(Transcript) When Good Intentions Aren’t Enough

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Intent is not magic. Intent is nice, and goes a long way sometimes — but if the result of good intentions is a bad outcome, then whatever the intent, it’s kind of irrelevant.

There are plenty of examples of good intentions paired with bad outcomes in the global development world. Ronnie Stuiver, a South African engineer, had a noble intention in 1989 — he thought he’d figured out a way to make it safer and easier to access drinking water, for some of the billion-plus people in the world without it.

Stuiver’s idea was to take an untapped energy resource — children — and build a playground roundabout that would, as children swung it around, also pump water out of the ground. It was called the Roundabout PlayPump.

It’s a clever idea, and images of smiling South African children simultaneously having fun and providing water for their communities was impossible for western media to resist.

But there was a problem. Nobody had asked the people in these villages whether they preferred this new way of pumping. And, often, they didn’t.

Sometimes children didn’t want to play, but they had to, because people need water — inadvertently encouraging a kind of forced child labor. Otherwise, it’s often older women who are responsible for pumping and fetching water — and they found the roundabout pump unwieldy, and physically demanding.

And when the pumps broke (which was often), they were tricky and expensive to fix. It’s just a really inefficient way to pump water — by some estimates, in some towns there weren’t enough hours in the day for people to pump enough to meet their water needs.

By 2008, there were more than a thousand pumps installed around South Africa; but in 2009, PlayPumps International stopped installing new ones, and instead concentrated their resources on just fixing existing ones.

The PlayPumps were an innovation which excited the wrong people, because they were never really designed for the people who ended up using them. And, when they finally arrived in the communities that they were designed to help, it was too late to expect them to fit into peoples’ existing lives, and fix their problems in a truly helpful way.

In education, one big mistake that everyone makes is to think that they know themselves well enough to judge their most effective way to learn. Almost everyone has a preference for a mode of learning: “I’m a visual learner”, or “I learn best by doing something myself”, or “I learn best through repetition”.

Back in 2008, some psychologists did what nobody had really done before, and went through around 80 years’ worth of research papers on different learning styles to see if any were actually more or less effective.

They found that there was essentially zero evidence that “learning styles” were a thing, or, rather, that what someone said was the way they learned most effectively was completely unrelated to what form of learning was actually best for them.

Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. But a huge assumption for many modern education systems — for how many teachers are taught how to teach, even — was pretty much just a society-wide gut feeling.

The common thread here is that whether you’re building a pump for people in sub-Saharan Africa, or designing a school curriculum, it’s easy to intend to do the right thing — but that’s not the same as actually doing the right thing. Doing what the evidence shows us is the right thing.

This week, we’re going to be looking at the difference between forcing change, and encouraging it; between assuming you know what people in lower-income and non-Western countries need to change their lives, and asking them in advance — and how to best act on that information.

This is Nevertheless — a podcast celebrating the women transforming teaching and learning through technology. Supported by Pearson Education and hosted by me, Leigh Alexander.


KANIKA BAHL: But when you take a step back, in Africa much of the water, particularly in rural areas, can be teeming with bacteria and there are a lot of potentially complex solutions around how you actually get clean water in those rural areas.

This is Kanika Bahl. She’s the CEO of Evidence Action, an NGO that specializes in research and modelling of poverty-reduction programs in lower income countries. Their approach is simple: before spending huge sums of money on anything, no matter how well-intentioned, our assumptions need to be rigorously tested and trialed. It’s not about “impact”, but “cost-effective impact” — taking projects which work at a small scale, and making them effective on a scale that affects millions of lives.

They lead and manage two main projects right now. The first is the Deworm the World Initiative, which, well, did you know that nearly a billion children worldwide are at risk of contracting parasitic worms from soil? Those parasites cause malnutrition and other health issues which have knock-on effects on things like school performance.

KANIKA BAHL: What we had found was basically as well as our partners who are working with us is that there was really sound data that showed that children who actually received really low cost deworming drugs, which you know need to be delivered once or twice a year to children, cost less than 50 cents to get them, that really simple intervention actually kept children in school it reduced absenteeism by 25 percent and actually led to longer lifelong earnings. So by giving children deworming drugs once or twice a year you actually could change the trajectory of their lifelong earnings and productivity.

Their other project, Dispensers for Safe Water, does what it says: finds ways to dispense safer water. Globally, two million people die each year from drinking unsafe water; 315,000 of those deaths are children, killed after contracting diarrhea from unsafe drinking water.

And a huge problem, with so many water-access programs in parts of the world like sub-Saharan Africa, is that the focus — like with the PlayPumps — is on building wells or pumps. It’s not on the actual quality of the water.

KANIKA BAHL: And it turned out that the best place to actually deliver clean water was by co-locating the chlorine to clean the water next to the watering source. Previously you had socially marketed chlorine, so people would have to go to a store remember to purchase it, bring it home take the extra step of chlorinating the water and that was you know being the adoption on that was incredibly low it was about 10 percent. And so what we did is looked at the patterns of where people actually get their water and co-located right next to the source of the water a brightly a bright blue dispenser which you know when you go to it you actually just turn the spigot and you get a pre-dosed solution of chlorine and then you get that take your watering can and go and get the water. And by the time you get home the chlorine has actually disinfected the water.

Because it’s so simple it’s so easy it’s so user friendly. Much like the iPhone for many of us it’s something where adoption has been incredibly high and so we’re actually averaging between 50 to 60 percent adoption.

The point of all this is that they only know these granular details about daily life for the people they want to help because of active, community-oriented research. Getting people into communities over the course of weeks or even months, watching, talking, listening, and realizing how best to serve people, and being scientific too — the chlorine solution was arrived at after researchers from Berkeley and Harvard compared a number of alternatives in randomized, controlled trials.

They even have a live interactive dashboard on the Dispensers for Safe Water website, giving up-to-date public data on how many people have been affected so far using data gathered from monthly checks of each station.

They’re closing in on five million at the time of this recording, with nearly 12,000 installed dispensers. 98 percent of those dispensers have successfully gone without any breakdown, or shortage of chlorine, since July 2015, thanks to a dedicated, bespoke supply chain setup.

KANIKA BAHL: There’s also a lot around that we have really thoughtful service and maintenance because what we found is that if a dispenser isn’t working for a few days there is actually a shift in behaviors and next time people come they may not even try the dispenser. So we really have very carefully tracked the adoption we get real time information that’s delivered by our community attendants who go in and visit the watering points at homes so that we know what’s not working and we can be really responsive and flexible so that when people go there is reliable easy to access chlorine all the time.

Even though it was low cost in a sensible easy to get that was the barrier. And I think it’s really whether it’s Evidence Action or any other group, it’s really about understanding what are the barriers, what is the flow, who is your client and how can you best serve them.

But it’s almost too easy to say “listen to people”, of course, or “don’t force change from above”. Something that can feel difficult for some organizations — particularly ones that really do want to help people — is realizing that often, your intentions, your “help”, is only so good as long as it’s not actively in the way.

Diana Nucera

One organization that has melded good intentions and successful outcomes is the Detroit Community Technology Project. Detroit was famously hit particularly badly by the financial crisis ten years ago, compounding a number of existing class and racial injustices. It’s also a diverse city — 83 percent African-American, and another seven percent Latino.

DIANA NUCERA: And it’s actually Caucasians that are a minority here. And so when you think about the history of the United States I think it’s traditionally that those people of color communities are the ones that often get overlooked.

That’s Diana Nucera, the director of the Detroit Community Technology Project. Her concern is simple: 40 percent of people in Detroit have no access to the internet; that number includes 70 percent of Detroit’s school-aged children. It’s a situation directly borne of neglect from service providers and inaction from government.

DIANA NUCERA: And in these moments where you could see the history of the line of these telephone lines in which particularly low income communities were overlooked and they’re overlooked then because of the same reason why they’re overlooked now is because of bad credit, high foreclosure rates, or this idea that they they are not worth investing in because they cannot pay. And so this the same thing we’re dealing with here in Detroit where you have a major economic collapse.

Diana came to Detroit from Indiana in 2008, just as that economic collapse was underway. She came from a tiny town in Indiana, where she was a member of one of only four families of color. It was isolated — in her younger years, online spaces provided an outlet for finding similar-minded people, for exploring new forms of culture and music, and she’s passionate about giving young people today those same possibilities through digital connection.

When she arrived in Detroit, she found a city full of warmth and cooperation, in spite of the emerging crisis. In particular, a lot of problems were made worse by the lack of internet access in so many African-American neighborhoods. That makes it even harder for children to study, for local businesses to succeed, for people to find new jobs, or form the community bonds that make a city a success. For Detroit residents, it shrinks the world available to them and it withers their potential to shape their own lives.

The Detroit Community Technology Project has two programs to try and remedy this situation. The first is the Equitable Internet Initiative, a grassroots coalition of local non-profits and local people in three underserved neighborhoods of the city. Antennae located on three of the tallest buildings on their respective streets broadcast shared gigabit broadband connections, and those signals are picked up and repeated by a mesh network of Wi-Fi routers.

DIANA NUCERA: So we’ve sort of grown from sharing business connections to thinking about like how do we foster neighborhood based Internet service providing or what I like to say like digital Justice cooperatives.

They also have volunteers who undergo 20 weeks of training to act as “digital stewards”, who do everything from day-to-day infrastructure maintenance to teaching digital literacy to their friends and neighbors. It’s a truly communal utility — people who need the internet, building the internet themselves.

