Amazing, Inspiring, Challenging to Think About

I wonder how many of us have seen the YouTube video  The Rural Women Solar Engineers of Africa. I find it inspiring in all sorts of ways, as a demonstration of how ordinary people can make a huge difference in their local communities and of how smart thinking can explode conventional ideas about how to run projects aimed at alleviating poverty. As an anthropologist interested in theory and method and possible applications of ethnographic research, I also like the way it challenges a lot of conventional assumptions that we are likely to make.


Consider the following scenarios.


1. Engineers employed by a development agency arrive in a rural village and install a solar power system supplied by a donor country or NGO. Everyone is delighted, but then the engineers leave. Nobody in the village knows how to maintain the system or obtain the necessary parts or has the foresight to save enough to buy them if they knew. Predictable outcome: The system wears out, breaks down, and, unless the development agency has engineers and spare parts on permanent call to make repairs, the village is left in the dark again.


2. The development agency not only installs the system, it provides training for young villagers, turning them into certified solar power system maintenance engineers. Predictable outcome: The young engineers migrate to cities in search of jobs that offer a brighter future than staying in the village. The system wears out, breaks down, and, unless the development agency has engineers and spare parts on permanent call to make repairs, the village is left in the dark again.


3. Someone has a crazy idea: Train grandmothers to install and maintain the system and make the villagers pay for the system—not much, about what they would spend on kerosene or firewood if they didn't have the system.

  • Grandmothers?Yes, illiterate (sometimes  semiliterate) older women with children and grandchildren in the village. They won't be leaving for the city. 
  • Certificates? No.They won't need them to find a new job.
  • Ensure that people own the system? Yes. It's not a gift. It's something they pay for, in which they have a serious stake.
  • Formal education in electrical engineering? No. Design a totally non-verbal approach to learning system installation and maintenance that requires nothing more than learning what to do with color-coded parts. The training takes six months instead of the years required to achieve literacy and technical certification.

This last point is particularly challenging to me, an intellectual, who has invested a lot of his life in obtaining an advanced degree. This program demonstrates that people don't have to know a lot to do a lot of good. Having a stake in the doing and in the people you're helping and being there to keep things going, not disappearing to take on another project or find a new job, are much more important. 

And what about the technology? The grandmothers' could never invent or produce it. Now, however, their children or grandchildren might learn enough to invent something even better; I think, for example, of another amazing, inspiring story, the one about the Malawian teenager who transformed his village by building elect....  

For this project, however, it suffices that while Arthur C. Clarke was right, "Any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic to those who don't understand it," the technology can work, as magic sometimes does, without people understanding why. 


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Comment by Alexander Lee on June 30, 2011 at 6:35am

@John I may be cutting corners but brand new business plans are risky because they haven't been tested.  I am not sure that everyone can or should try new things. We do need ppl to do what has been tried, at least to guarantee that things can work.  TO that end though, I think second or third adapters have a great advantage over first adopters... second or third entries can capitalize on new things while avoiding the pitfalls of early adopters.


@Keith -- I don't mean to say that self-reliance isn't important.  Perhaps self-driven is a less loaded term for me.  I like to think of myself as a self-starter but if you take me out of my familiar environment... I wouldn't last very long by myself in the tundra, for example... nor would I last very long in Mexico in 1903... self-reliance to me sounds very much like someone who can do everything by themselves... and even in today's world most of us can't do everything by ourself, from fixing cars to doing our taxes.  Nor do I think we should try to do everything ourself.  Part of being in society is to accomplish collectively what we can't accomplish individually.  Leave the web development to experienced web developers who do it for a living..., for example.  


I don't know the Hegel you speak of, since I was introduced to Hegel via Zizek and he doesn't really go into those works at all.  I did read Phenomenology of Spirit though, and loved it.  I do agree with you in principle that any kind of thought needs to be accessible -- although I realize that I often present my thoughts in ways that probably aren't very accessible.  But then again, specialize language exists to express things not otherwise easily expressed, and that much should be preserved in so far as that kind of language preserves a certain level of development in thought.

