How can digital bring Millennials into International Development? A ginger session with Save the Children

February 1, 2019 2 By Duncan Green

‘I don’t like Save the Children’. That opening line from a guest speaker at a gathering of SCF’s global big cheeses earlier this week certainly got the room’s attention. But then the speaker was pretty extraordinary. Mariéme Jamme, whose online bio includes this para:

‘Mariéme grew up in rural Senegal, from an oligarch mother who gave her away at an early age and later was raised in various foster houses including in an orphanage and then trafficked as a young prostitute to Paris. She experienced considerable hardship during her childhood and did not have a formative education until the age of 16 years old when she taught herself how to read and write.’

From there she’s gone on to become a celebrated tech and startup guru, who recently set up https://www.iamthecode.org/, which aims to train a million women and girls to code over the next decade.

Her reason for disliking Save (and all other INGOs, to be fair) is that ‘they are too safe…. Poor people are not waiting for them any more, they are getting on with it.’

Mariéme, David Ripert and I were running a ‘ginger session’ trying to jolt senior managers into thinking radical new thoughts about the direction of the organization (is there a proper name for these slots?). David is a tech guru (Youtube, Google) and now a Save the Children UK trustee. I summarized my ‘Fit for the Future 2.0’ paper on new directions for INGOs.

In the presence of such digital wisdom, I managed to restrain my usual ‘bah humbug’ rant about the over-hyping of tech solutions and listened a bit harder to what they were saying. Which was that a whole generation of dynamic entrepreneurial young people, North and South, want to ‘do it themselves’. Disintermediation is their instinctive response. They don’t think INGOs or governments have a clue, and reckon they can do better if they just get on a plane or a bus and go and help people.

According to David, a bunch of youtube influencers and others recently set up ‘Love Army’ (I guess Joy Division was taken), crowdsourced over $2m for the Rohingya, and then took it to Cox’s Bazaar and distributed it to the refugees.

Alarm bells – this could so easily become the traditional post-disaster nightmare of well-meaning but inexperienced do-gooders descending on overcrowded refugee camps and chucking money around with no understanding of the impact on local power relations, economies and communities. The ensuing screw-ups then either lead to disillusionment, and the Love Army gives up on the whole thing, or require a long and painful process of re-learning the lessons absorbed by previous generations.

But if old lags just moan and say ‘Well done, young people. Now hand over the money and we’ll take it from here’, no-one will listen. For many millennials, INGOs and the aid establishment are part of the problem, not the solution.

What to do? In these kinds of meetings, there are often lots of warm words about how big organizations are going to get agile, funky and down with the kids. But those declarations of imminent reinvention tend to ignore the internal power structures and incentives that perpetuate the obstacles, so unsurprisingly, stuff doesn’t shift. Anyway, revamping venerable brands like Save or Oxfam with millennials sounds like a really tough gig and might be counterproductive, with a risk we would lose our more traditional supporters along the way.

So what kind of tactics/ internal theory of change might unblock the path to funkiness? At this point a light bulb went on and I brought in something from my paper – start-ups/spin offs tick several boxes. They can escape from the fustiness of long-established brands, and be innovative and agile without the dead hand of corporate culture, sign off etc to hold them back.

David pointed to the example of the Children’s Society in the UK, which has launched (and funded) an initiative with Bethnal Green Ventures, a ‘tech for good’ incubator, to support ‘new ways of using technology to address some of most serious issues facing vulnerable young people.’

In Save’s case, that could mean signing up with Love Army or supporting similar new initiatives, and helping out with the surprisingly tricky task of getting support to people who need it without screwing up. But the Save brand would have to take a back seat. It might also mean accepting and finding ways to work with the fact that the youtube influencers or other celebs are likely to insist on a bit of disaster tourism in exchange for their engagement.

Overall, I’m guessing that the people there will mainly remember Mariéme, who is a truly extraordinary woman, rather than sage advice on digital. But the good news is that she promised to do a podcast with me at some point, preferably in the restaurant at Brixton prison, where she has a project, so watch this space.