English Version of My Frankfurter Rundschau Editorial

For those who are interested in economic development and migration, but were frustrated that my FR editorial last month was only in German, you can now find the English version on DIE-GDI’s blog!


Poverty (and Social Development Writ Large) is Not an Innovation Problem

I came across an article a friend posted on Facebook yesterday about the work that the MasterCard Foundation is doing to reduce poverty in Africa. Since some of my work is in the ‘techno-innovation 4 development’ sector, I was curious to give it a read. It was everything that makes me *sigh* and/or *shake my fist* at the ‘development innovation’ field.

The article starts from a logical premise that misunderstands what poverty is. Poverty, fundamentally, is when there’s not enough stuff available for all the people in a polity or community to meet their needs. In the modern world we measure capacity to gather the stuff we need in terms of money. I read the article waiting for the part where the MasterCard Foundation addresses the fundamental dilemma of people not having enough money to get the stuff to meet their needs; it never came. There were other things about the article that could be highlighted as problematic, but they are all secondary to the fact that the poverty reduction program being discussed doesn’t address poverty reduction. So what does it address?

“The MasterCard Foundation, with huge assets of $9 billion, is an independent entity without a single MasterCard executive on its board. But its financial work in Africa syncs up nicely with the efforts of Mastercard, the company, to nurture a cashless society as the African continent continues its economic rise.” Basically, they’re developing a market for non-cash monetary services. This is fine; I appreciate the convenience of my debit card, and my bank that allows me to access my money when I’m working abroad. But providing these services in Africa is not poverty reduction, and presenting it as such is at best intellectually dishonest. 

There’s a lot more I could say about this article, but the point is that it highlights a consistent problem in the development innovation space. At times we are too easily captivated by ‘solutions’, losing sight of the fundamental causes of the problems we’re trying to solve.



When Radio Goes Bad: RF communications and the increased violence in South Sudan

I was reading an update about the increasing ethnic violence in South Sudan forwarded to me by a colleague, and noted the fact that radio is being used to organize and encourage violence in South Sudan. For those who have studied or read about the genocide in Rwanda, radio was one of the key mediums employed by Hutu extremists for encouraging and organizing violence. I think there are significant socio-political differences between the increasing violence in South Sudan and the genocide in Rwanda, so I just want to focus on the challenges related to preventing the radio-driven organization of violence, since radio broadcasts encouraging targeted violence against civilians were heard during the recent massacre in Bentiu, South Sudan.

We have to start with the laws, regulations and norms of radio broadcasting and spectrum management. Broadcast spectrum has traditionally been treated as a public good, managed by governments. Indeed if we look at the language from the preamble from the recent revisions of the International Telecommunications Union’s 2012 Radio Regulations, it’s pretty state-centric. This gives broadcast spectrum a certain level of sovereignty, and traditionally there is a respect for that sovereignty – generally, jamming another country’s broadcast frequencies is frowned upon, even though there’s a long history of doing so for the purposes of tactical advantage during wartime or in pursuit of psychological operations during the Cold War. Basically, radio jamming historically isn’t something that friendly or neutral countries (openly…) do to each other.

This is important, because along with apparently being expensive and inconvenient, the U.S Department of Defense used the spectrum sovereignty argument to avoid jamming hate-radio broadcasts during the Rwandan genocide. Would jamming hate radio have prevented the escalation and organization of violence? Unfortunately it’s rhetorical question since the U.S. never tried, but I’d be inclined to say that it wouldn’t have helped the organizers of the Rwandan genocide. In fairness, much of the organization on the ground was developed over extended periods of indoctrination and training of youth militias, so blocking radio wouldn’t have stopped pre-determined operations that didn’t rely on it. If anything it likely would have had the effect of a panopticon, forcing the organizers to realize there was a much bigger player involved that had the military capacity to selectively jam national communication infrastructure. At the very least this would have caused break downs in vertical communication, possibly giving some nominal advantage to the peacekeeping mission.

So how does this help us frame the disturbing news that radio is being used in South Sudan to encourage or organize violence? Unfortunately it’s unlikely we’re going to see large scale radio jamming operations; the governments with the ability to do that still have ongoing diplomatic missions in South Sudan, and using their military assets to jam transmission frequencies would probably be interpreted as a violation of sovereign control of spectrum, as well as a likely violation of South Sudanese airspace. There could be a role for SMS text and multimedia messaging to provide early warning, but the problem is that even if peacekeepers get the text messages, it’s questionable whether they’d be able to protect at risk populations.

