Meshin’ Around

Apple engineers may have unintentionally found a cost-effective way to help close the digital divide between developed and developing nations. The new Apple operating system, iOS 7, has an interesting new feature called the Multipeer Connectivity Network, which could provide internet access to developing nations. It allows for the creation of a mesh network that would expand internet and cellular access without requiring cable networks and therefore minimizing the infrastructure improvements and costs required to close the digital divide.

Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 2.54.19 PMWhat is a mesh network? Very simply stated, each mobile device creates its own internet router that can connect to other devices with the same technology within a certain distance. The devices connect and create their own network that can then create a chain allowing information to travel across several devices connected to the same network. As of right now, the current range is 30 feet from one device to another. But expands to 60 feet or more if users are always within 30 feet intervals from one another.

The benefits of this technology are apparent. If you are at a crowded event where cell service is often overburdened or non-existent, the mesh network would be an easy way to communicate. But the technology’s benefits for development are even more astounding. Infrastructure is often one of the largest barriers to closing the digital divide. Developing countries would no longer need the vast cable and cellular networks the developed world has in order to gain access to information. A wireless network that requires over hundreds of feet of cable instillations would require less than one hundred feet with a mesh network. Citizens of developing nations would also no longer have to pay for an expensive wireless plan.

imgresMesh networks are not entirely new to the developing world. Three African countries already use mesh networks: Ghana, South Africa, and Zambia. Asia contributes another three countries with India, Indonesia, and Nepal. Programs such as One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) are already taking advantage of mesh network technology to create connections between students and teachers. Often the schools that OLPC operates in lack basic electricity and access to internet, making both Ethernet and wireless connections impossible. But OLPC has found a way to overcome this barrier through mesh networks. Schools running a laptop program have one large, long-range server that can connect to a wireless network. Students and teachers can then connect to the internet through a mesh network with one another and the server.

These countries and programs, however, are pioneers in mesh networks as the technology has yet to gain full acceptance and incorporation in development programs. But this change could happen soon. The technology for mesh networks is expanding as more and more companies realize the potential of mesh networks. Google has begun working on a mesh network initiative, expanding use of the technology in android devices. While the engineers at Open Garden, a tech company, have pioneered the mesh network technology to create a texting app called FireChat that has gained substantial attention since its release earlier this week.

One of the largest barriers to mesh networks in development is the cost of the technology for individuals. While the cost for governments and development programs decreases, mesh networks still require certain technological capabilities from individuals. Users will need a certain standard of technology that may be too expensive for mass dissemination. This will impede the growth of mesh networks and the digital divide will continue to exist until affordable technology reaches developing nations.

Regardless of its shortcomings, mesh networks could overcome the infrastructural barriers that contribute to the digital divide. This would be a huge step in the right direction for development work. Mesh networks could support microenterprise and education in rural communities and would take less time to implement than making large-scale infrastructure improvements.

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Stranger Than Fiction

What happens when you combine The Office and development work? You get The Samaritans, a mockumentary of life working in an NGO. The show focuses on the daily operations of an NGO in Kenya called Aid for Aid. It satirizes the bureaucratic inefficiencies of the modern day aid industry and its love of development

The new country Director, Scott.
The new country Director, Scott.

The pilot episode introduces the characters and a dysfunctional organization that may be harming Kenya’s development as opposed to helping it. Incorporating a very relevant theme, the first two episodes of The Samaritan focus on how the organization counterproductively applies for its largest grant ever. This is a large part of the daily minutia of actual NGOs who rely heavily on grant funding. In another scene that may hit a little too close to home, Scott, the new country Director at Aid for Aid, uses the words “barriers to change”, “capacity building”, and “political economy” to send a message that says absolutely nothing about Aid for Aid’s mission and goals. While NGOs may use their vocabulary to a little more effect, you can find NGO papers littered with these exact same words. Maybe from an outsider’s perspective what is a norm in NGO culture might seem borderline absurd.

