New Tech for Old Challenges

The Syria conflict has created the biggest refugee crisis in modern history – imagine everyone inside the M25 leaving Britain. Lebanon is dealing with an unprecedented influx of those vulnerable refugees, 78% of them women and children.

The international community’s response has been huge – we are spending more in Lebanon per square kilometre than anywhere in the world. UK funding for Lebanon in the past two years is greater than the total for the rest of post independence history. Yet we and our Lebanese partners are still struggling to cope. One response is to raise more funds, as we will be trying to do in Kuwait in April. One is to get education to those who need it. Another, we have discovered, is to innovate.

There are some great examples already out there. Ten years ago, DFID seed funding enabled Vodafone to pilot transferring credit via text message for farmers in Kenya (M-Pesa) – a technology which is now global. DFID is promoting the provision of ATM cards loaded with cash, to empower vulnerable people to spend on their most urgent needs: whether it is food, shelter or fuel. It is also great value for money and provides a cash injection into the local economy. UNICEF has developed a low-cost tablet ($100) called Raspberry Pi, invented in the UK. It is loaded with apps and games to help kids improve their maths, science and technology skills and is now being rolled out to schools across Lebanon. UNHCR use Google Earth to capture real time data on health, education and water across the country and with one mouse click can zoom in on any village and pull up the vital stats they need to direct the right resources to the right people.

Mark Lowcock, DFID’s Permanent Secretary and an innovation champion was here this week, and we spent two hours brainstorming with development experts and entrepreneurs on how we can change the way we do development. We need to matchmake public and private solutions, and get entrepreneurs to own the challenges. We need some talismanic role models to show the way. We need to be connectors not castles – solutions will come through empowering new participants, especially refugees and communities. We need to remain focused on what delivers – ‘Does it work in Akkar?’

The hardware matters: broadband, kit, connectivity. But we also showed that spreading the English language fosters innovation and makes people less poor. We are only on the cusp of understanding the massive potential of Big Data . We need to seek out the best examples from other fields – robotics, classroom tech, start ups. As so often, the best role for embassies is to convene, connect and then stand back.

Most importantly, innovation in development will work best where it creates wider win/wins, not least economic growth. We have to find ways to ensure that the refugee crisis is not just a drain on the Lebanese economy, but triggers new ways of building Lebanon 2020. One way we want to encourage this is through the UK/Lebanon Tech Hub. Most importantly, we need Lebanese and Syrian thinkers to identify new ways to get help to those who most need it, give Syrians the skills to rebuild their country when they are able to return in the future, and stimulate growth here in Lebanon. This involves a change of mindset from a situation where refugees are seen only as helpless victims, and donors as detached. It means a genuinely collaborative, fresh approach, drawing in anyone who can be part of the solution. As a UN colleague says, ‘It takes a lot of heat to make a diamond’.

The politics are not easy, but as long as Syrians are caught between the Assad’s barrel bombs and the barbarism of ISIL, we do not have the luxury of hoping this crisis will simply go away. If Bill Gates believes innovation can work, so should we. We need to bring the newest technology and the smartest minds to the oldest of challenges, and this is the right place to start: creativity is in Lebanese DNA.

Are Foreign Ministries Castles or Connectors?

‘Are you a sponge or a stone?’, Uncle Monty asks his nervous guests in ‘Withnail and I’. This excellent piece by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms on new power (December 2014 Harvard Business Review) suggests that the equivalent question for traditional power players is ‘are you a connector or a castle?’.

Diplomacy is of course one of the oldest forms of traditional power. It has been around as long as the human race: It fits the definition of old power used by Heimans/Timms: “like a currency. It is held by few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven.” Their list of old power values will also be familiar to many mandarins: “institutionalism, exclusivity, confidentiality, separation of public/private.” Think of the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

As I’ve argued in earlier posts, the old power model of diplomacy relies on prepared and platitudinous press statements, overcooked summit communiqués and too much self indulgent paraphernalia and protocol. I suspect many diplomats would also recognise this description of how old power institutions are coping with digital: “they layer on a bit of technology without changing their underlying models or values. They “reach out” via Twitter. They host the occasional, awkwardly curated, lonely Google hangout with the CEO.” This Twitter lark, eh? Yet “new power is more flash mob and less General Assembly.”

