What’s Your ‘Gateway Drug’?

We owe much of the perennial growth of the drug market to a collection of substances known as ‘gateway drugs’— relatively quick, harmless highs that open the door for progressively stronger, more expensive drugs. But perhaps social enterprise can help turn this insidiously successful tactic to more productive ends…

Like junkies, successful change agents fixate on their cause. They crave it, sacrifice for it, and are willing to expend ever greater effort, against ever greater odds, to move it forward. Leaping headlong into that life would leave just about anyone exhausted, overwhelmed and cynical.  That’s where the ‘gateway drug’ comes in.

For example, a recent survey from DigiActive suggests that online activists often come into that community through other, more run-of-the-mill social networks. Social networks are a gateway drug for online activism. Once you’ve learned the norms, mastered the tools, and made the connections in facebook, creating online petitions or leading a discussion board comes pretty naturally.

The same could be said of disaster relief drives that cultivate life-long volunteers, the flickr comment that inspires an amateur photographer to start booking portrait sessions, or the sporadic blogger who ends up spearheading a massive social media campaign.

Metaphorically speaking, every cause needs addicts, junkies, even dealers. What current utilities, networks, or platforms could be the key to ‘hooking’ your next evangelist?


What IS Development?

I’ll be honest, I got a little annoyed with the results of my google search on this subject. Most of the sites I got to (including this potentially great one from the world bank targeted to primary school children) all basically said the same thing; Development is about rich countries giving money to poor countries to help them become rich countries. Some were full of buzzwords like sustainability and economic mobility. Some were sappy, some were dry and some were downright condescending. Most were pretty oversimplified. And none of them, for me, captured what I think development is all about.

Development to me, is about releasing potential energy. Like a drawn bow, or a loaded spring, or just an arm pulled back to throw something, developing communities (whether they’re in Bamako or Boston) are FULL of potential energy—they vibrate with it. But there are things about living there that prevent this force, this generative energy, from being released.

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Failing Forward

A friend shared a video with me (well, with the world) a few days ago, that makes some interesting connections to development. You can see it here.

The video is about failure. About its role in innovation and competition. About its consequences (both painful and productive) and about how it can transform our view of the past and shape our futures.

Easterly talks a lot about failure in White Man’s Burden. And I have to agree that most of the efforts of international aid have done little good, and in some cases, a great deal of harm. But if something as relatively simple as designing a race car entails such dramatic, such profound, such persistant failure, how can we expect something as complex, convoluted and nuanced as “development” to come without it?! Continue reading

A Singlular Experience…

Just started what might be to coolest class of my graduate career. (Oh, forgive me, second coolest, professor _______ .)

Just to give you a taste, this is a quick run-down of my discussion group (about a quarter of the participants in the class):

Vasileios Paliktzoglou – Greece
Frank Kiel – Germany
Johan Hellström – Sweden (in Uganda)
SaraJoy Pond – USA
Andrés Moreno – Spain (in Finland/Sri Lanka/Kenya)
Xavier Justino Muianga – Mozambique
Thai Bui – Viet Nam
Sören Norrgård – Finland
Rajarshi Sahai – India
Lenandlar Singh (Len) – Guyana

Notice anything? I am the ONLY American! (I’m also the only woman. Somehow I don’t find that quite as exhilarating…perhaps I should.)

I am so excited to be part of an active discussion on issues I am completely passionate about (using information and communication technologies for development) with people from all over the world, who are all commited to (and unquestionably capable of) changing the world.

If you’re interested, the class is using the ICT4D Consortium’s Elgg site as a discussion forum. I can’t imagine anyone would object to lurkers…or even sporadic contributions.

H.O.P.E.S. Development

Disclaimer: This is the response to another prompt on the Third World Development final–about what advice you’d give president-elect Obama about turning around the dismal and disintegrating reputation of America abroad and conquer poverty, hunger, and social injustice at the same time. It’s a bit long, but I’d honestly love feedback.

