Friday, July 10, 2009

Lessons from the Field

It is a long hot, dusty ride from Cairo to Minya[1], but the roads are good and the AC works (sometimes :). We pass the Pyramids in Giza again; the memories still strong from the Imagine Cup award ceremony.

We arrive late at the hotel on the Nile. People have been waiting and I am anxious to see the children and our programs.

In Shousha, the first village, we drive through narrow packed-dirt streets where people squeeze past us. Egypt is often a country of inches. Driving reinforces this; I am relieved to be a passenger. At the school we are met by the proud headmaster. Iman, our Early Childhood Development (ECD) manager, greets him and we all shake hands.

We can hear the children happily chanting their lessons in the full voices of preschoolers. Iman leads us through the building and we enter the first classroom where four year-olds proclaim our welcome in their language, Arabic. Some stare at us; some steal glances and shyly turn away. It is no different than any classroom I have visited, bursting with energy and natural creativity of little ones, before self-consciousness and rationality stamps it down.

The room is decorated as any preschool, with small round tables and tiny colorful chairs. On the walls are posters of lessons about colors, numbers and the alphabet. The children are drawing and coloring with markers.

Iman tells us that the goal of increasing primary school enrollment has been met, with near 100% of the students in the ECD program entering the public schools, an increase from less than 20% just five years ago.

We visit four classrooms. In one, the children are shouting a sing-song lesson about expressing emotions. Saying how they feel and acting on it forms a basis for learning by inquiring—the "why?" of curiosity.

Iman tells us that we are phasing out this program, as the school has been training and mentoring other schools; and writing their own grant proposals. They are ready to take it over, a test of sustainability. The headmaster and three caretakers tell us about what they have accomplished with a mix of modesty yet fierceness in their eyes. They are passionate about the program and want it to continue.

Of course, I ask about computers. My trusted host, Farouk Salah, tells me a PC is installed in each school.

"Do the children use it," I ask?

"No, it's for record keeping."

"Is it a common application?"

"No, it's created for each program; the indicators are different," he explains.

It is ironic that the PC that is so adept at multitasking is treated in such a single-threaded way.

I explain Microsoft's new MultiPoint product and how it allows many children to interact with one computer, so a learning game can be a group activity, with children choosing a color and character for their cursor[2]. Surely our computer is free for an hour a day for children. I note that Microsoft would be interested in applying MultiPoint in our ECD program.

An Access application for each program that needs to track children and program indicators troubles me. I like the entrepreneurial can-do attitude of our workers, and these applications are meeting a near-term need. But there must be dozens of these. Surely we can pick the best one and take them to scale in a way we do with our programs.

A difference in indicators in our programs should not be an obstacle; the engine should be the same regardless of the color and accessories of the car. And for registering and tracking (and counting) kids, we have a mature, shared application in Sponsorship called Asist. We should be able to adapt it for other programs. We are not leveraging our learning.

We travel next to Al Saleeba, and even poorer village. Goats are munching on paper from the street as we walk from the van to a maternity health center. We are joined by Montasser who manages our M&E (monitoring and evaluation) of programs. He tells us how women are being trained in a healthy diet during pregnancy and the importance of breast feeding.

Each week the women decide on a dish to cook and bring to the center. Today it was sweet rice baked with milk and raisins, which they bring to me to try. Wary of a stomach tested earlier in the week, I hesitate, but cannot refuse their kind gesture. It is delicious, reminding me of home cooked rice pudding, but thicker, simpler.

A number of the women have been certified to train others. And so the program is passed on. As in the last village, we are partnering with Community Development Associations? (CDAs) to execute our programs. We are doing a good job leveraging our people, teaching others "how to fish." It is something we do well. We need to take a similar tack with our use of technology, moving it out of the back office.

In the third village, Taha, we see 5 teenage girls who have started their own businesses. A third program manager, Mona, joins us for this leg of the tour. This project is part of our Livelihoods program, where young girls learn the basics of business. The first is proud to tell us of her small "grocery" business of snacks she sells locally. She started with a loan of about $10, which she used to buy goods in a market in Minya. She was proud to say she paid off the loan in three months, and now her mother is borrowing from her.

