The IDEMS team enjoyed listening to how Danny and David were reluctant entrepreneurs and hearing about how social impact became an important goal for IDEMS in Episode 010, but they had some concerns. In this podcast, in accordance with IDEMS’ principle of being “critically assessed”, David responds to the team’s critiques.
[00:00:00] Lucie: Hi and welcome to the IDEMS podcast. I’m Lucie, an anthropologist and social impact scientist, and I’m here with David Stern, the founding director of IDEMS. Hi David.
[00:00:17] David: Hi Lucie. What are we discussing today?
[00:00:20] Lucie: Today’s discussion is a follow up on your chat with Danny Parsons, your co-director.
[00:00:27] David: Yes, there was some criticism of this from within the team.
[00:00:30] Lucie: Exactly.
[00:00:31] David: So we should discuss that, hopefully this will be a interesting discussion.
[00:00:37] Lucie: Yes so it’s going to be interesting to hear your perspective on these. So there’s one primary thing. You both mentioned one of my colleagues called Francis who I love working with, he’s great. But it all sounded so rosy. You decided to give him some money to help him with his PhD. Well, sorry, to help fund his PhD. And then he decided to continue working with you, and he’s now set up a company. Was it actually as rosy as that? Was it actually as simple as that?
[00:01:05] David: Well, my understanding of the criticism, which I heard from our colleague, was more that, actually, is this us exploiting him? So it’s not just about it sounding rosy.
[00:01:16] Lucie: Well, it’s rosy from your perspective. Is it rosy from his perspective, I guess, is what…?
[00:01:20] David: Is what the criticism was, right? And the point is, it was, it was not rosy from anyone’s perspective in many different ways. One of the reasons we set up IDEMS in the first place is that we’d been around international development, academia in low resource environments for a while, and terrible things happen.
Grants pull out. A few years ago the UK government suddenly reduced international aid and cancelled grants right in the middle. And this wasn’t actually due to that.
[00:01:54] Lucie: That wasn’t, okay, I did wonder that.
[00:01:55] David: No, it wasn’t due to that. Other people were affected by that, but Francis predates that. His was just an international research organisation, where their funding suddenly got cut. And so, of course, you know, little people always suffer. And they handed that down and suddenly Francis found himself without a stipend and in the middle of his PhD and having done six months of work without being paid. So. That was the starting point.
[00:02:25] Lucie: Yes, which, I think everyone can agree, ideally something needed to happen.
[00:02:28] David: But it doesn’t normally. At that point in time we had no intention. This was our first year at IDEMS, and we had no intention of actually investing in social impact at that point. We were totally focused on building an organization, and this happened, and it led to some deep introspection for us. We needed to think, you know, well can we afford this? Should we do it? And, not just should we do this, but, you know, I really like Francis, I’ve liked him since he dragged me to Ghana, and that’s a whole different story. But, he’s someone who I’d always had so much admiration for. And so the fact that it was happening to him did sway our hand a bit. But we had to think through, was this the right thing for us to be doing and supporting?
And the end reasoning was that it was all about, we couldn’t do this for everybody who found themselves in this situation and we couldn’t guarantee that we could do this every time somebody found themselves in this situation in this way who is in our circles. Was it right that we prioritised the people who we happen to know who were finding themselves in this situation? And there’s all sorts of things which go wrong from this, but what we recognised is the power of opportunism and actually the fact that at this point in time there was no doubt that this was somebody who was paying the price for things who were way outside their control. Not because of problems that they had caused, but just because it’s a big system and they were a small part in it who didn’t have power. And we were in a place where at that point in time we could decide to take on that burden. And we committed to covering his stipend through his PhD.
[00:04:34] Lucie: What, I’m interested to know though, you know, did you set up a contract with him? What sort of agreement?
[00:04:42] David: Well, we’d been working for a long time with AIMS, the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences. I’d actually been at AIMS for a while, and they do this quite a lot in different contexts, where they have these sort of student scholarships.
