Monday, September 27, 2004

From time to time, I recommend organizations that I believe are important. One that I am especially enthusiastic about is the Social Enterprise Alliance. SEA is the grassroots group formed by and for social enterprisers, the people who operate businesses in the social sector.

I first met this community in 2000, as I was shifting from operating a single social enterprise and getting ready to start several at Benetech. I attended the annual meeting, which was called the Gathering. Even though my technology background was completely different than everybody else at the Gathering, I felt completely at home. Here is a group of people who understand both business and social mission, and how to work them together to improve lives. I became a founding board member of the organization and continue to serve more than four years later.

If this interests you, I encourage you to join as a member and get involved. Social Enterprise Alliance Membership. Together, we are growing a movement!

Friday, September 17, 2004

The nature of demining operations: foreign aid

This post (one of a series) will concentrate on the big picture issues of demining operations at a national level. First of all, demining is mainly funded through foreign aid. And, this foreign aid is often channeled through national governments. For example, the U.S. is a very large funder of demining efforts through the State Department (and USAID). Maybe this offsets the U.S. Defense Department's lack of willingness to sign onto the international treaty banning landmines.

Let's say the State Department gives your government two million dollars to spend on demining. What do you spend it on? Paying salaries of demobilized soldiers and rebels? Or, do you buy expensive technology solutions? Answer: you generally use it to pay staff and then buy what you have to in order to equip those folks. It has been noted to me on multiple occasions that demining is a critical jobs program in post-conflict countries. Demining pays well and carries some social credibility. It's dangerous, but not as dangerous as the war was. These jobs are often in high demand.

Most foreign aid doesn't some in the form of cash: it comes in the form of in-kind support. In-kind support means that the government of country X is happy to give you a million dollars, as long as that million dollars is paying for products made in country X, and comes with some strings. So, you're likely to get trucks and vehicles, as long as you agree you won't source trucks from some other country. You can get mine sniffing dogs, as long as you agree not to breed them and maybe not to take dogs from another country. These strings can often restrict what you do, and they often don't pay your staff.

Other commentators have talked about the distortions of foreign aid on countries. I recently read an excellent book called "The Road to Hell" on the impact of aid, mainly food aid, on destabilizing Somalia. My impression is that foreign aid's overall impact on demining is positive, but it is a force to be reckoned with. It does mean that demining can often be driven by priorities in addition to the core mission of removing mines.

People respond to incentives as well, and this impacts foreign aid and the philanthropic funding of demining. Funding for demining is going down in many of these countries. Donors are shifting priorities, Princess Diana is gone, the conflicts are receding into the past even as mines make their impact known into the present. The incentives mean that some groups exaggerate the mine problem by overstating the challenges. For example, some of Benetech's early writings on this project talked about the 1000 year time period it would take to clear all of the world's mines. As we met more demining groups, we realized that this hyperbolic statement (which we had picked up from another source) overstated the problem. The problem is still bad, and mines still need to be countered and removed, but overstating the problem consistently will create problems. The most responsible groups we have talked to have been clear about the difficulty of assessing mine issues in terms of simple metrics. Mine injuries and deaths are relatively easy to count, but you would like to measure demining by other measures. For example, if mines are no longer being deployed in a country, you'd expect injuries and deaths to decrease over time even if you did very little demining.

If you reward groups with more money using certain measures, you create the incentive for those groups to deliver higher numbers, whether or not these numbers represent reality. If groups are competing on numbers that are difficult to measure, the definitions might shift or be exaggerated. Measurement of social results is often difficult. The increased funding pressure does have positive impacts on people looking at new ways to help deminers. Deminers are trying to do more demining with less money, and that creates the opening to develop tools that help them do that.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Ethan Zuckerman blogged my talk at the Berkman Center last week. He did a good job capturing the spirit of the discussion. Ethan Zuckerman's Weblog : Jim Fruchterman's talk at Berkman

We talked about intellectual property and its interaction with disadvantaged communities. We talked about books, software, drugs and instruments, and how to bring the benefits of these ideas to the world's disadvantaged communities.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Benetech's Director of Human Rights Programs Patrick Ball contributed a chapter to a recently published volume by the Society for Applied Anthropology entitled Human Rights: The Scholar as Activist.

Ball's chapter looks at the application of data mining and statistical techniques to human rights, and he reflects more generally on the role of science in human rights activism. He concludes "Of course, human rights work is about much more than methodology. It is about right and wrong framed in the legal and moral dimensions of international human rights instruments. But by doing the technical work right, we can greatly strengthen our ability to make claims about human rights, and ultimately, to advocate for a more respectful world."

Patrick's point is the essence of Benetech: by doing technical work right, we advance society's broader interests.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

The opportunity to talk to brilliant people is one of the best parts of my job. I've been in Boston this week, and had the opportunity to visit WGBH/NCAM (nation's leading captioning group for the disabled), National Braille Press, as well as folks at BU, MIT and Harvard. The proximate cause for being here was delivering my oldest child to college (Jimmy is now a freshman at Brandeis U.).

Normally I like to talk to students, but the timing at the beginning of the academic year was not ideal. I did get the chance to give a talk to the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. My buddy Ethan Zuckerman, founder of Geekcorps, is a Fellow at Berkman, and he set up this talk on short notice. We were able to talk about the complete range of technology and intellectual property issues. I came away with a handful of great ideas (such as the possible marriage of digital talking books and community radio in Africa) and offers of assistance with some of the legal issues surrounding our work.