Links zur Entwicklungszusammenarbeit

I just collected resources for an in depth overview of international development in general (unfortunately I am lacking one good introductory book or summary).

Collecting this here for reference and possible additions:


 MITx: 14.73x The Challenges of Global Poverty

This is a course for those interested in the challenge posed by massive and persistent world poverty, and are hopeful that economists might have something useful to say about this challenge. The questions we will take up include: Is extreme poverty a thing of the past? What is life like when living under a dollar per day? Are the poor always hungry? How do we make schools work for poor citizens? How do we deal with the disease burden? Is microfinance invaluable or overrated? Without property rights, is life destined to be “nasty, brutish and short”? Should we leave economic development to the market? Should we leave economic development to non-governmental organizations (NGOs)? Does foreign aid help or hinder? Where is the best place to intervene? And many others. At the end of this course, you should have a good sense of the key questions asked by scholars interested in poverty today, and hopefully a few answers as well, viewed through an economic lens.




Roles in ICT4D

Continuing my previous post ("The necessary skills for an ICT4D startup?") where I was wondering about ICT4D skills, I came across a nice frame of different roles in the field from Wayan Vota in his ICT4D Jobs Newsletter:

The 3 Roles in ICT4D

[...] most people are either focused on the software & hardware aspects (technologist), on the program design and fundraising (strategist), or leading teams in the field to delivery (field-based staff).

Thinking about these 3 roles, figure out which one you want and which one you are qualified for. The role you want and are qualified for should be the same, but not always.

I will say that the field-based role is usually the most popular, which also makes it one of the hardest to get. If you're dead-set on a field-based role, consider volunteering or joining a small organization (which is pretty close to volunteering) to get yourself out to a good location. Then try to work yourself into a (better) paid gig once you are there.

If you have prior IT experience, then the technologist role is usually easiest to qualify for, though you still need some field experience to show you know and appreciate the local context. Also realize that ICT4D pays half (at best) of private sector IT work, so be prepared for a massive pay cut, but an equally massive increase in sense of purpose and life-fulfillment.

ICT generalists usually take the strategist role, but only those who have sales experience or aptitude do well in the role. It is all about strategy - to help the organization win new funding and execute on it, not just idly daydreaming what could be. The strategist can also be a researcher, though this is a less-common version.

[and an article on this: LINK]


The necessary skills for an ICT4D startup?

Inspired by an interview with Reid Hoffman (founder of LinkedIn) on the Khan Academy Entrepreneurship series, I am picking up the central question again: What skills should I develop to create a successful project for social impact, leveraged by the opportunities arising from IT?

Reid Hoffman very deliberately made a list of the skills he needed to develop for his vision and sought (job) opportunities where he could gain experience in those skills. This kind of focus is really impressive - and probably part of reasons for his success. Picking it up from his argument that successful startup teams usually have a business person and a tech person, I am wondering what are the (other) major areas necessary for a social impact / ICT4D startup? Obviously there is the need to understand the sector - the user and/or customer we are trying to serve and impact. But actually even that is not specific to social entrepreneurship (see The Intersection Of Domain And Tech (The Heretic)).

With these general notions of business, tech and "sector" (i.e. wherever the concrete project will innovate) I am not much closer to my list of skills I need to develop, however.

Wayan Vota at least has an encouraging view on the skills question:

Interestingly, most people assume they need to know how to code software or install communications hardware to get a job in ICT4D. However, the majority of employers I talk to are not looking for these "hard" technology skills. IT techies can be found all over the world now.

What employers are looking for is staff with the "soft" skills like clear, concise writing, which is always a critical skill in a development organization, and people skills, which is really flexibility and adaptability. Another key skill is the ability to tell pie in the sky tech ideas from on the ground reality, and the ability to innovate within the real life context of the beneficiaries you work with.

But also, the theme of connecting the development and tech aspects comes up a lot, e.g. some form of "Business Analyst", the analyst role to be the bridge between technology and those technology supported, as an "liaison and translator, for the "big picture and the weeds".

Anyway, for the time being, maybe I'll refine my tech and entrepreneurship related skills and then dive into a sector with social impact to explore and look for problems to solve ...

EDIT: An interesting frame for this are the three roles as technologist, strategist or field-based. See "Roles in ICT4D"

Tech Invention vs. On The Ground Implementation Startups

Another concise model I got through Sachin, who I first met two weeks ago, about entrepreneuship:

There are basically two approaches to do a startup.

Top-down: Invent something and build a business around it. (e.g. the "Google model", develop an exceptional search algorithm and start a search engine company)

Bottom-up: Research on the ground, understand a problem well and then build a solution for it.

There is surely need for both kinds of ventures, top-down leaps to technological advancement as well as solutions designed up from a specific problem. But be succesfull it probably helps to know what kind of personality you yourself are and which route you want to follow.

After that, its three steps to get going:

  1. Identify a/the problem
  2. Find a good team
  3. Get the money to fund it

How to become a social entrepreneur organizing the auto-rickshaw sector

IIIT-D again served me a really interesting seminar talk that exactly hits the intersection of social enterprise and information technology that I am excited about. Vishy Kuruganti, co-founder of mGaadi, told about his journey "organizing the unorganized auto-rickshaw sector" - thereby bringing better service to commuters and better livelihoods to auto drivers.

The business case of mGaadi is straight forward. Every day people here have a hard time with auto drivers asking extra or refusing to go to some destinations. As always, there is two sides to the story: Drivers usually do have good reasons for their behaviour. They need to make a living and getting stuck in rush hour or in an area without passengers for a return trip doesn't earn them anything.

