The blog

Unintended consequences. Thank you, Professor Hirschman.

Posted by on 4:24 pm in micro-actions | 0 comments

I was touched to learn that Albert Hirschman died on December 10th.  He warned us about unintended consequences of development actions,  for which I’m grateful.  He also taught us how three mechanisms – exit, voice and loyalty – relate directly to the role of democracy, markets and reciprocity  in the state, the economy and civil society. People have most power when they can change or exit without serious danger or cost, as consumers, voters or supporters or citizens.  Exit is not always possible,  in which case strengthening  participative voice  is important.  In Hirschman’s third mechanism, states and agencies need to maintain the loyalty of their stakeholders based on belief in the value of what they do. Continued loyalty requires negotiation through voice backed up by the threat of exit. I spoke yesterday with a Zimbabwean living in the United States about my enthusiasm  for engaging with young people in southern Africa and helping them gain the knowledge of their own strengths, rights and responsibilities in society through completing micro-actions clustered  into challenges.   He loved the simplicity of the structure, but was worried about unintended consequences.  He wasn’t calling it that,  and was struggling to articulate his concerns. I offered him Hirschman’s phrase  and he said “yes, exactly!”  Thank you,  Albert,  for making me look brighter than I am! But why was my  Zimbabwean friend concerned about unintended consequences of teaching young people  to believe in their capacity to develop their own circumstances? Well, he was worried about their frustration when they learn what they could do but can’t do it because they do not have access to resources and the opportunities for exit, voice and loyalty. Thanks, again, Professor Hirschman, for giving us the words to understand the world. (Picture source: Institute for Advanced...

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The Trouble with Aid

Posted by on 7:39 pm in micro-actions | 0 comments

I watched the BBC’s The Trouble with Aid with my wife, who does not work in development or humanitarian aid. She was very troubled by the issues. So was I, of course, all over again. I was impressed by the honesty of Dr Randolph Kent of King’s College London, in the debate afterwards: One of the fundamental failures of the UN, of the agencies…of the system as a whole, is that we don’t really know how to engage with people effectively – those who are vulnerable, who are in need of assistance. And this is a really fundamental problem. (Dr. Randolph Kent, ex-UN, now with the Humanitarian Futures Programme) BBC: The Trouble with Aid: The Debate (till 16/12/12) I was also glad to see Hugo Slim beeing consulted. His writing is warm, humane, instructive and beautifully crafted. Here are three recommendations from his papers on humanitarian aid: ‘Doing the right thing: relief agencies, moral dilemmas and moral responsibility in political emergencies and war’, Studies on Emergencies and Disaster Relief, no. 6, Nordiska Afrikainstitute, pp. 3–11. (1997) ‘Dissolving the difference between humanitarianism and development: the mixing of a rights-based solution’, Development in Practice, vol. 10, nos. 3–4, pp. 491–494. (2000) ‘A call to alms: humanitarian action and the art of war’, Opinion, Geneva, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, February...

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Verifying micro-actions – how precise do we need to be?

