I often get asked two questions, to which my answers are met with either glazed over eyes or excited engagement, followed by a sigh.
The questions start innocently enough “What do you do?” followed by “How did you get into that?” which is usually a disguised version of “Why?”. The sigh that ends the exchange tends to be accompanied by the words “I wish I did that” – either a polite way to shut down our exchange rather than saying “you’re nuts”, or a genuine expression of interest.
So what do I do?
I run a small consultancy – Faces of Another World – specialising in humanitarian aid and helping social agencies move in the technological world of the 21st century. This involves lots of capacity building work, change management, re-imagining business models, and lots of information management projects. It also tends to involve a lot of coaching, which I also do with social enterprises through On Purpose UK.
At the moment I have two major projects on – one is working with a large NGO in Angola to help re-imagine their business and funding models. The other project is building an information management portal for use in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, like the recent typhoon in the Philippines. You can read about some of the triumphs and failures of the system on the blog I write about the whole experience – http://speedevidence.wordpress.com
Recently, I have also started a charity – Give Aid Direct – which offers the mass customisation of person-to-person giving to humanitarian aid. This will be done through connecting existing technologies in ways not previously done, enabling donors to choose who their donations go to, recipients to choose how the donations are spent, and the donors to receive personalised feedback from the recipients regarding the impact of their donation.
Why do I do it?
I am passionate about a few things, but my biggest passion is figuring out how we enable the dreams of people living on a dollar or two a day to become a reality. For me this tends to result in a focus on technology, information management and creating choice. In some sense I can relate to the postcode lottery and know that I am incredibly privileged to have grown up in Canada, having access to good education, health care, and many other things. This, combined with growing up in an immigrant family and a community of faith, has shaped my desire to give back and try to make the world better.
Over the past 20 years, technology has changed the world in incredible ways – creating opportunities never dreamt of by my grandparents, but now hard to imagine life without them for my kids. Through Facebook we have friends across the globe, through Skype or Google hangouts we livestream our own video chats with people on the other side of the planet. Access to information for many of us has become ubiquitous (“let me Google that”) and with M-Pesa we can transfer money instantly from my bank account to someone’s mobile phone in rural Africa. Technology, especially the Internet, the mobile phone, and the rise of social media, have radically redefined the business and social worlds, creating new business models (e.g. mobile banking). Yet, many charities and social organisations are using models that were created in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Give Aid Direct is one small way I am involved in trying to change this. The idea of Give Aid Direct came from a discussion with a friend as we were walking through the streets of London; both frustrated by experiences in large global aid organisations. We began to wonder why we could be “friends” with people all over the globe, sponsor a child through organisations, use our mobile phones to pay bills in Nairobi, and yet not give directly to a person in the aftermath of a disaster.
So Give Aid Direct was born wanting to provide a unique opportunity for the donor to choose the recipient of her/his donation through online profiling and recipients the choice of how to spend the donation. I consider dignity to be inherently linked to choice – recipients being able to choose (or have a little bit of control) over how to spend some of the aid money raised on their behalf. I want to help recipients be more involved in rebuilding their communities.
The idea is that in the week after a disaster strikes, Give Aid Direct collects the profiles of households affected by the disasters using either roaming enumerators using mobile phones or enumerators at a stationary kiosk in the community (see Figure 1 below). The selection of recipients will either be a blanket whole community selection or focus only on the vulnerable groups in the community. After the profile information is collected, the recipients are shown the data and requested to approve it before it is used online, thereby providing the recipients greater control over their data and how they are portrayed to donors. The distribution of the cash transfer is done through appropriate mobile money solutions in the recipient context and feedback to the donor is also provided using mobile technology (see Figure 2).
I do this work because I love it, because I love learning new things, trying new ideas, and seeing the dreams of others become reality. Yes, I dream often – I dream of starting a more traditional social enterprise one day; I dream of humanitarian aid agencies becoming much more concerned about their own ecological footprints and of the local economy in disaster affected communities; and of much more. For now, I work with information and dream of people connecting, collaborating, and sharing so that more barriers to dignity, choice and development can fall.