Friday, December 18, 2015

Foreign Aid, Drones, and Leadership

This photo encapsulates so much.  It is the cover page for a new aid program from the Australian government.  The humanitarian challenge—seeking innovative solutions to the challenges facing Pacific Island nations in the face of climate change.

The white guy appears to have just flown to some Melanesian island with his high tech gear in pelican cases.  At the edge of the village he tinkers with the computer that guides a drone [is there any problem that isn’t going to be solved with drones?].  Behind him the bored to mildly curious villagers passively watch.  They are not involved in this latest visit from yet another gadget-laden foreign expert on his opaque mission. 

They know he’ll stay a while then disappear like the others.  He might be a nice guy and they enjoy the contact, hungry to learn about the outside world.  But they know from past experience, such visitors do not change anything.  The typical Melanesian hospitality will be offered and some good times will be had.  The visitor will interpret this as validation.  Years later, he might wonder later why their apparent enthusiasm never translated into the actions he recommended. 

This new program, Innovation Change, like decades of failed development and aid, seeks a quick, cheap fix to difficult problems.  “If we can just get the right data, or the right analysis, or the right technology…  we can solve [fill in the blank].”  These solutions require highly trained and educated experts.  Experts you won’t find among the villagers whose livelihoods are at stake.  Bring in the foreign experts.

This new program promises some millions for humanitarian challenges.  It includes things like bringing “ideators” who compete in the ideation preliminaries to Australia.  There they have a whole two-day “design sprint” where they are coached by advisors.  Not some stinking half day workshop or a one day workshop.  TWO days!   Two million bucks in awards will then be given for these now better-trained ideators to become implementers. 

The premise is that people might be able to come up with ideas, but they need Aussie funds and guidance to make it work.  Maybe if lucky a guy with will come to their village and fly a drone around to collect important data.  But then he’ll go away.  Maybe he will write a report and send it back to the village.  I doubt the drone, or the report, will stop sea levels from rising.

But I wonder, why isn’t there already someone from that village or nearby who can fly a drone?  Why does someone have to come from outside to work on the problem? What would happen if the millions spent on innovative solutions instead were spent on training innovative Melanesians?  How many people could they put through engineering schools with a few million dollars per year?  

If more money over the past two decades had been invested in training Pacific Islanders the way the white guy in the baseball cap had been trained, there would already be someone in that village able to fly a drone.   And since they live there, they would not just write a report that eventually gets used to start a fire or roll smokes.  They would follow up. They would lead.  They would engage their community and families.  They would teach.  They would get things done. 

This new aid program probably sounds great in Canberra.  Maybe they will sustain it a few years, spending more millions of dollars.  But soon new leaders will identify new priorities.   Afterall, how can anyone claim to be a leader when all they do is continue what the last leader did?  “Real leadership” means doing something NEW.

 In ten years all that remains will be some stories in the village about the guy that came in and played with a mini helicopter.  Maybe someone saw his big pale full moon ass when he took a shower and they will still laugh about that!

But if the Aussies had invested in training, ten years later there’d be an engineer in the district who continues improving rainwater collection, installing solar panels in schools, and teaching at the high school.


  1. Even though I haven’t witnessed a drone on a charitable mission, I have to admit that drones can be a big boost in helping those in need. Currently, I am introducing myself into this new technology by piloting the ESTES 4606 Proto X Nano. See more on this quadcopter here: