Lessons from MIT


Karim Ajania


A Kenyan Urban Compass

In the early 1980’s my friend Pat McNicholas and I were undergraduates at University of San Francisco.

Pat and I have been discussing how to balance pragmatism with idealism in community service initiatives, and how to effectively empower rather than enable communities, ever since those student days. Back in college, Pat was USF Student Body President, and I was USF’s President of the International Students.

Today, in addition to being a successful trial attorney in Los Angeles, PFA Board Member Pat is a founder of Urban Compass in South Central Los Angeles. Here is their mission statement from their website:

Pat McNicholas, a Founder of Urban Compass

Urban Compass provides a safe, welcoming, and innovative environment that challenges our youth to envision and navigate a course for a rewarding future characterized by achievement, independent thought, and social responsibility through education, mentoring, and play. We guide youth toward a hopeful future!

Chyah and I visited Urban Compass several times over the past few years. We are heartened by the needed work that Urban Compass does, under the leadership of their Executive Director, Xochiltl Bravo.

Xochiltl Bravo, Executive Director of Urban Complass

Here is my interview with Xochiltl.

Imagine, for a moment, that Pat had never helped found Urban Compass, and that the issues of lack of educational opportunity, and gang violence, and marginalized communities in South Central were not being addressed by my friend Pat. Imagine further, that a group of people all the way in Africa, in say, the country of Kenya, were concerned about youth in South Central and decided to do something about it.

Imagine that a group of Kenyans, came all the way here to the United States, and set up shop as a fully staffed and fully funded and thriving non-profit educational program, in South Central Los Angeles.

Does that not seem to you a bit odd?

And yet, it does not seem ‘odd’ at all, when so many Americans and Europeans set up non-profits in Kenya, and in many other African countries, to help local Africans, particularly school children.

In fact, that seems perfectly ‘normal’.

The Elephant in the Room

The proverbial elephant in the room in the field of African Development, the issue that is the most awkward to address, can be seen through the lens of a ‘Kenyan Urban Compass’. If there was such a thing as a Kenyan Urban Compass it would raise all sorts of legitimate questions and some very tough questions:

Who do these Kenyans think they are, intruding into our communities, and trying to fix our local problems in our communities here in the United States? Don’t these Kenyans have enough education challenges for their youth back home in their own country to take care of? Why did they show up here to help us?

Most of the people I have met or worked with in the field of African Development are uneasy and awkward about addressing these core questions. And yet, if we do not comfortably address these core questions, we cannot fine-tune the delicate balance between pragmatism and idealism in community service initiatives.

If we do not address these questions, we cannot effectively empower, rather than enable, communities we want to help. We cannot effectively provide communities in Africa a hand up, rather than a hand out.

What is the smart strategy in African Development?

A Hand Up not A Hand Out

One of the PFA co-authors of the What is Smart? book, Carly Yoon, is currently working on her second book, A Hand Up not A Hand Out. As the CEO of Portfolio PFA, Carly and the Pencils for Africa (PFA) Team, raised $10,000 over 30 months for 10 non-profits operating in Africa. Each non-profit underwent a vigorous vetting process by the PFA Team, and Carly, as gate-keeper and CEO, made the final decision.

Carly Yoon, co-author of “What is Smart?”

Carly’s criteria for making this final decision on whether PFA will fundraise for the Africa-focused non-profit was whether that organization was giving a hand up rather than a hand out. In other words, were the beneficiaries of these nonprofit services, whether they were merit scholarships for Kenyan girls, or bicycles leased to rural farmers in Uganda, based upon the beneficiary’s personal responsibility and accountability?

Were there built-in controls that monitored fiscal responsibility and transparency? Was there exponential value-added to the entire community, and to future generations of the community, if these advantages of scholarships or bicycles were received; if these initial seeds of value were planted in the communities?

The PFA Team vigorously discuss these same questions in our meetings before our PFA fundraisers.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Lessons from MIT

In the late 1980’s, I was a graduate student at the Media Lab at MIT.

I was part of the pioneering research team that brought the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program to developing countries such as Rwanda. Just as with the vigorous discussions we have at PFA, our research team at MIT vigorously discussed and debated how we can provide schoolchildren of Rwanda with weather resistant laptop technologies that would offer them an authentic hand up rather than a hand out.

We asked ourselves the uneasy and awkward questions and did not avoid the elephant in the room.

Why should we go into someone else’s country – in this case Rwanda – and try to help them?

Were we not being intrusive?

Why is the government of Rwanda not helping their own schools more – how come we are stepping in?

Are we not risking the danger of ‘moral hazard’?

‘Moral hazard’ is the slippery slope of enabling the Rwandans to become dependent upon MIT’s help to the point that they are off the hook. It would be the same scenario with a “Kenyan Urban Compass”:

If a bunch of altruistic Kenyans came to the United States and set up an Urban Compass in South Central Los Angeles then people like Pat McNicholas would be “off the hook”. Pat would not have to invest his time and money and energy to create Urban Compass because the generous Kenyans will take care of it all.

Schoolchildren in Rwanda with OLPC laptops

All this vigorous debate and discussion led to the following rationale and strategy amongst our MIT Team:

As the government and schools of Rwanda did not have access to the resources that MIT had for the research and development of this weather resistant technology – which was immune to African dust and rainstorms – the MIT Media Lab needed to openly share this technology with an “open source” ethic.

MIT must demonstrate the value of this research and development of weather resistant technology.

Moreover, we were not planning to set up permanent shop in Rwanda, and behaving like we were being intrusive, with no foreseeable exit strategy. On the contrary, we were simply going to showcase these laptops in a handful of schools in Rwanda so as to avoid any moral hazard. After that, we would invite the Ministry of Education to see the value of these weather resistant laptops within the school system.

The strategic masterstroke, once the Ministry of Education had observed and was happy to see the value of laptops in a handful of schools, was to have the ministry make a report to the President. That report included a plan that we put together costing the Rwandan government several million dollars, and resulting in the country’s entire school system nationwide receiving an upgrade, through these OLPC laptops.

The smart strategy succeeded.

Ministry of Education of Rwanda visiting OLPC school

Rwanda’s school system benefited because of MIT. Meantime, MIT leveraged their investment in research and development in OLPC to help Rwanda’s schools. That success model led to additional corporate funding in the United States for MIT to continue bringing OLPC to school children all around the globe.

A win-win.

A hand up and not a hand out.

It is precisely this same strategy that PFA plans to implement with Smart Libraries.

Smart Libraries will provide literacy and learning to children in the slums of Africa.

Showcasing the value of this literacy and learning model to local Ministries of Education will incentivize the local African governments to expand PFA’s Smart Libraries program further within their own countries.

A hand up and not a hand out.