And so we just tried to use what we’d seen them doing, which was to give a student scholarship where he then managed it. We covered the fees and took over the fees and the student scholarship. And it was basically for him to manage, it was a relatively uh, simple contract in that sort of sense. And we just basically took over the commitments that this project, which had fallen through, had. But I think there’s two points to this, and there’s the one point is: was it all rosy? No, it was, it was a big decision for us to make. This was a big chunk of our profitability, which we therefore decided to reinvest.
And that was a big decision right at the start of IDEMS. And the reason for that is, I think, very simple. That when we talked it through, it was the fact that although it was a big chunk of our profits, it was a small amount of money. And actually, if we were doing much better, then we might not know these opportunities. We might not be able to decide who is a worthy opportunity, who’s not, you know, that to know that this would actually be impactful and worthwhile.
Whereas at this point in time, this opportunity, this, this moment that we found ourselves in, we knew that he hadn’t been paid and it wasn’t because of things that he had done, it wasn’t some scam, it was a genuine problem. We knew the people who had the grant which then fell through and they were desperate to try and help him but they were in a university so they couldn’t and we had the freedom so that we could.
[00:06:42] Lucie: But I’m really interested from Francis’s point of view, what conditions did you give him in return for the scholarship, what conditions did he have to meet? Did he have, you know, would he have to pay back the grant, the scholarship, if he didn’t complete his PhD?
[00:06:58] David: No.
[00:06:59] Lucie: Did he have to work for IDEMS afterwards?
[00:07:01] David: No. There were no conditions. It was a PhD scholarship. It was just helping him through his PhD.
[00:07:07] Lucie: Okay, that’s really interesting.
[00:07:09] David: And at the same time, we did find other opportunities for him to get involved in work with us, with the other partners, and so alongside his PhD, he did do little bits of work where there were opportunities. And then, as he finished his PhD, we were able to help him find more opportunities in that way. He had considered going into universities and so on, but he actually wanted to carry on working. He actually saw the value of what we were doing and saw what had happened in Kenya with some colleagues who he had been interacting with, who had set up INNODEMS, and decided this is what he wanted to do. And so we’ve continued to support him post his PhD.
That was then a negotiation in some sense, that transition from you know, when he finished. And it’s rather difficult to define that in many ways. Do you finish when you submit your thesis?
[00:08:03] Lucie: Exactly.
[00:08:03] David: Do you finish when you go through your Viva? Do you finish when you actually graduate? It was a long period between the first and the last of those.
[00:08:12] Lucie: And that’s fairly normal, yep.
[00:08:14] David: And that’s fairly normal. And actually for many people, that period is one where they’re looking for jobs, they’re really intensely going out for those next opportunities. And what happened to him is he had a relatively painless transition, because essentially, we didn’t give him a hard stop on that, but we did give him a transition of, well, here are bits of work you could get involved in.
And so, he relatively easily transitioned from the PhD into a sort of postdoctoral role, if you want, or work, while he was still on his stipend as a sort of student. It was only later, it was quite a bit later that he transitioned to actually setting up the organization and so on.
[00:08:57] Lucie: That’s really interesting and I would love to… you know, I can’t wait for your interview of Francis when we hear about his story and how he set up GHAIDEMS.
[00:09:05] David: Yeah.
[00:09:06] Lucie: It wasn’t quite right for him to, well, to ask you about the conditions and whether he was being exploited by IDEMS.
[00:09:12] David: And the simple truth is I still don’t know if he’s been exploited, just as I don’t know if all the partners I’ve been working with for the last 15 years… have I helped them or have I exploited them? I have no idea. I mean, really, honestly, I hope, I’ve always tried, what I can say is I have never purposefully exploited anyone. But I can certainly say that many of my former students who I found opportunities for, who I’ve tried to create opportunities for, they might have been better off if they hadn’t taken those opportunities.
