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Shifting the Power: Why We Decline Dollars in Favor of Local Experts

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July 15th, 2020

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On June 25th, Rahul Chandran posted this on Twitter: "I'd love to see any examples of UN/INGOs *declining* $$ because they could name a better positioned local partner." We don't know of UN examples, but we do have many examples of our own since this transfer of opportunity goes to the heart of why we founded WeRobotics. By transferring meaningful leadership opportunities to local experts, we can do our part in helping to shift power with local experts and drive systems change. So I followed up on Twitter to ask Rahul what he thought of the following scenario: "Donor seeks to contract INGO (or foreign company) for projects that the INGO is qualified to implement. INGO strongly recommends that donor contracts qualified local organizations (or companies) instead. Donor contracts these local groups." Rahul's reply to this was: "That's the dream," to which he added: "What I'd like is for domestic organisations to have the money and flexibility to draw on whatever global expertise they need & want."

So here is one of many examples that speak to Rahul's request.

In 2018 and 2019, WeRobotics was asked by the World Bank to carry out projects in Indonesia and Jamaica. The dollar value of these contracts came to more than USD 50K, a substantial amount of money for a young NGO. I would've loved to carry out these projects with colleagues at WeRobotics. We certainly have all the technical expertise, experience, and technologies required to lead these projects. But none of us had ever worked in either Indonesia or Jamaica. We don't know the local languages, customs, terrain, or weather patterns. Also, we are not directly familiar with the relevant regulations there or know how to secure required permissions. We lack this local knowledge and understanding of local contexts, which would directly impact the quality and ultimate success of the project. What's more, we would just be parachuting in and out for this project, transferring zero savoir-faire, or technologies. This only creates further dependency, exacerbating the digital divide, and increases extreme inequality.

If this scenario sounds familiar, it's because the vast majority of social good projects seem to be led by foreign experts. They parachute in to momentarily extract data from the Global South without having any local knowledge or understanding of the local context. And then they usually disappear.

We founded WeRobotics to counter this foreign-first, top-down, and techno-centric approach by shifting power with local experts. This explains why we've been co-creating Flying Labs with local experts. It also explains why we recommended that the World Bank contract Jamaica Flying Labs for their project in the region, which they did. Although Flying Labs are not (yet!) operational in Indonesia, we learned that Philippines Flying Labs was already working in Indonesia with local partners, so we advised the World Bank to contract them for the project, which they did. In some cases, funding partners such as the Bank prefer to contract WeRobotics directly rather than multiple individual Flying Labs as this makes their procurement process easier. Either way, WeRobotics does not take commissions on Flying Labs projects. When FlyingLabs.org becomes it's own legal entity in 2021, funding partners will be encouraged to contract FlyingLabs.org directly.

The above is just one of many examples. Yes, we could probably take on the majority of projects that Flying Labs implement, but this doesn't mean we should, or that we would be the most qualified to lead these projects. This is also true of Flying Labs. In some cases, Flying Labs may not have all the pieces in place to carry out a funded project. They may not have a specific skill set or access to relevant technology, for example. When this happens, we encourage Flying Labs to partner with other Flying Labs who already have those skills and technologies. If these other labs don't have the bandwidth to mentor a new lab, then WeRobotics finds another way for the lab to gain the desired expertise. In some cases, WeRobotics will partner directly with the lab in question to provide the technical support needed so they can take the lead on implementing the project in question.

We actively connect Flying Labs to global expertise based on their expressed interests and priorities. This is why we have an active network of formal technology partners who provide Flying Labs with free or discounted access to their technologies.

As for the second item on Rahul's wish list, domestic organizations must indeed have the money and flexibility to draw on whatever global expertise they need and want. This is part of the Flying Labs model. We actively connect Flying Labs to global expertise based on their expressed interests and priorities. This is why we have an active network of formal technology partners who provide Flying Labs with free or discounted access to their technologies. WeRobotics also uses its resources to partially or fully subsidize access to those technologies. What's more, these technology partners share their expertise directly with Flying Labs as needed without locking Flying Labs into any technology partnerships set up by WeRobotics. They are free to use any technology they deem appropriate. WeRobotics also co-organizes global conferences, Flying Labs Retreats, regular webinars with guest experts, plus online training and more to further transfer expertise to Flying Labs based on their interests and priorities. We believe that the transfer of meaningful leadership opportunities along with funding and expertise are important building blocks for systems change.

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