Santa Clara University

STS Nexus

The Agilent Equality Award

Michael Kevane

Kevane article
 


Introduction

 

Two hundred years ago, Admiral Horatio Nelson chose the H.M.S. Foudroyant as his flagship vessel.  Foudroyant, derived from the French for lightening, suggested the sudden and overwhelming effects of the ship in battle.  The word has been retained only in the medical profession and in maritime novels, but it seems appropriate to revive it to describe the technologies and organizations nominated for this year’s Agilent Equality Award.  Our Laureates this year are foudroyant innovators.  Their talents are in taking technologies suddenly and quickly into the world, with great effect.  But their speed in taking the world to greater equality is no hasty rush; theirs are sober and serious approaches to social change.

                This year the work of the Laureates is somewhat different from previous years.  Four are primarily engaged in organizing the equalization of technology, rather than developing a new technology itself that will itself contribute to equality.  The basis for their recognition is their success in diffusing technology to those who most need it.  Some of them are developing new models for spreading technology; others are implementing standard models with inhuman vigor.  Last year, by contrast, all of the Laureates were organizations using technology to further basic human rights and participation in democratic processes.  Previous years had recognized, among others, solar power projects, prosthetic technology for amputees, technologies of electronic translation (to different voice languages and to sign language), and other technologies to access computers. 

 

The Applicants and the Decision Process

This year saw 45 organizations and individuals nominated for the award, up from the previous year’s 33 applicants.  The largest group of applicants consisted of organizations developing and offering services for the disabled.  These ranged from innovative new technologies to produce raised printing of images and maps for the blind to new text-to-speech software for languages around the globe.  Some of these organizations specialized in organizing employment and services for the disabled, and others developed technologies to improve mobility and participation.  The geographic range of these applicants was astonishing: from Serbia to Siberia to India to the Rocky Mountains.  A second large group of applicants used the Web and sophisticated database software to offer online services.  These ranged from tracking legal proceedings against perpetrators of domestic violence in the United States, to portals and “pushed” electronic newsletters for human rights defenders in China and Bangladesh.  Other applicants sought to build up the capacity of organizations that provide services to those marginalized by poverty.

The judges juggled a number of criteria in selecting the five Laureates from among the large number of highly qualified applicants.  Most important, perhaps, was the sense in which the innovation was “leveling” an unequal situation for large numbers of people by deploying technology in a new way.  Many fine applicants did not make the final group because the judges felt that the organizations were replicating a technique or process for a new group of persons, rather than innovating by creating a technology or organizational model that would in turn be replicated by others or would have global reach.  The judges sought, more than evidence of profound and inspiring change for a particular group of people, evidence that the technology or organization had the capacity to affect the general population in question, whether defined by disability, geography, or income.

 

The 2004 Laureates

 

Rodrigo Baggio, Committee for the Democratization of Information Technology-CDI, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

Imagine that the mayor of your city announced that she was installing a special phone line to her office, but only rich people could use it.  Then she made the same change for every office in the city.  Then she announced that all city forms and information would be available to rich people on a priority basis, while poor people would have to wait even longer to interact with government officials.  This scenario is illustrative of the digital divide in Latin America, where the development of e-government means inclusion only for those able to master computers and the Internet.

One of the most incredible success stories in bridging the digital divide, in making the poor as equal as the rich when it comes to mastering the new technology of access, is Rodrigo Baggio and the Committee for the Democratization of Information Technology (CDI), which he founded in 1995.  His vision was a network of computer schools that motivated the learning of computer use by leveraging the real awareness of poor people of their local problems.  A poor person in a CDI school comes to learn how to use a computer because they want to communicate.  They especially want to communicate with government officials in order to effect change.  The communication may be direct, via e-mail, or may be indirect, via word-processing of flyers and documents for organizing communities.  The outcomes of learning how to use computers are concrete and always place the well-being of society’s most vulnerable in front of narrow self-interest.