They were rather bright and other opportunities maybe would have served them better. And, you know, we’ve had a great collaboration, interactions in different ways, but it’s been tough. It’s been tough all around. So, this is again, it’s part of the motivation for IDEMS. Roughly speaking, I set up IDEMS 10 years after I’d started having lots of students in Kenya and across Africa. And it’s interesting because Africa is all thanks to AIMS. It’s an amazing organization.
[00:10:11] Lucie: We’ll get to, we’ll get to that second critique in just a second because I did want to say in response to what you’re just saying, that, within IDEMS, we do work with a lot of colleagues in Africa, where people have had less opportunities. And so there’s obviously colonialism and all sorts of lovely, lovely things like that, which make the situation and the relationships complicated from the get go. So you saying that, yes, you haven’t purposefully exploited people is a very sensible and serious thing to say because in that context, what does count as exploitation in a way when there are dynamics that you can’t… Even if you address openly, consciously, and talking with people, there’s so much history.
[00:10:53] David: And there’s history, there’s power dynamics in ways which I’ve been deeply aware of since I was a teenager growing up in Niger. And this is a big reason why I decided, you know, I wanted to do maths because I could understand it. Whereas all these things are just way too hard for me.
So I honestly, can say I’ve done my best, I’ve been thoughtful at every step, but I can’t say that I… that I’ve got everything right I know there’s students that I pushed in ways they didn’t like being pushed, and so on. And so I know there’s people who I didn’t serve as well as maybe I could.
And there were others who thrived on the stimulation I gave them. And I think, actually, they benefited. And it’s not just students, it’s collaborators since. And all of these relationships are really, really hard. And I’ve had this, no, it’s not that I’ve had this. I have this continually. It’s one of the things which has helped me to recognize that these, these problems don’t get solved.
It’s just, you can maybe sometimes make progress. And for me, a lot of that progress, IDEMS has been such a necessary step for me to actually be able to build what I believe are more equitable and more respectful relationships. And in other ways, if I think about our colleagues at INNODEMS and now Francis and GHAIDEMS, we’re not making their life easy, we can’t make their life easy. For us to make their life easy, we would need a set of financial resources, which we can’t dream of at this point in time. And their lives are hard, and they’re harder than our lives, because their context is hard. And, yeah, we’re offering bits of support, but for me to actually solve their problems wouldn’t help. So that’s something which is so hard.
[00:12:50] Lucie: It’s like when people say, you know, when they win the lottery or something, they actually don’t know what to do with the money and it becomes a weight on them and…
[00:12:59] David: It’s a responsibility, we haven’t won the lottery with IDEMS, I’m afraid. It’s just been a lot of hard work, but we have got to the stage where we can support things, and we can enable things. The INNODEMS team is grown incredibly, and a lot of that is through our support, and through our interactions. But there’s been challenges there where I have regular calls every week with the INNODEMS leadership team and I’m involved in mentoring, supporting them, helping them, discussing anything they’ve got. But their challenges are huge and yes, we do provide some of the stability which has enabled them to become what they are. And they’re not yet as independent as I would hope they could be. But it’s also that, you know, helping them more makes them more dependent, and so on, and their situation is tough, their realities are tough.
And what I find so difficult now, which I suppose comes back to your second point is… I’m working on my knowledge of a context which is now becoming out of date. It’s been almost 10 years since I left Kenya. I lived in Kenya, I was there, I understood the context extremely deeply. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to support them as I have and I haven’t been able to give the same support to Francis in Ghana because I only lived in Ghana for a year. I don’t know Ghana. I know I don’t know Ghana. Even just the issues with currency that I just don’t understand. Ghana is so advanced in so many ways, and such a different context. I love it, I mean, I enjoy working there. I find it very stimulating.
[00:14:45] Lucie: Wait, but I’m very, I’m just confused about what the issues are with the currency.