Like other forms of old power, diplomacy is under threat, ( As Heimans/Timms put it, “Old power is enabled by what people or organizations own, know, or control that nobody else does—once old power models lose that, they lose their advantage.” As others ‘do’ diplomacy – private sector, civil society, citizens – we find our value added as diplomats questioned. All that at a time when resource challenges bite hard. So we too need to understand that “new power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.”

Foreign Ministries need to work harder and faster to adapt. For Timms/Heimans this means: audit your power; occupy yourselves; and develop a movement mindset. On the power map, much diplomacy risks being stuck in the ‘castle’ quadrant, to follow the analogy in the article, rather than with the connectors, changers or cheerleaders. We too often think of an embassy as a building rather than its original value as an influencer and hub. We are instinctively fearful and threatened of the more empowering, anarchic, diffuse ways that power is now distributed. Crowds can make us queasy, unless they are listening to the Minister’s speech, following us on Twitter, or touring the state rooms once a year. As to ‘occupying themselves’, with longer working hours and rising workloads, some Foreign Ministries might think that they are well on the way. I think a takeover of an MFA would involve more transparency, more values, less servicing the machine, less hierarchy and structure, more risk. We’ll all need to find our way towards the values of new power: informal, open source collaboration, ‘radical transparency’.

Diplomats need to tap into people’s growing desire to participate and influence. So we face three big questions.

1. How can foreign policy evolve to draw on a wider cross section of creative inputs? People have a heightened sense of human agency. We should harness that to prioritise core diplomacy – the effort towards coexistence rather than combat. We need to react fast enough to be in the right conversations while remaining thoughtful enough to start the right conversations too.

2. How can we ensure that what we do as diplomats is trusted, and consequently owned, by more people? What’s the diplomatic equivalent of Airbnb or Uber? As the authors recognise, “new power is fast—but it is also fickle.” It “offers real opportunities to enfranchise and empower, but there’s a fine line between democratizing participation and a mob mentality.” We need to harness the power of the mob without becoming hysterical.

3. How do we protect space for strategy and the long view? I’d bet that no MFA is doing more horizon scanning now than twenty years ago. We all struggle to protect ourselves against the ‘fierce urgency of now’ – to retain capacity to think beyond the next news cycle, election or summit. As innovation accelerates and we face information overload, we must avoid being distracted by the “human tendency to favor the immediate, visceral, and emotional”.

This is not just about the survival of diplomacy as a craft, important as that is. Heimans and Timms say that “the battle ahead, whether you favor old or new power values, will be about who can control and shape society’s essential systems and structures. Will new power forces prove capable of fundamentally reforming existing structures? Will they have the ingenuity to bypass them altogether and create new ones? Or will they ultimately succeed in doing neither, allowing traditional models of governance, law, and capital markets to basically hold firm?”

Diplomats need to be in that argument, to find a way to maintain the best of old power while harnessing the best of the new. This is a huge ethical and political challenge. As we “see ever more people shaping their destinies and lives, the big question is whether new power can genuinely serve the common good and confront society’s most intractable problems… Those capable of channelling the power of the crowd must turn their energies to … redesigning society’s systems and structures to meaningfully include and empower more people. The greatest test for the conductors of new power will be their willingness to engage with the challenges of the least powerful.”

I’ve written at greater length on that challenge here ( We need to forge with new power tools a form of international politics that is more representative, inclusive, empowering and progressive. That means we need to be more ‘connector’ and less ‘castle’. Maybe even more sponge than stone.