I was in Ethiopia in February for an event run by my organisation. We had a day for business people and a day for developers (web developers). At the end of the business day was a business panel with 4-5 rich businessmen, half of them foreign, half of them Ethiopian. When the panel had finished speaking, the floor was opened to questions. One man’s hand shot up and a facilitator walked to him and handed a mic.
“What’s the point of creating a website and putting ads on it if there is no one to click on the ads?”
When he had finished his question, clapping slowly began. It increased until a majority was clapping and some people were saying “Yes.” I was shocked people clapped but not surprised at the sentiment. It highlights a really important problem we face: it’s really hard to go to a country facing issues of water insecurity, agricultural poverty, energy shortages, gender disempowerment, youth underemployment, lack of shelter, etc. and talk about email. It’s just hard.
When I returned from that trip I talked to my team and especially my manager. I pushed us to be more relevant to people in these countries with great need. I explained that no one in disaster response work questions the value of our crisis response tools because it’s obvious. A crisis response company gets a crisis response tool, a tool that helps the company meet the need it was created to meet. But if you go to a farmer who meets agricultural needs, it’s very difficult for the farmer to see the importance of email since email doesn’t necessarily help meet the need the farmers business was created to meet. In these countries struggling with such major issues there are so many government agencies, non-profits, social enterprises, and for-profits that have formed to address these needs. We do better for them when we show them products directly relevant to the business they do. So why not show a water-scarce country tools that GPS imaging of underground water? Why don’t we give food insecure places weather pattern tools so farmers know when it’s best to plant what plants? Why not give transparency tools to countries with corrupt government officials so citizens can help track aid money and commodity money and report when their district has received no benefit?
I was told by my manager that any 20% project must be approved by your manager (yes he was talking about managers as if he wasn’t my manger). He said the best project is one that mixes with your current work. So I suggested created disaster response educational curriculum to help train governments and NGOs in how to use Internet and communications technology in disaster risk reduction work and in disaster response work. He said no because he was afraid that I would like my 20% project more than my 80% work. I was shocked because it was the very thing I needed in order to be able to continue doing the 80% work that I don’t feel was relevant or impactful.
Well, he quit the company. My mentor suggested I take advantage of his exit by telling my 2nd manager (only an interim manager) about the project. The interim manager was happy with it (and really happy not to be bothered) and even approved of funding for me to take the technology for emergency management class with my intern. We had a great time.
So now I have a potential project I like with one catch. It needs a home. There needs to be some group within our organization that will be in charge of disseminating the information and holding trainings. The reason is that the original person under whom I asked to do the project left the philanthropic part of the company. She asked me to ask my group. My group said no, of course. So I had to email the philanthropic part of the company and I’m currently waiting for an answer.
Even if they say no, I’ve decided to go ahead and work on it since a colleague has a few governments that are interested in having the training. I pray it won’t be a one-time thing, but we shall see. Hopefully that will happen sometime next year in 2013. We’ll see where that leads.