Urgent Evoke

A crash course in changing the world.

LEARN1: "If you can't open it, you don't own it."

That subject line is one of the mottos of MAKE magazine. But this is not another love letter to MAKE, I promise: this is about transparent technology and creating solutions that stick.

Let me start off with some grim words: when we swoop to the rescue with fragile patches and technologies that the local environment can't sustain, we create an ecosystem of helplessness. The tents we shipped to Haiti will rot in a year, overpowered by stress and humidity. All that water that was desperately needed will be drunk and gone. Food that was thrown out of trucks will be eaten. In the meantime, have we saved lives, or merely delayed deaths? What does it mean to help someone when you ultimately leave them where they started?

I don't mean in any way to disparage the aid workers who are applying these fixes, or suggest they're doing it wrong. Not at all! An urgent disaster requires an urgent response: earthquake victims can't pick up hammers and build their own houses between aftershocks. They need water, medicine, rice, whatever it takes. It's just that we can't stop there and claim the problem's solved, and leave them with a longer, much less photogenic crisis. And yet this is often what happens, because we define crisis in the short term. We need to understand that all the short-term fixes we apply must spread roots deep into local soil, or we must convert them to a form that will.

That's where transparency comes in. You can't make something better if you don't know how it works. You can't fix it when it breaks, either, or make a copy for your neighbor. Technology goes far beyond the things with light-up power switches, and Alchemy understands this -- he sent specialists who were ready to teach.

And on that subject, transparency is more than a factor of technology, it's also an attitude. As a member of EVOKE, I will try to remember that I can't impose help on anyone, I can only collaborate. There is no real difference between my intentions and theirs.

One of the advantages of being a slow writer is, so many intelligent people have come before me and said all the things I wanted to say. To that end, let me make some introductions. Ian Tuck wrote a wonderful post about innovation under constraint, teaching me about Michael Pritchard and his Lifesaver water filtration bottle. Yemisi Ajumobi taught me about William Kamkwamba, "the boy who harnessed the wind". And Stephen Richard also talks about the false duality of "help people" and "people should help themselves". I strongly urge you to read them and follow them closely. Always listen to people who say important things gracefully.

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Comment by David Dreshfield on March 5, 2010 at 7:24am
Wise words, Monica. This is definitely one of the hurdles to introducing an idea like the one I had about bringing fuel cells to Africa -- education about how the technology works would definitely have to come with that. I think it's doable, but it's also easy to get caught up in the rush of, "let's bring the technology over!" and forget about the wh***, "will anyone understand how to work this thing after we leave?" angle.
Comment by Monica Toth on March 5, 2010 at 7:26am
Thanks for your comment, David! I would have more to say, but it's late on the West Coast and I have to get to bed. My cup runneth over.
Comment by John D. Boyden on March 6, 2010 at 8:09pm
" I can only collaborate." are words of wisdom. +1 Local Insight everywhere in the world.
Comment by Rob MacDougall on March 6, 2010 at 8:17pm
Thanks for this, Monica. It's sort of what I was reaching for in my post about humility and local knowledge, but put much better. Important things said gracefully, indeed.


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