White drones — white pigeons

Paz Bernaldo
14 min readSep 18, 2018

This post is about the actions and narratives (full of fashionable buzzwords) the United Nations chooses in relation to technology and the developing/least-developed countries. I will examine what they do/say about drones, by looking at three cases, in Panama (UN related), Guyana (non-UN related), and at the UNICEF Innovation drone corridor in Malawi.

A rather patronizing, hierarchical, and colonial narrative seems at play; one that excludes issues of justice, agency, context relevance, and this is rather specific, hardware.

Technology determinism, acontextuality and optimistic simplism could be said to characterize UNICEF Innovation approach. Their narrative isn’t just words. It is powerful, it defines how they frame and apply development concepts, how they invest. Words bring worldviews, and theirs aren’t power-aware. What they do, despite the charade of changing the world, might be actually perpetuating and enabling inequality.

Disclosure: I work on a project (vuela.cc) which involves making open source drones, fly them, crash them, repair them, improve them, even do science with them, and with unusual suspects (I’m one unusual suspect myself).

Drones in Guyana & Panama

Last year, when making drones with a group of mostly non-laptop owners in Chile, we (Vuela crew) found an article online that caught our eyes. The article talked about indigenous tribes from the Pacific Northwest to the Amazon Basin using drones to gather evidence and protect their land. As part of two different projects, tribes in Guyana and Panama were monitoring deforestation, documenting their land use and fighting illegal occupation (illegal logging, mining).

The Wapichan tribe in Guyana had, in 2014, built their own fixed-wing drone using guidance found online, with support from the nonprofit Digital Democracy. They had themselves made adjustments to the structure using materials found in their village, key to repair the drone easily in case of crashing (likely outcome with drones). We saw the post and video called “We built a drone” (2014) and got excited. See updated project info here, here, and here.

The same day we read about a project in Panama, led by UN-REDD, the FAO (UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization) Program for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. In this case, seven of Panama’s largest indigenous tribes — BriBri, Buglé, Emberá, Kuna, Naso, Ngäbe and Wounaan- had learned how to use drones, the 2016 FAO article said, to monitor land and curb the trend of forest loss, flying for the first time in 2016.

We then noticed the photos, first Guyana, then Panama:

In the first we saw a happy man while in the second the man seemed cautious, maybe even scared of the machine he’s holding.

In two posts from 2014, “We built a drone” and “Drone crash!”, we noticed how the Guyana case emphasized issues of making, repairing, rights, knowledge, autonomy, justice, power dynamics. Technology was portrayed as a tool, not as ‘the everything’ and the agents shown were the tribe people, not only the NGO people. Digital Democracy referred to the tribes as ‘partners’ (and vice versa), not ‘users’ and certainly not ‘beneficiaries’. They referred to the drone as an eagle, ““that our partners built themselves, know inside and out” (Drone Crash! 2014).

When the motor mount broke, the team scoured the village for different types of plastic, and fashioned a new mount from an old beer crate. The drone was no longer a foreign, mysterious piece of technology, but something they owned, built, and therefore understood.” (We built a drone, 2014)

No photos of ‘saviors’ surrounded by ‘needy people’. But no wonder. There was consensus on the harmful effects of colonial approaches to international cooperation/development, on the need for structural change to fight poverty/inequality, no?

Well, it seems not.

Drones in Panama were ‘the everything’

On the same day we read about the Panama case, and its approach was markedly different. The title itself seemed hierarchical:

“Indigenous peoples in Panama learn the use of drones for forest healthcare. With the support of FAO, UN-REDD and the Ministry of Environment, Panama strengthens community forest monitoring in indigenous territories”.

Indigenous peoples are mentioned as this rather general category. Instead, FAO, UN-REDD and the Ministry are called by their names, agents doing the job. The others ‘participate of’, they are not ‘partners in’ (this FAO video is an example).

The goals also seemed top-down:

“Overall, building capacity in forest monitoring — (…) will help Panama reach its goal of increasing carbon absorption in its forests by 10 percent (…) The involvement and active participation of local communities and indigenous peoples (…) is essential for the country to achieve its goals” (FAO article).

