Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Problem With "Progress"

When we think about progress, most people envision the digital age. They see computers and databases and systems that make everything run quicker and easier. The problem with this in the developing world is that electricity is sometimes out for days or weeks, making it difficult to keep things updated electronically. Most organizations get along fine by having hand-written hard copies of all records too. While this is cumbersome and means doubling the time to do things, it is the only way. Even still, in the name of progress, people are eager to learn how to use computers and get everything online.

Gabane Community Home-Based Care, the organization I spent the majority of my service with, was no exception to this desire to enter the technological world. And, after getting eight computers donated, I helped them scale up operations using them - teaching courses and building systems specifically designed to move them in that direction. We spent tireless hours on typing and then building capacity to create and update financial systems (QuickBooks) and program databases. It was an effort that was bringing new skills to the staff at the center. They were learning so much and being able to do everything on their own. We were excited about our progress. It felt limitless.

A few days ago I received a phone call from the center coordinator. After the customary greetings and small talk, she informed me that she had bad news - "Kamogelo, I have something very sad to tell you." I braced myself. No one likes hearing these words and, within the context of the work I was engaged, it can be scary to hear them. She went on to tell me that a thief had broken into the computer lab I had put together and that all eight of our computers had been stolen. GASP! She said that they had just finished updating all of the systems and that, after so long, they had finally gotten everything organized into QuickBooks from 2010 to present. Be still my heart! I was at a loss for words. On one hand, I was impressed that they had kept up all the hard work in my absence (YAY sustainability!). On the other hand, I was devastated that nearly two years worth of work had been taken from us, just that easily. And taken from such a good-hearted charitable organization no less. How could this be happening?!

After some time in silence, I assured the coordinator that I had some records backed up on my personal hard drives and she confirmed what I already knew - they didn't have a digital backup of anything but they had been hand-writing a hard copy of some things and would have to continue in that manner since the computers were gone. Phew! In that moment, I was so grateful they had not completely discontinued their tedious hand-written work in favor of the more progressive technology. Had they, everything would have been gone. Losing the computers and all the databases and digital files created over the passed years was bad enough.

Crimes of this nature are increasingly common. It is a tragedy and it breaks my heart. But this is the reality in much of the developing world. Sure, it could happen anywhere, but the prevalence rate is much higher in some places. It is something that we, as development workers, need to be conscious of when imparting our perceived notion of "progress" on others. Yes, it may be true that this is the way forward but, at the same time, we have to keep these external factors in mind. I am relieved that we didn't completely do away with the common way of record-keeping in the village in our pursuit of progress. And, the coordinator assures me, when they eventually get computers again, they will be ready to use their new skills to go at it again... as a second means of documentation.

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