06 January 2010

Learning #5: Poverty can't be solved by a campaign. Or a website.
Spending time working on a sustainable development project in Rwanda exposed me to all sorts of new ideas. As the "outsider," I realize I still have much to learn. I was grateful to be given a Kinyarwanda name and told that I was 50% Rwandan but these affirmations don't replace understanding the actual needs of a community. The thing I can't shake is how often we try to solve problems using ideas or technologies that we assume will work everywhere.

Quick back story: I made a website. For a group of individuals who did not have access to the Internet. The hope was that this tool would improve the sales of their products. But the analytics prove there is little activity on this site. Without a business plan, they have no means of owning their own outcomes either. So I've struggled with my contribution for the past year or so. And have come to realize that creating an isolated outcome is no longer an acceptable way to look at my design practice.

Lesson learned? Poverty can't be solved by a campaign. Or a website. We must be asking bigger questions about entire systems before acting on solutions.

Campaigns with slogans and accompanying websites bring awareness to issues. Twitter feeds support the ideas being spread to the masses. But at the end of the day, I think we need to ask, "Are the people who we're trying to help actually seeing some sort of benefit from all this?" Whenever designers get connected to a development project, I think we need to ask the right questions.

Maggie Black helped me understand that development is complex (in her book, The No-Nonsense Guide to International Development):

Even at the purely semantic level, the term 'development' is difficult to replace. If you dislike it and its derivatives - 'developing', 'developed' - and try to avoid using them, nothing else quite works. To understand that development is an artificial construct and has earned much discredit does not help get rid of it. The concept has become ingrained in economic language and philanthropic endeavor. In default of some better terminological alternative, we will probably go on using the one we have. It would be helpful, however, if it was more used with greater care, and not assumed to be invariably beneficent and politically clean.

From this experience, I would advise any designer to simply be aware. I won't create a list of dos and don'ts because I'm not the expert. But learn from those who have gone before you, as best you can. One person I've learned from (from a distance) is Jacqueline Novogratz (head of Acumen Fund). I devoured her book, The Blue Sweater and found her talks to offer a strong case for the type of posture and action we need take.

Novogratz shows, in ways both hilarious and heartbreaking, how traditional charity often fails, but how a new form of philanthropic investing called "patient capital" can help make people self-sufficient and can change millions of lives. More than just an autobiography or a how-to guide to addressing poverty, The Blue Sweater is a call to action that challenges us to grant dignity to the poor and to rethink our engagement with the world.

These are but two examples! The list is much longer. But preparing yourself to have your eyes on the system, rather than just the product, will go a long way in producing results that have a measurable impact. In reflecting on this and seeking to move forward, I'm grateful to have been approached about a project in Rwanda (still in very early discussions about this). If it actually comes together, it would enable my new learning to be applied to pursue valuable outcomes related to maternal health. The first order of business will be to pursue an understanding of the whole system before applying any finalized solutions.

One of twelve in this series

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