Comment by Keith Hart on May 19, 2011 at 1:37pm

Self-reliance isn't just an antiquated liberal ideology. It's about whether you can tie your own shoe laces or cross the street without being run over. To compress, I believe that two things are vital for a human being: we must each learn to be self-reliant to an extraordinary degree since no-one else will do this stuff for us (the tooth brush syndrome: who will brush your teeth if not you?) and we must also learn to belong to others in society while being dependant on processes whose source is often remote and invisible. This makes child development a much neglected but essential component of anthropology.

Living in France with a new family, I have plenty of opportunity to observe and think about how variably these two aspects of our being are constructed. There are some ideologies of course which deny the importance of one side in favour of the other. I think of one paired contrast as raising for independence and raising for attachment. In the park I see French mothers sitting in the sand pit in order to be in touching distance of their little one, while I have been called to task by old ladies for letting my kid stray too far away. Be that as it may, we have to learn to be mutual and to look after ourselves to some degree and this is all relative. It is not or should not be a question of one thing versus the other.

At the other end of life, the issue of self-reliance and dependence is critical. After my mother died, my father was taught by my sister to cook for himself, to do the washing and ironing, all the things he had left to his wife before. He had already begun making his own beer and wine rather than buy them. And as an old engineer he had a technical competence around the home and car that I could never aspire to. Later he became frail and his last years saw a tragic decline in his ability to cope by himself, ending in incarceration.

In my previous post I was elliptically refering to shifts in areas of my own technical competence with regard to the digital media and wondering aloud whether we could say that here are some enabling features of these technologies, even as we all depend on vast social processes beyond our control and understanding. This issue cannot be resolved by labelling American society by one polar extreme against the other. Many Americans are now more fastidious about what they eat and bone up on every imaginable health condition through the internet, while others eat junk food and are literally "patient", probably because they lack health insurance.

I have had difficulty working out how to respond to your post on Hegel, Alexander, since you choose a version of Hegel based on the phenomenology of spirit that is moons away from my preferred reading, The philosophy of right and The science of logic. Hegel provided in the philosophy of right the blueprint for modern national capitalism, yet he is rarely accredited with being our author and he covers in that book the main intellectual programs of Marx, Weber and Durkheim combined, which is to say modern social theory. He also led the counter-revolution against Kant's liberal revolution. I think they are both giants and I want to learn from each, but the anti-liberal strand of contemporary social thought opposes one to the other, much as Marx opposed himself to Hegel while depending on him.

I am an anthropologist in that, although I am besotted with great thinkers, I believe it is important to return what they have to say to a level compatible with what ordinary people do and think. That may lead me to be pigeon-holed as some latterday American liberal by the anti-liberal tendency, but I know better than that and anyone who reads my work might too.

Comment by John McCreery on May 19, 2011 at 5:30am

You're talking about the ability to "innovate" and apply concepts irrespective of their origins which is something far more than what most universities in the United States do.  The big name in my liberal arts education was to provide "critical thinking skills" at most, which is a wholly different set, if anything, a wholly reactive set of skills.


Alexander, you have pointed to something very important. Yes, the critical thinking skills in which we are schooled are reactive. They are also destructive. We are taught how to point out flaws, rarely pushed to come up with solutions that repair or prevent them, let alone make the leaps that reshape the field in which a problem is posed.

I think of the classic marketing parable about the company that made the world's best drill bits. It was put out of business by a company that makes lasers. The customers, you see, didn't want drill bits. They wanted holes.


But, reverting to the case at hand, when, for my sins, I was teaching a seminar on marketing in Japan at Sophia University in Tokyo, I experimented with the following scheme. Students chose a product or service for which they would role-play the brand manager. Over the course of the semester, they had to produce presentations on the four P's of marketing: Product, Price, Placement and Promotion. They were told at the start that if they did a competent job on these four presentations they would get a "B" for the course. To get an "A" they would have to impress their CEO (me, the professor) by successfully completing a final assignment: identify the one most pressing problem confronting their product or service in the Japanese market and develop a convincing plan for how they were going to address it. I provided a few parameters. I was looking for fresh thinking and an actionable plan, the more detailed the better. The critical factor, however, was demonstrating the ability to get out of the box of gathering and analyzing data, take the risk of identifying one problem (not providing a laundry list of all sorts of problems), and come up with an original solution.