[00:14:49] David: So, Kenya, as quite a few other African countries have remained incredibly stable, their currency has not really known any form of hyperinflation. In the last 15 years, Ghana has known multiple periods of rather serious currency devaluation in ways which are… from an outsider sort of looking in, for a country which is doing so well in so many other ways. If you take Kenya and Ghana, in so many ways, the institutions are much stronger, there’s this incredibly advanced country in so many ways, but the, the issues of hyperinflation that they’ve had and the way that’s hit the country in certain ways. Oh, and this is one of the reasons that Francis, part of the value that we have been able to give him is a stipend, and now through his work with us, a lot of his work is in foreign currencies. And so he actually has a stable source of income, which is fixed on foreign currency and which therefore he is not as severely affected as many people.
And so it’s a really tough environment and that may well have had elements related to his decision making. Because in other ways, I don’t feel we’ve been able to offer him the opportunities I’d have liked to offer him. I think he has been able to be part of work, which we’ve done, and he’s a valuable member of our team now, as you know, you’ve been interacting with him since you joined. And, you know, he’s not always the loudest member of the discussions there, but he’s consistently there and he’s interacting, he’s providing mentorship to the West African team in his own way. And he’s such an asset. But, yeah, it’s a challenge, these environments are challenging environments.
[00:16:50] Lucie: Seeing as we have come back to Francis I did want to say that I was surprised not to hear you and Danny mention how capacity building is actually a really important aspect of IDEMS too.
[00:16:58] David: It’s one of our principles.
[00:17:00] Lucie: You talk about investing in people.
[00:17:02] David: This was the thing, it was one of our principles, it wasn’t just that I knew him as well as I did, and I’d supervised his master’s and I was involved in his PhD in different ways. I wasn’t a direct supervisor, but I was sort of, you know, part of the supervision team in certain ways. But Danny had known him as well. Danny was there at the first Ghanaian maths camp and basically it was Danny and Francis who pretty much ran that together. I think the first maths camp that Danny ever went to, Francis was there and they got on extremely well. So they had history going back as well. And so it was an easy choice that this wasn’t just anyone in this situation, this was Francis. And we knew and we trusted and we valued Francis as somebody who had integrity, who had skills, who was worth supporting. And it was so unfair what happened to him. And so, it was, in that sense, it was an easy decision. We made it within a week.
[00:18:01] Lucie: Well, I don’t think anyone in the team is against that idea.
[00:18:04] David: No!
[00:18:04] Lucie: I think we were all very happy to…
[00:18:07] David: And the aspect of that idea, which is so important, is that that was an issue where the consequences of that, they run deep, because this led to us prioritizing that social impact investment over building of reserves, which are issues which are coming back and they have affected us in other ways.
But that decision came because of Francis, and because we knew that was the right decision for him, and I think that the element there, which I think is so important, related to this point of, are we exploitative? There is, and Francis will tell you this, he feels indebted to us, and we don’t feel that he should feel indebted, but he does, and we can’t do anything about that, but that’s how he feels. And does that mean he’s worse off? And maybe it does, and that’s what we have to be very careful at every point. And we’ve encouraged him, do you want to find other things? These are the other things that could be available for you, and so on. So we’re not pushing him to do what he’s doing. We are supporting him.
This is the key point, where I feel my conscience is clean. I do not know if we’re exploiting Francis in some way or not. What I do know is: we are giving him the power of choice and the support to help him make good decisions. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to be objective on what’s best for him. We present that way. We don’t push him with our agenda. We try to support him to pursue his. And that’s been hard, but that’s very much the approach that we insist on taking. And he asked us for GHAIDEMS to be a subsidiary of IDEMS.
[00:20:05] Lucie: Okay.