DIANA NUCERA: It’s putting those people at the forefront of creating solutions. The first thing we have to do though in order to get people to critically think about technology and begin to build their own infrastructure. You have to educate them. I mean digital literacy at that point becomes like a really important tool because if you don’t know it you can’t do anything with it. And so I feel like what mutual aid can look like with the Internet is both creating this connection to the world around but also really enhancing local relationships like so that it did. It’s almost like a digital layer that really weaves in and out of our analog lives that supports it rather than separates it.

It’s a truly communal utility. People who need the in internet building the internet themselves.

Their other project — Our Digital Bodies — is also education-focused, helping low-income and marginalized groups learn and understand about concepts like data security and privacy. Diana has noticed along the way is that she has to be really intentional about who they’re serving and who they’re prioritizing.

DIANA NUCERA: Oftentimes technology is penetrated within specifically like white male communities and in those are the folks that have the most access to the knowledge. And so I think it’s important to know that we specifically work to prioritize people of color, and women, queer and trans folks to be digital stewards because those folks are the ones that are often left out of the equation. And that when we think about digital inclusion and diversity it’s often this like “We’ll not include you in what we’re doing” or “we’re just going to add a few people of color to our mix and it will be fine”. It’s so much more complex than that, like if you’re going to foster diversity you really do need diversity at the center of that rather than a sprinkle here and there to to fulfill a quota.

But central to all of this — is that these projects lead to self-education, as people are given the tools to teach each other, and themselves, faster and more powerfully than any external group could.

Communities can build environments that allow their members to reach their potential on their own terms — from children more able to study and do homework, to adults wanting to retrain for new jobs.

It’s a model they borrowed from the 1960s Civil Rights movement, where it was successfully used to form decentralized networks of activists who, once they learned to read and write, could then teach other illiterate African-Americans in their communities to read and write as well.

DIANA NUCERA: So that you’re not only teaching people a specific skill but you’re teaching people how to learn in multiple ways and that that initiates lifelong learning. And we have to think about that specifically with technology because technology changes so rapidly.

Sanskriti Dawle

This is something we heard echoed when we spoke to Sanskriti Dawle, one of the two creators of the very cool Project Mudra — an Indian startup whose product, Annie, makes classroom and self-teaching of Braille possible.

It’s a kind of tactile keyboard, powered by a Raspberry Pi, with keys that mechanically rise and fall to form the shapes of different Braille letters. It’s a complete Braille-reading-and-writing-and-learning machine in one.

But designing a machine for a specific community, without input from that community, is a bad idea.

SANSKRITI DAWLE: It’s like a team of sighted individuals developing a product for the blind is like a team of men developing a feminine hygiene products. We have been very aware of that fact.

So any little thing we do we have that network set up where we quickly go and get feedback. There is the aspect of blindness of course which is how our users are different from the team that’s making solution.

As with the Detroit Community Technology Project, and with Evidence Action, the key here is to listen to people about what they need most to learn independently, and combine that with evidence-based action. A product like Annie works because there’s a recurring feedback loop between the designers and the community they want Annie to serve.

SANSKRITI DAWLE: And one other place we observed difference is also, that it is a product for children and the way adults react to anything is completely different from the way children react to that thing, and you will never get those responses from adults. You will only ever get them from actually testing with the children themselves. So these two things that we really learned. Saying OK this is our target user and we are not it. And we have to be extremely mindful of you know checking every little tweak of the products with our target user and with our target user being blind and a child, because those two are completely unique perspectives that we do not currently have.

But if you’re part of an external group or organization, someone who really isn’t connected or enmeshed in some way with the people you’re trying to help, then there usually is that extra layer.

As Diana Nucera said, the onus is on you to provide the tools to initiate self-learning — to build the foundations upon which others can in turn build, and thrive. That applies whether you’re a development charity thinking about water-borne diseases, or engineers building a product.

This is the approach that Pearson used when they partnered with Save The Children a few years ago to try and help refugee children, displaced by the Syrian conflict, now living in Jordan, to stay in education. Here’s Teodora Berkova, Pearson’s Director of Social Innovation.

TEODORA BERKOVA: A few years ago we actually partnered with Save The Children in order to be able to reach children in Syria who were affected by the conflict there and had been displaced to Jordan. So looking at Syrian refugee kids in Jordan, really any kids that have been displaced by conflict, their experiences is very unique. It typically entails a lot of trauma obviously, but also many challenges in enrolling in school and staying in school once they have been relocated.

Pearson didn’t want to just take an existing product and try to plug it into this very situation. So they spent many months conducting field research on the ground in Jordan, working closely with educators, parents, caretakers as well as many children as a way of understanding their unique needs.

TEODORA BERKOVA: We wanted to really take our time to understand what was going on because we felt that that would give us the highest chance of being able to develop something that is effective.

