(Cross-posted at nach.com
Secrets, startups and awkward questions for USAID
Here are two curiously colliding stories about how the U.S. government provides aid and encourages democracy, transparency and freedom of expression in other countries. They reveal the awkward mix of altruism and agenda within USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development. They might also inspire a bit of paranoia about who’s behind some of those clever apps on your phone.
This provocative investigation from The Associated Press describes a secret program within USAID to build ZunZuneo, a mobile social network – a Twitter clone, really – for Cuba. USAID, which is part of the State Department, has an explicit mandate to promote democracy in other countries, so there’s nothing surprising about an attempt to enable more freedom of expression in Cuba, an island dictatorship that, like North Korea, remains frozen in an antiquated state of Cold War repression. But the clandestine nature of USAID’s ZunZuneo project, dangerous not only for its operatives but, potentially, for unsuspecting Cubans who used it, implies that the agency works more like an intelligence or espionage agency than like one focused, transparently, on building good will by sending U.S. money, resources and ideas to other countries. There was nothing transparent about this program, although it should be noted that AP seems to have pieced together the story not only with the help of sources and leaked documents but also from a variety of public records.
The ZunZuneo story raises serious questions for Americans who want their government to operate transparently, and for leaders and citizens of any country where USAID operates. We all have good reason to wonder: What other secret operations are under way, financed or funneled through USAID? How truthful are USAID claims about good will? How do we know any USAID program, say, one to train journalists, isn’t really a cover for a secret effort to encourage dissent, or to destabilize or overthrow a country’s government?
These are serious and practical, on-the-ground questions for aid workers and programs funded by USAID, including many, such as those of the NGO Internews, devoted to training and sustaining independent journalism.
The investment, startup and tech community will also focus on the ZunZuneo story’s inclusion of some well-known entrepreneurs, including Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, and the implication that the U.S. government is secretly funding and controlling some tech startups.
One other note: this sort of thing may be awkward for USAID to explain because it’s supposed to be an agency of diplomacy, soft power and American good will. But it would be completely “on mission” for a spy or military agency devoted to covert operations, which makes you wonder about where the playbook came from and what else is going on in secret tech startup spyland … on top of what we know from the Snowden files about the NSA’s work with every major tech company to intercept communications by anyone, anywhere …
Associated Press: US secretly created ‘Cuban Twitter’ to stir unrest
Meanwhile, just as AP published its investigation, USAID announced a major overhaul of its approach to aid. The agency has created the Global Development Lab, a new unit to create new solutions to poverty and other problems.
The announcement marks a shift in USAID’s approach to global development, from funding organizations to meet specific goals with existing technologies to instead identifying problems and funding research into new technological interventions to solve them.
So at the same time that it’s facing what should be a storm of controversy about how it operates, USAID is also investing in a completely new way of solving big problems – not just by paying for food, services, training and other programs, but as an engine for new approaches through research, experimentation and collaboration.
To be completely optimistic, this holds the promise of completely new definitions for aid itself.
To be completely cynical, the new AP report reveals a hidden world of high tech intervention. So it’s also worth noting that USAID director Rajiv Shah compared the new Global Development Lab to DARPA, the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. That’s a military R&D group, best known for creating the Internet.
“At DARPA, they define needs they are trying to meet — and find partners best suited to help find solutions, test them and scale them,” Shah said in Nature.
That description could well fit the ZunZuneo program in Cuba – which makes you wonder just what kind of new thinking will come out of the lab.
Photo Credit: “Havana pay phones” by Susan Sermoneta via Flickr / Creative Commons