[00:20:06] David: And we said, we thought it would be better that it is what we now term an affiliate, which means we have no ownership, but we are able to sort of, in some sense, recognize GHAIDEMS as part of the things that we are, that we support. We had to look into this in great detail, and that decision was a very hard one for us, and it was the same decision we made with INNODEMS. Zach also asked us to be a subsidiary and we looked into that very seriously. And the final decision was about ownership that basically if INNODEMS and GHAIDEMS had been subsidiaries, IDEMS would have owned them, and that felt wrong.
The legal term would have been, they would have been owned by IDEMS. And while that would have led to advantages for them and for us, it felt wrong. And so we said, we would like to try and develop a mechanism to have affiliates. We still don’t know what that is. So these have been tough decisions. And trying to figure that out and think that through has been hard.
[00:21:25] Lucie: Thank you for explaining all of that, David. And thank you for your reaction and your openness to it. We do have a second question to explore.
[00:21:35] David: It’s a critique. Call it what it is. We’re happy. This is one of our principles. We like to be critically assessed. This is one of our newer principles. The capacity building we’ve had since the beginning, but critically assessed is something we appreciate. So thank you for your criticism.
[00:21:52] Lucie: So the second criticism is that in the podcast so far, there’s been a lot of sort of countries bandied about, country names bandied about, you know, oh we work here, we work there, we work all over the place. Now, how can you get the depth of understanding of what is appropriate for a certain context if you’re working all over the place?
[00:22:15] David: I mean, it’s a very good question. You know, I grew up, I spent seven years growing up in Niger, I understood very deeply how people who flew in and flew out weren’t helpful. I saw that. I saw it was the people who were there who understood, who’d spent the time, who were there for years on end, who spent the time to understand the context. They were the people who I valued when I was observing the work they were doing, because they understood. They were able to have the subtleties and understanding.
And so, I found all that too complicated, I became a mathematician, and then I thought maybe I could do this, maybe I could go back and actually try and contribute something. If I’m going to do that, I want to work locally, I want to live locally. I got a local job at a local salary at a Kenyan university in western Kenya, a young university. And broadly I was there for about six years. I could not have survived and coped in that environment [Niger]. Kenya, I never had any of that real problems in the same way. This was an environment which, in comparison, I could see how it was relatively wealthy. So going in as an outsider and spending six years there, I already had a different mindset than most outsiders would have had. But I wasn’t a local.
And one of the big advantages that that gave me is that I was never a threat. And so people allowed me to succeed in ways that others would not have. And so I was able to sort of be embedded in the system and observe the system from within. And so I gained really deep understanding of how the systems work in a local university in a rural part of Kenya that…
[00:24:01] Lucie: But if I may say, this is only Kenya, I mean…
[00:24:03] David: Absolutely, you’re absolutely right, you’re absolutely right. And it’s not the whole of Kenya, this is a particular small part of Western Kenya and a university in Western Kenya. That’s what I understood. And my first experience of transferability was Ethiopia.
[00:24:22] Lucie: Okay.
[00:24:23] David: So there was a very interesting project called Mentoring African Research in Mathematics. And I was able to get somebody who mentored… I was able to apply for that and got a small amount of grant and a mentor who came over and who supported us. And we did some really fun stuff and amazing things with them.
[00:24:43] Lucie: In Ethiopia?
[00:24:44] David: No, this was in Kenya. And then I went to some of the meetings about this and got put in touch with a colleague in Ethiopia who was the mentor for the Ethiopian and they were a bit distraught that… they felt they were doing well and then the key person who was the one person they could collaborate with at the university was moving to Botswana. And they now only had a little bit of money left and they didn’t know what to do. And they didn’t understand the context well enough to feel that they could help. And because I was living in the region, they said, well, do you think you could just go in and visit and just see if you can figure anything out?
