Working Through the Community
My name is David Hunter and I am the Director of Assessments at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. My contact information is given at the end of this email.
First let me say that this entire discussion fascinates me, and I have a sense of the potential power to transform society that this new approach to social change may offer. In my comments I will most often take the stance of a "critical friend" since that seems to be how my mind works best. In doing so I may well ask some pretty basic questions, reflecting the fact that I am probably by far the least informed regarding information technology (my daughter has been known to call me a techno-peasant).
Here are my initial thoughts, following the [draft] paper point by point:
1. I agree that ultimately all social change activities - and of course the change activities under discussion - must be linked to the achievement of substantial outcomes (social or human benefit). We evaluators apply four criteria to any "theory of change" - by asking: (a) is it meaningful, (b) is it plausible, (c) is it doable, and (d) is it testable. Hence one should be clear from the beginning which outcomes one wants to achieve, what one will do, how one will recognize success (indicators), and how one will test for success (measures).
It is difficult for me to follow the materials as written using this filter. The reliance on a spontaneous eruption of purposeful activity grounded in unleashed creative possibilities engendered by participation in the new technology - while possible, and indeed an aspect of what has happened in the commercial sector (i.e., the new economy)...nevertheless does not have plausibility for me on its face. I would need to understand a lot more about what the environmental (neighborhood, institutional, etc.) contexts are for the introduction of the new technology in order to be able to grasp the possibilities better. This leads me to the next point.
2. "Community infrastructure is the channel to reach those in low-income areas." Yes, perhaps it is...but one of the distinguishing traits of low-income areas is an impoverished infrastructure (dysfunctional institutions). So we quickly get back to the issue of a theory of change. To me it looks like one would have to work long and hard to develop even modestly decent community infrastructures (and this term would need a lot of defining) as a precondition for introducing the new technology that would unleash creative and productive forces.
3. and 4. As long as each of these points stands alone there is little to say. But putting them next to each other creates a tautological conundrum: each is the necessary means for engendering the other, and each is the other's desired outcome. (Healthy organizations can make productive and exciting use of the new technology; introducing new technology is a way to make organizations healthy.)
5. "The lion's share of investments in technology must be for staff and organizational development." I think this is perhaps the most important statement of all, and one which I heartily endorse.
6. "Technology must be cost-effective and pervasive for low-income areas." But I would propose the following (provocative) axiom: NOTHING is cost-effective in low-income areas, because virtually all usual supports for cost-effectiveness are under-represented (the poorer the neighborhood, the fewer the supports for cost-effectiveness). One learns this when trying to introduce what in less poor neighborhoods indeed are cost-effective interventions, such as inoculations against disease. The poorer the neighborhood, the more difficult it is to get the vaccines into each person's bloodstream. Only when opportunity cost is factored in, can things be cost-effective in low-income areas. And the fact that opportunity cost is low is an expression of the very condition (poverty) that one is trying to alleviate. So I think that cost-effectiveness is the wrong indicator of good planning here. If indeed some aspect of this work can be shown to be cost-effective, great! But as a lead-in desideratum, I think it is misplaced. I say one should go with the idea of HIGH QUALITY. My hypothesis is that only the best interventions, highly resourced, will make a substantial difference in low-income neighborhoods. Or, to put it in a wider context, it is well-off neighborhoods that can make quantum jumps forward with marginal investments...not poor ones. (Let's remember the basic condition being addressed here - the social divide. The new economy flourished in middle class and upper middle class neighborhoods...not inner cities...and this is no accident.) I hope these comments are useful in bringing forward the discussion. As I said at the outset, I think what is being explored here has a vast potential to change society for the better....