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Technology Alone Will Not Save the World: Lessons from the 2015 Gates Letter

Suvojit Chattopadhyay's picture

Melinda and Bill Gates have made an annual tradition of publishing their thoughts on international development and its key challenges. Given the substance, I assume these letters reflect an annual manifesto for the organisation they head, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). Last year, I wrote about how the Gates Annual Letter was disappointing, perhaps not in the context of what the BMGF itself does, but what it ought to be doing, given its $42 bn muscle and its influential promoter, Bill Gates.

This year, the letter makes four “big bets” for 2030: child deaths will go down by half, and more diseases will be eradicated than ever before; Africa will be able to feed itself; mobile banking will help the poor radically transform their lives; and better software will revolutionise learning. In short, fast-tracking the identification ­technological fixes and expanding their reach over the next fifteen years will deliver a better world.

Unfortunately, these bets seem to me to be wildly optimistic. I may be quibbling, but from what we have learnt from research, there seem to be many reasons to suggest that we should be cautious with our optimism regarding what we can achieve with technology. The complexities of working on power, politics and implementation find no mention in the letter. Let us look a little more closely at each one of the bets to find out why that matters so much.

Aid for Peace? Let’s Dig Deeper

Robert Wrobel's picture

In their article “Aid for Peace,” Berman, Felter and Shapiro question some of the basic assumptions underpinning delivery of humanitarian development aid in zones of conflict and argue persuasively that small, targeted programs designed based on a deep contextual understanding of the drivers of a conflict produce better outcomes than programs aimed at spreading around as much cash as possible. As a development practitioner with experience in conflict-affected parts of Afghanistan, the Philippines, and Aceh, Indonesia, I ultimately agree with this conclusion and commend the authors’ innovative work through Empirical Studies of Conflict Project (ESOC). However, I would strongly caution against generalizing too broadly from the Philippines’ experience as to what constitutes “smart aid” in other conflict zones. It’s worth noting in particular that studies of community-driven development and conditional cash transfer programs implemented in other countries affect conflict outcomes in ways that are entirely at odds with the Philippines’ experience.
 

Quote of the Week: Martin Indyk

Sina Odugbemi's picture

“Negotiations are like mushrooms: They grow in the dark. That’s especially true of negotiations between longtime adversaries, where the domestic politics on both sides make it impossible to reach a deal if the negotiations are conducted in public.”
 
- Martin S. Indyk, Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution

Blog Post of the Month: Quest For Green, Clean, and True Sport For All

Leszek J. Sibilski's picture
Each month People, Spaces, Deliberation shares the blog post that generated the most interest and discussion.

In January 2015, the leader of the pack was Leszek Sibilski's post, "Quest For Green, Clean, and True Sport For All", which covers the corruption of international sport.

Leszek elaborates that, "Due to its size and global reach, two types of corruption plague contemporary sport:
  1. On-the-field corruption by athletes, team officials, referees, and the entourage, for example through hooliganism, doping, and match fixing; and
  2. Off-the-field corruption by sport managers, sponsoring organization officials, and operators through, for example, bribed decisions, rigged contracts, misuse of authority, influence peddling and insider information."

He believes that "both types of corruption are detrimental to the integrity of sport and create unacceptable situations for states and society at large, including money laundering, kickbacks, illegal betting, public health issues, and human trafficking."

So what can be done to alleviate this problem?  Read the post to find out!
 

Civil Society and the Dangers of Monoculture: Smart New Primer from Mike Edwards

Duncan Green's picture

Mike Edwards has just written a 3rd edition of his book ‘Civil Society’. It’s a 130 page primer, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy reading. I found some of the conceptual stuff on different understandings of civil society pretty hard going, but was repaid with some really interesting and innovative systems thinking, leading to what I think are some novel suggestions for how NGOs and donors should/shouldn’t try to support civil society in developing countries.

Edwards sets out some fairly arcane (to me anyway) debates, identifying three schools of thought that see CS as

  • ‘Associational life’ that builds trust and social capital (de Toqueville, Robert Puttnam, etc)
  • The Good Society: a good thing in itself
  • A protagonist in the public sphere, incubating debates that will eventually turn into laws and policies (think tobacco campaigners, or women’s rights)

"'What to do' depends on what one understands civil society to be. Devotees of associational life will focus on filling in the gaps and disconnections in the civil society ecosystem, promoting volunteering and voluntary action, securing an “enabling environment” that privileges NGOs and other civic organizations through tax breaks, and protecting them from undue interference through laws and regulations that guarantee freedom of association" (pg. 108)

"Believers in the good society will focus on building positive interactions between institutions in government, the market and the voluntary sector around common goals such as poverty reduction, human rights and deep democracy" (pg. 108)

"Supporters of civil society as the public sphere will focus on promoting access to, and independence for, the structures of communication, extending the paths and meeting grounds that facilitate public deliberation and building the capacities that citizens require to engage with each other across their private boundaries" (pg. 108)

Unsurprisingly, Edwards advocates a synthesis of all three, but then he gets interesting.

