26 March 2012

Taking it Personal

In the culture of rural Africa juridical personalities appear not to exist. This is a discovery that got me reeling the last weeks. It is again proof that even after 11 years full of overflowing days in rural Africa, one continues to stumble upon new and fundamental truths every day. How could I not have seen this before? And, now understood, how to integrate this knowledge in wise mentoring?

Currently Macha Works is in the middle of a program called 'Pruning for Growth'. This program was initiated when during January and February two major expansion and donor commitments did not materialize; follow up Universal Service Funding expansion support for LinkNet, anticipated since May 2010, and delay in reimbursement for a large, executed target-based-funding building project.

With financial sustainability under attack, and thoughtful of the aim for long term sustainable progress, while avoiding particularism, Macha Works management took the only possible and tough decision to lay off all staff per 1 March. A growing contingency of volunteering staff continue activities in March, while the process towards rebuilding of the organisation takes off.

All this goes 'according to the management-handbook' and is a clear pass in the exam of local talent to sustainably operate an organisation in rural Africa, even under 'pressure cooker' circumstances! A signal that did not land on deaf ears and positivity exited most cooperating partners.

However, in the rural area the message is not easily digested. Some former staff and community members did start a hunt for 'the person who did this'. As Macha Works is community owned and run by Local Talent, a twister of attention focusing on the 'who'-question wanders through the area. It aims to uproot the local individuals seen as liable. Outside of the cyclone most remains at peace. Still, the magnitude of the difficulties for the individuals involved attains levels that startle me. Thus we forcefully entered a new phase of local talent training and mentoring, and discoveries.

One such discovery is that the concept of a legal entity, with a legal name and rights, protections, privileges, responsibilities, and liabilities under law, is not readily understood in the local culture and context. When I probe community members, local leadership, and even district dignitaries, they confirm this finding. Some even compassionately welcome me in the community of those endowed with this knowledge from experience.

Legal bodies in rural Africa seem to be a scarce and often bewildering artifact. It appears that, apart from the clergy that esoterically represent God, there are two entities that do exist in rural areas: the People and the Government. As such, anything that is not 'people' thus per definition is 'government'. One signal of such classification is that writing, necessary in the operations of corporate legal bodies, signals the separation of such bodies from people; People utilize orality and government literacy. Entities that utilize writings are thus seen to be necessarily part of government. Albeit the continuous review of an institute's government recognition, registration, and interaction.

On the other hand, it seems that a community owned entity like Macha Works, is seen necessarily having all rights, protections, privileges, responsibilities, and liabilities connected to a person. And thus, when the entity goes through a challenging period, the community searches for the person whom should have the full responsibility. That is quite tough for institutional leaders, whom have to watch two fronts at once, one rational/institutional and one relational/personal!

There is much to learn, and understand, and to educate, both for local talents, for communities, and, of course, for me. Never a dull moment!

13 March 2012

ICT4R (Information and Communications Technologies for Relationships)

It is a rare honor to be present at the Information and Community Technology for Development (ICTD 2012) conference in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. What a privilege it is to be 10.000 miles from home and share unique papers from rural Zambia, for the first time presenting facts on the locality of traffic in a rural African village and how technology could facilitate local African content generation!

When taking in this conference, mulling over its significance, I wonder how to harness the significant sacrifices made by all that are present, both in body and spirit. Here we sit in the shadow of overarching, imposing sky scrapers, in facilities that give me and my two neighbors already a combined internet bandwidth that equals the total of all available bandwidth in the country of Zambia.

I attend presentations of reports on (research) projects in developing countries, many in Asia and Africa, while being part of an interesting mix of passionate persons from both 'the North' and 'the South'. Of course, presentations entice the ubiquitous questions about sustainability and academic rigor. However, David Kobia's opening remarks on the 'D' in ICT4D - the academic space for most participants at this conference - still ring in my ears. He blamed the the ‘D’ - that stands for Development - to polarize and sustain cognitive dissonance between the institutional (western) organizations that seem to seek to bring technologies to marginalized environments, while such environments call for encouragement of locally relevant expressions of technology. His position was earlier posed by Erik Hersman in “the subtle condescension of 'ICT4D'” which did invoke an insightful discussion that was well summarized by Linda Raftree.

There is clearly an Elephant in the Room that is called 'Who Says?'. Whom is talking from which cultural and contextual perspective, and under which authority? In my view, one should pose tough questions to any ICT4D activity that is not guided by, and embedded in, local culture and context. Activities that are clearly designed and planned from a western industrialized culture, with solutions emerging from western individualistic and hedonistic thought, and implementation done according to western rational planning, cannot be considered for just verdicts of 'success or fail' as per western evaluation. It is presumptuous to think that a foreigner from foreign lands offering foreign things in an other context and culture can be effective. Then academic research appears as a take-away text written in academic English appropriating local culture for private, foreign profit. The local community remains objectified and exploited, with real and potentially disturbing social consequences.

In fact, we all undergo development. It is a human and extremely complex endeavor, heavily depending on relationships. Any form of communication involved is constantly changing and emergent. Undoubtedly, doing review on technology from within, and to the benefit of people in severely resource restrained environments, is challenging. However, as culture is the context in which things happen; out of context, even information and communications technologies can lack significance.

My daily experience in the rural Africa is that cross cultural knowledge is hard to come by. Its apprehension takes much effort and time, and, when known, its consequences often baffles foreign people involved. Although ICT4D practitioners can argue that integrated technologies have a logic of their own that are not affected by culture, the objective dimension of technologies, including Information and Communications Technologies, do have totally different meanings that different local human cultures read into them. Thus, in any presentation of ICT4D activity, a multidisciplinary, ethnographic description of the context and culture is imperative, as ICT4D is a subset of ICT4R, Information and Communications Technologies for Relationships, which can only be researched as a complete human experience.