Unfortunately once violence hits a certain scale local violence prevention efforts, ICT supported or not, won’t be enough to stop it. Crowdsourcing and ICTs merely become tools that aid in accounting for the violence unless the international community is willing to provide a peacekeeping mission that is manned and equipped to realistically protect the population.

China to United States: We’ll see your “investment” and raise you a peacekeeping deployment

How apropos that my last post was focused on why the United States needs to think of investment in Africa in terms larger than ROI, especially if we want to compete with China.

Apparently China got the memo, since they’re committing to send a multi-dimensional peacekeeping force to support the MINUSMA mission in Mali that will be relieving French soldiers who had been fighting alongside Mali’s army against Islamist insurgents.

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My TechChange Swan Song

Cross posted from the TechChange blog

This past Thursday and Friday (May 8 & 9) I participated in the ICTs and Violence Prevention workshop hosted by the World Bank’s Social Development Office.  We had an excellent collection of experts from across academia, NGOs, and government who discussed the complexities of using technology for violence prevention.  One of the key takeaways from the event was the analytic challenge of identifying where violence was likely to happen and how to encourage rapid response.

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MONUSCO Gets an Offensive Boost

The ongoing peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the largest in the world numbering 20,000 operators, is about to get an increase in its total number of soldiers.  Two thousand South African, Malawian, and Tanzanian soldiers will be deploying this summer with a mandate to seek out and engage militias operating in the restive eastern regions of Congo.  The mission, already huge in size and scope, might not notice another 2-3,000 soldiers, except for a crucial detail: these soldiers have unanimously been given an offensive mandate.

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This is not a mHealth Project

I was going through the BBC this morning, and after reading all about the new Pope (who believes that condoms may be morally acceptable but only to stop the spread of disease), I came across this far more interesting article about how public health researchers in Tanzania are retrofitting iPhones to act as field microscopes.


So cool!  So why did I title the post “This is not a mHealth Project”?  It stems from a conversation that we often have at the TechChange office with Joel Selanikio from Datadyne (makers of Magpi, née EpiSurveyor), where we often all end up agreeing with one another that there are no successful “ICT4D projects”.  What there are instead are projects that creatively use various types of computing and communication technology as part of their overall process.  They don’t lead with the technology; instead it’s a supplement and is leveraged where appropriate.  Thus, back to the title: this is not an “mHealth project”, it’s an ongoing effort to deal with and mitigate the effects of intestinal parasites in Tanzania, and the researchers and doctors involved have found a novel way to cheaply modify an iPhone to make the work they already do easier.

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“Africa’s Silicon Savannah”…What will Kenya get from Konza?

I was on BBC earlier today and came across this article on Konza Technology City, a tech center that will be built in Kenya outside Nairobi.  In a bit of excitement I posted a comment on Facebook that this could be a boon to investment…then I re-read the article.  I think that, indeed, it could be a good opportunity for a little Keynesian economy spurring.  The World Bank and OECD have pointed out the positive effects of robust ICT infrastructure on economic development and domestic investment outlooks.  But I’ll walk back a little bit on my Facebook post to add a few concerns that come to mind.

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2013 Update: Kenya, TechChange and TC109

So 2013 is off to a roaring start.  I just relocated to a new place in the Petworth neighborhood in D.C. and learned that all the staff I worked with at the U.S. Institute of Peace back in the day all live within 5 blocks of me.  But the big things on the horizon are my trip to Kenya that starts in a week, and TC109: Conflict Management and Peacebuilding the course I teach with TechChange.

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Goma, M23, and the success of peacekeeping

The timing of reading Virginia Page Fortna’s Does Peacekeeping Work seemed appropriate as the M83 rebels in eastern Congo (DRC) marched in and took Goma, only to recently withdraw under the auspices of the MONUSCO force currently operating in the DRC.  During this series of events I saw a tweet from Oxfam’s Policy and Practice Unit posted this morning: the tweet read “The fall of Goma: ‘the biggest peacekeeping failure in history.”

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