Nathaniel Calhoun works in ICT4D, tweets @codeinnovation and is on the Global Impact Faculty at Singularityu.org.

Via Unsplash
Via Unsplash

Digital technologies have been disrupting the international aid and development community just as they have been disrupting other industries. A new wave of development work professionals seized this opportunity to build a remarkable, global, high-powered consensus around a set of principles to guide international development organizations in using digital technologies. The Digital Principles are having a kind of birthday party for themselves this weekend, and in preparation for that event, USAID has been stimulating debate and discussion about each principle in turn.

An early member of the Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) community, Wayan Vota, published an article titled, “How Can Open Source Software be Sustainable in International Development?” that pertains to Digital Principle 6: Use Open Data, Open Standards, Open Source, and Open Innovation.

However, Wayan Vota’s article isn’t really asking or answering this question. Neither is Herb Caudill, a private sector contributor to the ICT4D community whose article, “The Revolution will not be Open Source” is quoted several times by Vota in support of his argument. Vota and Caudill are disputing the validity of Digital Principle 6, in general, and they are doing so by challenging the financial sustainability of Open ventures. The first part of this post will address their challenges to the validity of Digital Principle 6. The second part will endeavor to open the question that Vota’s article advertises.

PART 1: The Boldest Principle

Communities identify principles in order to challenge themselves. Principles are commitments that we create in order to live in line with our values. They are aspirational by nature, chosen because they can elevate our ways of doing business. They are not chosen because they are easy or cheap. Neither Vota nor Caudill spare a word in acknowledgement of the merits of Principle 6 itself (“Use Open Data, Open Standards, Open Source, and Open Innovation”). Instead, they both argue, in so many words, that it is too hard, when we consider today’s business realities. While that argument fails on many levels, they first fail to recognize the importance of the values behind Principle 6.

Wayan’s statement, “Open Source should not be thought of as ‘free’ software” is a perfect example of dismissing the value behind the principle in order to descend into prevailing market logic. Why? Because open source software is FREE in the most profound and important ways that it possibly could be. The software is free to circulate. It is free to modify and repurpose. It is free to be seen and understood and learned from, down to the last line of its code. Just like a road or a bridge that is built with public money remains open to the public, open source code cannot be hidden behind a wall of mystery and used to collect rental income. Subscription fees and bloated maintenance costs—the lifeblood of many technology companies—are brought to heel in an environment of free and open code.

A company can still sit on top of the code, leveraging their expertise to extract regular maintenance fees; but anyone else with the technical literacy to understand the code may bid against the rent collector, until the marginal cost of software maintenance approaches zero. While opponents of open source in this context may try to present themselves as the hard-nosed realists who bring an understanding of business to the table, they are enclosing a public good in order to decrease competition in their favor. This is undemocratic. The public may continue to tolerate that posture in some sectors; but international development work, with its focus on equity, poverty alleviation, and, critically, capacity building is not an acceptable place for that posture.

The very first Digital Development Principle is “Design with the User,” and we must acknowledge that as technological literacy dramatically rises around the world, our ‘beneficiaries’ are becoming perfectly capable of tweaking our software and applications to cope with the release of the latest operating system or the needs of a new implementing partner. Technologists enjoyed a little moment when international aid organizations were still overseen by people who were somehow proud to throw their hands up and say “I don’t understand any of this! Talk to my (one) tech guy.” But that moment is over.

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While Vota and Caudill would use the principle to “Build for Sustainability” to contend that bringing Open Source technologies into the mainstream of international development doesn’t make financial sense, they miss the spirit of that principle as well. Teaching somebody how to use your privately held software is like giving her fish. Teaching her how to understand and improve upon your software is teaching her how to fish. Anyone in this space who actually believes that maintaining code is beyond the capacity of their beneficiaries, should be working full speed to remedy that situation instead of profiting from the knowledge gap. The World Bank’s 300+ page canon shot to Silicon Valley “Digital Dividends” released earlier this year highlights this risk in technology and aid in particular, “The absence of a competitive business environment can result in more concentrated markets, benefiting incumbent firms.” Open source breaks up that concentration.

Principle 6 is also the only Digital Principle that is absolutely verifiable by the general public. Your company might find it inefficient to “Be collaborative” (Principle 9), stressful to “Design with the User” (Principle 1) and costly to “address privacy and security” (principle 8), so your company can pretty easily fake any one of those things. You can make a half-hearted, insincere effort at each of them and dress it up in blog posts until it looks amazing. But you can’t fake being Open Source: you either put the code on Github or you didn’t.

Principle 6 respects freedom (not in a narrow financial sense) and democracy (not in a narrow political sense), as well as the type of inclusiveness and capacity building that make sustainability meaningful to discuss. It also demands transparency and cuts down on corruption. Expect this principle to continue taking heat from a variety of quarters. But since it’s already enshrined thanks to some bold and committed leadership, let’s shift gears and seriously ask:

PART 2: How Can Open Source Software be Sustainable in International Development?

To really benefit from this question, we have to recognize any assumptions that we bring to the table. So, I’ll let Herb Caudill lay his on the table, “There’s nothing more sustainable in the long term than a profitable company providing a service that people are willing to pay for.” That’s a bit of a polarizing statement.

Some people might spit out their coffee and say: What about weapons companies, petrochemical giants and narcotics cartels? How can your paragon of sustainability not include mention of people or the planet? How is this attitude even relevant after a disaster, or when we work with refugees and the destitute?