The show’s scenarios and hi-jinx may seem extreme and unbelievable but many of the story lines come from true stories of people working in NGOs. The show’s website even has a contact section where they encourage actual NGO workers to submit their own real life experiences with NGO inefficiencies. The show’s creator, Hussein Kurji, says inspiration for the show came from a story of a real NGO, whose mission was rhino preservation, holding an auction with top prize being a rhino hunt. Does Kurji’s inspiration and plotlines seem absurd? Absolutely. But he says that since airing he has gotten many responses from NGO workers saying The Samaritans is more truth than fiction.

Kurji hopes his satire of the aid industry will create a dialogue about the industry’s shortcomings. What works and what does not work in the aid industry? Already the show’s popularity is growing. A range of media sites such as the BBC, Buzzfeed, and Devex have all run articles about The Samaritans. This show could generate a new conversation about the accountability of NGOs and the increasingly bureaucratic nature of grant making and development work. Are these changes making development work increasingly ineffective, as Kurji seems to propose from his show? The increasing buzz surrounding The Samaritans may be what the development industry needs to start a conversation about NGO accountability.

Aid for Aid's logo
Aid for Aid’s logo

The Samaritans is a groundbreaking concept not just because of its commentary on the aid industry but also because of its origins. Begun by a Kenyan production company, Kenya is not known for its entertainment industry, especially not television. The preferred entertainment method is radio. But Kurji has worked against the odds to create a show that is not only funny but has a social commentary relevant to both developed and developing countries. Kurji did not even have the money to initially create the show. He relied on the support of 74 Kickstarter backers to fund the first season. The show still needs funding help so it is currently selling the first two episodes online for $5.

It remains to be seen whether the aid industry will address Kurji’s NGO commentary. But regardless, he can be proud in knowing that he has shed light on a topic that has mostly gone unnoticed. As NGOs adopt more business-like attributes, perhaps we in the development community should consider how we are holding NGOs and ourselves accountable for quality development work. Does the NGO industry exist to serve workers’ martyr complexes like the characters in The Samaritan or are they actually there to serve developing nations?

New and Improved: Top Economies for Business Reform in 2012/2013

The World Bank’s Doing Business Index measures the ease of doing business in countries around the world. The highest-ranked countries have the simplest regulations on businesses and the strongest protections of property rights, which together enable a thriving private sector. A country’s ranking is based on its scores in ten areas: ease of starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting electricity, registering property, getting credit, protecting investors, paying taxes, trading across borders, enforcing contracts, and resolving insolvency. The World Bank scores countries in these areas by studying laws and regulations and consulting with in-country government officials and professionals. The recently-published 2014 index ranked Singapore as best in the world, followed by Hong Kong, New Zealand, the United States, and Denmark.

Since the first Doing Business index was released in 2004, countries have made an effort to reform their regulations and remove the “bureaucratic obstacles to private sector activity” to improve their rankings on the index. The “most-improved” countries that best reformed their regulatory systems between 2012 and 2013 were Ukraine, Rwanda, the Russian Federation, the Philippines, and Kosovo. While these countries are still generally ranked low on the Doing Business index, they were able to improve their scores and their business climates in the past year.

Top Reforming Countries

Country

2013
Ranking

2014
Ranking

Ukraine

137

112

Rwanda

52

32

Russian Federation

112

92

Philippines

138

108

Kosovo

98

86

“Most Improved” Countries, 2014 v. 2013 rankings

This is not the first time Ukraine and Rwanda have been on the “most-improved” list; Ukraine placed second between 2011 and 2012, and Rwanda was ranked the second-best reformer in the six-year period between 2005 and 2011. In the past five years, the two countries have implemented reforms in every area measured in the Doing Business index.

Between 2012 and 2013, Ukraine simplified many of its complicated procedures, making many aspects of doing business in the country easier. It streamlined procedures for registering businesses and obtaining construction permits, simplified tax forms, implemented a new customs code which makes it easier to import and export, and changed the bankruptcy laws so that insolvency can be resolved easier.

