Tuesday, September 25, 2007

DO NO HARM - Unintended Consequences of International Philanthropy
A Presentation by Perry Gottesfeld, Executive Director of Occupational Knowledge International, sponsored by the Society for International Development's Washington, D.C. Chapter. September 25, 2007

o The presenter started by pointing out that there is a growing obsession among donors for measuring results and impacts, yet these efforts are focused on “intended or anticipated” impacts and pay not attention to unintended impacts of programs.

o By “unintended consequences”, he meant negative unintended consequences and there was no mention of potential positive unintended impacts or consequences.

o He gave a couple of historical examples of negative unintended consequences of international assistance (arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh resulting from wells digging for rural water supply; and vaccination syringes and vials burned after use)

o Then his main case study was the one laptop per child initiative and his focus was on the battery component. He calculated the amount of lead needed to produce the batteries for a billion laptops and the resulting lead emissions. The idea was to scare everyone with big numbers that don’t really mean anything because they’re being presented totally out of context, without comparing the laptop to any other alternatives, for example.

o The lack of comparison to alternative schemes for introducing IT in developing countries was particularly disturbing and even more disturbing was the fact that the audience, while aware of the one laptop per child initiative, didn’t seem to have much knowledge of anything else that might have been going on with IT in developing countries and didn’t seem to have a good understanding of why anyone would want children and youth to have access to computers and the internet.

o I was getting agitated but feared getting pummeled by tomatoes if I suggested that ICT might actually have some positive impacts or that while I was skeptical about the one-laptop-per-child initiative, there were lots of other ways to use technology effectively to support development goals.

o Part of the solution proposed by Mr. Gottesfeld is a battery certification program that would encourage battery manufacturers to use more environmentally friendly processes and for environmentally sound recycling of lead-based batteries.

o Mr. Gottesfeld mentioned a number of possible assessment methodologies that could be used, including, and most appropriate for technology, the Life Cycle Assessment.

My conclusions

o Donors should indeed pay attention to the potential negative impacts of their interventions and in the context of technology, the first step might be to think about recycling and disposal issues. However, can we expect USAID to do much to promote significant efforts to address the potential negative impacts of technology while it is working hard to open up markets for US corporations providing such technologies in developing countries?

o There is a huge need for an awareness campaign centered around what ICT can and cannot do for developing countries, a need to educate the development community, those people working in fields other than “ICT for development”. Too often, we talk to each other within the “ICT for Development field” and we’re assuming that everyone else has the same knowledge base. The reality is that we often work in sectoral silos and we develop a discourse that doesn’t disseminate well beyond our own limited circles.

Some random related items:
1. SA8000 - Social Accountability - Workplace standards
2. Using ICT to Reduce Environmental Impacts

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