The next three have a business selling fresh popcorn, made on a stove top. Remembering the fields of corn we passed on the drive, I ask if the corn is from their farm. "The local market" they say in unison. I ask them about their goal. They want to buy a popping machine.

We are running late and a colleague suggests skipping the last stop. I ask if the girl has been waiting and would be disappointed. She says yes, for about an hour and yes, she would be disappointed. We decide to go. She has the most successful business, selling house wares like pitchers, plates and brooms. She is shy, and searches for words. But she is proud that she paid off her first loan in two months. Her father was so pleased with her success, he decided to give her a room in the house to display her goods and increased her loan by $100 to expand her inventory.

Mona tells me that this program is also mature and being handed off CDAs. I ask if our micro-finance (MF) program can be applied to this project. I am told that MF loans are made to women and others over 21. I ask about the mothers becoming MF loan sponsors and posting these projects on-line as Kiva does. It is worth exploring. I would invest in these girls. They are clearly the small business leaders of the future that will lift the emerging world out of poverty[3].

What is her dream, I ask? "To break down the wall and expand to the street" where everyone could see her shop. It is a fitting image and one that stays with me as I say goodbye.

[1] For a description of Save the Children's programs in Egypt, see For a brief history of Minya, see Wikipedia

[2] For some case studies on MultiPoint applications, see the Microsoft Unlimited Potential page, here:

[3] See Paul Polak’s Out of Poverty, where he writes, “when they gain access to new sources of income, poor people continue to astonish me with what they are able to do for themselves.”


  1. I appreciate your blog for the inspirational stories, shared learning and wisdom laced throughout. It helps me to step back from the daily grind and refocus on the bigger picture.

    In addition to the big-picture moments in this post, you hit on an issue with which many of us in GIS are struggling each day.

    You wrote "An Access application for each program that needs to track children and program indicators troubles me. I like the entrepreneurial can-do attitude of our workers, and these applications are meeting a near-term need. But there must be dozens of these. Surely we can pick the best one and take them to scale in a way we do with our programs."

    I agree and will even expand your point and say the situation you described (new silo systems for multiple instances of similar requirements) isn’t limited to field offices or pre-existing systems. In fact, unless we are very diligent about it, we could be unwittingly contributing to this situation even today.

    There are two major reasons I know of for this:

    1. It is not uncommon for GIS to receive a system request after the users’ current system has declined way past the point of being manageable. For the GIS personnel standing face-to-face with harried users, it can be difficult to maintain the crucial balance between satisfying immediate needs and making better long-term decisions. We'd probably all benefit from some good solid guidelines for dealing with this issue.

    2. We're a large organization with many disparate systems. We don’t know about all our existing systems and we don’t have a systems reference in which to find out about them. We need an SC systems database to enable capture and query of information about our SC systems databases! That sounds silly, but it could help reduce new similar silo systems if our project MO included identifying what we have first and always capturing and updating the system information in the SC systems database.

    Thanks so much for your advice and guidance!

  2. Christine,

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. You point to the problem of what many call "Shadow IT." It does indeed have a dark side, as your note details. It also has a bright side. This needs to be encouraged rather than stamped out in the name of central control and compliance. What I mean by this is related to the pyramid-upside-down humility I wrote about at last years Imagine Cup (See ). Often our best ideas come from the edges of our organization, or even outside our organization walls, and we would do well to discover and harvest these, giving them a broader audience (and support.)

    On a practical level, what we need is a multi-lingual database of field applications with motivation for the Field to contribute. A Field person has volunteered to be assigned this project and I am keen to oblige. It also needs to tie to NetHope's broader effort to catalog ICT4D applications, which has begun with the new mobility applications study done with the University of Waterloo. Stay tuned and keep those good thoughts and questions flowing.