27 October 2009

The one-billion dollar question

This morning, while cycling up a hill from bringing the children to school, a whole choir of children stood at a distance, screaming How are you? on the top of their voices. While jelling back I am fine! it struck me that they aired the one-billion dollar question.

Yesterday my partner Janneke van Dijk published a study on Barriers to the care of HIV-infected children in rural Zambia. A friend shared a diagnosis cancer after which we talked. And we filed a conference paper on Rural mesh network implementation in the village of Macha showing lots of real world constraints for implementing Information and Communications Technologies in an emerging region.


Well, it seems we have a desire to partner in situations for those saying 'I am not fine!' when they are asked that same one-billion dollar question. And that is worthwhile in itself: serving those who suffer. And sufferers abound, both in the South and in the North. We are all poor - in one way or the other - and fall short of being good.

Today I am planning to speak in Macha to a group of people about looking at realities, away from well worn paths, other paradigms and hypotheses. I will discuss the following:
  • Competition versus Collective and Individual Purposes.
  • 'Tit-for-tat' versus Satisfying Needs.
  • Shortage versus Abundance.
  • Ownership versus Stewardship.
  • Hoarding versus Sharing.
  • Selfishness versus Collectiveness.
  • Losers versus Conquerers.
  • Loss and Waste versus Sustainability.
  • Truth being Adagium versus Truth being Relationship.
  • Authority derived from Power versus Power derived from Authority.
Challenging subjects to talk about in rural Africa. Seemly it is all about the former while striving for the latter.

I am fine!

25 October 2009


The question 'is it sustainable?' is the most asked questions in inter-institutional and inter-personal interactions. It is the main denominator for 'go/no go' decisions. The capacity of being sustained is an important key as we aim for sustainable progress. Wikipedia states, 'Sustainable development is a pattern of resource use that aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for future generations'.

I find it rather amazing that the primary measuring stick - seemingly singularly and applied unchallenged - is economics. The information in forms of business cases, financial overviews, and economic assessments should be showing whether or not an intervention is sustainable. Although I do not mean to diminish the enabling capacity of finance, and financial information has its value, it is healthy to critique the rather predominant outlook towards the assessment of sustainability by means of the economics only. What if the economics - like water, power, transport, and communications – are mainly providing measurements of an enabling factor? What would it be enabling? Maybe just interaction within context?

It is mainly about context. In my view the context - the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs with its cultural, social, historical data, intertwined with non-tangibles - that should actually lead the assessment of sustainability.

In the progress experienced in Macha, most significant to me are the many changed lives. Local Talent in driving seats are now enabled and recognized drivers of progress. And whether or not the vehicle itself goes forward or disintegrates, these local talent have developed capacity to remain drivers of progress. And thus there is the capacity to sustain, in people. I propose it was inspiration, the fanning of hope, the embrace of lasting relationships, explicitly positioned within existing context, and timely enabled, that were the main motivators for change. With African culture being preserved, maybe even strengthened as it is being watched, discussed, and exercised, I reckon this to be most valuable inputs in assessment for the sustainability of it all.

African context is not readily understood, and certainly its complexity can hardly be grasped in elevator pitches or short assays in language and concepts developed in context of western presuppositions, history, and agendas. Even in economics, disregard for the established, functioning systems of African ways of dealing with funds has led to a system of cross cultural interaction that is out of touch with basic cultural priorities.

Thus we search for contextual indicators which grab aspects important to show that roots have developed and the tree is well positioned. As we are all striving to establish the capacity of being sustained, its proof on forehand seemingly eludes us. Paradoxally, one seems only to be able to proof when it is does not exist, but is not able to prove that it does exists. Of course, afterwards a verdict can be reached. Sustainability needs to be carefully analyzed, taking the whole context into account. Without such careful analyses, and with narrow definitions, personal or institutional whims can surface with arbitrary, erroneous interpretations.

Sustainability assessment is an activity of both science and art, and interdisciplinary from the outset. It necessitate dedication and search for cross cultural expressions and cooperation. And such activity also deals with norms and values, whether implicit or explicit. We need to discover and employ more holistic principles that can bring true assessment, and guarding, of sustainability.