The FAO posts didn’t explain the capacity building process, or how is technology an instrument for the tribes. Context does not seem particularly relevant.

Their project document, e-Agriculture Promising Practice Drones for community monitoring of forests (2018), does provide more details, but says little about the tribes, the participation and decision-making process. Interventions seemed standard in each of the tribes.

Also, hardware isn’t mentioned. It says open source software was chosen, however listing Google Engine, which is proprietary. They do say what drones were bought (fix-wing E384 by Event 38) but not details, like cost (2.990USD each according to the firm’s website) or maintenance.

At some point they say “each territory uses the technical tools according to their own needs”. But they don’t mention these needs. And, if that’s the case, it means tools must be flexible, allowing autonomy. Proprietary software is expensive. Proprietary hardware too and fixing it when it when it crashes (like drones do) usually means you have to wait/pay lots to get it repaired (imagine when the nearest city is hours away). They are black-boxes.

The document provides a link to a non-UN video which states that FAO’s Lucio Santos is the “leader” of this drone project, that “drones are the guardians” (not people).

In addition, it provides a link “to see images” (not to ‘hear’/’read’) of the project in a non-UN video in which a technician, Eliceo Quintero, says (8:10 min): “what worries us the most is that there won’t be a follow up to this project, that nobody will listen to us, that none organization will listen to us”. None of this is in the project document.

The Wapichan case, on the other hand, emphasizes making, breaking, repairing, which is essential for owning technological tools, for the “follow up” Quintero calls for.

UNICEF drone corridor in Malawi

FAO’s narrative was top-down and acontextual, but UNICEF Innovation is something else.

First we found this UNICEF post. ‘Poor kids’ looking at something foreign, untouchable, and the experts in charge:

UNICEF Innovation had created a drone test corridor in Malawi:

The corridor is designed to provide a controlled platform for the private sector, universities and other partners to explore how drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), can help deliver services that benefit communities and schools” (source).

Then these photos:

Then I found the Drones at UNICEF portal:

The first paragraph goes:

“In coming years drones will be fully incorporated into commercial airspace. They’re already flown (…) to inspect real estate, to survey agriculture and crop yields, and to respond to emergencies. Will we be ready? And how can UNICEF use these emerging technologies to help children?

Market-driven narrative. UNICEF ready forthe commercial airspace? But is the airspace only commercial?

And they continue:

“(…) In parallel, other commercial groups like Amazon, Google and others see the inescapable market opportunities of using drones for package delivery, real estate inspection, agriculture, policing, insurance and offshore drilling (…) Because UNICEF Office of Innovation partners work closely with the private sector, we want to make sure we are in conversation with these Silicon Valley institutions and are therefore making inroads to ensure future longevity for our corporate partners.”

Since when and why has UNICEF become an startup incubator? Are Silicon Valley the best advisors for a UN agency? Is UNICEF Innovation partnering with global north companies only? “inroads to ensure future longevity for our corporate partners”? Are they suppose to ensure that? Is UNICEF serving kids or corporations? What about local civil society organizations, local universities?

UNICEF Innovation had published in 2014 their Principles for Innovation and technology for development. And these seem pretty good with buzzwords, good at concealing (or not even) a rather uncritical and simplistic view of development.

For example, principle 6: “Use Open Standards, Open Data, Open Source, and Open Innovation”. But they don’t explain what they really mean by “open”. You could have all your documentation ‘open’ published in a web that’s so hidden nobody actually sees it, or written in a way few can understand. And no word of hardware. They also say: “Engage diverse expertise across disciplines and industries at all stages” but don’t mention local expertise. Shall we read diverse expertise must come from the global north? People from the south aren’t seen as partners but only as potential users/clients of market opportunities for companies.

Unfortunately, these Principles have been endorsed or adopted by UNICEF, USAID, Gates Foundation, EOSG Global Pulse, WFP, WHO, HRP, OCHA, UNDP, SIDA, IKEA Foundation, UN Foundation, and UNHCR.

