Coded In Country

Originally published in the Huffington Post Impact blog (by yours truly)

A few years back, a Nigerian school was given a generous donation of 300 laptops, effectively one per student. Sounds good, right? Wrong. Galadima Primary School, in the federal capital of Abuja, had no electricity to power them up, and access in homes wasn’t any better, since most relied on generators for power supply.

This is just one, albeit dramatic example of a well-meaning, foreign-led project with total incapacity to handle nuanced, local realities. It shows how donor-driven interventions can often isolate the very people they seek to benefit.

For the past few months, I have been helping to build a growing network of software companies, entrepreneurs, technology labs, and business incubators through an initiative called Coded in Country. Coded in Country, or CiC, promotes the use of in-country technical resources for international development projects. We do so by highlighting local resources and bringing together different private and public players that are also pursuing this approach.

I break up my unrelenting New York day-to-day by chatting with developers in Rwanda, tech collaboration spaces in Uganda, and mobile application entrepreneurs in Bolivia. Unlike many of my corresponding business contacts in the U.S., these people are actually appreciative and excited that I’m reaching out. It’s refreshing to talk to anyone with a big idea; to have the opportunity to help make some dream a reality. It’s equally fascinating to speak to established businesses with significant talent and growing expertise that are just starting to make their marks on the tech market, both within their countries and internationally. If we can help in any way, we do.

It goes without saying that the mission of CiC is nothing new. In fact, there are many established organizations that have been spearheading great, local capacity development projects for years, from Kenya’s iHub to Coders4Africa’s tech training and certification program. The difference is that CiC is not an organization, in the official sense. It’s a motley crew of advocates committed to the idea that entrepreneurship and work is most successful when it’s sourced, maintained, and, whenever possible, envisioned locally. This idea is advanced by establishing a network with others who share the same belief — from international organizations seeking local integration for projects, to local software developers who are already playing a key role in this change.

Erik Hersman, a Nairobi-based technologist and blogger, put it well in a recent blog post when he spoke to this chronic shortfall in traditional international development –

“We’re trying to airlift in an infrastructure instead of investing in local technology solutions… it’s currently an import culture that will not last beyond the project’s funding and the personnel who parachuted in to do it.”

Consider Coded in Country a ragtag, 21st century think tank of the open source, open access, interdisciplinary style, if you will. Instead of reliance on expensive and transient foreign contractors to carry out inherently local problems, we’re trying to promote the development of local human capital in regions where it has historically been neglected.

This is not to say that international consultants are, in any way, unnecessary or detrimental to all development projects in low-income countries. Sometimes the best or fastest solutions must come from abroad, and this reality should not be belittled. But often, the people who know best what issues need to be addressed, and how to address them, are the intended beneficiaries themselves.

Put resources in the hands of community members to solve their own problems and sustain their own solutions. Sometimes all it takes is a little local know-how to get the job done right.