Category Archives: International Development

Fragile states and digital foundations

When crisis hits it puts unexpected pressures on infrastructure. In some cases the state or its civil society is resilient and can cope but where the physical, societal or administrative fabric is already fragile then issues are compounded and recovery becomes harder. And then there’s the impact of war.

The world has developed coping mechanisms for dealing with this. Government aid and development budgets kick in, international organisations mobilise and individual donors dig deep to help meet needs. And lots of time, money and thought continually goes into making sure that the quality of those coping mechanisms gets better. But the scale of the need can be overwhelming.

Digital can be a huge enabler and a powerful tool in helping to support those responses. Today is the Techfugees conference. That’s a great response to a crisis that has reached the tipping point in the public consciousness. It’s brilliant that the conversations don’t end today but will be followed by efforts to deal with problems: the Techfugees hack day tomorrow, Ich Bin Hihr in Berlin on Saturday and maybe also Code for the Kingdom in London over the weekend. People are getting together to unify around solving identified needs rather than fragmenting into delivering well meaning, but not yet validated, ideas.

Digital skills and digital talent are good in a crisis and there’s a lot that can be done in swarming on the symptoms of a problem. But those skills and that effort is so much more valuable when it’s applied up stream as part and parcel of how public goods and public services are understood and delivered in the first place.

Britain has a long established bureaucracy with sophisticated models for collecting tax, issuing permissions and accessing support from the state. Behind that sophistication is a lot of complexity and reliably under a nearby stone will be some antediluvian technology or arcane policy.

The creation of the Government Digital Service, and our transition from peripheral to very much in (not of!) the machine is addressing some of those challenges.We’re passionate about placing people at the heart of how we design public services, we know that it will lead to better outcomes and usually it will save some money too. But often we’re unpicking the sins of the past. The web we’ve woven over decades is going to be impossible to untangle by ourselves and that’s why this is only something we can do with colleagues across government, collectively.

Unfortunately I think it’s still going to take us a long time. And most probably won’t be the first to realise a vision of the future which I saw a few months ago. Tom Loosemore invited me to go and see the handiwork of a small band of guerrillas plotting a revolution. Their idea of a natively digital state is amazing and it was brilliant to see the reaction to this being shared at the Code for America summit yesterday.

Tom presented a version of this at our all-staff event and as he showed how future Tom might start a business in minutes I was struck at the opportunity that existed, not for us, but for those countries at the other end of the Human Development Index from the United Kingdom.

The first nation to create new institutions that make the most of the internet will win.

And win big.

The opportunity is huge.

A number of countries have taken bigger, or smaller, parts of what we’ve done and applied it to their context. On the whole they’re countries like us, where there’s been stability for a length of time, and where the state structures are fairly well established. I don’t think they’ll be the ones to take Tom’s challenge and run with it.

Last year I wondered whether institutions could heal themselves or if brand new was the only way. We’re having a good go at renewal but what could a country achieve if it had more of a blank slate?  There would be different challenges to overcome but there’s no reason why in 2 or 3 years’ time it’s countries who are fragile today couldn’t be leading the conversations about service design and user needs in the context of government.

So I’m excited that over the next few days people are gathering together to use technology in ways that will address the symptoms of a crisis and provide practical ways to help people access safety, health, and education. But I can’t help but think about the moment peace falls and the diaspora of war returns home to start rebuilding. When they do maybe it will be with Tom, Richard and Paul’s vision as the blueprint for solid, digital foundations.

 

Sierra Leone and the spectre of electoral violence

In which I hold forth about the situation in a country where I’ve spent a mere three months over five years. So this is tube-written opinionising not in depth, on the ground knowledge.

Sierra Leone is holding elections very soon and I was alerted to a fund raising campaign by  the Canadian NGO Journalists for Human Rights via Anthony Zacharzewski‘s post on the Demsoc blog. That’s an appeal to raise a not insignificant amount of money with the aim of supporting local media in order to prevent a return to violence.

Two things strike me about this.

Continue reading Sierra Leone and the spectre of electoral violence

Justice

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Two years ago I spent some time in Sierra Leone researching my Masters dissertation. According to the UNDP’s Human Development Index it’s the poorest country on the planet. The conflict that tore that country apart is a harrowing story of child soldiers, brutal amputations and destroyed communities. My dissertation examined the gap between the ‘peace’ of Special Courts and Truth & Reconciliation Committees (TRC) and the reality of that ‘peace’ as experienced by men, women and children without homes or prospects and carrying the scars of the conflict.


Central to that debate was justice. On the one hand the belief that criminal justice equates to peace and in stark contrast the reality on the ground. The work of the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society addressed the needs of lives torn apart by conflict by seeking advocacy and reconciliation, particularly on behalf of child soldiers.


The consequence was not communities that rejected these men and women, often guilty of heinous crimes, but to actively engage in reconciliation and the rebuilding of their lives together. Clearly it wasn’t enough to try Foday Sankoh or Charles Taylor. Not only did everyone know that those indicted were guilty but most of them died prior to facing trial. So what did attempted legal restitution achieve? The lives of those I met were being pieced together by people getting together, talking and forgiving before moving on as a restored community.


This is the poorest and the least developed country in the world recovering from untold evil. Not by punishing the people responsible for those crimes but actively welcoming them back into their midst. Very challenging.