There is an Indiana Jones comes to Malawi type of video about the corridor (the music!).

Christopher Fabian and his view of tech

Christopher Fabian and Erica Koichi founded the UNICEF Innovation office in 2006.

Here some extracts of Fabian’s talk at the Dublin Tech Summit of 2017 (the speech transcript is here):

(A friend just read this post and said this sounds so much like the bottom-of the pyramid and microfinance craze “that went well”… ಠ_ಠ)

This talk is really about the space between huge businesses, the businesses that we see all around us today, these businesses that didn’t exist 10 years ago, where you have a hundred billion dollar industries, and the needs of a billion people (…)”. And he then shows the following unfortunate photo. Are billion dollar companies bringing greatness to Africa?

Are billion dollar industries (and Silicon Valley companies) white pigeons?

Then he goes:

The thesis of the talk is that within that space, there is opportunity that we both can take advantage of to grow our own businesses, oh and also to create change in the world” (1:12 min). The focus is clear: grow our businesses. Changing the world (‘for better’?, he doesn’t say) seems… secondary.

His narrative is at least messy. He argues that the problems UNICEF beneficiaries deal with are the same problems every person in the world faces, including him and his colleagues in New York. That what they do is not charity because they also suffer those problems (O.o). Therefore, they -UNICEF Innovation team- are the agents in charge of coming up with solutions, together with the private sector:

we know that if we do not solve these issues (and this is not charity, solving for somebody else), these are issues that affect all of us. If we don’t come up with solutions now and work with companies, private sector, technologists, in clever ways now we are kind of in a bad place.”

He openly calls the audience to invest in West Africa countries, for its huge population growth:

“(…) if you are going to start a business right now that is to sell products, and you are not looking at a map like this to figure out where to invest your money (emphasis) and your time you are making a big mistake”

More worryingly, he adds business opportunities multiply because ‘sovereign services’ that used to belong to governments now belong to businesses:

“And a lot of these companies are providing sovereign services, not only can you post an image of the food you didn’t like, on wechat, you can also transfer money, you can get an education, you can have an identity, those are services that belonged to governments before… if you are starting a business now, and not looking on how you can connect through IPs, through these platforms, through these services, to people, you are also missing out, in your ability to reach end-users”.

He then explains that UNICEF Venture Fund “makes small investments in open-source tech (inaudible) so we look at things like drones, and UAVs (…) companies that are making money on their own and also do good”.

Again, the ‘do good’ seems secondary. Interestingly, he says ‘open-source’ tech but then explains proprietary tech can also get their support: regarding the drone corridor, companies will “(…) be able to bring their new technology, their open source hardware, or their (17:54) proprietary stuff and test it in a way that all their research becomes a public good”.

I wonder then what ‘open’ really means here.

If we see their Principles of Innovation as tech-deterministic, optimistic-simplistic, and acontextual, might we have to expect these contradictions?

The trickle down thing

Fabian said in a 2017 post, regarding the corridor, that global companies participating “will be required to spend time training and working with local students, engineers, and entrepreneurs and sharing the skills and opportunities this emerging industry provides. This skill-sharing will ensure (…) that those tests develop a workforce that can pilot, service, and utilize this technology.

Problem is, industry opportunities can’t be shared just like that, neither can skills. Those able to benefit are the privileged few (most likely global north companies), and it is not clear if and how UNICEF Innovation expects to tackle the gap.

Is tech determinism a issue here? As long as these technologies are tested in Malawi, the narrative goes, then economic development and local capacities will follow. It’s the trickle-down thing.

These grand visions are often there, but we often don’t pay enough attention (I had not done so until very recently). Like when we hear over and over that connecting the unconnected to the internet will solve the biggest problems, creating economic growth and inclusive development. Visions attributing a self-evident positive, widespread, and transformational impact to technology. Like Fabian’s. Even with evidence there to discredit these views. Why isn’t UNICEF paying attention?

Should Africa let Silicon Valley in? UNICEF Innovation is surely not asking this question.

Another example of this grandiose narrative: TED talk by Zipline, a Silicon Valley company taking drones airdrop medical supplies to African villages. His CEO (form the US) says they’re “using drones to deliver blood and save lives”.