So after working together for this kind of research phase this past September we launched a program in three schools in Jordan that serve a high number of refugee children along with Jordanian children as well. And we will be working together to deliver a school program that works with parents and teachers and kids in order to improve the overall learning environment as well as to provide additional time for the kids to actually be learning.

The learning environment is challenging. Many, if not most, of the kids have missed entire years of education. And the complex geopolitical situation makes student welfare problems, like bullying, even more complex.

But Pearson found some basic truths that have served them well so far. Find a good partner who knows what they’re talking about, like Save The Children, and develop relationships with the people on the ground. And encourage spaces where people can learn, grow, and be the people they want to be.

This applies to communities, and to companies. Pearson runs an internal incubator — Tomorrow’s Markets Incubator — where any employee can pitch education technology ideas to target low-income learners around the world. But there are all kinds of incubators, of course, run by all kinds of companies.

For an example of how an incubator can hit the sweet spot we’ve been talking about, whilst giving someone the education and support they need to change their world, we spoke to Mariam.

MARIAM: Sorry. Go ahead. Tell me what you need to know.

Mariam’s from Gaza. She’s a refugee, but she’s also a business woman, and a tech founder, whose horizon of her own potential was expanded thanks to Google’s first Startup Weekend event, hosted at Gaza Sky Geeks, the Strip’s first startup incubator space, founded in the same year, 2011.

MARIAM: It happens everywhere in the world and it’s 54 hours where people come in the weekend to start a company. They come with different ideas. They get to their ideas. They have 60 seconds to tell everybody about the idea people have to vote. And then the ideas with more votes got the chance to be implemented during the week and actually would need just to come with a prototype and then by the end of the weekend you will have investors and be able to invest in your own company.

At the time, she was a fourth-year engineering student, but she’d never considered founding her own company. But watching the pitches on that first Weekend inspired her — and she had her own pitch when she came back in 2012.

MARIAM: I learned a lot of things so whenI came again the year after I won the competition. And that was the time where I started my company.

That year 2012 very few people at that time were thinking about starting their own startups especially females, let’s say zero females. So I was the first female leaders there to start at and get investment from Europe.

Her idea was, in her own words, “Uber before Uber”. Informal ridesharing was already commonplace in Gaza at the time because of gasoline shortages, and Mariam was frustrated by how clumsy it was to find rides — often, they were arranged through public Facebook walls and groups.

MARIAM: The company as a starting something that wasn’t really common because we know that you need to have money and you need to have experience and even there like the economy is very bad and how you can do this as a female like your option is very limited. But with Gaza Sky Geeks and startup weekends. I came to know that actually you kind of start small and you have that opportunity to grow. But it’s a step by step like you can change the world from one try one chance. But you need to start small and then try again and again and again until you make it.

Being part of an incubator meant that Mariam got to meet mentors from all around the world.

MARIAM: It was something that you really do not find in small cities, especially places where people do not have access or traveling, freedom to go anywhere. So they brought people from outside and make them mentors people with technical experience and teach them about business models and expose them to a very big network where they can see investors and so on.

The war in 2014 cut her tech startup ambitions short. A third of the city was destroyed, the cell networks collapsed, fuel became extremely scarce, and the few connections made with the outside world — not just friendships, but mentorships too — were put under strain.

She had to leave, to find her own new space to thrive, in Germany, where she recently completed her MBA while interning for a large global financial company. But her heart is still in Gaza, and her mind is there too, full of inspiration from the different resources she’s been given over the last decade.

We should say here that the PlayPump is not a complete lost cause. Communities in South Africa are now getting PlayPumps again, but only after an acknowledgement in 2010 by PlayPumps International that they needed to “step back and regroup”. The charity now works through Water For People, an older, more experienced water provision NGO which only offers the roundabouts as “part of a large portfolio of solutions which African communities can choose from”, including forms of water treatment.

Will it give them what people need? Or just what they assume they need, on their behalf?

MARIAM: It makes you feel that everything is possible. Like if you’re locked up for example in Gaza knowing few things about the world, just waiting for somebody to decide your future, you can do nothing. But if you took the chance and the opportunity to implement things you actually can feel that you are changing the world. Even if it’s your own world, like very small things around you. But I believe also that you can’t change the world before you change your own small world around you. Then when you do it and you succeed in that you can soon change the world of your family the world of your community the world of your city. And then the world. Like I can’t be Superman but I can be a successful CEO. This is what I believe.

Nevertheless is a Storythings production — writing and editing by the team at Storythings, music and sound design by Jason Oberholtzer, Executive Producer Nathan Martin, supported by Pearson Education, with this episode presented by me, Leigh Alexander.

For show notes go to neverthelesspodcast.com

From everyone here at Storythings and Pearson Education we’d like to wish you all a very merry Christmas and we’ll be back some time in the new year.

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