This was Bahir Dar University. We’ve been collaborating now for 13 years. It’s wonderful. It’s one of my most valuable and incredible collaborations of my life. And what’s been so incredible was I didn’t need to live there for six years to be able to help and be useful and understand it. It was so different to everything I had in Kenya. The institution is just totally different to the Kenyan institution, it’s not young, but a younger university. Addis was the main university, and this was sort of second generation. There were a lot of parallels I could understand. And yet the culture is so night and day different.
But I was able to, with my colleagues in Ethiopia, I was able to say, look, I don’t understand how it works here. But in Kenya, these are the sort of things that I experienced, and this is what I saw. How does that relate? And so relatively quickly, I was able to build those local collaborators, with shared experience, with bonds of trust, because I had a depth of understanding of a context which was totally different to theirs but equally challenging.
And there were things that they could do in their context and there were things that I could do in the Kenyan context. But I could respect the differences between those two and identify them and find those people with whom within the system, just like in the system in Kenya, there’s a whole variety of people, there’s some people who have given up and there’s some people who want to make it work. There’s the same spectrum, that spectrum of sort of personalities and so on, although the systems are so different, I don’t know the system in Ethiopia. But I do know that when I go in, I can talk to people in a way that I can understand enough to understand who are the right people for me to work with and how I can help support them. Not for me to do anything, but for me to help them do things.
[00:27:12] Lucie: You always say how you are a pure mathematician and you like that, but I mean, listening to you now and having seen you work, you have a lot anthropological skills.
[00:27:20] David: Coming from you, that’s a fantastic compliment. Thank you. I don’t naturally have those skills. My sister does, and so growing up I observed her. And I’ve always valued those skills over my own. So I’ve worked very hard at those skills. It’s not skills that came naturally to me. For 10 years, while I was studying in Europe and doing a PhD, I was building those skills on the volleyball court as a coach.
[00:27:50] Lucie: [Laughs]… obviously!
[00:27:52] David: That’s, that’s, that’s where I learned to teach. I was coaching, I coached for 10 years, and it was those personal skills, those interpersonal skills, understanding the team dynamics and all of this. So, I did have elements of that, but that sort of part of where, again, always at the back of my mind, it was those skills that I was wanting to develop. I wanted to become someone who was observant, who could identify and see and understand people, because people are horribly complicated. I’m sorry…
[00:28:20] Lucie: Yeah, no, no, I enjoy working with them, but I dislike working with them too, because of that.
[00:28:25] David: I must admit, I really loved it at university in the mathematics department, I had my little isolated bubble where people were simple. I could understand mathematicians pretty well. And then I went out to the volleyball court and I got a little exposure to the real world. People who are a little bit more complicated. And I did my sort of study, trying to learn how to interact with people in the real world, in a controlled environment of a volleyball court.
And so, in some sense, to come back to this, the Ethiopian case, again, it took years to actually build that skill of being able to, as an outsider coming in, occasionally supporting people. And I don’t claim to have done very much there. It’s mostly I’m a little bit of a cheerleader. I’ve brought them very little and supported them mostly by encouraging them and recognizing and helping sometimes connect them. That’s the sort of thing where I’m able to occasionally put them in touch with other people. But again, this comes back to why IDEMS exists. I was always powerless to actually help them. I could see the sort of things they needed, but they were way beyond anything I as an individual could ever hope to provide.
And it’s not necessarily financial. But it is about scale. The problems in the Kenyan university systems and the… I’ll just give you one of my deep insights after five years in a young university in Kenya I was really surprised that there were so many really bright people and very good people and there were some people who were promoted into positions when they obviously weren’t as good. And I just couldn’t understand. I could say, well, it’s just that people didn’t recognize, but somehow they did recognize because the good people always tend to leapfrog them. So why did the people who weren’t so good stick as they sometimes did?
[00:30:09] Lucie: Yeah?
[00:30:11] David: Because there weren’t enough good people to go around.
[00:30:13] Lucie: True, okay. Quite simply.