Weekly Wire: The Global Forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Discarding Democracy: A Return to the Iron Fist- Freedom in the World 2015
Freedom House
For the ninth consecutive year, Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual report on the condition of global political rights and civil liberties, showed an overall decline. Indeed, acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government—and of an international system built on democratic ideals—is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years.  Even after such a long period of mounting pressure on democracy, developments in 2014 were exceptionally grim. The report’s findings show that nearly twice as many countries suffered declines as registered gains, 61 to 33, with the number of gains hitting its lowest point since the nine-year erosion began.
 
Digital Inclusion: The Vital Role of Local Content
Innovations, MIT Press
The journal features cases authored by exceptional innovators; commentary and research from leading academics; and essays from globally recognized executives and political leaders.  The current issue contains lead essays entitled “Building a Foundation for Digital Inclusion”, “Inequitable Distributions in Internet Geographies”, and “To the Next Billion”.  It also includes case narratives entitled “A Mobile Guide Toward Better Health” and “A Social Network for Farmer Training” and more.

Aid Is Politics: We Need to Act

Maya Brahmam's picture

Stefan Dercon, Chief Economist, of UK’s DFID gave a thought-provoking talk about Aid Is Politics last week, and he made the point that much of what passes as political economy analysis is pessimistic or refuses to make policy suggestions. However, people who work in development do not have that luxury. They are in a country to act, to make a contribution.

Dercon quoted Esther Duflo, “We can do lots of bad policies in good institutional settings, and lots of good policies in bad institutional settings.” He continued, “Development policy as well as aid is still about doing the ‘right things’ and not the ‘wrong things’.” What we need to admit is that the process is political. Development actions are constrained by politics today and will affect politics tomorrow.

By acting, we’re taking a stand. Therefore, we better get some of the things right. And to do that properly, we must take into account the power structures and politics that are endogenous to a particular place. We should think through economic advice based on what tomorrow will bring. This won’t be easy, but we can push for this, and by so doing, gain a better political equilibrium in the countries we advise.

Campaign Art: A Hair-Raising Message

Roxanne Bauer's picture
People, Spaces, Deliberation bloggers present exceptional campaign art from all over the world. These examples are meant to inspire.

In February 2014, a Swedish shampoo advertisement blew people away in Stockholm subways. The electronic ads were equipped with sensors to recognize a train’s arrival at the station. Each time a train appoached, the models' hair blew around, giving the impression that they were windswept.

More recently, Garbergs, a Swedish media agency, developed their own take on the ad for The Swedish Childhood Cancer Foundation (Barncancerfonden) but with an unexpected twist that left observers a little stunned. 
 
VIDEO: A hair-raising message

The Things We Do: How Crowd Science Can Help Eliminate Biases

Roxanne Bauer's picture

There is a new and exciting field emerging that combines the insight of analytics and psychology; it’s known as crowd science.  Already, it’s a fairly pervasive industry, involving not just data scientists but also behavioral economists, marketers, and entrepreneurs.
 
Crowd science analyzes data (through mining, algorithms, statistical modeling, and others) and then applies psychological or behavioral theories to make sense of the analyses. It is sometimes referred to as the “guinea pig” economy because it utilizes consumer tests— often without the consumer realizing it— to obtain its data and, therefore, insight.
 
One of the most popular forms of crowd science is A/B testing whereby website visitors are shown different interfaces or versions of the same site. The way in which each visitor navigates through the site is then tracked to determine which version is more appealing or effective. One reason A/B testing is so helpful is that it divides users into a control group and a treatment group, allowing the engineers of the experiment to determine not just what the issues are but how to solve them. It also allows decision-makers to test for biases in project design and implementation.

Human Nature is Not Always Rational- How Behavioral Science can Aid Development

Paolo Mefalopulos's picture

I am not sure if I was more surprised, glad, or excited to see the recent 2015 World Development Report published by the World Bank Group. Knowing well this institution, I admit I did not expect to see the day when it would acknowledge that human behavior is not necessarily guided by rational considerations and that behavior change is not a linear process and needs to reflect the complexity of factors affecting such process. The possibility that rational thought is not at the basis of every human action is something quite revolutionary, at least within the mainstream boundaries of economic discourse.

The WDR entitled “Mind, Society and Behavior” seems to suggest that economists might actually have something to learn from behavioural scientists! However, such concepts have been floating around for a quite some time. A handful of social scientists, development scholars, and practitioners have been exploring, advocating, and applying to a different degree principles, which are now illustrated in the WDR and applying approaches that promote human agency and facilitate social change.

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