During the same period, Rwanda made it easier to obtain a registration certificate for a business, streamlined the processes to obtain construction permits and transfer property, and strengthened protections for investors. Rwanda has also been using technology to streamline its business processes, implementing the online Land Administration Information System for processing land transactions, rolling out an electronic tax filing system for businesses, and introducing an electronic single-window system at the border to make cross-border trade easier.

Ukraine and Rwanda are still hardly the best places in the world to conduct business; Ukraine is ranked 112th overall, and Rwanda is ranked 32nd. Nevertheless,  these countries have been making a serious effort to improve their business environments, because doing so can lead to huge payoffs.

International businesses entering new markets look to the World Bank’s Doing Business index to determine whether they should invest in or move into a country. A good score, especially compared to a country’s regional neighbors, can help that country attract foreign direct investment, bringing capital and employers into the country. The Doing Business index is not only providing incentives for improvements in regulations and property right enforcement, but is also making it easier to track such reforms in countries like Ukraine and Rwanda.   

AidData 3.0 Makes Development Data Easily Accessible

For those of us still enthralled by a very notoriously dysfunctional website, the recent release of AidData 3.0 should restore your faith in the power of the Internet and web developers. AidData is an online database that seeks to improve international development outcomes by making aid data accessible and actionable through crowdsourcing and an interactive user interface. The data portal allows any global development stakeholder to analyze over $40 trillion dollars in integrated remittances, FDI, foreign aid, private foundation grants, and domestic public expenditures across countries from 90+ donor agencies. AidData facilitates comparability between incoming financial flows and their subsequent real world outcomes and has the potential to be a valuable tool in the areas of development finance most readily amenable to policy changes.

malawi_slider
A GIS map from AidData showing all the development projects in Malawi. (Source: AidData)

The remarkable thing about AidData is that you do not have to work at the World Bank or even the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Prosperity to effectively engage the interactive database. The portal provides enhanced visualization tools that make online data analysis easy and intuitive, even on a granular level. Users can run search queries for a specific project, donor, or country and generate state-of-the-art visual dashboards and geographic information system (GIS) maps instead of cumbersome data tables; all the food security projects in the northern Antsiranana region of Madagascar are just clicks away for a finance minister managing a large aid portfolio, an NGO volunteer working in a local field office, or a researcher conducting an in-depth study.

Civil societies are being increasingly seen as “arenas” of evolving mass participation and information exchanges with entering and exiting NGOs, social movements, and private investors that advance the common interest over pursuing private goals rather than as a static term with rigid contours.The spirit of AidData in rooted in the recognition that a nation with the most wealthiest of donors or a developing country with the most pressing of needs cannot successfully partner unless they both operate in vibrant civil societies and have adequate access to information.  The poor in any given country may think that a routinely absent teacher or doctor must be just an accepted feature of the poor and may not realize that this may be due to unaccountable and opaque political institutions. This is where not only AidData but mediums like radio broadcasts, mobile telecommunications,  and SMS messages can supply vital information, triggering a demand for accountability from institutions and even reciprocally nudge individual behavior. For example, a community-level information project in Uganda utilized community monitoring of health workers and service providers to dramatically improve health outcomes. Health facilities began to use suggestion boxes and numbered waiting cards and the reductions in wait time and absenteeism were dramatic. Similarly, when individuals in Peru, Bolivia, and the Philippines received monthly SMS message reminders to make a monthly deposit into their savings account, the gross amount saved by the reminded individuals increased by 6%.

Those on the opposite side of the equation that are administering aid and spearheading various development projects benefit from AidData to an even greater degree. Looking toward the future, natural disasters—which have doubled since 1980—will present a real danger to international peace and security and augment displacement, business shocks, and enormous material damage in the most vulnerable of communities as they. When a disaster strikes, first response usually comes from NGOs and their volunteers and then big governments and organizations follow, resulting in inefficient and uncoordinated relief responses; one community may receive triples rations of food but no water with another community not receiving any aid at all. The GIS maps of AidData can be a less costly tool to coordinate humanitarian and disaster relief projects as those working on the ground can see in real time which areas have yet to receive help.