In seminars that ranged from eight to a dozen, mostly graduate, students, three or four people would always knock my socks off. There were always one or two, however, who had done beautiful presentations on the four P's and were very unhappy to get "B's" instead of the "A's" they expected. To which I would reply, "I've been in this business for X (10+) years, and I've never seen anybody get famous or make big bucks by doing what others had done before."


Comment by Alexander Lee on May 18, 2011 at 9:46am

Hm, as a comment Keith, I think that self reliance is in some part, an illusion.  The American self-reliance doesn't exist -- Anthropologists know that.  We are as useless as our high tech cell phones -- if you take us out of our networks.


Likewise, I use my car every day.  I also use my knowledge of Building Code and the Civil Rights Unruh Act every day when communicating with clients.  But while I know where to update my intellectual knowledge, if my car broke down I'd have to call a towing company and pay a mechanic to look at my car.


But you're talking about something different than just know-how.  You're talking about the ability to "innovate" and apply concepts irrespective of their origins which is something far more than what most universities in the United States do.  The big name in my liberal arts education was to provide "critical thinking skills" at most, which is a wholly different set, if anything, a wholly reactive set of skills.


The big thing in business is to have a culture of "entrepreneurship" which is rosy but for most businesses this doesn't sit well -- they don't want people to walk out of line even if they want the benefits of people who walk out of line.


I'm not sure I have a concrete response, but I don't really believe in the rosy picture that somehow innovation and understanding how people work will allow us to change the world without violence or ground-shaking revelation.  The video above illustrating what the "barefoot college" has done is certainly powerful and a great area of innovation.  At the very least, they are introducing to these villages a greater standard of living all the while enabling the villages to be continually self-sustaining (not relying on burning oil or messing up that village's economy).  That's a great feat, a feat which our own infrastructure in 'first world countries' doesn't even come close to matching since raising or even keeping our standards of living are not at all even remotely self-sustaining.


If there is any kind of long term answer for these individuals or individuals anywhere that would be both locally responsible, locally self-sustaining and provide a minimal standard of living it remains obscured and over-coded by the distribution system inherent in global capitalism today in part because those who need to lower their standards of living to give the rest of the world reprieve will not do so -- probably until they are economically and militarily forced to give it up.


But that's only one cynical scenario.  The greatest challenge to social change isn't just at the fringes of the global market, but also at the center.

Perhaps if everyone were as self aware as those GE engineers you went boating with, we could, as a community, envision a way of innovating and enterprising our way to a more independent, conscientious and responsible lifestyle... and still have our netflicks too?

Nah, I doubt it.  That might be too much to ask for (making a hollywood blockbuster is incredibly wasteful)... and netflicks has captured 30% of US household internet usage during pr...... Any wake up call in 'first world nations' will have to be 'ground-shaking' merely through the act of waking up...

Comment by Keith Hart on April 29, 2011 at 3:05pm

This is a wonderful response, Alexander, and you have taken the issue to another level by introducing the examples you have.

Gandhi believed that western civilization disabled its members by making them depend on experts who supervised their minds and bodies, sometimes too the places they locked them up (imprisonment as the ultimate disabling device). The purpose of a civilization, he said, should be to empower its members, to make them self-reliant not dependent.

I once spent a few days sailing around Vancouver Island with four retired engineers.They had all worked for GE and started out in the place I grew up, Trafford Park, the world's first industrial estate. It was amazing to drift for several days at 5 mph, reliving Captain Vancouver's experience trying to sort out what was continental, what isalnd. But I especially loved the conversation of these old engineers. Their sense of their craft was that, if you give them a broken machine of any kind, they will fix it. This confidence in universal practical skills did not mean they were narrow-minded or blinkered. They talked about the problems of our world with great insight. For example, how will we get domestic energy? The big power stations, they argued, were dinosaurs, a thing of the past, if for no other reason than that they were prominent enough to attract a lot of political attention. Instead they envisaged distributed networks organized and delivering energy at the local level through small generators managed by people in a street, maybe drawing eventually on hydrogen-based sources. I was struck by the breadth of their social vision as well as their technical knowhow.

