Friday, November 14, 2014

Right hands, wrong tools: 'Easy' counts for a lot in international development

I love that my new organization has a weekly radio program.
Radio remains one of the most effective ways of
communicating in countries like Nicaragua.
While my previous work experience with Cuso International in Honduras has probably given me a jump-start of close to a year for this latest position in Nicaragua, that’s not to say things are humming along just yet. But at least this time I've been prepared to have nothing go according to plan.
     International work placements have a lot in common with onions. You might think you know what what you're looking at after a few days of asking questions and reading through stacks of your organization’s reports. But be prepared to discover layer after layer of complicating factors once you get to the point of knowing just enough to realize how much you don't know. 
      For instance: Charged with helping non-profit organizations in the country where you're working improve their communications, you notice that the most recent post on a particular organization’s web site was more than a year ago. 
     They’re using data from a 1995 census, and referring to a five-year strategic plan that ended three years earlier. They list staff who haven’t worked at the place for years, and contact numbers that lead nowhere.
     Once upon a time, I would have assumed that the organization clearly had zero interest in communications. Now, I'm more likely to suspect that they got money from a well-intentioned foreign funder at some point in the past to hire a consultant to build the site. The fact that nobody in the NGO knew how to access or maintain a professionally designed site was overlooked, as was the lack of ongoing funding the group had for hiring someone with the skills. 
    Entonces, as they say around these parts, what results is the all-too-common developing world phenomenon of a web site frozen in time.  Ever so briefly a fresh and useful tool for the NGO, the site quickly grows stale, and in its neglected state is arguably as bad as having no site at all. 
     Another example: A database with nothing in it but information from six years ago. NGOs and funders understandably love databases, because they are treasure troves of information essential for demonstrating the impact of an NGO’s work over time. But there's little useful about a database if nobody puts data into it.
     So why isn't anyone updating the database? Blame it on yet another short-term project, which led to the creation of a complicated database that couldn't be maintained once the hired help moved on.
     OK, maybe only two NGOs in the whole world have faced these problems, and I just happened to stumble into jobs at both of them. But I don’t think so. I expect the developing world is full of half-finished, abandoned, poorly envisioned, and fatally flawed projects. Nobody set out to make it so, but that’s just how it goes at the complex intersection between the dreams – and reporting requirements - of developed countries and the real-world problems of local organizations.
     It’s not just a question of technology. In lands with the wealth to fund international development work, issues like literacy, a well-rounded education, electricity, and familiarity with learning and relearning ways of doing things with each new wave of more advanced technology are so blessedly common that we forget how rare all of that still is in most of the world. Watching a young fellow today trying to figure out how to use his computer mouse and open a document, I was reminded of the growing knowledge gap that separates our worlds.
     That’s not to say the problems can’t be solved. It’s not about a lack of intelligence or ability to learn, it’s about starting where people are at. Had someone thrust all the technological bells and whistles of 2014 onto a typically computer-illiterate Canadian of 30 years ago, we, too, would be awash in dead web sites and forgotten databases.
     There are all kinds of free programs out there now for web-site creation, simple enough to be maintained even by those with basic computer literacy. They're not as pretty or whiz-bang as the sites that web professionals can make, but a bit of a plain-jane site that can be updated easily by the organization is one heck of a lot better than a stunner that will be stale within months of the consultant’s departure.
     As for databases, I’m still digging into that one, and hoping that it’s true that Excel 2013 has a lot of functionality. (And that my organization uses Excel 2013 and not Excel 2002, as was the case with my Honduras placement.) There’s a lot of free software available for building databases, but what I've seen still seems way too complicated for people here to be able to maintain. Surely there's a program somewhere created expressly for use for in the developing world, because I know I'm not the first person to identify these common development problems.
      One day when I don’t have to work for money anymore, I’m going to seek out new (and old) communication and monitoring tools to share with grassroots NGOs in developing countries. I’m going to ask the people who live there: What would you do? and then take their advice. I'm going to create a plain-jane web site chock full of easy tools for people like me, so no volunteer will ever again be sitting in her muggy little office somewhere in the developing world wondering where to find such things. 
     I think we can do a lot to close the knowledge gap. But the work has to start with tools that fit comfortably in the hands of those who will use them. 

I'm on assignment with Cuso International. Please visit my fundraising page and support a great Canadian organization doing good work through volunteerism in 17 countries around the world. 

1 comment:

e.a.f. said...

it reminds me of the Canadian federal government sending new electric stoves to a northern reserve, where the majority of homes had no electricity. It never dawned on those in Ottawa, that some places did not have electricity and if they did, it was because of a small generator which only ran for short periods of time. It never dawned on southern bureauocrats to send wood burning stoves to use for heat and cooking.