Hopes are what the American Dream is built on—what brought, and continues to bring, millions of immigrants from every continent by land, by sea, and by air to this country. And despite our own past specters and present demons of corruption, hypocrisy and injustice, the American Dream is still real. We still hope that children of all colors and creeds will live together in security and respect. We still hope that opportunity and hard work will open doors and break generations-long chains of poverty and oppression. We still hope that this grand experiment of liberty will indeed enlighten the world.

But this liberty was meant to enlighten the world, not subject it. The shackles at the feet of Lady Liberty are broken—it’s the torch she holds high. This is the embodiment of soft power, as much as the so-called “gun-barrel democracy” of recent decades is the embodiment of hard power. Both types of power can be used to “export democracy,” but they accomplish it in fundamentally different ways. Where hard power seeks to command and coerce, soft power seeks to co-opt. The tools of hard power are force, sanctions, payments and bribes; the tools of soft power institutions, policies, culture and values. Hard power is authoritarian and self-serving. Soft power is neither. And HOPES development is built on soft power.

It’s not a cookbook recipe for poverty eradication, and it’s not a step-by-step guide for building world peace. HOPES development is an approach, an ideology based on bits of diffusion theory, behavioral change theory, world systems theory, and development theory (not to mention the blood, sweat, and tears lessons of some of the world’s great change agents) about what it takes to make a lasting difference.

HELP : Meet immediate needs, Give them what they ask for!
ORGANIZE : Design holistic solutions to authentic challenges.
PREPARE : Address financial, social, human and conceptual capital gaps.
EMPOWER : Confront social and structural barriers.
SUSTAIN : Implement long-term solutions for evolution and growth.
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How to “Help” Zimbabwe?

“Draft a plan to help Zimbabwe if Mugabe were removed from power and your NGO were invited in to help.”

That was the prompt for my Third World Development class final. No joke.

As of 9am this morning, cholera deaths in Zimbabwe have officially topped 1,000. UN health officials estimate more than 16,000 are infected, but hospitals have run out of medications and supplies for treatment. (Oh, and Mugabe is claiming that the outbreak—soon to become an epidemic—is the work of British terrorists.) Unemployment is climbing toward 90%, life expectancy falling toward 30 (it’s really difficult for me to imagine having 2 years left to live at this stage of my life) and the price of basic goods like bread, milk and sugar doubles every 24 hours, thanks to an inflation rate near 2,000,000%. More than 3 million Zimbabweans have fled the oppressive regime, causing refugee crises and escalating tensions in neighboring South Africa, Botswana and Zambia. And in a nation formerly known as “the breadbasket of Africa,” exporting agricultural products across the continent and around the world, 5 million people (half its current population) face eminent starvation. Short of adding systematic genocide to the rising tide of political “disappearances” and arrests, it’s hard to imagine the situation getting much worse.

What would you do?

(If I’m not still near-hopelessly behind, I’ll post some of my musings later)

Education in Eden

Education that Pays for Itself (the annual conference sponsored by Teach a Man to Fish) nestled itself this year into the hills outside Cape Town, South Africa in a little town even the natives hadn’t heard of called Karatara. I spent the week surrounded by a couple hundred bright, compassionate, incisive people from all over Africa, South America, Australia, and several other former British colonies (my accent was a mess by the end of the week, even I couldn’t tell where I was from!) brainstorming, debating, reporting and planning…changing the world.


Karatara is home to a remarkable little school called Eden Campus…and not much else. The school is a long way from self-sufficiency, but they have some electrifying ideas about getting there. Here are a few of my favorites: Continue reading

Vote for the Escuela Agricola!

Great news! The Escuela Agricola de San Francisco made it to the finals of the BBC World Challenge–a top social innovation competition! Now you get to vote to help them win!

All the projects featured in the World Challenge this year are fabulous ideas driven by remarkable people. If I wasn’t so shamelessly biased, it would be hard to choose. Seriously though, here’s why I think EASF should win:

The self-sustaining school movement is all about empowerment–treating the poor with dignity and providing them with the only thing they really lack; opportunity to apply their intelligence and their energy to gain skills to change their lives and the lives of their families and communities. EASF is doing that. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen shy, nearly silent farm boys grow into agribusiness mentors giving presentations in the capitol. I’ve seen girls whose friends have all been pregnant before age 16 finish school and go on to study nursing, planning to open a clinic in their home-town then settle down to raise a healthy family.

