Bill Easterly writes about how much he loves his iPad. This is ironic for the man who sees the world divided between searchers and planners, and who complains about the grip of planners. The iPad is a testament to control-freakery by one man on a grand scale. Steve Jobs controls the design down to the last detail – some of it sensible, such as the beautiful shape; and some of it daft, such as preventing users from changing their own batteries. He limits consumer choice – you have to use iTunes, you can only use apps approved by Apple, no USB ports, you can’t use Flash etc – in the interests of guaranteeing what he believes is the best possible consumer experience. And some consumers – including Bill Easterly, apparently – like to have decisions made for them in return for having something that just works. Sounds just like Millennium Villages…
But Bill Easterly’s post got me thinking. One great thing about the iPad (and the iPhone, etc) is the way it works as a platform for apps.
It is easy to write an app for the iPad or iPhone. The platform takes care of the complicated stuff – accessing the internet, accepting user input, drawing on the screen – leaving the application developer to focus on the specific functions of the application itself.
Wouldn’t it be good to have a common “platform” in development, on which specific “applications” could be run? The back office stuff – accounting, auditing, public financial management, rigorous evaluation, human resource management, management of building and vehicles and other resources, information technology, knowledge management and sharing – could all be provided centrally, avoiding duplication and costs. Specific aid programmes could be run as “apps” on that platform.
We are a long way from that now. There are 9 separate Oxfams running projects in Ethiopia. Four of them have offices in Addis Ababa (GB, US, Canada, Spain) and another five run projects in Ethiopia out of offices in other countries. That’s just Oxfam. Save the Children has – I think – seven offices in Ethiopia. That’s before you start with the official donors, each with their own infrastructure, and galaxy of expat staff, offices, drivers, accountants, press officers, and gardeners. There is no reason for all those functions to be duplicated everywhere.
Aid agencies are on a journey from being primarily administrative organisations – specialists in project management – into knowledge-based organisations. They should be purveyors of ideas, analysis, evidence and influence, within developing countries, international institutions, and industrialised countries. To do this, they need to focus more of their resources and management capacity on their core business. One way to do this would be for them to cut those administrative costs by using a common, shared platform. They can then focus on the apps that go on top.
A shared development platform would reduce costs and waste, and increase the scope for innovation, flexibility and diversity, and it would enable aid agencies to focus on their real value added. So will it happen? I doubt it.