When I joined the digital revolution in communications, I was already in my 50s, trained a lifetime earlier in Latin, algebra and how to spell. I relied on young partners to help me gain a toehold in the revolution. When I left my comfort zone in Cambridge for Paris, my geek friend talked me through all my computing crises, sending software by ftp to fix my problems. Then one day, years later, he said to me, "You haven't come to me with a problem for a long time, Keith" and it was true. Imperceptibly, I learned how to do things for myself. I still need help occasionally and I know where to get it. But I have become unrecognizably self-reliant in this medium. When I complain about not figuring out the DVD player, my daughter tells me to forget the manual and just play with it, as she does. I have a long way to go and I probably will never arrive. But I am convinced that our embryonic digital civilization is teaching its members self-reliance in a way that industrial capitalism never did.

Specialization has introduced a large gap between ideas and life. We need to find ways of inserting ideas back into life while drawing on the practical wisdom of what people do already. Thanks for the inspiring reminder.

Comment by Alexander Lee on April 29, 2011 at 10:44am


John, that's an interesting and challenging request.


Take for instance, this article:  Innovative School for Engineers:  Teaching them to also be Entrepen...


You don't necessarily have to read, it but it's here for reference.  Basically the idea is that engineering is too staunch and focused on a detail that doesn't address the need for addressing how an engineering feat actually affects people in real ways.  A really good example has to do with how MP3 players were changed by ipod.  People realized, oh hey, mp3 players don't have to be crap!  Just like how Apple went ahead with the iphone and showed people that cell phones with their multi-media applications could actually be usable.  Facebook did the same thing with Myspace... which improved on Friendster.  Technology lists go on -- and so it is with the story above.


A big problem with industry specific applications is that they remain industry specific.  For example, my company isn't the first to try and bring ADA compliance to businesses.  (Americans with Disabilities Act)  But the major issue behind it is that 1. businesses aren't forced to do it by the government (yet) and 2. the two industries that most directly relates to this issue are embroiled in their own worlds, respectively design/construction and legal/litigation so actual ADA compliance are left in the wayside.  There's a real gap.  Bridging that gap needs that we need to understand how businesses are really affected and how their needs can be best met... something we haven't mastered yet, but neither have our competitors... the main difficulty being that we need to establish a new field, in a way.


So for an engineer to come up with something like this, it means either peeling back the red-tape barriers, be it social, economic or mindset and understanding how people are actually impacted.  This is perhaps where it can fit in with anthropology -- which is about how people do things -- and also go beyond anthropology into how it can make a difference.  For instance, understanding that men with certification will leave.  For instance, someday people may understand that higher education like college may not be suited for people who are just out of highschool.  As the British call it, a "gap year" may be a great part of growth.  For schools too, to offer real job skills means that schools and their teachers need to understand the differences between how the industry works in theory and how it works in practice.  One cannot rule over the other, and that's where the art of design comes into play.


The video you've produced is a good example of how successful a firm grasp can be.  What's important for us in our daily lives isn't to understand how something works -- we don't care how CPUs and computers work -- and that's why Apple computers can charge more for hardware that is less proficient -- Apple offers the only actual finished product... it's also why Microsoft's cell phones have not done so well, and why they are losing the tablet market.  They design software that is independent of hardware, something that only can work if you have a ton of power plugged into a wall.... and carrying the metaphor of a "desktop" with "folders" from a computer to a cell phone is both bulky graphically and bulky as a mental paradigm.  Many computer users simply never understand that metaphor and it's not needed.  Google's Android and the iPhone's iOS never need such a paradigm, things are simply floating so you can get them.


