Category Archives: technology

Safeguarding and digital technologies in research activities

The following is the text of a recent piece (revised version 2) that I wrote for a research project in which I am involved, but which may well have wider relevance. There is much more that could be written on this topic, but I hope it provides helpful guidance on some of the more important issues that need to be addressed by researchers with respect to safeguarding and the use of digital technologies, especially following the rapid expansion of their use since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Context

The COVID-19 pandemic has had significant impacts on the lives of most people, with social interactions becoming mediated much more through digital technologies than was heretofore the case.  Digital technologies are usually promoted as always having positive impacts, or at worst being benign.  This, though, is an unrealistic picture, and their ability to accelerate and accentuate negative as well as positive behaviours and experiences gives rise to significant safeguarding concerns. While the term safeguarding is traditionally used to refer only to children and vulnerable adults, it is now used much more widely and in a sense everyone without good knowledge of how to use digital tech safely is subject to potential harm from its use. The relevant safeguarding issues can broadly be divided into those relating to the self, those relating to others, and those impacting the environment.

Taking care of oneself

Many people have experienced a considerable increase in the time they spend using digital technologies as a result of COVID-19, not all of which is healthy or indeed safe.  Those responsible for safeguarding should always check that their staff enjoy the use of digital technologies safely, securely and wisely.

  • Time out.  Try to spend at least one day a week without use of any digital devices or connectivity; learn again the joys of the physical world, and the beauties of nature.
  • Digital duration. How long do you spend using digital technologies each day?  This can be very harmful both to the body and to the mind.  Think about installing a screen-time checker that will let you know!  Ensure your working environment (desk, screens, chairs) is appropriate for your body.  Give your eyes some time to relax and explore distant horizons.  Get up and take a short walk at least every hour.
  • Office hours.  Digital tech is frequently used to extend work time, and this has been exacerbated during COVID-19 lockdowns.  Set yourself appropriate office hours, and don’t respond to e-mails out of these. Submit a formal complaint if your boss insists you respond to e-mails all hours of the day and night.  When working across time zones always ask for arrangements to be made that can include you at appropriate times.  Don’t self-exploit (unless you really want to).
  • Privacy.  The more time you spend on digital technologies, the more information you give to others about yourself.  You might be happy to be merely a data point, but if not don’t just automatically click on accept when asked about permissions or cookies.  Think about using software that limits how much others can find out about you.  Use search engines that offer privacy such as DuckDuckGo.
  • Security. Always install relevant protection (antivirus, web, ransomware, privacy, malicious traffic) and use it (techradar Guide).  Create complex passwords.  Be aware of scams, spam and phishing attacks, and keep safe by never simply clicking on links without checking that they are safe – especially if they are from people not know to you.
  • Online conferences and meetings.  Be very careful in online calls, especially if you cannot see everyone.  In face-to-face meetings it is possible to pick up signs of how people react to what you are saying and thus adjust in real time, but this is impossible with most video calls.  It is thus easy to cause offence without meaning to.  Don’t waste your time attending the thousands of online conferences or meetings that you are invited to – most are a complete waste of time.  Only join ones that are critical to what you are doing, or are of real interest.  Think of limiting your time to c. 8 hours of online meetings a week, and spend the rest doing things that are productive and worthwhile!
  • Use social media carefully.  Social media can be great for connecting with people that you want to, but it can also be deeply hurtful and the cause of much violence.  Be careful over what you write, and avoid using it if you are angry or tired.  If you are trolled, never reply because it only exacerbates the attacks.  Don’t just accept anyone as an online friend unless you know who they are.  Take time away from social media.  Read guides on wise use of social media (such as that produced by Greater Good at Berkeley).  Report any abuse or harassment to the appropriate authorities (see how to respond to digital violence).
  • Never use personally identifiable media for professional purposes.  In particular, do not use your own digital media for research purposes.  Instead, always ask to use official e-mails, telephone numbers and media outlets.  For example, never use your personal mobile number to join a group on apps such as WhatsApp, especially for conducting interviews or focus groups, because you can never be sure who else is in the group, and what they might subsequently contact you about.
  • Behave wisely.  Remember that it is almost certain that some-one/thing, somewhere is almost certainly tracking and recording in some way everything you do online.  Do not be the one who causes harm to others online.

Do to others as you would have them do to you – but remember they are different from you

In many ways, safeguarding advice relating to others is the application of the above principles to everyone else, but especially to members of the team of which you are a part, and all those with whom you are researching.  It is crucially important to remember, though, that what is deemed to be acceptable use to some may not be acceptable to others.  There is as yet little global agreement on what is acceptable behaviour in using digital technologies.

Within a team

General advice that is often seen as being helpful for avoiding digital harm includes:

  • Always listen more than you speak in digital meetings – and do listen, rather than doing all the other digital things you need to catch up on;
  • Never impose one particular technology on everyone in the team – try to reach consensus but if someone will not use one particular app or device, find an alternative solution;
  • Never expect an immediate response to an e-mail, or on social media – if you wish to send e-mails at four in the morning your time do not expect others in your time-zone to respond;
  • Dramatically reduce the number of online meetings that you think should be held, especially when working across time-zones – most are an excuse to pretend people are working, most are poorly managed, and it is much more efficient to seek input on policy documents by sharing drafts (if relevant using multi-authoring tools) than it is to do so in an online meeting;
  • Be accepting of varying cultural digital practices, but make it clear if any of these offend you and explain why; and
  • Be strict in clamping down on any use of digital technologies for sexual harassment or other forms of abuse – these should be reported immediately through standard existing safeguarding procedures;
  • Find ways to mitigate the personal costs to team members of using digital technologies – remember that costs of internet connectivity, hardware and apps can be high for individuals, especially in economically poorer contexts;
  • Always ensure that team members are fully trained in how to use the digital technologies chosen by the team, and are fully aware of protocols concerning security, safety and privacy;
  • Ensure that all material and data relating to the team’s research activity is kept as digitally secure as possible, encrypted on trustworthy servers, and with strong password protection;
  • Always explain if you are recording a meeting, and do not do so if any team member objects – also, don’t be critical of those who object for whatever reason.

