Tate Watkins at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University prompted the Jester with the following question for a post to AidWatch: “Is it reasonable to expect that Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) and similar events will produce ‘solutions to development problems’?”
The Jester’s simple answer to that direct question, of course, is “no.” Anyone imagining that a day or two of hacking will produce solutions to development problems, even in some small part, is either a technologist drunk on her own self-image who believes that she’ll solve a mindboggling social challenge with technology, or a World Bank officer drunk on his own self-image who believes that he’ll solve a mindboggling social challenge by motivating some technologists. In any case, it seems clear they are the kind of folks who don’t learn from history.
Surprisingly, the Jester has a more complex answer to the underlying question, which might have been posed as, “Do events such as RHoK do any good?” The answer to that question is far more complicated, because these events have multiple goals, and some of the goals are not half bad, even if they could still use some course correction.
The first and most obvious surface goal of events like RHoK is to end up with a body of software that could somehow impact international development. The Jester has written extensively about this notion (for example, through his puppet, at the Boston Review), and the short answer is that exactly where we most want such technology to have impact, the required human intent and capacity to make the technology itself work is low. Combine this with the fact that very little successful software in the world gets written via a two-day hackfest, and the likely interesting impact will be zero.
The second goal of RHoK is likely to support the building of software programming capacity in developing countries. Of their currently posted 20 or so physical hosting sites, 6 or 7 are in developing countries (and of those, about half by groups well-known to the Jester), and to the extent that these events generate excitement around the ability to develop software in developing countries, they are fantastic, as the Jester implied in a previous post. Among the things that makes a country “developed” is its intrinsic capacity to create, adapt, and master technology, and to the extent that the efforts highlight the aspiration of those within country to do so, the Jester applauds. (However, as long as developer development is the goal, why not have the contest be around software that would really be useful?)
A third and less obvious goal of RHoK is to encourage software developers in the developed world to engage on problems in the developing world. The Jester has mixed feelings about this, because on the one hand, it’s great to encourage people anywhere to care about others who are in less privileged circumstances; on the other hand, further contributing to the vain belief that that intention can manifest through random hacks of software development is dubious. Good software developers would have more value by mentoring less experienced software developers in the developing world, than attempting to solve a developing-world problem through technology. The latter is still just another kind of charity, and another kind of “giving people a fish.”
A fourth goal might be build to a community around software developers in the world who care about international development. The Jester strongly believes in the value of community, and often times, the development of community — even if it for a misguided instrumental end — can be redirected later to more useful purpose. Strong communities have value, especially to the extent that their mission is really to solve development challenges. However, as with the other goals, the end impact of the community will depend on what it decides to do with its social capital.
So, to different RHoK stakeholders, the Jester has different things to say:
- For budding software developers: Use the event to learn more about software development. And, for those coming from a developing country, involve more friends. The ability to write good code is exactly the kind of capacity that will help individuals earn good incomes and help countries grow economically.
- For experienced software developers hoping to “do good”: The intention is laudable. The most meaningful impact, though, will come not from technological artifacts, as much as from the mentoring of people in the first category.
- For sponsors: If the goal is practical software, the phrase “barking up the wrong tree” appears next to the Jester’s head as a thought bubble. If the goal is to help developing countries gain software-developing capacity, shift focus to the end-to-end supply chain of human capital for engineering, i.e., education defined very broadly. In the current global economy, there is no shortage of demand for capable software engineers. But, supply is hurting. And, if the goal is to kill multiple birds with one stone, try hitting one bird first; no point aiming for their empty center of gravity! (The Jester does not wish to promote violence against animals, but the available proverbs along these lines are limited.)
And, to wrap up with a single sentence: The most meaningful way for the RHoK to have impact is for everyone to focus on increasing the software-developing capacity of the least experienced developers (wherever they’re from) who come to hack.