[00:30:15] David: It was just simply a numbers problem. Actually, originally I thought, oh, it’s just people making bad choices. It’s not. Actually, I saw amazing people get promoted too soon and then become stuck at that level because they essentially, not had the personal development. They hadn’t been taken through the personal development, they hadn’t had the right mentors and so on.
[00:30:38] Lucie: And this comes back to you and Danny wanting to invest in people.
[00:30:43] David: Exactly.
[00:30:43] Lucie: But I don’t want to focus on that because I want to ask, still within the second criticism, you’ve mentioned working in universities in different countries. Now to me that makes sense because universities, as you’ve said, there’s, you know, a certain sort of person perhaps, especially if you’re working in the maths department and they have certain structures which you can perhaps recognize.
[00:31:02] David: Exactly. And so, You’re absolutely right. So, but what happens? How did you go? How did I go beyond that? You’re absolutely right. I’m sorry. I got distracted. The story is that having started to work on that, I was also at Maseno [University]. I was now not just working in maths. I was dragged out to work in chemistry, my biggest grants that I was managing were related to chemistry.
I bought this machine. I don’t even know what it does, but basically I’m the one who bought the machine to Maseno. I’m not sure what it does really, but it was part of a collaboration we had with some German partners, who were using that machine to be able to measure the greenhouse gas emissions, and there were a whole set of students who went through and were developing their masters and PhDs through that, and so on. It was fantastic! And I was the one in the university managing this project in chemistry.
Because actually it wasn’t about chemistry. I didn’t need to know that. What I did need to be able to do was be the bridge. I was able to help make that work because I understood the international researchers and I understood the situation of my local counterparts. And I could be the bridge and actually help with that communication.
And so then it was a communication issue. My role was really about enabling that communication and now I think you can start to see why that world suddenly goes beyond.
[00:32:17] Lucie: Yep.
[00:32:17] David: So that’s when it suddenly happened for me that it was sort of it wasn’t just in chemistry. I was now working with schools. Nine times out of ten now, if you look at our roles and you think about our collaborators in different ways, we’re the ones in the middle. We’re helping the communication work, because we’re working at both ends, understanding the needs of both sides, and actually being part of that bridge.
[00:32:40] Lucie: And this ties into something that you’ve said before about a skill of deep listening, I think it is. So identifying what people actually are saying or are needing.
[00:32:52] David: Yes, it’s going beyond what they’re saying to understand what they’re thinking, what they’re communicating, what they believe, and so on. Maybe what they can’t say. Sometimes, and certainly my experience in a lot of low resource environments is… And Ethiopia is a fantastic example of this, I mean, in Kenya people can be quite direct. In Ethiopia, learning what people are not saying, that was a skill that took me a while.
[00:33:20] Lucie: Absolutely, I can… Yeah…
[00:33:22] David: I have my favourite story about this. I’m sure this will get told in another podcast, but I’m going to tell it quickly now about the, the missing set of t shirts at a maths camp.
[00:33:31] Lucie: Right.
[00:33:32] David: That we were supposed to have four houses, four groups. And they decided this year they only wanted three. It took me three days of the preparation week to actually finally understand that the reason they only wanted three was because the printers had given one of the colours of the t shirts for the different camps as the wrong coloir and therefore the university had refused it and sent it back.
And they couldn’t get the right colour in time, so the university hadn’t paid for the one colour ones. They only had three colours of t shirts, and so they couldn’t have four houses. And it took me three days of interacting and sort of careful, sort of… Three doesn’t divide by two, so when we’re trying to divide people into, in this way and that way, it doesn’t work quite as well. And yes, but three doesn’t do. And finally I managed to get to the bottom of that, and then we found that actually the cost of another set of t shirts was a couple of hundred pounds for everything we needed, or even less, and so I was able to pay that and the problem was sorted.
