What’s the problem really?

by | Jul 5, 2019 | Change, ICT4D |

The other day, my daughter brought her Thomas train to me saying it had stopped working. “Fix it Dad” she said before going back to other trains. Assuming the battery was dead, I turned it over in my hands looking for clues on where battery was and how to ‘open’ Thomas. I saw a few screws and found the matching screwdriver. A minute later, my son walks in, looked at me funny, “What are you doing, Dad?” “Looking for the battery.” He walked over, took the train out of my hands and popped the top of Thomas off, exposing the battery. “There it is, Dad, don’t need a screwdriver.”

What is the problem we are solving? It’s always a good question to ask and usually we need to ask it more than once. It’s similar to the 5 whys method as it helps us get to the root problem.

Biometrics in humanitarian aid is a good example of this. We often talk about it in relation to identifying people or as fraud reduction. However, as Linnet highlights in our recent podcast (Frontiers of Digital Humanitarianism-Part 2) discussion with her, we don’t need biometrics to identify the people who need aid. That’s not the real problem. We identify who needs aid without biometrics; we have been doing this for years.

So what is the problem we are solving? Is the problem that we want to make sure that I, as the person in need, am given the aid directly rather than someone else saying they are me? Well, yes, biometrics can contribute to this, but biometrics (and all technology for that matter) does nothing to ensure the person who receives the aid actually benefits from it.

So what is the problem we are solving? Perhaps there are some efficiency gains for frontline operations (assuming efficiency is defined as speed, not cost). But perhaps it has nothing to do with frontline operations and it is more about compliance or the stories our donors want to be able to tell their stakeholders. Or perhaps it is something far more sinister but let’s keep that for conspiracy theories.

Being clear on the problem we are solving is critical for clarifying our way forward, the tools we need, and if we are successful. Otherwise we might be using a screwdriver to unscrew screws causing all kinds of additional problems when all we needed to do was pop the roof off.

Photo by Jack Douglass


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