But EASF doesn’t stop there. Perhaps the best thing about this idea is that it’s so scalable; projects are already underway to build up half a dozen more self-sustaining entrepreneurial schools and the organization has committed to 50 schools in 50 different countries by 2018, with each of those core schools serving as a replication hub to spread the liberating power of literacy, and vocational/entrepreneurial training further and further into the strongholds of poverty around the world.

San Francisco has proven that it can be done–and now organizations and communities around the world have a strong model to follow and willing mentors to help them succeed.

Here’s the link to vote.

Castro on Globalization

“Globalization is an objective reality underlining the fact that we are all passengers on the same vessel, that is, this planet where we all live. But passengers on this vessel are travelling in very different conditions.

Trifling minorities are travelling in luxurious cabins furnished with the Internet, cell phones and access to global communication networks. They enjoy a nutritious, abundant and balanced diet as well as clean water supplies. They have access to sophisticated medical care and to culture.

Overwhelming and hurting majorities are travelling in conditions that resemble the terrible slave trade from Africa to America in our colonial past. That is, 85% of the passengers on this ship are crowded together in its dirty hold suffering hunger, diseases and helplessness. Obviously, this vessel is carrying too much injustice to remain afloat.”

– Fidel Castro

Touche, Fidel.

Don’t get me wrong, there were some classic Castro moments in this little speech; “The wealthy nations can afford to pay any price for the energy they waste to sustain
luxurious consumption levels and destroy the environment.” for example. But, there were some concepts that really rang true:

“In the hands of the rich countries, world trade is an instrument of domination.”

“A special and differentiated treatment to poor countries has been considered not as an
elementary act of justice and a necessity that cannot be ignored but as a temporary act of

…and so forth.

Still, I found myself questioning every fact and statistic he presented, looking for footnotes [and discounting assertions in their absence] and frankly wondering if I would be doing the same if it wasn’t Castro I was reading.

The Natives are Restless

This from Michael Newman, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin on lessons learned from 6 semesters of class blogging:

“The idea that anyone born after the mid 1980’s is a ‘digital native’ is way overstated. Some students [there are still some in every class] don’t have access to a computer at home. I still don’t know how to solve the problem of the student with limited computer access (or skills) blogging less than the student who has broadband and a laptop. My sense is that this is often a class (and race) issue, which is to say it’s the product of a larger structure of inequality that makes it harder for some students to succeed in school.”

And here we go again. I’ve heard [and seen] how technology levels the playing field–opens the world to people in isolation of all kinds [through geography, disability, language, etc.] I’ve heard [and seen] how technology enables, even draws out participation from diverse individuals and groups, gives voice to scores of the voiceless across the world. I’ve heard [and seen] how it creates a sense of community, connects people, gives them the freedom to become peers, even friends, across ideologies and oceans.

But it’s not that simple.

Sometimes, especially when we are unaware/insensitive to the possibility, technology can actually intensify already staggering class distinctions. When we assume that all students have the same access, that they have the same skills, abilities, and understanding of the technologies–their norms and mores, their capabilities, their limitations–our educational use of technology [however instructionally effective and engaging it might be] becomes a perpetuation, not just a product, of the larger structure of inequality that keeps these “non-natives” out of place, out of privilege, and out of power.

These things ought not to be.

Because this whole thought was more of a passing side-note than a point in the post, let me just briefly summarize some of the lessons Michael mentions:

  • Group blogs work better than a collection of individual blogs in terms of fostering communities of practice. Make the blog into a communal space, an extension of the classroom, he says.
  • Don’t mandate the number of posts and especially comments, it’s cheapens the conversation.
  • Integrate the blog into actual class instruction; use examples from it, devote significant blocks of time to discussion of content on it, make connections to upcoming content, always with liberal doses of explicit personal praise to the author.
  • Create space for metacognition about blogging, the participatory internet, community and media in general.