But it took me four days. I might even have mentioned this with Danny because he was there when this happened and he was watching this. This was part of his education in some sense in how to work in these environments, where actually he’s just slowly patiently understanding there’s something which they’re not saying but that I need to know to understand how to help. I mustn’t react to what they’re saying, I must be consistent on this. Yes, three is not as constructive as four for this, so maybe, maybe there’s something else that I’m not digging into.
[00:35:03] Lucie: Exactly, it’s realizing that there’s, there’s something else, as you’re saying.
[00:35:07] David: Yes, and, and understanding that and being able to do that, so that nobody lost face. There was nothing which was pushed, there was just a solution which was able to emerge where it fitted within their context.
[00:35:21] Lucie: And if I may say, that sort of awareness that people often say things or don’t say things. People often react in a different way to what you may expect, and I think that’s not only in this sort of a context, it can be in any context. People do it within families.
[00:35:36] David: Within families, oh yes. I have to confess, I feel I’m slightly better at this at work than I maybe am at home, but never mind, that’s a whole different thing.
[00:35:45] Lucie: Exactly.
[00:35:49] David: Applying your work skills at home is a whole different matter.
[00:35:52] Lucie: That would be a really fun discussion to have with colleagues in IDEMS. What have you learned and taken home from IDEMS?
[00:36:02] David: Well, I’m conscious we’ve… it’s been quite a long podcast, this one, and I’ve rambled on quite a bit. But I do want to come back to these two very positive criticisms that came out from the interview I had with Danny.
The first, might we be being exploitative of our local partners where we have a power relation which is imbalanced? And, and my answer to that is, I don’t know. Maybe. I hope not. We are trying very hard. We are working always to try and ensure that it is not exploitative. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t. And, and it’s something which we always have to be careful with.
And the second one, which is really this question of: shouldn’t we be working deep in a few places and really just understanding context well, so that we can make things work in those contexts? And I believe that so strongly. I believe that was what was needed. The problem is I’ve since come to recognise the power of globalisation, as a positive force. And therefore actually being that bridge between local and global; that’s where I see us. Valuing local, valuing that local knowledge, that local context. Absolutely, we have to do that. But if we are local, then why that local, rather than their neighbours?
[00:37:40] Lucie: Yeah, choosing between…
[00:37:44] David: We, in terms of what we as outsiders can contribute, maybe what we can contribute is being the bridge between the local and the global. Because too often what happens, and I’ve seen it happen so often, is the local pays the price for the decisions of the global because nobody is helping build that bridge. I would love to be that bridge. I’d love IDEMS to really be able to be the bridge between the global which values the local and which enables and empowers the local. That’s the vision. This is going back to, I think, one of the very first podcasts. This is the collaborative society.
[00:38:25] Lucie: Yep.
[00:38:26] David: We’re not in competition between local and global. Done right, global can support and enable local and local can enable the global. Done right, that collaboration is better for everyone. And that’s what we’re looking for. And it comes back to that first question of exploitation. Can we be doing global in a way which is not exploitative of the local?
And that, if you think about tech, this is one of the big challenges in tech. Is it possible to build tech which is not extractive and exploitative? Tech adds value. Nobody questions that. The convenience it brings and all the rest of it. But it is often criticized as being extractive and exploitative.
And those criticisms, some of them are valid. And we’re trying to position ourselves in that difficult, delicate space where we want to build the global because we see the value and the importance of it in a way which is really empowering and collaborative with the local.
I don’t have the answers for this. But that’s what we’re trying to do. So I really want to appreciate those two criticisms and critiques. They are deeply insightful and they are what I’d expect from my team. It was nice that it was a genuine thing that came out when we released it. People listened to it and they said, you know, do you want to edit this before it gets released? And I said, no, we should respond to it. So thank you, and thank you for bringing these critiques to me, and…
[00:40:12] Lucie: Well, thanks for the way you’ve responded. It’s been really interesting, and it’s been a powerful end, which I think you’ve nicely brought it back together.
[00:40:21] David: Thank you, and I look forward to our next conversation soon.