With such a prominent problem, a good solution should make profitable business. The margin for arranging one trip may be small but the volume is potentially enormous with more than 5 million auto-rickshaws in India. Or, with a social entrepreneur's mindset: Why not do something to solve this huge pain point of auto transport? Building a self-sustainable business to broker a fair deal between passengers and auto drivers is probably the most scalable and least patronizing approach to improve the situation. Getting enough turnover to keep the business running and growing is essential. But that - solving a real, relevant problem - is what should be at the core of any enterprise in my opinion.

The "mGaadi story" got me somewhat excited. It sounds like exactly what I've been dreaming to do. So how to get there, to entrepreneurially solving a meaningful problem?

Vishy took a 12 months sabbatical, researching, meeting people, writing the TechSangam blog, thinking, getting his head free to dive into the right opportunity. It took an extension of 6 months and a pitch from one of the people he met at the very beginning to start mGaadi but here they are. Hard work in the end seemed to have led to serendipity. (And working on a startup idea on weekends seems rather hopeless)

Entrepreneurship is inherently risk-based (but some say living in India itself is already a risk). If risk tempts you and you want to make social impact however, India is a hotspot of social entrepreneurship. (Look for example at those Eight defining milestones in India’s social enterprise ecosystem). And there are lots of pain points in society. If you just pick the one that seems most relevant to you, you'll be fine. Even if it turns out to really be just number 3 or 4 in relevance (whatever that may mean), you will still have picked a meaningful problem to work on.

The unorganized sector in India is huge, over 90% of Indians do not get a regular salary. But making the step into formal employment with a regular income can be decisive to get out of poverty. Seems like there is a lot of room for more social enterprises here.

And (again) a few other thoughts and references to take away from this talk:

  • "Poor Economics" (subtitled "A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty" ), a book by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, as an inspiration for social entrepreneurship.
  • Get the right allies, who also might have a stake in your target. For mGaadi tie up with Bangalore police to reach out to auto drivers through their prepaid auto booths was a game changer.
  • There are different models: Uber may demand its drivers to make any trip it assigns them but guarantees a minimum monthly income in return, while mGaadi leaves the choice to accept or reject each trip totally to the driver. Which model is better? Who knows. (But it does depend on circumstances and resources available to your company.)
  • Storytelling is an important skill for entrepreneurs.

"How"-People and "What"-People

During a talk at IIIT Delhi by Sachin Gaur, entrepreneur with an interest in social impact, he made a nice point when asked about the skills needed as an entrepreneur:

There are "how"-people and there are "what"-people. When people tell you about their project do you ever start wondering about how they are doing it even before they are done explaining what it is about?

The problem with that is that there are hundreds of ways how to solve a problem. But once you have figured out one "How" you are usually set on that only, quickly discounting other approaches and people who have a different perspective on the matter.

Focusing on the "What" is probably easier said than done, you have to stop yourself to immediately engineer solutions. But to make an impact in life the most important and challenging part usually is to get the problem right. And following the "What" instead of the "How" then makes you open-minded towards any kind of "Hows", where the most adequate solution may well be frugal and low-tech.

"If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions."
     -- Albert Einstein

On a similar note: Do you know the exact meanings of Efficiency vs Effectiveness?


And a few other thoughts and references to take away from his talk. A lot of them I had heard somewhere before but that should probably just make them more credible.

  • "Zero to One", a book by Peter Thiel about building innovative startups
  • "How to Start a Startup", a much praised online course about entrepreneurship
  • If you catch yourself telling others "This should be done differently" for more than three times, either stop saying that or start working to actually do it differently.
  • While on the other hand your startup idea obviously needs to be appealing to you not just for the next ten days but for the next 10 years.
  • A personal network is invaluable. Meet different people, be nice (i.e. helpful) to them without expecting anything in return and it will come back to you surely.
  • And maybe try to also have a few friends outside of your technical college? After all diversity matters when you want to be innovative.


I don't want this to become yet another blog sharing advice and inspiration for (aspiring) entrepreneurs. (If you are interested in this, check out the daily two minutes food for thought from The Heretic, for example.) However I do love the concept of social entrepreneurship, approaching the world's problems in a way that is self-sustaining instead of merely handing out charity. So I will also collect whatever good I find around this topic here.

Coffee With Sundar: Amarjeet Singh on social improvement through technology

While researching people to meet and discuss about ICT for social impact I came across the following blog article. It is basically asking exactly those questions I wanted to ask, interviewing Amarjeet Singh, assistant professor at IIIT Delhi, my current university.

Talking about the role of technology in the context of social improvement, peoples' willingness to embrace new technologies and personal experiences.


Starting into ICT4D

I will probably get my first job after finishing my M.Sc. of Computer Science in about two years. At that time I will be around 27 years old. Let's assume circumstances will stay similar for the next 50 years (however unlikely that may be). That means in Germany I will be working until I am 67, 40 years of my life. With an annual 250 working days of 8 hours that makes an impressive 80,000 hours spent working on some job.

I think that is way too much time to spend it just for the benefit of some multinational corporations. On the other hand it could be enough time to solve some problems that really matter.

I am enthusiastic about the opportunities information technologies open up everywhere. And after having lived a year in Kolkata as well as working with NGOs in India and Germany I am looking for ways to make these worlds meet - the new possibilities of technology and the causes to care for in international development.

The term "ICT4D" (Information and Communication Technology for Development) was termed for this field. Some innovative startups are exploring the ideas in practice. Maybe you have heard of Ushahidi helping citizens to track post election riotsM-Pesa creating a mobile banking system or similar organizations. Considering ICT4D an exciting field that I might want to work in or start a new project around I will use this blog to collect more insights. Recording the ideas of people involved in ICT4D whom I meet; Collecting links and resources; Trying to make sense of it all for.