Other people might find themselves thinking: Herb’s right. The market is powerful and global and logical and statistics have shown time and time again that entrepreneurs meeting needs is what drives an economy, generates wealth, and creates an enabling climate for innovation and progress.

But Caudill’s assertion is not going to cut it for two reasons. First, we need to think about “sustainability” in a modern, nuanced and long-term way. Our principle to “Build for Sustainability” undeniably comes from an embarrassment about abandoned or neglected aid projects and a desire for a more enduring legacy of assistance. But we need to acknowledge that solutions that are financially sustainable (thanks to the support of a market) are sometimes not sustainable to the environment, the surrounding communities, or the workers. And the international development community has no business building financially sustainable solutions that are not sustainable in a broader sense and that do not bring about a more equitable world.

Second, Caudill’s statement demonstrates a lack of awareness about avenues of social innovation that must be considered. Both he and Vota paint a very narrow and limiting picture of how a business can succeed while complying with Principle 6 and they both miss a fast-growing and hyper-relevant trend that has already been of great significance to development work in the last few decades. Cooperatives and other affiliations specifically cultivated and trained to sustain a commons—whether physical or digital—are spreading around the world and gaining strength as they learn to leverage technology. (Incidentally, 2012 was the UN’s “Year of the Cooperative,” so this isn’t coming out of left field.)

The idea that there’s “nothing more sustainable in the long term than a profitable company” is flatly wrong. Research into the history of cooperatives and commons management indicates as much. Swiss herders in the Alps have kept a commons running for nearly 600 years. Vota and Caudill are both re-hashing the discredited “Tragedy of the Commons” position that was voiced most memorably by Garret Hardin in 1968. This argument basically says that humanity can’t manage things together because we’re too greedy and untrustworthy and only private owners are capable of keeping things nice and tidy. Notably, a good portion of Hardin’s discouragement came from the existence of “free riders,” folks that just take the benefit of a commons without putting in the work—for example, people who use all of the grazing land in a commons to fatten their own cattle without leaving enough grass for the others. Thankfully, in a digital space and an attention economy, free riders are great. I was free riding at Wikipedia five minutes ago.

The “Tragedy of the Commons” argument still circulates because it is convenient for business. But the research community has moved on. Elinor Ostrom’s research into what makes commons work and what makes them fail earned her the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009, shining a light on many commons that have been managed for far longer than your average corporation. If you’re interested in a well-researched articulation of why digital technologies are driving us towards a future in which cooperatives and commons management replace the private sector, check out Jeremy Rifkin’s excellent work “Zero Marginal Cost Society.”

So, “How Can Open Source Software be Sustainable in International Development?”

We have to study the experiments of people who already believe that a commons is worth building and that people are capable of sustaining one. We need to share more information with each other about what makes cooperatives tick and experiment together with how cooperatives could be fostered to maintain valuable pieces of public code. Tech-cooperatives are out in the wild and can be studied. Applying our imaginations to this space and collaboratively designing systems and incentive schemes for basic code maintenance would be worth the trouble.

The Rochdale Principles that underscore many cooperatives are an inspiring read and it’s worth noting that the Self-Help Groups that Tearfund has been working to spread around Ethiopia (16,000 and counting) are operating in accordance with nearly all of these, while generating spectacular value returns for their communities. My company’s in the process of generating an open source mobile application specifically to help spread and support these cooperatives; and we’re working with coders from the same region where we implement so that there will be stronger ties between programmers and program. (And we haven’t cracked the nut yet in terms of maintaining this app or this code indefinitely; but this post should give an indication of our willingness to try.)

Blockchain technologies will also likely be useful, especially for resolving some of the tension and trust issues around cooperatives—which could become more pronounced if cooperatives take on a geographically-distributed, digital nature. Innovators are figuring out how to use the blockchain to recognize community contributions and skill sets and also to combat corruption in cooperatives here and here. And process-oriented, open source software like democracyOS and Loomio is increasing our ability to manage cooperatives and to build consensus.

The Transition Network has also learned and shared many valuable lessons about pulling things out of the private domains and putting them under community management. An inspiring film about some of their initiatives is attracting considerable attention in Europe.

The international development community can figure out how to steward open source projects more effectively by looking for and learning from allies in this cooperative undertaking.

Two final points: both Vota and Caudill conjure up “abandonware” as if it is a particularly damning phenomenon that demonstrates why the Open Source project is wasteful and non-enduring. I like it better when Vota is ringleading the “Fail Faire” and trying to de-risk experimentation and encourage the aid community to learn from its mistakes. We know that roughly 9 out of 10 businesses fail (a much higher failure rate than cooperatives, incidentally); but we often don’t know why, nor can we harvest anything from their assets. When an open source digital development project fails, we can scrutinize the code (if we want to) or scrutinize the program model (if we prefer). Caudill’s misleading description of the failure of open source businesses also has a pleasant antidote, here, from Pascal Finette, a colleague of mine who looks closely at these trends. And Cable Green, the Director of Education at Creative Commons, forcefully demonstrates the powerful tailwinds behind the principled expectation that public funds should result in public goods. His presentation can be found here.

Stepping away from rent-seeking on digital goods is a bold and significant step. I hope that the ICT4D community will look at the possibilities that it offers and the opportunities for creating more impactful and equitable innovations.

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