24 September 2014

The Paths of Marriage - Thoughts Ahead of the Release

Note this is a repost from The Paths of Marriage website. The novel will be available for purchase everywhere books are sold in paperback and eBook on 1 October 2014.

The writing process is complex and multifaceted. The creation of my debut novel, The Paths of Marriage, was no exception. While some of my most intimate thoughts are reflected in this book, determining how to weave my life reflections into a story that I wanted to resonate far beyond my immediate circle required more thought than any other project I had ever undertaken. Over the past year, as The Paths of Marriage’s visibility steadily became more pronounced, my identity as a person took on another layer: writer. Becoming a voice for an intersection of minorities, for a community that is still finding its anchor was something I could have never foreseen, but I now embrace the idea as a core part of who I am.

Guiding The Paths of Marriage to the point where it is, both as a piece of literature and as a tool of positive change, has taken years of hard work, arguably delusional aspirations, and an increasingly intense support from friends and family. With the sheer grit it took to push this work to a public limelight, I had naturally envisioned a large gamut of grandiose celebrations to mark day the book finally goes on sale. After all, my identity as a writer surely warrants highlighting such an important occasion.

Alas, on the day of the book launch, I will find myself in a place that necessitates a quiet celebration. I have resumed another facet in my identity – an international development practitioner. While I am grateful to once again put my skills under the employ of the United Nations to innovatively address some of the toughest obstacles to economic empowerment and fulfillment of human rights, the decision to do so came at the hard cost of being away from the place and the people that enabled me to write the important story that I did on the day the story becomes available to the public.

At present, I sit in a country that still considers some of the issues addressed in The Paths of Marriage as taboo. The reason for needing a quiet celebration goes beyond concerns of safety and comfort, however. I am in a context where my progressive writer identity is of little value to those around me. While I internally celebrate The Paths of Marriage, I will spend the book launch day working with my colleagues on how we can better prevent millions of infants dying before they reach the age of six weeks, and millions of pregnant women dying of treatable complications when giving birth. So much of the population around me is simply trying to survive. Important as the issues that The Paths of Marriage addresses are, my writer identity is not what is most needed in my current environment. Unfortunately, my writer identity and my international development identity cannot exist in the same harmony here as it can back home.

All three of the main characters of The Paths of Marriage face contradictions of their multiple identities. How can one live up to typical American expectations under the pretext of immigrant parents? How can one reconcile a loving, open same-sex relationship while contending with a homophobic parent? How can one be the woman to change India when India does not allow women to change?

I have to admit that it pains me to be away from home, from New York City on this momentous day in my writer’s identity. However, I know that ultimately my absence is a perfect testament to The Paths of Marriage. Today will not be an external celebration to remember, but it will be an internal homage to the struggle that each of the main characters of The Paths of Marriage face. And for that deep connection to my own writing, I am grateful to live the life I do, struggles and challenges and all. I hope you will join The Paths of Marriage and me in this complex process of understanding our identity.

The Paths of Marriage will be available for purchase in paperback and eBook everywhere books are sold on 1 October 2014.

21 September 2014

The Value Add in ICT4D

I work at the intersection of information technology and international development, or how ICT platforms and technologies can better existing development solutions. Including the work I did for my Masters thesis, I have approached these questions in or about 10+ countries across Africa, and in India. Each of these countries has an ICT ecosystem comprised of individuals, for-profit companies, the UN, NGOs and governments. The pervasiveness and strength of these ecosystems varies widely throughout the African continent. (India is arguably one of the most advanced ICT ecosystems in the world, though the level of sophistication of the ICT industry within the country is also massive).

Technology in the African continent presents an interesting opportunity and an often frustrating paradox. Unlike the Global North, most of sub-Saharan Africa has not and probably never will go through an industrial revolution, at least not in the sense of building physical infrastructure for use by the common person. Mobile technologies and even some PC-based technologies are thus a huge economic and social opportunity, as they can potentially connect large segments of people to global opportunities with relatively minimal physical infrastructure. Yet, some physical infrastructure is still required to make these opportunities realized. In many countries that have large coastlines and/or a large population, the ICT ecosystem is growing and strengthening everyday. Large telecom companies, such as Orange, Vodacom, and MTN are investing heavily in the next generation of mobile users in Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and still others.

This investment is not, however, universally pervasive across the continent. I currently sit in one such country example, where extreme poverty, landlocked (i.e. not on an ocean coast) borders, a poorly educated and small population, and little existing infrastructure create huge disincentives for private sector investment. Further, much of the population in countries that do have a strong ICT ecosystem are not reached through technology, and in fact are crowded or priced out as the upper echelons of technology wealth grow in a non-inclusive way.

How we approach and use technology in our day-to-day lives in the Global North does not exist in the psyche of most Africans. If the average sub-Saharan African (not including South Africans) wants to find a place to eat, they don't use Yelp. If they want to contact a friend, they don't email. Because of a lack of competition or lack of access in many African markets, this "plugging in" to the banal tech world is not happening at the same pace as it is outside of the continent. Africans aren't nearly as likely to (or be able to) to turn to technology to find solutions to their problems, no matter what the level of complexity.

That, in my opinion, is where my work currently adds the most value. I love technology, I find it interesting, and I find ICT-based development solutions to be some of the most sustainable in the field. But, as the ICT4D field now stands, I don't think the platforms we build, the projects we conceive, or the partnerships we launch is what is really adding the most value to the African continent. I find the work incredibly interesting, and I do think some of the projects I have done will contribute greatly to a very specific problem on the continent. I don't, however, think any of my projects will completely reface the course of a large development problem, such as food insecurity or high infant mortality.

The direct impact of technology on development solutions does have the potential to revolutionize these problems. To reach that point, what I think needs to happen is simply this - more investment. Technological innovation demands iterative processes, and continued development. Solutions by and for Africans are no exception, but with the harsh realities of poverty, political instability, and limited opportunity, the waiting period to realize a profit in technology is not possible for most people. Until the average African individual can invest in themselves through higher education or entrepreneurial risk, a huge and important opportunity exists for the rest of the ICT ecosystem.

Until more money, more time, and more skills are invested to migrate away from a very piecewise ICT4D project world, my main value add rests in introducing a new way of thinking. Hopefully I will soon find my way to a world where the technology itself creates the most value.