            At present, CDI has stimulated the formation of more than 800 information technology and citizen’s rights schools.  The schools are self-sustaining, an eminently replicable model.  Thousands of graduates of short courses in computer use have been able to shake out the mystification of computers, and see them for what they are—a tool to work and do with. CDI has paid a lot of attention to using feedback from impact evaluation studies to improve performance.  Studies are conducted practically every year.  All are positive, and CDI takes their recommendations for improvement seriously.   The organization is a model for other efforts to extend computer access worldwide.

For more information on CDI see: http://www.cdi.org.br/

 

CARE, San Francisco, CA, U.S.

Corruption is dis-equalizing; bribe takers and bribe payers engage in a vicious circle of excluding those who are honest and ethical.  Very often those excluded also are among the most poor and vulnerable.  According to Transparency International, Ecuador in 2003 ranked 113 in the corruption perception index, placing it among the most corrupt countries in the world. Ecuador, like many other Latin American countries, is seeing increases rather than decreases in corruption.  New tools must be brought to bear in the fight for equality of access to the public realm. 

                Into this breach has stepped CARE, an international, non-governmental organization with a global reputation for effective poverty relief.  CARE’s ambitious project is entitled the Democracy and Governance Program, and mainly involves setting up a database system in five remote municipalities in southern Ecuador. The project is implemented by CARE, working in partnership with the Association of Municipalities of Ecuador and the Ecuadorian Civic Commission for the Control of Corruption.

        

Engineers Without Borders, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Engineers Without Borders (EWB) epitomizes the relevance of organizing the equalization of technology.  EWB developed out of a simple observation: many of the world’s poor need equal access to existing technology, not new technology.  The providers of that existing technology, however, the engineers of the world, are mostly trained and rewarded for serving their wealthy neighbors.  But will pursuit of their self- interest alone realize the altruistic aspirations that inspire many of them to spend long evenings programming calculators and stressing cement?  Apparently not, for EWB has been extraordinarily successful in tapping into the dissatisfaction of engineers in developed countries by offering them the chance to donate six months or a year of their time, and sacrifice their earnings, to help a community deploy technology to directly improve the livelihoods of hundreds of fellow travelers on this globe.   For every position that EWB identifies, it receives 10-15 applicants.  6,000 Canadian engineers are now members of the organization, and 350 attended the latest annual development conference hosted by EWB.

                EWB engineers participate with local project staff and engineers in the design and rollout of solutions to local problems.  Their projects run the gamut from setting up 16 information technology schools for youth in the Philippines to training farmers in the use of treadle pumps in Ghana.

The organization also functions as a “repository” for insights into appropriate technology, and extends that knowledge by developing curricula on sustainable design of technology.  The best-practice implementation of this remarkable organization, however, is what makes it truly stand out as a model for organizing the transfer of technologies and skills.

For more information on EWB, see: http://www.ewb.ca/content/en/index2.shtml.

 

NetHope, San Jose, California, U.S.

Imagine a disaster in a faraway corner of the globe, with little communications infrastructure.  Hundreds of thousands of people may be living in tents or other rough shelter.  Relief organizations are just beginning to set up camps, register the displaced, discern their needs and coordinate the logistics for relief.  Supplies and personnel must be delivered to the most vulnerable, and thousands may die from delays of just a few days.  Children, in particular, succumb; they become dehydrated; they pass disease around; they die quickly and in large numbers; their parents have no time or strength to mourn.

                In these settings, communications are key.  NetHope is a new, ambitious, and pragmatic organization that leverages common needs to major global relief organizations—well-known names such as CARE, Save the Children, Worldvision, Catholic Relief Services—for telecommunication infrastructure.  This includes coordinating and implementing infrastructure for remote on-line Internet access and networked applications, development of local technical competencies, ensuring access to equipment through NetHope “stores” at strategic partner companies, bulk provision of satellite services, shared data center backups, and their innovative NetReliefKit, a ready-to-deploy communications hub for disasters.

                The attraction, for the judging panel, of NetHope is that it twists around the idea of replication—an important criterion for the award.  NetHope tackles the issue of replication using networking rather than physical replicating.  Disaster relief agencies do not need to replicate the network of the other agencies, running ten or twenty networking infrastructures in parallel. Rather, they can network together their infrastructures to take advantage of the lower costs that come from sharing and joint connectivity.  NetHope provides a new framework for achieving that important goal.  As an example of their recent impact, NetHope announced a comprehensive coordination agreement with Global VSAT Forum, a non-profit association of global satellite communications providers, to enhance access to information about satellite-based telecommunications for NetHope members.

