, why and when a solution should be implemented.

What this then means is that the pace of ICT solutions on the technical side often outpaces the international development side. As we all know, a perfectly executed piece of software, hardware, operating system, whatever, is useless if unused. Without constant market feedback loops telling us whether a solution has worked, the iterative process to innovation loses steam quickly.  

I have no doubt that ICT-based international development solutions will continue to grow in prominence and relevance in coming years. However, in order to achieve a better value add, the international development community – practitioners, donors, governments – will have to change the approach. We have to figure out how to disrupt ourselves.

21 July 2013

Discrimination of the Unknown and Assumed

A few years ago, I read an interesting article about how getting accurate readings on which way a district would vote in terms of American political parties requires an increasingly micro approach. In other words, overall voting results are ideally predicted at the neighborhood level. Indeed, my experience as an Indian-American, Hindu woman growing up in Central Virginia is also very specific to the exact time and place, and may in fact have little to no reflection of how two of my cousins – also Indian-American Hindus – will feel about their childhood in a neighborhood just 40 minutes away, 15-17 years later, once they are my age.

That said, I grew up in a place and time where Indian and Hindu cultures were unknown and therefore often hated. I could count the number of non-black, non-white, non-Christian people in my middle school[1] on one hand. Being a minority of a few unknown types prompted questions from both white and black kids, parents, teachers, and strangers:

“What are you?”

“What the hell is ‘Hindu’?”

“Indian? Like Pocahontas?”

Most of the time the questions were in a harmless tone, most of the time the questions were out of pure ignorance, but most of the time the questions were completely rhetorical. Most people weren’t asking to learn about something new, they were asking to highlight the differences between us. Even so, as I got older and learned how to speak my mind, I took a question as a question and would answer as well as I could, when I could. Sometimes, a curious thing would happen  people would listen. They’d hear about the Indian subcontinent, the openness of Hindu scripture, and the amazing ancient Asian societies that existed before the Bible was even written.

Those of us who are of a relatively unknown race or religion in our environment know that we are sometimes given a chance to explain who and what we are, even if it’s to say our race or religion are not a fundamental part of what makes us who we are. It’s not an omnipresent phenomenon and it’s not an easy battle to fight, but at least it’s an opportunity that does, on occasion, show its face. And with those small occasions, we are able to safely speak our mind and break down barriers of ignorance that come from a place in which people truly have not heard anything either way. Over time, these occasions can add up to create a completely different, more open context and understanding to the immediate environment.

In this way, the discrimination I faced being Indian and Hindu in the time and place in which I grew up fundamentally differed from what the black community, and increasingly the Muslim and Hispanic communities, face in America. The discrimination I dealt with was borne out of the unknown; as I described above, this unknown sometimes sparked questions, which sometimes warranted answers, which sometimes made things more open and better. But what happens when discrimination comes not from the unknown, but the assumed? What happens when a person or society does not ask an even rhetorical question, but assumes they know who you are based on your race or religion or style?

As Obama said in his public statement on the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the problems of the black community stem from a long, complicated, painful and fairly recent history of enslavement and institutionalized discrimination. However, Obama’s family was largely not of this history. His father was from Kenya and came to the States for a brief period in the 1960s; his mother was a white American woman from the Midwest. Yet Obama, a half-black man who mostly grew up in the States, has written in detail about his experience of automatically being relegated to a specific community, a specific set of behaviors, problems, and ideas based on his race. If the current President of the United States has faced these problems, imagine what this means for the diverse communities that compose the millions of black people across the nation.

Knowing that the atmosphere of a room has negatively shifted because you, a minority, entered; that look in the eye showing someone genuinely feels scared or angry at you because they think you are of an inferior race; that sigh of sadness because someone thinks you are going to hell for believing in a different manifestation of God. For those of you who have never felt unsafe because of your race, religion, sexual orientation, or any physical, mental or emotional attribute you carry, these ideas are probably very hard to understand, because these are discriminatory examples that can only be felt. Feelings are hard to capture in laws, policies or constitutions.

Hate Crime laws are one attempt to codify against discrimination. Though I personally think Hate Crime legislation is a tool that sends a powerful message, Hate Crime laws are predicated on the idea of someone targeting another because they are part of a particular social group, and are therefore best at capturing criminals who want to use or are open about using their discriminatory views as justification of their violence. Most people, minority or otherwise, would write these criminals off as extremists, vigilantes, racists, homophobes, or the insane. 

Those of us who have faced discrimination that is borne out of the unknown and/or the assumed understand that racism can manifest itself in many ways, and the hardest battles are often fought against people or societies that refuse to acknowledge there is a problem or are able to deny a problem exists. Purposely targeting someone in a strict legal definition is likewise one of the hardest things to prove and one of the hardest things to codify when trying to demonstrate discriminatory behavior in the real world.

What then happens when these discriminatory sentiments translate into violence? What happens when the George Zimmermans of the world are allowed to carry a loaded weapon on the street, chase down an unarmed teenager who has every right to be where he is, and then shoot this teenager at point blank range after starting the confrontation himself? What happens when the all-white (save one Puerto Rican) jury agrees with the white defense lawyers that the George Zimmermans of the world were justified in thinking this teenager – a black male in a hoodie – looked suspicious, but at the same time, we are not allowed to make the case the George Zimmermans of the world based their judgment call on race because the targeting was not explicit?

Any minority in America will tell you that one of the best defense mechanisms we have in these uncomfortable and unsafe situations is to simply walk away. We live in a country that up until this ruling, in practice allowed us to waive our chance to explain who we are in favor of simply removing ourselves from the situation and from any ensuing danger. The ruling acquitting George Zimmerman of shooting and killing Trayvon Martin has, in part, caused so much emotional turmoil because a person wishing to avoid confrontation that is based on bias or ignorance is now not even allowed to simply walk away. If someone does not like something about who or what we are, if they are able to convince a jury that this who or what we are makes us “suspicious” by default, we cannot walk away from the ignorance or discrimination. In effect, we have lost the right to be who we are and move ourselves to a place where we feel safe as who we are. Those of us who continue to fall into the unknown may have a fighting chance to defend ourselves under this system. But those who fall into the assumed never had much of a chance to begin with.

[1] I have to give credit where credit is due. Though elementary and middle school were less than desirable experiences, I went to an internationally geared high school that was way ahead of the social curve, probably for the country and certainly for the area. It had a well-supported LGBT alliance, offered classes in 13 languages, and (at least for me), created an environment that was open to all religions, races, and sexual orientations and genders.