The reason this is brought to mind is the recent media attention surrounding Ronnie Briggs, Peter Connelly and Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi. Briggs has been released from prison on compassionate grounds and it’s being suggested that the same thing should be possible for al-Megrahi whilst the identities of those involved in the death of Peter Connelly have this week been made public. Alongside those pictures have been discussions about giving them new identities when they are released from prison, causing outrange at the waste of taxpayers’ cash.


Predictably there are loud voices of dissent. And it’s the same whenever someone is sentenced for a high profile crime. Wherever there is the pain of loss, those responsible need to suffer in a way that ‘fits the crime’. But what punishment ever truly fits a crime on that basis? Is it like for like? One life for another?


I question whether that is a justice that gives peace? If our response is to require someone to suffer in our stead it doesn’t stop our pain or make us feel any less raw. The more you punish,the more you pursue an impossible criteria for restitution. And so we’ve developed an incredibly sophisticated justice system that provides an agreed standard of societal justice. The British hand over responsibility for justice to those who have spent their lives studying the law and analysing defendants. On our behalf, and speaking for society, these men and women declare what punishment is appropriate and what justice is.


But then we can’t accept that it has atoned for the crime.


Because the issues aren’t just with sentencing, they’re at release too. When granted freedom ex-cons have atoned for their actions in the eyes of the law (and by extension the rest of society). It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re unrepentant, or seek restitution and reconciliation with those they’ve hurt because that’s beyond the remit of a secular justice system. Except that we don’t see it that way. Former prisoners face barriers to engaging with society, which some would say should be expected. But aren’t those barriers only going to perpetuate those destructive behaviours? When Tracey Connelly, her picture widely publicised, leaves prison she will do so into the arms of a society ready to exact vengeance on her son’s behalf.


Even though justice will have been served.


Not justice in terms of what some would demand but on that day she will have done what the state demands to provide restitution to the population of Britain.


If on that day she requires a new identity it will be because the papers who first bemoan her sentence and then her false identity are the same people who give credibility to a position that says ‘the justice system is broken, it doesn’t go far enough and she needs to suffer for what she did’.


Fundamentally, British society believes that there’s something people have to do to make themselves right with us; some standard of acceptability to achieve; or some punishment that resolves the past in order to change the future.


I don’t believe that.


I found Sierra Leone an incredibly challenging experience for a variety of reasons but fortunately we don’t have to visit West Africa to see life changing behaviour in action. Gee Verona-Walker, the mother of Anthony Walker, forgave her son’s killers. She knew that carrying the pain did nothing. She knows that it is no disrespect to the memory of her son to celebrate his life rather than searching for a potentially non-existent criteria for satisfaction.


As a Christian I fundamentally believe that lives do not have to depend on histories. And I believe that forgiveness, true past-forgetting unconditional forgiveness can heal anything. Impossible? Perhaps. Hard? Certainly. But the things that I believe rotate around that central, crucial, life transforming principle.

The acceptable face of apathy?

Over the last year or so I’ve become incredibly impressed by the tireless efforts of one person who has taken two causes by the scruff of the neck and harnessed social media to push the issues onto individual agendas.

Lance Laifer has championed the causes of malaria and pneumonia both on and off line with remarkable consequences. The ‘March of Washingtons’, for example, has seen $85k donated (although this is by no means just about facebook) so far whilst thousands of people have joined the Facebook groups, causes and events.

And as far as any of that is concerned I’m not aware of his being spurred on by anything other than the fact that at least 300000000 (three hundred million) people will contract malaria or 4000000 (four million) will die from pneumonia this year.

Reason enough I think you’ll agree.

This Saturday just gone was World Malaria Day and as a small way of participating and showing support and solidarity it was suggested that people blackout their Facebook and Twitter profiles. Not requiring anything more than people taking 5 minutes to change their profile pic.

I’ve been annoying people by inviting them to causes, groups and events as well as giving my ‘Status for Humanity’. Unfortunately, only a handful bothered to do anything about it.

Understandably not everyone checks their social media every day but at a weekend the vast majority will at some point.

It’s disappointing that more people didn’t join in, not because people don’t care of that I’m sure but because it’s not a priority, because after all it’s only something on Facebook or Twitter and for a number of my friends I’m not really bothered.

The problem I have is with the Christians.

There isn’t an excuse for not being involved with these campaigns. there’s nothing anyone could say to me that would lessen the importance of raising awareness and helping to combat diseases that cripple the poorest in the world. Nothing.

Fortunately global attention is getting to grips with Malaria, it’s getting the kind of funding that could start to make real inroads. The global economics shouldn’t change that (check globalrichlist.com to see how plentiful our lives are) so maybe lives will start to be saved.

So the grassroots focus is switching to pneumonia. When I was invited to the cause it was a no-brainer to join. Pneumonia is a big deal. Bigger than I had registered. Just visit worldpneumoniaday.org to see. So I looked at my friends and I saw some influential people, other Christians with time and resources, passion and compassion and cherry picked the people I invited.

The response has been rubbish.

This is not an invite to play Attack, it’s not getting you to see which fictional character you’re most like, nor is it even an invitation for any sort of financial or physical commitment.

It’s an invitation to stand shoulder to shoulder with people in need. Bluntly, that’s why there’s the church. That’s why God sent His only son. That’s why we are involved as a body. To roll up our sleeves and see people’s lives transformed. And to take a lead that shows the world the incredible love of God and the power of grace.

For sure there’s an incredible amount of prayer going on but far more often than not God is going to use people to answer them. People like Lance who put the Body of Christ to shame. Is ignoring online campaigning ok? Is ignoring non-church instigated action an acceptable apathy?

I don’t think so…