                For more information on NetHope, see: http://www.nethope.org.

 

Whirlwind Wheelchair International at San Francisco State University,

San Francisco, California, U.S.

The world community does very little, in the aggregate, for those without mobility.  The lack of wheelchairs is occasionally met by a wooden board on wheels.    The lucky few might receive a gift wheelchair, purchased from a wheelchair factory where management cares much about the donor, little about the user.

Whirlwind Wheelchair International has a long history of work to overcome this most basic display of inequality.  If people cannot be mobile, their lives are impaired in fundamental ways that are only overcome with discipline and dedication.  This is ironic because quality mobility is not beyond the reach of the global community.  As Whirlwind has been keen to demonstrate, wheelchairs can be improved enormously.  They can also be manufactured and repaired locally.  The materials used need not be unattainable and unworkable machine-tooled parts, but rather metal worked by a local blacksmith. Whirlwind’s work centers on those two efforts: designing improved and appropriate wheelchairs—they cite an origami-like folding chair for use in Russia where doorframes and elevators are notoriously narrow—and making sure that local metal workers are trained to provide a steady supply of repairs for the wheelchairs. Their workshop in San Francisco offers well-attended courses in building wheelchairs.  The impact of Whirlwind Wheelchairs is evident around the world, as their trainees continue to reproduce their wheelchair designs. They have perfected viral marketing, using ordinary people as ‘evangelists’ and product representatives.

The organization has recently embarked on an ambitious effort to address the scalability problem of their organization. Whirlwind hopes to industrialize production of many of the components that go into their superbly crafted wheelchairs.  Their industrialization program eschews the bottom-line approach of cheating the consumer by misrepresenting quality.  It embraces their core philosophy that parts should be replicable even in remote areas with little access and limited purchasing power.  Called Whirlwind Industrialization Project (WIP), the goal is to “industrialize” local shops by integrating advanced jigs and fixtures to make precise, interchangeable parts.  The project is a joint venture of Atlas Alliance, the ABS Foundation, and a Norwegian wheelchair factory, HandiNor.  Implementation will begin with two factories in Vietnam and Uganda, eventually producing several hundred quality wheelchairs every year.

                For more information on Whirlwind Wheelchair International, see: http://engineering.sfsu.edu/centers.html.

 

Conclusion

Equality is a value that not everyone agrees on when its properties are framed abstractly.  But when placed in the real world, the world that we know with its dramatic inequalities, the real world where some girls and boys and men and women lead lives greatly impaired by their disabilities or marginalization, few contest the importance of moving to greater equality.  Praise must be extended to the altruists who have created and continue to dedicate their lives to the organizations described above, and to the other applicants who could unfortunately not be included in the group of final five Laureates.  They enable all of us to be prouder of the planet that we call our home and of the people that we call our brothers and sisters.

 

The Panel

 

Michael Kevane, Chair, Assistant Professor of Economics, Santa Clara University

 

Leon Beauchman, Director of External Affairs, SBC

 

William Behrman, Consulting Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental

Engineering, Stanford University

 

Jorge Gonzalez, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Santa Clara University

 

Emile McAnany, Walter E. Schmidt, S.J. Professor of Communication,

Santa Clara University

About the author

Michael Kevane

Michael Kevane

Michael Kevane conducts research on economic institutions and growth in poor countries, focusing on Africa. New research focuses on the importance of libraries in promoting reading, and the impacts on societies of a reading public. Ongoing research includes studies of the determinants of ratification of the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the effects of CEDAW. He is the author of Women and Development in Africa: How Gender Works (Lynne Rienner, 2004), which analyzes how gender operates at the village level to structure the choices that men and women take as economic actors. Kevane now teaches in the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University, where he is a Breetwor Fellow. He is also President of the Sudan Studies Association, and President of Friends of African Village Libraries, a non-profit he co-founded in 2001.

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