An NGO worker assesses the impact of an agricultural project in Nepal (Source: Alena Stern)

Individuals have a right to be informed in order to hold governments accountable. Information is needed to actively participate in decision-making and is increasingly needed to access government services. Nevertheless, information is useless if individuals in civil society are not enabled to act on it. Appraisals of civil society should reflect this fluid component and open data portals like AidData should continue to seize opportunities to enhance transparency and improve efficiency by providing accessible and utile data to all development stakeholders.

Professional Volunteers: The Living Earth Institute and the Modernization of Aid

Nestled at the foot of the Himalayas and balanced somewhat precariously between India and China, Nepal is a country which could be excused for its seeming isolation from the rest of the world. Fortunately, improvements in transportation infrastructure and its own unique culture of hospitality has brought the world to Nepal. The country certainly needs it. Despite tremendous progress in recent years, including the dissolution of a 240 year old monarchy and accelerating economic growth, Nepal is nonetheless a state wracked by poverty, with over half of all Nepalese subsisting on less than $2 per day. Despite the area’s destitution, Nepal has remained something of a foreign aid backwater, slated to receive just slightly over $80 million in aid from the American government in FY 2014. While this might not at first glance seem a paltry sum, it pales in comparison to the estimated $3.5 billion in remittances sent by Nepal’s emigrant community abroad in 2010 alone. For better or worse, it is not the American government that the people of Nepal have looked to for development assistance, but rather those individuals and groups determined to help.

The Living Earth Institute (LEI) is one such group. An American nonprofit based nearly half a world away in Seattle, the LEI has initiated, led, and collaborated on a variety of development projects not only in Nepal, but also in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Nigeria. Focused on developing and improving access to water resources, the LEI specializes in the management and facilitation of water and sanitation projects in areas that are historically under-served by both the government as well fellow aid organizations. At the LEI’s Drinking Water and Sanitation project in Nepal, the Institute collaborated with the Women Development Service Center (WDSC) as they sought to improve conditions in two chronically distressed communities located on the outskirts of the city of Janakpur. By nearly any standard, they did just that. In just three short years and on a shoestring budget of just $60,000, the LEI and the WDSC installed 230 latrines and constructed 36 tube wells, bringing water and sanitation to around 2,000 individuals who had hitherto gone without regular access to these necessities.

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Doing What? The Impact of State-Led Humanitarian Action

cover for Doing Bad by Doing Good
Christopher Coyne’s new book, Doing Bad by Doing Good, which addresses the failures of state-led humanitarian action

State-led humanitarian aid has long acted as a tool for the United States to engage with foreign countries and the developing world. However, while humanitarian aid has several short term goals, such as disaster relief, it has blended with long term development projects and even counterterrorism strategies.

The global financial crisis has considerably altered American support for foreign aid, as domestic issues consume the political environment. Furthermore, reports of U.S. aid projects abroad have revealed a glaring lack of oversight and the wasteful spending of millions of dollars. While calls for reform have arisen in the past year to reduce inefficiencies, tight budget constraints and special interest groups remain an obstacle to reform. Whether aid fulfills sustainable development goals or even has any meaningful impact remains a constant point of contention. As more careful studies are produced, the results appear grim.

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“Think and Do”: The Role of Think Thanks in Emerging Democracies

Think tanks help to bridge the gap between research and decision making. Their work often helps not only policymakers but also the public at large to better understand and resolve the problems that most affect their country. However, even in the best of conditions, think tanks struggle to pass needed policy improvements. Obstacles that afflict think tanks in established democracies prove an even greater challenge to those working to advance government accountability in the developing world. 

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) recently hosted a panel to promote a new report conducted by its Network of Democracy Research Institutes (NDRI), which studied the progress of think tanks in nine emerging democracies. Members of the panel included report contributors Orazio Bellettini, the executive director of the Ecuadorian Grupo FARO and Sami Atallah, the executive director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS). Commentators were Sally Roshdy from the Egyptian One World Foundation and Maksim Karliuk from the Belarusian Institute for Security Studies. Christopher Walker of NED’s International Forum for Democratic Studies chaired the event.

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