So my point is that for cell phones like Android and iPhone, the immediate access allows user to get at them in a way that is meaningful for them.  They like that.  So the same with solar power.  There are two main focii that ensure solar power be integrated into the existing social dynamic:

  • These rural women have entered into a contractual system that is rigged at the same price level and responsibility that a village's kerosene is... ensuring that it will be accepted and appreciated at the same level. 
  • The women are an intrinsic part of the village -- elected from the village.  They are responsible and intelligent and of a social status that is in some way perhaps even synoymous with how a village is run -- they won't leave and this barefoot college's investment into these women is an investment into the organizational infrastructure of the village.

One of the maxims that I have personally learned is that successful business plans aren't reliant on changing people's behavior.  In fact, they integrate seamlessly into it to become part of that process.  In much the same way trusted attorneys can be "on retainer" because they are part of the decision making process of that organization and the customer requires that particular attorney be available "on call".


Forgive me if this comment is long, but I typed my way through it to respond to your request.  Thoughts?

Comment by John McCreery on April 25, 2011 at 3:44am

Janny, Alexander, I'm glad you found the story inspiring. Could I ask you to go a step further? Imagine that you are a project manager or a consulting anthropologist. What would be your takeaway from this story? By "takeaway" I mean a useful lesson that might be applied elsewhere.


What I'm trying to do is to get beyond "Wow! What great, inspiring people!" to "How did they do that? What could we learn from them?" Alexander has already noted a couple of things, peer-to-peer interaction and gutsy, just-do-it attitude that have become buzzwords in business circles. What else can we learn?

Comment by Janny Chang on April 25, 2011 at 2:25am
OAC is a wonderful forum which promotes the idea that we can all learn from each other and engage in productive ways, even if we disagree. I come here often to learn and be inspired. This is indeed an inspiring story!
Comment by Keith Hart on April 24, 2011 at 9:07am
Alexander, thanks for pointing out that current social technologies offer a chance to escape from former assumptions about generation (and gender) which is or ought to be the whole point of something like the OAC. I have always found the most oppressive feature of bourgeois society to be the streaming of children in narrowly defined age grades, so that we grow up measuring ourselves competitively against children of the same age. And then there is education conceived of as a guild system, as you say.
Comment by Alexander Lee on April 24, 2011 at 8:56am

I won't jump into your current conversation -- but I will remark that I find this quite inspiring and touching.


As someone embroiled in the bureaucracies that be, this kind of gusty just do it attitude is great.  Makes sense it comes from India, not the US where people would be afraid of committing without the legalese to protect them... would be afraid of doing anything without some kind of bureaucratic study.  Two thoughts come to mind.


1) A computer science professor and an urban studies professor in their respective classes both remarked that the water pumping system in LA still ran on the old mainframe computers built on the 70s.  This is a frightening thought, but not without it's ironies.  Massive systems like this with centralised control have major fail-issues.  That's why the internet is so great -- it was built to withstand World War 3... and while Facebook and your favorite websites may be down for a day or so, it's probably to upgrade from IP4 to IP6 -- and yet the internet continues to work just fine.  A model of peer to peer, ground-level interaction at the local 'problem areas' is definitely needed, of which this is a great demonstration.


2) Formal education is traditionally predicated on history.  That one is going to be a scholar.  This is obviously not the case with today's massive public education -- so history gets put in the backburner.  But theory and its 'scientific' application is so removed from everything that we do.  For instance, do you need to know how to program in javascript or php to install and run a wordpress site?  Not at all.  Likewise, most web developers don't even know where SSL certificates come from, or how CGI scripts are built, and what's behind them.  We don't need to know physics to be an auto-mechanic.  So this brings up issues with specialisation, which Marx was so concerned with: in capitalism you become your job and that's all you're good for.  We obviously have problems with our rigidly defined studies, so trans-disciplinary approaches arose but at the same time, do we really need someone to have 35+ years of school to be a doctor that only writes prescriptions?  Maybe for surgery, but I don't think that's necessary for general practice... Right now there are development for scripts to help doctors prescribe medicine in terminals.  Doctors can't be expected to keep up with everything... in much the same way technology and education can be a waste of time if applied in a way that is divorced from its actual application/use in the 'field'.  If anything how one works and what one does needs to be applied directly where the issue is; one is given the tools to maintain the infrastructure.  It's possible engineers can be taught through a journeymanship or in other ways that are more useful to them.


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