Mulling over the whole “solutions for development” concept the other day, I was struck by what Ken Banks, founder of kiwanja.net and creator of FrontlineSMS, said when asked about what made for successful mobile technology development projects: “The single most important thing is starting with the problem and not the technology. It is quite common for people to grab the latest smartphone or iPad or whatever happens to be hot at the moment and try to figure out how it could be used in a development context. I think that the correct sequence should instead be problem-people-technology. By ‘people’ I mean the individuals at the grassroots who usually understand the problem better than anybody else. Pick just about any development project and there will be a local organization or group that is already trying to achieve the same goals. Gaining a full understanding of conditions on the ground – and properly defining the role that technology can and should play – is really important and the projects that do not make the effort to do this have a much harder time in the long run.”
A lot has recently been written about “doing development differently” from crowdsourcing the next Millennium Development Goals (a la ONE’s Jamie Drummond) to the Copenhagen Consensus and their 16 investments with the biggest payoffs for development (listed here).
Enter Ha-Joon Chang, a noted Cambridge economist, who sees development as a different game altogether –the analogy he uses is that current development thinking is like “Hamlet without the prince.” According to Duncan Green’s recent blog post, Chang believes that with all the focus on health, education, poverty reduction, we are missing the elephant in the room (the prince): We are missing what poor countries really need, which is “productive capabilities” and an important focus on upgrading skills and industry, which has largely been set aside since the 1980s by donors and international organizations.