With research participants

  • Always explain to research participants how you will use and protect  any digital data that you generate together;
  • If you need participants to use any digital technologies, ensure that they are fully trained in their use;
  • Never force participants to use a specific piece of digital technology (or app) – always try to use the technologies with which they are familiar;
  • Never use digital surveillance or tracking mechanisms without the explicit and fully informed permission of participants – and even then try to find an alternative (you never know who else might be accessing the information);
  • Do all you can to protect participants from harm or abuse from their use of digital technologies.

Think about the environmental impact of the digital technologies you are using, and mitigate their harms

Digital technologies are often seen as a good way to reduce environment harm, but this is by no means always so, and many practices in the digital technology sector are anti-sustainable (see further here).  Those who consider that environmental harm should be included within safeguarding should be aware of the following:

  • The ICT sector contributes more carbon to the atmosphere than does the airline industry (see here from 2017) – virtual conferences are not carbon-neutral;
  • Video uses much more bandwidth and electricity than does audio (see here) –encourage participants in online meetings to keep their video off when they are not speaking;
  • Never contribute to e-waste by purchasing new digital tech just for the sake of the research grant – do all you can to repair and reuse your digital tech, and only purchase new when you absolutely have to (see the The Restart Project for examples and evidence);
  • Use digital tech (both hardware and software) that is as environmentally sustainable as possible;
  • Minimise the use of electricity (including in data servers, device production, and device usage), and where possible use renewable powered energy (such as solar mobile devices);
  • Purchase and use digital tech(including apps) from companies that are committed to minimal environmental impact (not just satisfying carbon emissions criteria);
  • Always switch off digital tech when not in use, and don’t just put them on standby;
  • Consider conducting an environmental audit of all digital tech used in your research.

Version 2

4th June 2021

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Filed under digital technologies, research, technology

Collaboration and competition in Covid-19 response

A week ago, I wrote a post about the potential of crowdsourcing and the use of hashtags for gathering enhanced data on infection rates for Covid-19.  Things have moved rapidly since then as companies, civil society organisations, international organisations, academics and donors have all developed countless initiatives to try to respond.  Many of these initiatives seem to be more about the profile and profits of the organisations/entities involved than they do about making a real impact on the lives of those who will suffer most from Covid-19.  Yesterday, I wrote another post on my fears that donors and governments will waste huge amounts of money, time and effort on Covid-19 to little avail, since they have not yet learnt the lessons of past failures.

I still believe that crowdsourcing could have the potential, along with many other ways of gathering data, to enhance decision making at this critical time. However the dramatic increase in the number of such initiatives gives rise to huge concern.  Let us learn from past experience in the use of digital technologies in development, and work together in the interests of those who are likely to suffer the most.  Eight issues are paramount when designing a digital tech intervention to help reduce the impact of Covid-19, especially through crowdsourcing type initiatives:

  • Don’t duplicate what others are already doing
  • Treat privacy and security very carefully
  • Don’t detract from official and (hopefully) accurate information
  • Keep it simple
  • Ask questions that will be helpful to those trying to respond to the pandemic
  • Ensure that there are at least some questions that are the same in all surveys if there are multiple initiatives being done by different organisations
  • Work with a globally agreed set of terminology and hashtags (#)
  • Collaborate and share

Don’t duplicate what others are already doing

As the very partial list of recent initiatives at the end of this post indicates, many crowdsourcing projects have been created across the world to gather data from people about infections and behaviours relating to Covid-19.  Most of these are well-intentioned, although there will also be those that are using such means unscrupulously also to gather data for other purposes.  Many of these initiatives ask very similar questions.  Not only is it a waste of resources to design and build several competing platforms in a country (or globally), but individual citizens will also soon get bored of responding to multiple different platforms and surveys.  The value of each initiative will therefore go down, especially if there is no means of aggregating the data.  Competition between companies may well be an essential element of the global capitalist system enabling the fittest  to accrue huge profits, but it is inappropriate in the present circumstances where there are insufficient resources available to tackle the very immediate responses needed across the world.

Treat privacy and security very carefully

Most digital platforms claim to treat the security of their users very seriously.  Yet the reality is that many fail to protect the privacy of much personal information sufficiently, especially when software is developed rapidly by people who may not prioritise this issue and cut corners in their desire to get to market as quickly as possible.  Personal information about health status and location is especially sensitive.  It can therefore be hugely risky for people to provide information about whether they are infected with a virus that is as easily transmitted as Covid-19, while also providing their location so that this can then be mapped and others can see it.  Great care should be taken over the sort of information that is asked and the scale at which responses are expected.  It is not really necessary to know the postcode/zipcode of someone, if just the county or province will do.

