Humility, Not Technology

Playing soccer with children at Aeta Resettlement, Philippines. (Courtesy Michael Gomez, US Navy, wikimedia commons)

Playing soccer with children at Aeta Resettlement, Philippines. (Courtesy Michael Gomez, US Navy, wikimedia commons)

From the Good Intentions file comes another story about well-meaning entrepreneurs in the developed world trying to “do something good” for people in the Global South. Sadly, the results are predictable. This time, the do-gooders are the team at Uncharted Play, who designed Soccket, a soccer ball that harnesses kinetic energy to power small appliances. Kids play with the ball for about 30 minutes, generating enough energy to run an LED light for three hours to help them do their homework at night.

On its face, it seems like a great product, but it has been beset by manufacturing problems. According to a recent story on Public Radio International, NGOs that are distributing the balls in Mexico found a 30 percent failure rate–light switches in the balls malfunction or seams come undone. The company says balls have a three-year lifespan, but families interviewed in the PRI report said they lasted only a few months. Uncharted Play is aware of and trying to rectify the quality problems. CEO Jessica Matthews issued a letter to Kickstarter funders explaining that the company is working to improve the product. Meanwhile, one of the women in Puebla where children received balls said the problem isn’t that they don’t have electricity–it’s that they can’t afford to hook up to the electrical grid.

What is the moral of this story? If you are an manufacturer, you could argue that the product was probably rushed to market. According to the company website, which features a press page of coverage from CNN and praise from Bill Clinton, the idea grew out of an undergraduate class project at Harvard in 2008 and was piloted in four countries before it was shipped to the first communities in Mexico in 2012. There are no details about product testing.

But if you have experience working on the ground in the developing world, you may see the root problem as something much deeper and all too common: a prevailing mindset, particularly among Americans and fostered in many social entrepreneurship settings, that the world is in need of technology fixes and smart people who can deliver them. Stories and data show that, in fact, the world needs compassionate people who listen and help communities solve their own problems.

Take, for example, the Uluntu Community Foundation in Zimbabwe. Members of this grassroots philanthropic organization supported two women’s groups who turned vegetable gardens into a source of income, which has helped the groups purchase livestock. People with few resources came together, built relationships of trust, and pooled their assets to solve their own problems in one of the poorest countries in the world.

Another example is the Community Foundation for South Sinai in Egypt. The organization run by local Bedouin leaders and British colleagues trains women to make felt for clothing and promotes local olive-oil production to generate income for people who make less than $1 a day. With a reputation for being trustworthy and knowledgeable, they also managed to do something extraordinary during Egypt’s post-revolution elections. They mobilized thousands of Bedouin people, who had been prohibited from democratic participation all their lives, to vote and even run as candidates.

There are hundreds of examples of communities doing for themselves. These groups make real and lasting change without big marketing budgets, celebrity endorsements, or Kickstarter campaigns. To be sure, many community-driven projects also fail, but failure is much more common in projects that are imposed  from the outside.

That’s not to say that there is no role for outsiders, whether volunteers or aid workers or social entrepreneurs, in community work. In many cases (like in South Sinai) communities benefit from thoughtful help from outsiders who understand they are equals, not saviors. But self-awareness is key. We, as outsiders, must approach the situation with humility, invest time in getting to know people, and value the experience and voices of the people we hope to work with.

Unfortunately, humility and self-awareness are not common currency in international aid these days. With the influence of celebrity philanthropists and corporate billionaires “who establish enormous foundations shaped by the type of business model that made them wealthy in the first place,” bigger and bolder is always better. Uncharted Play is a product of this environment. Its website is full of the heady language of young, ambitious people who believe they can make the world healthier and more creative. The company wants to “disarm global issues and inspire social invention” and deliver Socckets to people in 11 countries. And yet when questioned about the on-going quality problems with the product, Matthews claimed her small team of eight young people in New York is being unfairly targeted for wanting to do good in the world.

That is precisely the point. Fair or not, the intention of doing good is not enough, because community work is not about us. It’s about doing difficult legwork, building genuine relationships, asking questions–not simply giving answers, and being honest about the possibility of failure. On the path to social invention, the would-be inventors must be the first to be transformed.

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4 thoughts on “Humility, Not Technology

  1. I totally agree. As a Westerner who is part of a business start-up in Africa, these thoughts and warning are very pertinent. Thanks for posting

    • Thanks, Daniel. It’s great to have feedback from people working on the ground who are really seeing the complexity of international work.

  2. Beautifully written. Absolutely clear and powerful message. Yes, emphatically, technology is not THE key. It’s one key if used by people who value those they are trying to help. It’s the old teach a person to fish story; listen, see what’s going on on the ground, facilitate what others consider useful in their environment and situation, and be prepared to be completely transformed yourself.

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