There is some criticism of these acontextual visions within the humanitarian/aid sector. Ben Ramalingan, from the UK’s Institute of Development Studies, says that “in the rush towards humanitarian innovation there hasn’t been nearly enough emphasis in actors in developing countries, where there are communities themselves, civil society, private sector, and government bodies”, that the sector has in fact institutionalized and legitimized the lack of attention to context.

The name of one recent book review by Joseph Stiglitz comes in handy:

“Meet the ‘Change Agents’ Who Are Enabling Inequality”

Stiglitz states: “Like the dieter who would rather do anything to lose weight than actually eat less, this business elite would save the world through social impact investing, entrepreneurship, sustainable capitalism, philanthro-capitalism, artificial intelligence, market-driven solutions. They would fund a million of these buzzwordy programs rather than fundamentally question the rules of the game — or even alter their own behavior to reduce the harm of the existing distorted, inefficient and unfair rules. Doing the right thing — and moving away from their win-win mentality — would involve real sacrifice; instead, it’s easier to focus on their pet projects and initiatives.”

As rightly explained by Janaka Jayawickrama, the humanitarian system being so deeply involved in the global market, just doesn’t have space for affected people to act as partners. Humanitarian agencies with their fast paced interventions fail to assess their long term impact. So unless donors, policymakers and practitioners change their attitudes and values and explore how to create systemic change, collaborating with people as equals, “the colonial nature of the humanitarian system won’t change, and effectiveness won’t be reached” (another account on aid industry and neocolonialism here).

What to do? Guyana-type projects might offer clues

The first is to start paying attention to these narratives and actions, reflect on them, and counter them.

The Guyana case offers clues to help the move towards structural change, as it highlights issues UNICEF Innovation ignores: the relevance of attitudes and values that frame projects/programs, the need to collaborate with people as equals and the role hardware plays in this, the need to identify and tackle power imbalances in every intervention, the need for knowledge equity, capabilities, and autonomy for adequate impact and sustainability, the need to understand change is a long term thing, not the result of a technology transfer scheme (the tribes and Digital Democracy have been partnering for more than 10 years).

Tessa Josephs, the Monitoring Coordinator for the South Rupununi District Council in Guyana, says she likes technology and feels comfortable with it. But as it changes every day, she needs to learn how to do stuff, not only use technology, because “right now we are dependent on people coming from the outside to do this for us” (Partner Spotlight).

The Wapichan and its partners seem to share some of the values with GOSH, a community I am part of, and one that seeks structural change.

GOSH stands for Global Open Science Hardware community, and its values are stated in the Manifesto which, unlike the UNICEF principles, goes into details. It states the principles of the movement this community wants to drive forward. GOSH is:

  • ethical (“people have a right to knowledge, and thus a right to the tools to gain that knowledge”),
  • accessible (meaning that “anyone can create, obtain, study, modify, distribute, use, and share designs of open science hardware projects”),
  • makes better science,
  • changes the culture of science (“we create more options for people to pursue research, both inside existing institutions -academia, NGOs, government, non-profit, start-up, business- and outside institutions altogether”),
  • has no high priests,
  • empowers people,
  • has no black boxes,
  • is impactful tools,
  • allows multiple futures for science.

Non-white & Non-black-boxed drones

So, along the lines of the Wachipan and Digital Democracy, we are partnering with communities, trying face the hard stuff, hoping to push non-colonial narratives. We are building, crashing and repairing non-white, non-black-boxed drones, and seeing them as tools. At the basis of our Vuela project is the GOSH Manifesto, or so we strive for. As important as the ‘what’ (the hardware, the machines) is the ‘who’, and the ‘how’. We are developing a drone kit accessible to community scientists, activists, researchers and dreamers or any type, as a tool to do open science.

Together with the GOSH community we want to help change the dominant narrative on science and technology (and development) that treats at least 60% of the world population as dumb beneficiaries, at best simple users, not equal partners, not collaborators.

I like the Indiana Jones movies, but just as movies.