Don’t detract from official and (hopefully) accurate information

Use of the Internet and digital technologies have led to a plethora of false information being propagated about Covid-19.  Not only is this confusing, but it can also be extremely dangerous.  Please don’t – even by accident – distract people from gaining the most important and reliable information that could help save their lives.  In some countries most people do not trust their governments; in others, governments may not have sufficient resources to provide the best information.  In these instances, it might be possible to work with the governments to ehance their capacity to deliver wise advice.  Whatever you do, try to point to the most reliable globally accepted infomation in the most appropriate languages (see below for some suggestions).

Keep it simple

Many of the crowdsourcing initiatives currently available or being planned seem to invite respondents to complete a fairly complex and detailed list of questions.  Even when people are healthy it could be tough for them to do so, and this could especially be the case for the elderly or digitally inexperienced who are often the most vulnerable.  Imagine what it would be like for someone who has a high fever or difficulty in breathing trying to fill it in.

Ask questions that will be helpful to those trying to respond to the pandemic

It is very difficult to ask clear and unambiguous questions.  It is even more difficult to ask questions about a field that you may not know much about.  Always work with people who might want to use the data that your initiative aims to generate.  If you are hoping, for example, to produce data that could be helpful in modelling the pandemic, then it is essential to learn from epidemiologists and those who have much experience in modelling infectious diseases.  It is also essential to ensure that the data are in a format that they can actually use.  It’s all very well producing beautful maps, but if they use different co-ordinate systems or boundaries from those used by government planners they won’t be much use to policy makers.

Ensure that there are at least some questions that are the same in all surveys if there are multiple initiatives being done by different organisations

When there are many competing surveys being undertaken by different organisations about Covid-19, it is important that they have some identical questions so that these can then be aggregated or compared with the results of other initiatives.   It is pointless having multiple initiatives the results of which cannot be combined or compared.

Work with a globally agreed set of terminology and hashtags (#)

The field of data analytics is becoming ever more sophisticated, but if those tackling Covid-19 are to be able readily to use social media data, it would be very helpful if there was some consistency in the use of terminology and hashtags.  There remains an important user-generated element to the creation of hashtags (despite the control imposed by those who create and own social media platforms), but it would be very helpful to those working in the field if some consistency could be encouraged or even recommended by global bodies and UN agencies such as the WHO and the ITU.

Collaborate and share

Above all, in these unprecendented times, it is essential for those wishing to make a difference to do so collaboratively rather than competitively.  Good practices should be shared rather than used to generate individual profit.  The scale of the potential impact, especially in the weakest contexts is immense.  As a recent report from the Imperial College MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis notes, without interventions Covid-19 “would have resulted in 7.0 billion infections and 40 million deaths globally this year. Mitigation strategies focussing on shielding the elderly (60% reduction in social contacts) and slowing but not interrupting transmission (40% reduction in social contacts for wider population) could reduce this burden by half, saving 20 million lives, but we predict that even in this scenario, health systems in all countries will be quickly overwhelmed. This effect is likely to be most severe in lower income settings where capacity is lowest: our mitigated scenarios lead to peak demand for critical care beds in a typical low-income setting outstripping supply by a factor of 25, in contrast to a typical high-income setting where this factor is 7. As a result, we anticipate that the true burden in low income settings pursuing mitigation strategies could be substantially higher than reflected in these estimates”.

 

Resources

This concluding section provides quick links to generally agreed reliable and simple recommendations relating to Covid-19 that could be included in any crowdsourcing platform (in the appropriate language), and a listing of just a few of the crowdsourcing initiatives that have recently been developed.

Recommended reliable information on Covid-19

Remember the key WHO advice adopted in various forms by different governments:

  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Maintain social distancing
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth
  • If you have fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical care early

A sample of crowdsourcing initiatives

Some of the many initiatives using crowdsourcing and similar methods to generate data relating to Covid-19 (many of which have very little usage):

Lists by others of relevant initiatives:

 

Global Covid-19 mapping and recording initiatives

The following are currently three of the best sourcs for global information about Covid-19 – although I do wish that they clarified that “infections” are only “recorded infections”, and that data around deaths should be shown as “deaths per 1000 people” (or similar density measures) and depicted on choropleth maps.

 

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Filed under Africa, AI, Asia, capitalism, cybersecurity, Development, digital technologies, Education, Empowerment, ICT4D, ICTs, inclusion, India, ITU, Latin America, mobile phones, Pakistan, Sustainability, technology

Donor and government funding of Covid-19 digital initiatives

Masai children 2We are all going to be affected by Covid-19, and we must work together across the world if we are going to come out of the next year peacefully and coherently.  The world in a year’s time will be fundamentally different from how it is now; now is the time to start planning for that future. The countries that will be most adversely affected by Covid-19 are not the rich and powerful, but those that are the weakest and that have the least developed healthcare systems.  Across the world, many well-intentioned people are struggling to do what they can to make a difference in the short-term, but many of these initiatives will fail; most of them are duplicating ongoing activity elsewhere; many of them will do more harm than good.

This is a plea for us all to learn from our past mistakes, and work collaboratively in the interests of the world’s poorest and most marginalised rather than competitively and selfishly for ourselves.

Past mistakes

Bilateral donors and international organisations are always eager to use their resources at times of crisis both to try to do good, but also to be seen to be trying to do good.  Companies and civil society organisations also often try to use such crises to generate revenue and raise their own profiles.  As a result many crises tend to benefit the companies and NGOs more than they do the purportedly intended beneficiaries.

