Tuesday, 15 January 2013

From Tech & Transparency to Elite Competition

This is a good post by David Sasaki that, diplomatically, points out much of the hot air and vacuousness espoused by the tech for transparency industry (oh, it is an industry - self-serving, self-legitimising and self-perpetuating).

David's call for specificity is good - it is only by holding people's feet to the fire that this "movement" (aka sector) can be held accountable for what it does, and does not, deliver.

Reading his synopsis of Weinstein & Goldstein's paper did prompt a few follow-ups in my head.  First, are W & G really objective, having been involved in setting up what they write about?  My suspicion is that objectivity will inevitably (and very humanly) be compromised.

This is heightened by Eduweb being cited by W&G as an example of the impact of these initiatives.  If that's the best they can point to, that's pretty disappointing.  A web-portal that reports physical location of schools etc.  Great.  Like the average citizen can really do something about that.  In education, the key is quality of learning.  What are children actually achieving?  Why do some parts of the country show children with better learning than others?  Those start going to questions that really matter - and also start to go into sociopolitical issues.

The irony is that in Kenya there IS a learning-measurement initiative that tries to measure and map just this.  Uwezo is entirely citizen-based, and is a much better example of collective action aimed at achieving something.  Sure tech portals could display the results of Uwezo better (a picture does tell a thousand words), but without the grassroots organising of the measurement and the efforts of the team, there would be nothing (except for irrelevant govt data posted on Eduweb).

To fetishize tech is like raving about the publisher.  Sorry, its the content that comes first.  Otherwise its just a coffee-table glossy.  Cart must not be put before the horse.  The real organisations working on issues that are sociopolitically relevant are the ones that need support and strengthening.  The shiny tech for openness movement seems, to me, to have a huge opportunity cost - it sucks up the oxygen (and the $) that should really be going to these citizen-centred political (with a little p) efforts to improve their own lives.

Organizations like the Hewlett Foundation, Twaweza and now CIFF who are also supporting Uwezo are to be applauded for supporting the movements that count.  Not the movements that are the most shiny and new.

This led me to the third reflection upon reading David's post.  Which is that for this tech for transparency/openness/governance etc etc movement to really have a positive impact on people's lives, they need to engage on topics that are at the heart of - OR CAN CATALYSE - elite competition.

If the underlying topic is not something that the competing elites can use in their fights with each other, then it's a useless topic as far as improving governance in the developing world is concerned.  And therein lies the need for guts.

Too many of these shiny initiatives work with superficial aspects of people's lives - not the deep structural inequities.  For tech for transparency to be truly meaningful or relevant or impactful, this energy has to lock on to these structural factors, and embed itself into the grassroots movements that are doing the old-fashioned, dirty, sweaty, slow and at times dangerous legwork.  3-1-1 (or ipaidabribe) clones ain't no use to poor folks in developing world who are more focused on jobs, housing, food, safety, water...

Tech can lower transaction costs and search costs.  Yes.  But the people are semi-sovereign.  This tech sector needs to engage with changing that last point - by bringing new contestation arenas into the fight.  And just focusing on tools won't be sufficient (in fact these same tools can be used by the heavenly chorus to manipulate and distract...).  This sector, this movement, these $ - whatever it wants to style itself as - has to lock-on with those topics.

And in case you think this is just personal opinion on the need for elite competition, look at this working paper (by the authors of Why Nations Fail).  It looks at Sierra Leone and tribal chiefs.  In areas where there is less competitive tension at the chief level, people have lower outcomes than in areas where there is more competition among the chiefly levels of society.  Interestingly, these former lagging areas also have "civil society", but its been captured!

Until and unless the tech for transparency movement engages with, and fully embeds itself within, topics that are at the heart of elite competition (or can spark elite competition) in the Global South, its as useful as a Ferrari in the Sahara.


David Sasaki said...

I agree that Weinstein and Goldstein's perspective is surely influenced by their direct involvement in both the OGP and Kenya's Open Data Portal, which as you know, attracted a lot of criticism. I was also underwhelmed by the evidence they offer in the paper. It seems to me that their thesis is still built on optimism more than evidence, though it's an optimism that I share, albeit with more caution. I think that you're point about Eduweb vs. Uwezo touches on the main point I made in a recent post about hackathons: this movement prizes "innovation" and "failing fast" at the cost of good market research (that is, actually observing and listening to the alleged users of such platforms). Instead of celebrating the rapid deployment of Eduweb, we should be encouraging such programmers to learn about existing initiatives like Uwezo and to partner with them.

Quick question: How do we know that Uwezo has been impactful? Are their third-party evaluations out there?

Do small steps make a difference said...

Hi David, thanks for this. Concur with you. Can't help wondering to what extent donors and pet media are as culpable as the practitioners and promoters of these 'fests and 'thons. They're the ones that provide, and recycle, the oxygen that sustains this superficial work. If they stopped, then perhaps people would start focusing on the more substantive work that needs to be done.

(But of course that ain't going to happen - yet. I hope that the quite correct questioning that will hopefully emerge wrt objective evidence will perhaps be the lance that pricks some of this hot air - in much the same way that it has done in other parts of development).

Will post on Uwezo etc separately. Cheers.