Sunday, 17 February 2013

Where does change come from?

"Tech is a tool.  Change happens through people."

I was asked to chair a panel at a recent event.  The whole evening was themed around "tech for good".  While preparing my notes, the above phrase came into my head.  During the sessions, Mohamed Bouazizi's name came up (invoked by some breathtakingly trendy hipsters).  It got me thinking:

  • That's where the original spark (forgive the horrible pun) came from.  It was his desperation that drove his action.  Tech had nothing to do with it.
  • In the weeks that followed, plenty of other frustrated - and usually ill-educated - people around the region also self-immolated.  Those were their actions.
  • Then came those who eventually protested on the streets - not knowing what the crackdown would or would not be.  Those too were their brave actions.

This was where the catalysis & drive for the change came from.  To the extent that tech was involved in dissemination of news or views, it was purely a transmission mechanism.  No different from the wires that used to carry the telegraph signals.

So why then do people hype tech & social media as a force for good.  They're just tools.  As tools - as transmission mechanisms - they are as likely to be used to try and preserve and sharpen existing inequalities and repressions as they are to try and reduce them.

Ok, so far so un-revelatory - why am I stating the bleeding obvious?

Because the vast majority of the tech for good space seems to be blissfully blind to this.  It seems to be focusing on the tools, but not on the underlying power inequalities.  The people involved are too clever to be doing this accidentally - so are they doing it wilfully?

As an example, take  This website has had so much money and attention thrown at it.  What does it do?  An English-language website allowing Indian citizens to report cases of petty bribes they have been asked to pay.  Last time I checked: 22,000 reports uploaded across 500 cities.  Do the math: that's an average of 44 bribery reports per city.

Now think to yourself.  What sort of people in India would be educated and affluent enough to be accessing a website in English to upload reports of bribes they have paid?  And, leading on from that, what sort of people would be the petty officials asking for these bribes?  (The highest officials are creaming off hundreds of millions in strategic corruption).  And as a coda, ask for yourself whether the type of structural injustices that the lower classes (and castes) have to confront are captured or logged...

So all this noise, attention and money (from big corporate funders) to a platform that is largely irrelevant for the significantly larger and more disadvantaged groups of Indian society?  Either the funders, and media, involved are stupid - or are they more interested in promoting the interests of the middle classes, and not the poorest?

Tech absolutely does present a potentially useful tool - a transmission mechanism that is capable of hitting the trifecta of reaching more, quicker and cheaper.  But as a neutral tool, for this to be deployed in a way that does lead to "good", you have to pick, engage with and support the users of this tool.  These are the people who are mobilising and trying to drive social change.  Those are the people that the funders and media need to support.  Not glorify or fetishize tech as an automatic tool for good.

And here's the rub.  I don't think the funders and media are fetishizing tech out of ignorance.  But I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that they're doing it to distract people from the underlying politics of the choices they make in selecting the organizations they support.

The sector is not interested in making all voices count - it is interested in making the voices that it finds agreeable count (more on this another day).

Another interesting feature of this new philanthropy is its focus on leadership of this social change - portrayed as a hallowed, exalted virtue or skill.  The funders talk about looking for, and supporting, such fabled leaders (who are often, of course, "entrepreneurs").  Hmmm, an astute observation by Freire comes to mind: “The oppressors do not favor promoting the community as a whole, but rather selected leaders.” 

So, as the title of this post asks, where does change come from?  To my mind, it comes from shifting 'power equations' (where such 'equations' are the competitive tension between different norms and interest groups).  And while some power equations can change through the change in transmission costs that tech can deliver, there is no guarantee that such changed costs won't actually work in favour of those with the upper hand already.

To my mind, to really drive change, you need to engage with the fundamental components of power equations.  That is to say, with the norms.  If the norms don't change, tech won't actually lead to any change for good.

And tech itself doesn't change norms.  In countries where ethnic tensions are sharply felt, it should be no surprise that tech could be used to group and mobilise along such sharper lines, or provoke backlashes, or be linked to intolerance as a recent paper notes.  (Btw, this should not be a surprise - there is evidence that shows that simple gender-enabled policies, such as girls' education, can also lead to surprising adverse social consequences among such educated girls.  People are embedded within, and emerge from, their social milieu, and will therefore reflect the biases and value preferences of that milieu.  Why would that automatically be a progressive preference?)

But who - in these days of social entrepreneurship, investment-led development models, tech glossiness etc - focuses on such old-fashioned, boring work as local grassroots groups working through offline networks where norms really are shaped and reinforced in real-time visceral emotions?

...Interestingly, there are of course groups that do exactly this.  Faith-based groups (of all faiths).  And its interesting that these are on the rise - for example look at pentecostalism in Ghana, or the Muslim Brotherhood, or Islam in many parts of traditionally Christian Africa, or .