This was classically, and sadly, demonstrated in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, especially with the funding of numerous Internet-based initiatives – at a time when only a small fraction of the population in the infected countries was actually connected to the Internet.  At that time, I wrote a short piece that highlighted the many initiatives ongoing in the continent.  Amongst other things this noted that:

  • “A real challenge now, though, is that so many initiatives are trying to develop digital resources to support the response to Ebola that there is a danger of massive duplication of effort, overlap, and simply overload on the already stretched infrastructure, and indeed people, in the affected countries”, and
  • “Many, many poor people will die of Ebola before we get it under control collectively. We must never make the same mistakes again”.

I have not subsequently found any rigorous monitoring and evaluation reports about the efficacy of most of the initiatives that I then listed, nor of the countless other digital technology projects that were funded and implemented at the time.  However, many such projects hadn’t produced anything of value before the crisis ended, and most failed to many any significant impact on mortality rates or on the lives of those people affected.

In the hope of trying not to make these same mistakes again, might I suggest the following short-term and longer-term things to bear in mind as we seek to reduce the deaths and disruption caused by Covid-19.

Short-term responses

The following five short-term issues strike me as being particularly important for governments and donors to bear in mind, especially in the context of the use of digital technologies:

  • Support and use existing technologies.  In most (but not all) instances the development and production of new technological solutions will take longer than the immediate outbreak that they are designed to respond to.  Only fund initiatives that will still be relevant after the immediate crisis is over, or that will enable better responses to be made to similar crises in the future.  Support solutions that are already proven to work.
  • Co-ordinate and collaborate rather than compete. Countless initiatives are being developed to try to resolves certain aspects of the Covid-19 crisis, such as lack of ventilators or the development of effective testing kits (see below).  This is often because of factors such as national pride and the competitive advantage that many companies (and NGOs) are seeking to achieve.  As a result, there is wasteful duplication of effort, insufficient sharing of good practice, and the poor and marginalised usually do not receive the optimal treatment.  It is essential for international organisations to share widely accepted good practices and technological designs that can be used across the world in the interests of the least powerful.
  • Ensure that what you fund does more good than harm.  Many initiatives are rushed onto the market without having been sufficiently tried and tested in clinical contexts.  Already, we have seen a plethora of false information being published about Covid-19, some out of ignorance and some deliberate falsification.  It is essential that governments and donors support reliable initiatives, and that possible unintended consequences are thorouighly considered.
  • Remember that science is a contested field.  Value-free science does not exisit.  Scientists are generally as interested in their own careers as anyone else.  There is also little universal scientific agreement on anything.  Hence, it is important for politicians and decision makers carefully to evaluate different ideas and proposed solutions, and never to resort to claiming that they are acting on scientific advice.  If you are a leader you have to make some tough decisions.
  • Ensure that funding goes to where it is most needed.  In many such crises funding that is made available is inappropriately used, and it is therefore essential for governments and donors to put in place effective and robus measures to ensure transparency and probity in funding.  A recent letter from Transparency International to the US Congress, for example, recommends 25 anti-corruption measures that it believes are necessary to ” help protect against self-interested parties taking advantage of this emergency for their own benefit and thereby undermining the safety of our communities”.

In the medium term…

Immediate action on Covid-19 is urgent, but a well thought-through and rigorous medium-term response by governments and donors is even more important, especially in the context of the use of digital technologies:

  • We must start planning now for what the world will be like in 18 months time.  Two things about Covid-19 are certain: many people will die, and it will change the world forever.  Already it is clear that one outcome will be vastly greater global use  of digital technologies.  This, for example, is likely dramatically to change the ways in which people shop: as they get used to buying more of their requirements online, traditional suppliers will have to adapt their practices very much more rapipdly than they have been able to do to date.  Those with access to digital technologies will become even more advantaged compared with those who cannot afford them, do not know how to use them, or do not have access to them.
  • Planning for fundamental changes to infrastructure and government services: education and health.  The impact of Covid-19 on the provision of basic government services is likely to be dramatic, and particularly so in countries with weak infrastructures and limited provision of fundamental services.  Large numbers of teachers, doctors and nurses are likely to die across the world, and we need to find ways to help ensure that education and health services can be not only restored but also revitalised.  Indeed, we should see this as an opportunity to introduce new and better systems to enable people to live healthier and more fulfilled lives.  The development of carefully thought through recommendations on these issues, involving widespread representative consultation, in the months ahead will be very important if governments, especially in the poorest countries, are to be able to make wise use of the opportunities that Covid-19 is creating.  There is a very significant role for all donors in supporting such initiatives.
  • Communities, collaboration and co-operation.  Covid-19 offers an opportunity for fundamentally different types of economy and society to be shaped.  New forms of communal activity are already emerging in countries that have been hardest hit by Covid-19.  Already, there are numerous reports of the dramatic impact of self-isolation and reduction of transport pollution on air quality and weather in different parts of the world (see The Independent, NPR, CarbonBrief).  Challenges with obtaining food and other resources are also forcing many people to lead more frugal lives.  However, those who wish to see more communal and collaborative social formations in the future will need to work hard to ensure that the individualistic, profit-oriented, greedy and selfish societies in which we live today do not become ever more entrenched.  We need to grasp this opportunity together to help build a better future, especially in the interests of the poor and marginalised.

