Of Camels and Hippos

Professor Matt Andrews, at the Harvard Kennedy School, likes to open his seminars with this ice breaker: Imagine you are stranded on a desert with no food or water and in the scorching heat, if you are not rescued soon enough, you will likely die. Luckily you have a choice of one of two “helpers”. You can choose a camel or you can choose a hippo. At this juncture, Prof Andrews will typically ask those who picked the camel to raise their hands and likewise for the hippo.

The majority of hands always goes up for the camel. At first thought, it seems to be the logical choice. The camel can go the distance to get you to a water source. But here is why the camel is the wrong choice: it can roam around without water for months. You would die in a matter of hours. Have you ever seen a hippo that wasn’t close to water? Hippos need to be close to water to survive. A hippo would get you to water as fast as it can.

The message is this: pick appropriate solutions to your problems. Think about your end goal and then figure out the most efficient and effective way to get there. In the development business, we often fall into the trap of adopting solutions that are fashionable but totally inappropriate.

Remember the “one laptop per child” idea that swept our shores some time ago? It got every one excited and then died a natural death. Computers can only do so much to enhance learning when classrooms are crowded, teachers aren’t qualified, students are hungry, when there’s no electricity to power the laptops  etc etc.

Some countries are still convinced that advanced technology is the appropriate solution for improving basic education. The richest province in South Africa (Gauteng Province) has recently decided that all public schools will become paperless by 2017! All children in public schools are now going to be using tablets as a replacement for traditional notebooks. This is estimated to cost 17 billion Rands ($1.5bn).

Mind you, South Africa, (understandably due to its racially oppressive history) has one of the lowest math and literacy scores among students in Africa. The belief that doing away with the physical task of writing is the magic bullet that will make children smarter is rather absurd. The justification is that South Korea makes use of such technology and have top ranked students. The cultural factors that may play a strong role in the Korean experience have escaped the Gauteng leadership. And with increasing corruption in South Africa through opaque public  procurement practices, I can’t help but wonder who has already been awarded the tender for the delivery of these tablets.

There will always be a place for “camels” but we need to do better in terms of looking inward to see what resources we already have and how we can improve them to suit our development objectives. So, what do we have? People – Lots of young people, a growing middle class, alternative energy sources, minerals, land…All these and more present enormous opportunities. Even mobile phones should be seen as a resource with immense potential.

A recent UN study found that six billion of the seven billion people now on earth have access to cellphones, while only 4.5 billion have access to working toilets. 

Sure, mobile phones are largely western technology imports and may look like “camels” but mobile phones have long penetrated all corners of the continent. Just about everyone carries a mobile phone regardless of socioeconomic background.

40% of Liberians have mobile phones; only 10% have bank accounts. 

Can you imagine what mobile phones could do for socioeconomic development if the astronomical cellular and data costs weren’t a factor? Accessible education/skills development is only one of several examples of the transformative power of smart phones. I’ve recently discovered MOOCs (massive open online courses) and therefore have access to FREE university level short courses on my mobile phone.

Our ethnic diversity, languages, food and culture, climate, geography, etc are all excellent hippos and should take centre stage when thinking about solutions to our many problems.

Peace and love

Photo credit: animalstime.com