These groups are emerging as at least as powerful a new wave as tech.  In fact since they are mobilised around specific things, even if tech is the background tool in everything, by being the unashamed users of these (and other) tools, such groups are actually arguably much more driving forces in the types of change happening than tech per se.

If "tech for good" was viewed as a potential pentecostal mobilisation (which the devotion of some its acolytes would sometimes make it look like), then its actually a rather poorly performing one.  Because the grail is being taken by groups that are unabashedly engaged directly with the people.  Theirs may be an aeons old charm and strategy, but that's why its working better than sterile superficiality.

For the funders behind this glossiness of leadership (and tech for good and social entrepreneurialism etc) to not get this doesn't smell right.  That would make them stupidly naive, and they're too canny for that.  So that can only mean that the choices of leaders that are being backed and organizations that are being supported reflect the political preferences of these funders and promoters.  In other words, their revealed preferences.

And that is worth remembering, because the one thing these folks cannot then claim to be is neutral or non-partisan.  I'm again reminded of Freire: “Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

Something to keep in mind the next time you read something gushy like this, while reading comparatively less about things like this.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Teachers and low-cost schools

One of the comments on an earlier post raised the good question of whether under-qualified and under-paid teachers were being exploited by the operators of low-fee private schools.

I can't really comment on whether such teachers are being exploited or not - the fairness or otherwise of wages is difficult to objectively opine on.  Supply, demand, cartelistic regulations, public incentives etc all come into the fray.  You have to assume that people who willingly work are making a conscious rational choice within the limits of the context they find themselves in.

But the question does touch upon some interesting - and fairly consistent - evidence that is emerging on the skills needed to be an effective primary-school teacher in low income settings.

1.  It is possible to take comparatively low-qualified youth and train them to be effective teachers who deliver statistically significant gains in children's learning.  Someone who has completed basic secondary schooling can be an effective first, second or even third-grade teacher.

2.  This creates interesting possibilities for youth employment.  Both by govts struggling with teacher deployment (or persistent absenteeism - and also youth unemployment), or by communities looking to improve their own educational lot.  This also allows for average costs in an educational system to be significantly lowered - providing significant NPV gains for limited resource societies.

The Ghanaian govt is indeed trying a first-phase scale-up of this across 30,000+ children who are provided remedial classes (taught either by teachers or local youth as teacher-assistants under the National Youth Employment Program).  The definitive data are not yet out, but it does look like the youth-led remedial classes are raising quality (it will be interesting to see how the youth-led classes compare to those being delivered by the teachers using the same materials).  Exciting!

3.  The mechanisms for this could be linked to both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  Intrinsically, the qualitative logic is that children and teaching-youth who are from the same communities will be closer (eg, the youth are more motivated to teach their own communities (either for the common good and/or their own profile and sense of agency), and the children find it easier to learn from someone who comes from the same ethnolinguistic milieu as them).  And, intriguingly, there is quantitative evidence as well that suggests the "social distance" between the teacher and the taught is a big factor - the lower the distance, the better the teaching outcomes.

But before getting too rose-tinted about such intrinsic motivation, interim data appear to show that the teaching-assistants in that Ghanaian scale-up have roughly the same level of absenteeism as the professional teachers...(although of course if they deliver better teaching outcomes then...)

4.  Extrinsically, there is also the motivation for a job that could be making the youth teach better.  And there is evidence from Kenya that shows contract teachers as outperforming tenured civil-servant govt teachers.  So extrinsic motivation is a big factor.  Interestingly - and perhaps yet again damningly for the degradation of incentives within govt systems - a follow-up in Kenya scaled up a program in parallel between NGOs and the govt system: the NGOs outperformed the govt...

So, the picture about the most effective types of teachers (at primary level anyway) is complex - wrt the actual level of conventional teaching qualifications needed, intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.

(Note, this doesn't mean such lower-qualified "parateachers" are the panacea.  Perhaps they can have a systemic presence in the early grades of primary schools - if the professional teaching cadres are not performing up to scratch - but as the ability gap narrows between them and the children being taught, their effectiveness will diminish.  So, upper primary grades and secondary schooling would appear to need better qualified teaching mentors.  And how to do that at scale is another matter...perhaps a future post on possible tech-enabled angles).

Complexity notwithstanding, the original question about whether for-profit operators can also exploit this to boost their profits does remain.  And here, it is worth pointing out that such use of parateachers or tighter intrinsic and extrinsic motivating factors can also be done by NGOs.  Who would be able to deliver learning and reinvest surpluses in growing their operations (or lower costs even more).