Examples of wasteful duplication of effort

Already a plethora of wasteful (in terms of both time and money), competitive and duplicative initiatives to tackle various aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic have been set in motion.  These reflect not only commercial interests, but also national pride – and in some instances quite blatant racism. Many are also very ambitious, planning to deliver products in only a few weeks.  Of course critical care ventilators, test kits, vaccines and ways of identifying antibodies are incredibly important, but greater global collaboration and sharing would help to guarantee both quantity and quality of recommended solutions.  International Organisations have a key role to play in establishing appropriate standards for such resources, and for sharing Open Source (or other forms of communal) templates and designs.  Just a very few of the vast number of ongoing initiatives are given in the reports below:

Critical care ventilators

Testing kits

Despite criticisms of the replicative and wasteful nature of many such initiatives, there are a few initiatives at a global scale that do offer hope.  Prime among these must be Jack Ma’s donation of 20,000 testing kits to each of 54 African countries, which will go some way to reducing the need for these to be domestically produced across the continent.  But this is sadly only a small shower of rain on an otherwise parched continent.  Working together, we have much more to be achieved, both now and in the months ahead.

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Filed under Africa, Asia, Australia, Health, ICT4D, poverty, research, technology, United Nations

Thoughts on “Education and digitisation in development cooperation”

Children Forum Naz 6 smRecently I was asked by the GFA Consulting Group to provide some short comments and reflections (just a few sentences) in response to four questions, the answers to which will be incorporated as part of a final chapter in an important new Toolkit on Education and Digitisation in Development Cooperation being developed by them together with GIZ (Sector Programme Education) and BMZ (Division 402, Education), and due to be published in April 2020 [as: BMZ, Toolkit – Education and Digitalization in Development Cooperation, to be published in 04/2020].  It is always interesting to try constructively to answer questions that contain inbuilt assumptions with which I don’t necessarily agree!  They have kindly agreed that I can share them here for wider commentary and feedback.  This is how I responded:

1)   How can digitalization contribute to achieving the educational objectives of the Agenda 2030?

“Digitalization by itself contributes little to enhancing education, and can often actually cause more harm than good.  The introduction of digital technologies into educational systems must be undertaken in a holistic and carefully planned way.  It needs to be designed and implemented “at scale”, beginning in the poorest and most marginalised contexts: in isolated rural areas, for people with disabilities, for out of school children, and for girls in patriarchal societies.  Only then will it begin to reduce the inequalities in learning provision, and help to provide children and adults alike with the skills they need to empower themselves”.

2)   Which digital technologies will bring about revolutionary changes in the education sector in the future?

“Digital technologies by themselves cannot bring about any changes, let alone revolutionary ones!  To claim otherwise propagates the damaging reductionist myth of technological determinism.  Technologies are designed by people who have specific interests and for particular purposes.  We need to begin with the education and not the technology.  Hence, people with exciting ideas about how to improve education – particularly in the most challenging circumstances – should be encouraged to develop new technological solutions to the most pressing problems that they identify.  These challenges include enabling teachers to have the right skills and understanding to help children learn, ensuring that relevant content is available in the optimal formats to enable children to live fulfilled lives, and creating systems to ensure efficient resource use in educational systems”.

3)   What will be the most pressing challenge in the educational development cooperation sector in the future and how can the use of digital technologies help to overcome it?

“The most important challenge in educational systems is to ensure that there are sufficient well-trained and committed teachers and facilitators employed to inspire new generations of learners.  It is estimated that around 69 million new teachers are needed if the educational objectives of Agenda 2030 are to be reached.  We must ensure therefore that digital technologies are used efficiently and effectively to support in-service and pre-service training for educators, to provide effective learning resources for them to use with learners, and to enable them to be supported by efficient administrative and assessment schemes.  This is without doubt the most pressing challenge”.

4)   What needs to happen in order to utilize the potential of these digital innovations for education in partner countries?

“Four simple things are needed:

  • Partner countries (and indeed donors) must give education the highest priority in their development programmes. Many people talk about the importance of education, but it is only rarely given sufficient emphasis and resources.  We need to reiterate over and over again that ignorance is far more expensive than education!
  • We need to put in place effective mechanisms through which good practices in the use of digital technologies in education can be shared and implemented. We must stop reinventing the wheel and repeating the mistakes made with digital technologies in the past.  Far too many resources are wasted in developing pilot projects that will never go to scale and will not enhance learning opportunities for the most marginalised.
  • We must begin by implementing effective systems of using digital technologies in teacher training. Only once teachers and learning facilitators have been effectively trained should digital systems be rolled out across schools.
  • Finally, we need to ensure that we also minimise the harm that digital technologies can be used for in education and learning. The benefits of digital technologies can only be achieved if systems are put in place to mitigate the harm that they can be used for”.

I think it is likely that these were not the sort of answers that they were expecting, but I very much hope that they provoke discussion that may lead to changes in the way that governments, companies and civil society organisations seek to implement the use of digital technologies in education.  Not surprisingly, they are very much in line with the work that I had the privilege of helping 21 UN agencies develop for the UN’s Chief Executive Board last year entitled Towards a United Nations system-wide strategic approach for achieving inclusive, equitable and innovative education and learning for all.  It is so important that we all work together to develop sound policies and practices that do not reinvent the wheel or duplicate other onoging initiatives.  Above all, we must begin with the education and learning, and not with the technology!

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The running shoes, girls’ learning in Africa and the gecko: a fable

shoesOnce there was a brilliant young entrepreneur living in Africa.  Let us call him Alfred.  He wanted to make loads of money, but was also very committed to trying to improve the quality of girls’ learning and education.  One evening, drinking probably too much Tusker, Alfred had a stroke of inspiration.  What if he could persuade the government that giving girls high quality new running shoes would transform the quality of their learning experience, and thus their future job prospects.  This was an absolute no brainer.  The government would have to buy his trainers for every girl in the school system!

