Stop trying to save the world. Can we fix it?

I was approached by an NGO, which used to be called Intermediate Technology in the 1960s, a few years ago to speak at a conference.

One of their major private funders had read my book and was urging them to get me to speak. It became clear that the two organisers I spoke to by email had no idea why they should involve me. I, for my part could divine no coherent approach in their thinking. Practical Action they were called, ironically, and they were about encouraging micro enterprises using the standard capitalist concepts of business development, in Africa.

They were clearly addicted to funding, and expended enormous amounts of energy jumping through the hoops of complex metrics pushed down on them by increasingly dissatisfied funders. I got the impression that USAID, the main government funder was responsible for the complicated metrics; the usual government bureaucracy of accountability due diligence and valueformoney. They wouldn’t say boo to a goose; they just meekly complied.

I kept trying to make sense of what they wanted. I asked to be put in touch directly with the funder who had urged them to book me. They wouldn’t. They kept worretting on about economies being systems. But the people they were supposed to help had a goat and a mud hut. They were so poor they didn’t even have Microsoft Office!

Eventually I told them I didn’t have anything for them. I suppose I could have flown to Washington and taken their money but to be honest I didn’t want to go, I didn’t want to go through all the grief of security theatre and visa applications and all that.

In the 60s,  Victor Papanek designed a “remarkable transistor radio, made from ordinary metal food cans and powered by a burning candle, that was designed to actually be produced cheaply in developing countries.” It cost a few pence to produce. It was a fixed tuner, because there was only one radio station, and so on. The Americans through USAID were parachuting crates full of battery operated 2 band radios into rural areas. Each cost ten dollars. They could only receive the one government station despite being 2 band radios capable of tuning across the entire frequency band because their was only one station within range. When the batteries ran out there were no more batteries to be had and no money to buy them if there were. When Papanek’s candles ran out they burnt animal dung.

This would have been the mid 60s. Those that don’t learn from history are condemned to continue to waste tax dollars.

Meanwhile, day of light, someone at the New Republic had been paying attention. Their tale of inventive, innovative, creative, development unfolds like this (spoiler alert: it fails)…

“Stop Trying to Save the World: Big ideas are destroying international development

“It seemed like such a good idea at the time: A merry-go-round hooked up to a water pump. In rural sub-Saharan Africa, where children are plentiful but clean water is scarce, the PlayPump harnessed one to provide the other. Every time the kids spun around on the big colorful wheel, water filled an elevated tank a few yards away, providing fresh, clean water anyone in the village could use all day.

“PlayPump International, the NGO that came up with the idea and developed the technology, seemed to have thought of everything. To pay for maintenance, the elevated water tanks sold advertising, becoming billboards for companies seeking access to rural markets. If the ads didn’t sell, they would feature HIV/AIDS-prevention campaigns. The whole package cost just $7,000 to install in each village and could provide water for up to 2,500 people.

“The donations gushed in. In 2006, the U.S. government and two major foundations pledged $16.4 million in a public ceremony emceed by Bill Clinton and Laura Bush. The technology was touted by the World Bank and made a cameo in America’s 2007 Water for the Poor Act. Jay-Z personally pledged $400,000. PlayPump set the goal of installing 4,000 pumps in Africa by 2010…”

The sorry story unfolds here:

Yes, it features children playing. Woo. Some say using kids to pump water is exploitative. Matias Cordero will have an interesting take on that (Google him and ‘IPA 2011’).

If you persevere, towards the very end, there is a brief mention of complex adaptive systems. Yay.


2 thoughts on “Stop trying to save the world. Can we fix it?

  1. Thanks Arthur for the posting. I do value your ethical stance on the world and that it is exhibited in your choices.

    I hugely enjoyed the Michael Hobbes article which points to the value of evaluation, action-reflection cycles , being wary of ‘great ideas’ that are untested in the receiving cultures’ world, andnotbut it also alludes to, but does not mention, things such as Positive Deviance and Appreciative Inquiry which may prove more sensitive to the existing Complex Adaptive System, but would have to have built in evaluation of course! A great read on New Year’s Day. Thanks Arthur and do keep it up. Cheers Tom

    • I never cease to be amazed by the narrowness of experts. That’s why, when I’m feeling all precious and poncey I like to think of myself as a nexialist, rather than an expert. Of course I am an expert in certain things, but I try not to let that get in the way of interesting and challenging generalisations and whatifs.

I love comments, all comments…

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