Reflections for a New Year: Keeping it Real

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In an early work experience in development, I spent 4 months at a civil society organization in Tanzania, Twaweza. The founder of Twaweza, Rakesh Rajani, has many years of experience in advocacy in Tanzania. He started this new organization in order to focus on what is dynamic at the citizen level, meaning those things that are part of the lived reality and not aid-driven. This term, lived reality, struck me as a brilliantly simple way to frame what we all know can so often be wrong with aid: it is rooted in the assumptions, goals, and reality of the donors and aid organizations, rather than those people we are trying to help.

I try to come back to this idea every so often as a way to check in on my own career: is my work still sitting within that lived reality? It is really driven by the every day needs of the people we work with?

When I was at Twaweza, Rakesh higlighted 4 aspects of life that tend to part of this lived reality in Tanzania and elsewhere, including media, such as radio, TV, newspapers, and mobile phones; religion; consumer good networks such as Coca-Cola and soap; and teachers, who exist in almost every community

.Lived Reality Blog

I was reflecting on this, because I honestly worry sometimes that the area of our industry that I focus on, mobile technology, has become overhyped, a “darling of the aid community” that is driven more by the desire to be sexy and innovative by the reality on the ground. I originally decided to focus on mobile technology because I thought it was empowering: putting the ability to communicate and to instantly receive information in the hand of every individual, no matter how geographically, socially, or economically marginalized…what could be more powerful than that? However, with donor-driven projects and goals of scale pushing mobiles for the sake of innovation, rather than empowerment, I started to wonder if technology-enabled development still fit into the lived reality (while never doubted that cell phone themselves definitely do.)

During my recent trip to Uganda with USAID, we interviewed many implementing partners about how they might use mobile money. Many of the Cheif of Party’s and Finance directors we spoke to about the possibility of using mobile payments to improve programmatic or operational goals were skeptical. One agricultural COP in particular said “sure, we’ll use it someday, but the farmers, and my staff, just aren’t ready for it.” In our following meeting, we met his 2 Ugandan project managers, who told us that, on the contrary, the staff and the farmers were already using mobile payments regularly in their work, since it is simply the cheapest and most convenient way to send money and to purchase goods from the capital.

This is indeed an ancedote but it’s one that reminds why we got excited about mobile technology in the first place: it just works for people.  It’s simple, fast, and cheap.  Our programs should make it more so, not less, and should focus on how people are already using mobile phones, not how we think they should.  It also reminds me that I can continue to this role of connecting aid agencies to tools and processes that people are already using in their every day lives.  I’d love to hear your stories about how you ensure that your work fits into the lived reality of the everyday lives of the people we hope to support.

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