Children 1

Schoolgirls in Ghana

But how was he to start? Many international donors are eager to support such schemes that might contribute to achievements of SDGs4 (education) and 5 (gender).  So, he set about getting to know the heads of country office of some of the leading European donors, and learnt that at the heart of getting funding was the need to have a theory of change (well, really not a comprehensive “theory”, but just a basic description of how running shoes would improve girls’ learning).  This was easy: good quality running shoes would enable the girls to get fitter, and it is well known that a fit body creates a fit mind; then, if they ran to and from school each day they would have more time to do their homework; and with good shoes on their feet they would not suffer as many injuries or catch diseases that might impair their learning.  Alfred had to think of an inspiring name for these shoes, so that everyone would want a pair.  How about “Jepkosgei” after the great young Kenyan runner who had just won the New York Marathon?  She was very happy to lend her name to this incredibly exciting initiative that could transform girls’ learning.

Malawi classroom bright

A school classroom in Malawi

The stage was set.  His friends among the donors recommended a great European university research team who would do the baseline survey as part of one of their research grants, and then they would do a follow-up evaluation at the end of the first term.  The shoes would be randomly allocated to girls in classrooms in a small set of pilot schools, and the purpose was to show that giving girls smart new running shoes would indeed improve their results when compared with those in the classrooms that were not given the shoes.  At the end of term, the researchers returned.  Everyone was on best behaviour.  What would they discover?

The results were extraordinary.  In just one term, the girls had improved their scores by 20% in Mathematics and English.  The researchers checked and re-checked their resuts, but there was absolutely no doubt.  The President got to hear of Alfred’s great success, and eager to do well in the next elections he ordered all schools immediately to supply girls with Jepkosgei running shoes. Demand outstripped supply, but Alfred set up new factories to produce them, providing much needed employment and contributing to the country’s economic growth.  Soon neighbouring countries got to hear about the impact of running shoes on girls’ learning, and they too sent in orders for tens of thousands of shoes.  Alfred became a superstar.  He won numerous awards at prestigious international events, and was fêted by the likes of Bill Gates and António Guterres.  Alfred was an African hero transforming African girls’ learning.  Why hadn’t anyone thought of this before.  It was so simple.

Gecko 2

A friendly and wise gecko

Back at the school where this all began there was a wise old gecko.  He had watched and listened as the changes took place.  He knew why learning had changed.  When the girls had first been given their runing shoes they were so proud!  They were going to be like Joyciline Jepkosgei!  People were paying attention to them.  For the first time in their lives they had felt appreciated at school.  They wanted to respond positively.  But it wasn’t just this.  Other children in the school knew that if the pilot was a success, they too would be given smart new running shoes.  So, they did everything they could to help ensure that their peers with the shoes would learn especially well that term.  They did extra chores for them so they could concentrate on their work.  They provided advice and help when something wasn’t understood.  They gave them quizzes and checked they knew the right answers.  The teachers also wanted to ensure that these girls did really well as a result of the running shoes, and so they put extra effort into preparing their classes, and ensuring that the girls had the best opportunities to learn, despite the limited resources.  Some even helped them with the answers in the tests when the researchers came to evaluate the scheme.

It was all a wonderful success.  Alfred was happy and rich, the President was happy and re-elected, the donors were happy because they could show how they delivered on the SDGs.  But the girls weren’t happy, and their exam results gradually declined over the next few years.  Girls’ feet grow, and their lovely bright shoes were soon too small for them.  There was no way to hand them on or recycle them, and in any case after a couple of years continual use by their younger sisters they were wearing out.  The government couldn’t afford to buy new shoes for all the girls.  Once everyone had them, those who had been in the pilot no longer felt special, and no-one helped each other to try to improve results.  In any case, the government was now more interested in the 4th Industrial Revolution, and how they could use it to control their people and further advantage those who were already rich and powerful and living in the burgeoning constantly surveilled smart cities…

The gecko, though, continued to enjoy catching insects, and watching the children play.  Occasionally, he wistfully wondered why no-one had asked him how to improve girls education and learning.

Malawi school children small

A school in rural Malawi

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Short guides to literature on technology use in education: both the positives and the negatives…

Infant school

Infant school in Cocody, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

Far too many initiatives using technology in education fail to learn from the experiences of others as they seek to be innovative and novel.  Consequently, the same mistakes tend to be replicated over and over again.  Far too many researchers likewise fail to read but a fraction of the vast literature that has been published on technology and education, and bibliographies in PhD theses in the field are increasingly often only sketchy at best.

In 2017 and 2018 I had the privilege of being asked to write a report for UNICEF on how the organisation might respond to the future interface between technology and learning.  This involved reading hundreds of reports, interviewing numerous people, and drawing on my experiences across the world over the last quarter of a century.  It made me realise how little I know, and how much still needs to be done.

However, in order to help others on this journey of discovery and learning, I thought it might be helpful to share a shortened version of the footnotes (34 sides) and a short summary bibliography (10 sides) that I included in that report.  Many of the links to the original literature or examples are included (please let me know if any are broken so that I can try to update them!).  Not least, I hope that this might reduce the flow of questions I receive from people beginning to get interested in the field, either for research or because they have a great idea that they would like to introduce in practice on the ground – most of whom have never actually read much before asking me the question!  These are but starting points on a lifetime of learning and discovery, but I hope that people may find them useful.

