Nuts in May

March 29 2009

Thanks, in no small amount, to persistent – ahem – encouragement from my wife, I’m finally broadening my writing horizons again. Basically, I’ve been shoved off the metaphorical sofa and told to go do something which I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. Something like this…

You can see zebra crossing too

You can see zebra crossing too

I’ve volunteered to go to Zambia in May with the founder of LearnAsOne, a charity which is fundraising with an eye too building schools in various villages around Africa which can’t afford to build and run them themselves.

So far so noble and honorable and so like all the other African school building charities around.

Without wanting to sound too cliche, LearnAsOne is quite different. And, for a geek, it’s also quite cool.

Like many African countries, Zambia is much poorer now than it was 20 years ago

Like many African countries, Zambia is much poorer now than it was 20 years ago

The founder, Steve, is trying to do something unusual with LearnAsOne, outside of the traditional aid model. There are tons of stories doing the rounds at the moment about how good money is being throw after bad in Africa, because traditional models of aid giving – intergovernmental and charitable – either have no effect or make things worse. Money either gets lost to administration costs, spent in inappropriate ways that have no lasting benefits to the people they’re supposed to help or – all too often – simply stolen by corrupt bureaucrats.

Things like this story from the New Scientist – about the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on building boreholes to provide fresh water which are then left to fall into disrepair – aren’t unusual. Anyone interested in the subject should really read Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo.

Will blog more thoughts about this book another time

Will blog more thoughts about this book another time

There are two things everyone agrees on. First of all, charity work must be more transparent. Secondly, communities being sent money must decide for themselves – and take responsibility for – how the money is spent.

Steve’s idea is rather brilliant in its simplicity. He wants to use Twitter to save the world.

Now it may sound a bit bobbins, put like that, but the theory is very sound. Exploit every simple, cheap web technology in existence to help donors and recipients to stay in touch and develop some sort of relationship. Visitors to the LearnAsOne site get to follow missions out there live, and hear the story of the community they’re helping ‘live’. Supplemented with blogging from the teams on the ground, video feeds, IRC/Twitter chats and – eventually – live video conferencing, donors get a more detailed insight into the lives they’re helping than any other operation out there, and most importantly see where every penny is spent.

And according to Steve’s principles, it will be spent wisely. Sourcing local materials and human resources to help with economic generation is a start. Funding things you might not expect, like meals to encourage kids to stay in school all day. All the details are on the site, including a great anecdote about why two way transparency helps ensure cash is well spent when it arrives.

The theory has been tried out by other charities working in Africa already, but not – to the best of my knowledge – in quite such detail, with quite the same understanding of how the web works.

The first trip to Zambia for LearnAsOne will be a fact finding mission. The plan while out there is to locate a suitable community for the first project, talk to NGOs already established in Livingstone who can help manage both the practical side of money transfers, assisting with posting updates from the villages and so on. That’s happening in May, and – barring some disaster – I’ll be joining Steve and a group of volunteers on it. My job is to journal what we find out there for the LearnAsOne blog, crafting the stories of the people we meet into copy and uploading it as quickly as possible. It’s an incredible opportunity for me to get back into the kind of writing I really want to do and also to see the way a charity really works. It’s exciting, it’s quite scary and – hopefully – it’s going to make a bit of a difference.

Oh yeah, and I’m also trying to find someone who’ll lend us a satellite modem.

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