Posted by on 1:49 pm in all blog posts | 0 comments

When I am in an area of relative poverty compared to my home country, I am sometimes aware that I am paying over the local market price or being in some way ‘fiddled’. I have a souvenir from Koi Chang hanging in my kitchen that reminds me how well a beach trader ran rings round this MBA.  I liked his product better than the one I had bought only minutes earlier and wanted to swap. I ended up giving him my first purchase and some money in exchange for one of his products. He walked down the beach  with exactly the same number of items to sell and some spare cash. I was embarrassed by his superior skills and mocked by my wife. But  the relative value of my drop in holiday pocket money  was dwarfed by  his increased earnings for the day in real terms. My money was entering the local economy and probably more useful there in than back in the UK. In the development sector, we are very sensitive about corruption and the need to verify that our aid has gone to the right people and been spent on the  specified inputs. If the UK government, for example, are to persuade the media to let them spend 0.7% of income on development, they need to win the argument on fiduciary risk (see this Telegraph attack).  And none of us want to see food or medical supplies siphoned off from charitable donations to be sold commercially. I attended an event at Christian Aid where a few people, including an economist from the UK DFID  spoke about value for money. My attention was grabbed by Transparency International  and I was grateful to talk to their speaker afterwards. He told us about a very simple project to increase the percentage of textbooks reaching schools and reaching them in good condition. Young people inspected the books at the printers and binders and rejected poor quality items. Others travelled in the truck with the books to ensure that they were delivered to the school and were counted in.  These are simple, small actions that together resulted in 100%  efficiency in delivery of that valuable resource. I applaud the work of Transparency International and especially the young Ghanins who stood up against corruption.  But I wonder what happened to the books that went missing before. They didn’t come back to the UK. Did one end up in the hands of the truck drivers’ daughter?  Did a box end up in a private school?  Are either of those outcomes tragedies?  I know I am skating on thin ice  here,  and I not supporting corruption or theft.   Of course, children in the target school still want  and deserve all of their books and should not be cheated of them. But I am trying to illustrate the point that we already get leakage in development and it is not all going to the Mafia. Sometimes it  is through corruption. But the biggest source of leakage is administration. The most pessimistic estimate has two cents in every aid dollar reaching the beneficiary. Project and administration costs strip off about 10-20% each time another layer is introduced, e.g. the DFID contract a fund manager who contracts a UK based INGO who contracts an in-country programme office who in...

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Micro-actions in UK education

Posted by on 3:57 pm in all blog posts, micro-actions | 0 comments

The point is often made that traditional teaching strategies become increasingly ineffective for the mobile phone generation in the UK. Can we make a difference for young people here? Incremental learning in key skills like Maths and English, and gathering participatory data might be applied to the poor and marginalised youth of the United Kingdom both born here and members of the African, Asian or South American diaspora. I tested the idea with some frustrated teachers required to teach complex maths and other concepts to young people who can’t demonstrate prerequisite key skills.  They were very...

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Funders demanding payment by results

Posted by on 5:35 pm in micro-actions | 0 comments

Increasingly, development project funds from the UK’s DFID require demonstration of value for money and at least some element of RBCOD (results-based cash on delivery). Not only are these elements increasing in frequency, but their share of points available when competing proposals are scored is increasing too. This change is also true of EC development funds, partly because UK, as a contributor, is lobbying for it. NGOs are struggling to know how to cope with this change, having grown-up in an environment of easily accessible funds and very little financial accountability beyond filing honest accounts. I have seen discussions flounder when it came to how to demonstrate achievement of proposed outcomes, and even more so on how to propose measuring them rigorously enough to satisfy funders without the NGO taking on unacceptable risk themselves or on behalf of their in-country partners. Could documented micro-actions plug into this situation and provide an element of payment by...

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Bottom-up vs top-down

Posted by on 4:29 pm in micro-actions | 0 comments

Top-down is when some outsider at the top of the pyramid decides my life would be better if something changed in my world, like micro-finance debt available to me as a woman to buy my healthcare and participate as a free agent in the economic world. Bottom-up is when I know that my husband will make me take out that loan so he can drink it. I’d rather have direct access to the clinic. I have oversimplified things here, of course. Some commentators argue that those at the top of the wealth pyramid have control of the resources but it is those at the bottom who know how best to use them. It’s an argument sometimes called pro-poor participation. Robert Chambers talks about “handing over the stick”.   (picture...

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Where’s the money going?

Posted by on 5:44 pm in micro-actions | 0 comments

One estimate has two cents in every aid dollar reaching the beneficiary (source: Jeffrey Sachs). Project and administration costs can strip off 10-20% each time a layer is introduced, e.g. the UK DFID contract a fund manager who contracts a UK-based INGO who contracts an in-country programme office who in turn contracts local partners. Fiduciary risk is high, with capacity problems in-country stalling project start-up and rollout, funds being misdirected or misappropriated and items being damaged before reaching the beneficiary. Many of the micro-actions amenable to promotion via mobile phones require no intermediary at all except to produce the media that stimulates reaction and monitor and track performance. Experience to date has shown that partnerships are sometimes needed, for example in providing eye tests or glasses. Recruiting young people to try new products will also require partnership with supply and logistic agents. With all these considerations, the micro-action model still seems to greatly reduce the cost and complexity of intermediaries compared to many other attempted...