I have previously posted summaries of some of the content of my UNICEF report elsewhere on my Blog as follows:

I must stress that these are very much my own views, and in no way represent the opinions of UNICEF or those with whom I have previosuly worked.  They are offered here, though, to get us all to ask some of the difficult questions about ways through which some of the poorest and most marginalised can benefit from the use of technology in education, if indeed that will ever truly be possible (at least in a relative sense).

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Failures and corruption in DFID’s education programme in Pakistan

DFID’s much-vaunted education programme in Pakistan has been beset by problems since its very beginning.  Many of these issues could have been avoided if people responsible had listened to the voices of those on the ground who were working in the education systems and schools in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.  Those responsible for designing and implementing the flawed programme need to be identified, and take responsibility for their actions.  Many are still in highly paid and “respected” roles in private consultancy companies that are at risk of delivering such failed projects over and over again unless they are stopped.

A recent report in the Financial Times (by Bethan Staton and Farhan Bokhari, 24th August 2019) has gone largely unreported elsewhere, as a coalition of silence continues over this failure and corruption in a prestigious DFID programme.  As their report begins, “Buildings in more than nine in 10 schools in Pakistan delivered under a £107m project funded by the UK’s Department for International Development are not fit for purpose, leaving 115,000 children learning in makeshift classrooms as a new academic year begins”.  Some 1,277 out of the 1,389 schools that were meant to have been built or renovated are potentially at risk from structural design flaws, which put them at risk of collapse in earthquakes.  Pakistan is one of the most seismically active countries in the world and has had six major earthquakes over 6 Mw in the last decade.  The earthquake in October 2005 killed over 86,000 people, and set in train various initiatives to try to ensure that schools were indeed built to protect children in earthquakes.

The UK government has responded quickly to the FT’s report, with the new Secretary of State, Alok Sharma, saying that this is unacceptable and the contracting company would be retrofitting all affected classrooms at no extra cost to the taxpayer.  Stephen Twigg, the chair of the House of Commons International Development Select Committee, has also pledged to investigate this as part of an inquiry into the impact and delivery of aid in Pakistan.

However, all of this could have been avoided if earlier warnings had been heeded, especially from people in Pakistan on the ground who really knew what was going on.  The suspicion is that those who designed and benefitted from the programme thought that they could get away with benefitting personally from these contracts.  Yet again, suspicion falls on the probity of “international development consultants” and “implementing agencies”.  As a very good Pakistani friend said to me, “follow the money”.  So I have!

I first warned about problems with DFID funded education projects in Pakistan following a visit there in 2016.  I raised my concerns in a post in May of that year entitled Education reform in Pakistan: rhetoric and reality, and shared these with colleagues in DFID, but was assured that this was a prestigious DFID programme that was above reproach and was delivering good work.  My comments were, I was told, mere heresay.

That post ended with the following words:

“The main thing that persuaded me to write this piece was a Facebook message I received this morning, that then suddenly disappeared.  It read:

“It is true though Tim Unwin.  What is really pathetic is that neither Dfid nor Sindh/Punjab government are made accountable for those children whose education will discontinue after this debacle. Education Fund for Sindh boasted enrolling 100 thousand out of school kids. Overnight the project and project management has vanished, website dysfunctional…Poof and all is gone. There is no way to track those children and see what’s happening to their education”

This is so very sad.  We need to know the truth about educational reform in Pakistan – and indeed the role of donors, the private sector and richly paid consultants – in helping to shape this.   I cannot claim that what I have been told is actually happening on the ground, but I can claim that this is a faithful record of what I was told”.

I wish I knew why the words were taken down; perhaps the author did not want to be identified.  More importantly, I wish that people in DFID had listened to them.

My earlier post alluded to the coalition of interests in international development between individual consultants, global corporations, local companies, and government officials.  Let me now expand on this.

  • McKinsey, Pearson, Delivery Associates and Sir Michael Barber.  Barber is curently chairman and founder of Delivery Associates (among other roles) and was in many ways the mind behind DFID’s recent educational work in Pakistan.  From 2011-2015 he was DFID’s Special Representative on Education in Pakistan (as well as Chief Education Advisor at Pearson, 2011-2017), and in 2013 he wrote an enthusastic report entitled The Good News from Pakistan: How a revolutionary new approach to education reform shows the way forward for Pakistan and development aid everywhere, which explored in particular ways through which expansion in low-cost private sector educational delivery might spur the government to reform itself (pp.49-50).  However, as the Mail Online pointed out Barber was paid £4,404 a day for his advice.  As this source goes on to point out, “Sir Michael was handed the deal 18 months ago as part of a wider contract with management consultants McKinsey.  Originally McKinsey was planning to charge £7,340 a day for Sir Michael’s advice on improving Pakistan’s education system over 45 days, making a total of £330,300.  Overall, four consultants were to be paid £910,000 for 250 days’ work, although this was reduced to £676,720 after the firm agreed a ‘social sector discount’, which took Sir Michael’s daily rate to £5,505. A fellow director was paid the same rate while two ‘senior consultants’ were paid £2,350 a day”.  There is no doubt that Barber played a key role in shaping DFID’s educational policies in Pakistan and was paid “handsomely” for it.  The 2016 review of the PESP (II) (Punjab Education Support Programme) clearly describes his involement: “More formally, the bi-monthly stocktake of the Roadmap provides a high-level forum to discuss a range of key education indicators (such as student attendance and missing facilities) with the CM, Secretary Education and Sir Michael Barber, as the UK Special Representative for Education in Pakistan”.
  • IMC Worldwide, the main contractor.  The British Company IMC Worldwide won the main contract for delivering much of DFID’s school building programme in Pakistan, and continues to claim on its website that the project is a great success (as noted on a screenshot of its home page earlier today, shown below).

