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.”
The idea of “home-grown” solutions is not new. A couple of years ago, Development Outreach published an interesting article that concluded, “What can donors and international agencies do to promote more “home grown solutions”? Most importantly, they must recognize that diversity is an inherent characteristic of the global community; that national context must be the point of departure for diagnosis and prescription; and that development must be driven by local effort and initiative.”
And engaging the locals today might be easier thanks to free open-source platforms like FrontlineSMS, which anyone can download and use as a communications platform. According to the Guardian, by December 2011, it had been downloaded 20,000 times and used for everything from monitoring elections in Nigeria to training rural medics in Ecuador.
Give the local geeks a chance. CNN reported a couple of weeks ago that, “…Baghdad residents from science, engineering and tech backgrounds have been meeting regularly to participate in Iraq's first ‘hackerspace.’ Known as Fikra Space, from the Arabic word for ‘idea,’ this open-access laboratory is intended as a technological playground to promote collaborative innovation, entrepreneurship -- and potentially solutions to some of the problems facing the country…”
Photo Credit: Arne Hoel/World Bank