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Mobile phones in Africa

Posted by on 5:04 pm in micro-actions | 0 comments

Whilst the Western world is moving from desktops and laptops to mobiles, much of the developing world is going straight to mobile. As SayaMobile pointed out, 4.6 billion jumped to mobile without using PCs first. The proliferation in mobile devices will provide ever more platforms to engage with people in developing regions – in Africa, there have been 316 million new mobile phone subscribers since 2000 (source: BBC). Here’s a quote from TechCrunch: In Asia and Africa alone, Saya Mobile estimates that there are 580 million — with upwards of 70 percent of them on Internet-enabled devices, many of them not smartphones. There is a clear opportunity for disruption here. As with other developing markets, messaging is a popular way for people to communicate in Africa. Part of that is because it is cheaper than phone calls. But in a region where money is so very tight (per capita income in Ghana, for example, is 4 percent that of the U.S.) those messages still cost something (up to 5 percent of their monthly salary going to SMS), and so Saya is offering to make it even cheaper — literally 1,000 times cheaper: Traditional SMS messages can cost $0.01 each to send (with photo messages costing more). Saya’s service uses so little data that the price works out to $0.01 per month. In a market where users buy phone credits by prepay to use flexibly across voice, data, and text services, this spells a major bargain. Saya is also riding a bigger trend of data-based mobile instant messaging services gradually taking over from SMS. This year, there will be 5.9 trillion mobile IMs sent, compared to 8.6 trillion SMSes. But mobile IMs have been catching up, and by 2016 the balance will be 20.3 trillion mobile IMs to 9.6 trillion SMSs. (source: TechCrunch) There’s a very clear demonstration at the TechCrunch link from Robert Lamptey and Badu Boahen of SayaMobile. Note also what Lamptey says about advertising on mobiles being a welcome information source rather than an annoyance....

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Beam me up, Scotty!

Posted by on 4:08 pm in all blog posts, micro-actions | 0 comments

We can think of the model of mobile-enabled micro-actions for social impact like this: taking resources (e.g. money, information, knowledge) breaking them up into bite size chunks (micro-actions) transmitting them to participants, who reassemble at their end to acquire resources (money, information, knowledge). This could be a nifty way to short-circuit some top-down, blueprint-based development programmes, in which you never really know where the resources will end up.  Instead, the transfer of resources is initiated and controlled by recipients, wherever they may be – using a tool they can carry in their hand. This reminds me of Star Trek.  The Enterprise could send an expensive spacecraft down to deliver a key resource to Kirk, Bones, Spock (and this week’s new face who’s going to die halfway through the episode).  But this resource-carrying vehicle is also resource-hungry, and it might get blocked, intercepted, captured or diverted. Even if it does arrive, it might be too late or in the wrong place as the recipients have had to move. In fact, filming of the first Star Trek episodes was delayed by problems building the shuttlecraft models. Teleportation was only devised as a less expensive, immediately available alternative to get going with. Even when the models were available for later episodes, Scotty would often just beam down the exact weapon, medicine, information or other resource that Kirk has asked for via his  held-held ‘communicator’.  Once you have that sort of immediacy, why go back to doing it the old, ineffective way? By applying this metaphor to international development, we can easily see what a powerful invention mobile phone based aid could be.  Our equivalent of Scotty takes the exact resources needed – as defined by the recipients – converts them into a transferable micro-format, and teleports them directly to the exact target as requested via the device held in their hands. The format is usually information or money to build the person’s own internal resourcefulness or acquire access to an external resource and help them prevail in difficult...

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