That does seem to a net-net better value proposition for society than a shareholder pocketing the surpluses from the deployment of parateachers or using better intrinsic/extrinsic motivation techniques.  And indeed two data-points are worth noting:

1.  Even in the UK, for-profit schools are actively discouraged - even the elite boarding schools are non-profits and cannot extract surpluses.

2.  There is an organization called Gyan Shala in India.  I'll post a little more about that another time.  But just to say that it is a non-profit that deliver low-cost education in urban slum settings, and it does a REALLY good job in the lower primary grades.  Set up originally by an Indian b-school professor, it uses some lean and active management techniques, but also combines this with neat pedagogy and paid teachers who are typically mothers from just outside the slums.  Children truly from all socioeconomic backgrounds (so genuine equity) - and outperforming low-fee private schools in quality of education.

What Gyan Shala shows is that low-cost education through active management, good pedagogy can be equitable and outperform wrt quality.  And that it doesn't have to have the incentive degradation of for-profit (or govt civil service tenure) structures.  (The children are paid for through a per-capita allowance from the govt - parents are not charged!).

I will try and write more about that another day but will stop now: this is toooo long a post, and I can feel my bile rising when I contrast the performance of Gyan Shala (and other non-profits like School for Life in northern Ghana) to the ideological boosters of paid-for models as somehow being automatically better (you know who you are, "impact investors" - why don't you invest in platforms that genuinely deliver equity and quality eh?)...

Monday, 4 February 2013

More banality on the middle-class

Another whizzy op-ed in the NYT linking together the middle class, the proto-middle class (now called the "virtual middle class") and of course that philosopher's stone - tech.  It's no longer a surprise that these types of pieces constantly come out, and are of course picked up and reflected into the echo chambers of concordant worldviews...but they do make for some interesting observations.

There is a growing tautology to these arguments around the middle class.  If you want "the rights, roads, electricity, uncorrupted police and good governance normally associated with rising middle classes", then you are labelled as part of the emerging middle class.  REALLY?  Do the poor (or the working class) not want such things either?  If wanting such rights is what makes you middle class, then isn't everyone middle class (except perhaps for the elites)?  And what use, then, is that label?

Am I the only one who finds the implied denial of such wants to the non-middle class as insulting, boorish & patronising?  It certainly shows that these commentators are completely disconnected from those who they would claim to help.  Is it really an exclusively middle class thing to "think and act...demanding human security and dignity and citizens' rights"?  Have the poor and dispossessed never wanted those?  Have these folks heard about the independence and civil rights movements, today's adivasi movements?  Did these not exist?  Or are they also to be celebrated as "middle class" movements (visions of lattes in Dantewada...)?

You might say, so what if there is this glomming together under one label?  Am I not just splitting semantic hairs?  Well, not quite.  To put them all together into a lumpenmiddleclasseriat is also the first step on a slippery slope of conflating all their interests as being a cohesive group.  To start the sly norm-shaping of blending their interests together.

And therein lies the fallacy.  The social, political & economic interests of all these people do not necessarily all coalesce.  In fact, in India (and many other places) many in this proto-middle class may well legitimately see those in the actual middle class as part of the historically privileged strata who have exploited them.  These people have experience - both historical, and more contemporary - of sustained and rising inequality first hand.  They may well be quite happy to mobilise their political weight to improve their positions at the expense of those in the traditional middle classes.  Clientelism can be a rational tactic when those who have been economically dominant for so long continue to really be motivated by their own interests, not by encompassing interests.

If a nation is an imagined community, then frankly so is the idea of an automatically encompassing middle class.

I can't help but wonder whether these efforts to create a lumpenmiddleclasseriat is really a rhetorical attempt to smother these differences of interest.  Or perhaps more than just rhetoric - the deliberate glossing of a trope that is really aimed at slyly trying to change the scope of conflict.

Smothering shouldn't work - and hopefully won't.  There have to be real changes in social, political and economic calculus to make these proto-middle class vs middle class antagonisms diminish (ie, the scope of the conflict to change).  Changes in calculus that mean paths to lower inequality (or else a more equal sharing of the spoils).  Changes in calculus that the political entrepreneurs will be constantly testing, tweaking and jockeying to exploit.

And perhaps therein lies the interest among these folks who have done very well these past decades to try and pull people who have done much less well into the same broad "middle class / virtual middle class" tent .  At the expense of those who are even poorer off.  Which way will these "virtual middle classes" sway?  Perhaps it will depend upon how big the poorest classes (and their political mobilisation) is.  The machiavellian virtuoso political machines will be doing their sums - lets see where it plays out.

But in the meantime, enough of this NYT op-ed style nonsense.  At least don't deny the poorest the dignity of wanting dignity (last time I checked, that was a human condition, not a class-based one!)...