Screenshot 2019-08-30 at 18.04.25

This goes on to highlight their success in improving up to 1500 classrooms, with videoclips emphasising in particular their use of reinforced foundations, innovative use of Chinese Brick Bond, preserving history through innovations, and building community engagement.  It is, though, worth remembering that the Punjab Education Support Programme PESP (II) January 2016 review commented that “The school infrastructure component has been slow to perform. This was due in part to a delay in legal registration of IMC Worldwide (the international private sector implementing partner) in Pakistan. Unit costs have also risen dramatically since the last Annual Review and work is behind the original schedule. The quality of construction in the classrooms that have been completed is encouraging”.  In hindsight, the quality of work would appear to have been anything but encouraging!

  • Humqadan-SCRP, the local initiative.  IMC needed to implement the programme through local contractors, and this led to the creation of Humqadan-SCRP.  The implementation phase started in May 2015 as a five year programme funded by DFID and the Australian government, and managed by IMC Worldwide.  It is very difficult to find out details about exactly who is involved in delivering the construction work on the ground (closed tenders are listed here).  Its newsletters in 2017 and 2018 mentioned that Herman Bergsma was the team leader, although he has now been replaced (his predecessor was Roger Bonner).

Screenshot 2019-08-30 at 18.44.44

As with the IMC site, Humqadan’s media centre page above indicates great success for the initiative.  However, local media in Pakistan has occasionally reported problems and challenges with the work.  In December 2017, Dawn thus highlighted the case of a school building being demolished in 2015, but still remaining to be reconstructed.  More worrying, though, are suggestions that IMC may have failed sufficiently to do quality checks, and had challenges in ensuring that local contractors were paid appropriately and on time; there are even claims that IMC may have sought to keep much of the money for themselves.  DFID’s July 2016 annual report for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Education Sector Programme (KESP) perhaps gives some credence to such rumours, noting that “Just before the finalisation of last year’s KESP annual review, Humqadam flagged to DFID an expected increase in their costs for construction and rehabilitation, but the detail was not clear at the time of publication. Humqadam subsequently confirmed that after going out to the market for the construction work, several cost drivers were significantly higher than in their original estimates. This had the effect of approximately doubling average classroom construction costs from PKR 450,000 (£2,813) to PKR 950,000 (£5,938)”.  The Pakistani construction sector is notoriously problematic and anyone the least bit familiar with the country should know the importance of good and rigorous management processes to ensure that appropriate standards are maintained.  A doubling of costs, though, seems remarkable; even more remarkable is DFID’s apparent acceptance of this.

  • The donor’s role, DFID.  DFID’s regular reports on progress with the project are mixed.  Ever since the beginning, they have tended to over-emphasise the successes, while underestimating the failures. That having been said, it is important to emphasise that some attempts have been made by DFID to grapple with these issues.  As I noted in my earlier post relating to the Punjab Education Support Programme (PESP II): “DFID’s Development Tracker page suggests that there was a substantial over-spend in 2013/14, and a slight underspend in 2015/16, with 2014/15 being just about on budget.  Moreover, DFID’s most recent review of the project dated January 2016 had provided an overall very positive account of the work done so far, although it did note that “The school infrastructure component has been slow to perform” (p.2)“.  The July 2016 KESP report likewise noted that “Over the 12 months since the last KESP review, DFID has responded by strengthening its management of the Humqadam contract to increase scrutiny and oversight. The team produced an enhanced monitoring strategy and commissioned a Third Party Verification (TPV) contract to verify that this intervention still represented value for money.”  It is nevertheless remarkable that the programme score for this programme increased from C in 2012, to B in 2013 and 2014, and then A from 2015 to 2016.  As far as DFID is concerned it was indeed therefore being successful.  Not insignificantly, though, the risk rating rose from High from 2012-2015 to Major in 2016.  Unfortunately there is no mention of Humqadan in the first Performance Evaluation of DFID’s Punjab Education Sector Programme (PESP2), published in 2019.  On balance, some aspects of the overall programme would indeed appear to be going well, but DFID’s monitoring processes would seem to have failed to pick up a potentially catastrophic failure in actual delivery on the ground.

This is clearly a complex and difficult situation, but above all two things stand out as being extremely sad:

  • Children on the ground in desperate need of good learning opportunities seem to have been failed, since so many new school buildings appear not to have been built to the appropriate standards; and
  • DFID’s reputation as one of the world’s leading bilateral donors has been seriously tarnished, whether or not the scale of construction failure is as high as the FT article suggests.

All of these problems could have been resolved if:

  • greater care had been taken in the design of the programme in the first place;
  • greater attention had been focused on the problems picked up in the annual reporting process;
  • greater scrutiny had been paid to the work of the consultancy companies and local contractors; and
  • greater efffort had been expended on monitoring local progress and quality delivery on the ground.

Above all, if senior DFID staff had listened more to concerns from Pakistanis working on the ground in rural areas of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and had been less concerned about portraying its success as a donor agency, then these problems might never have arisen in the first place.  Yet again the coalition of interests of donor governments, international consultants and their companies and corporations, seem to have dominated the views and lives of those that they purport to serve.

If the Financial Times report is true, and the scale of incompetence and possible corruption is indeed as high as is claimed, I hope that DFID will take a very serious look at its processes, and ensure that those who have taken British taxpayers’ money for their own personal gain are never permitted to do so again.

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