This is the second post in a 7-part series from Panthea Lee of service design consultancy, Reboot. In The Messy Art of Saving the World, Lee will explore the role of design in international development.
Every successful revolution carries great expectations. But while the day a regime falls is historic, the period immediately after is what sets the precedents which will impact a society for generations.
Take Portugal: After the 1974 Carnation Revolution, the post-revolutionary government struggled with reforms designed to simultaneously loosen the state's grip on the economy and deal with the influx of Portuguese returning from former overseas territories. It took the country 16 years to recover from the resulting economic collapse. Today, Portugal remains mired in a glut of public servants, mounting sovereign debt, and a regulatory vacuum, a situation that prompted one revolutionary to declare that had he known the direction his country would go, he would not have participated in the revolution at all.
In short, Day One of a revolution is important, but students of history know that the real work of governance—and the risk of serious consequences—begins on Day Two.
That's why, after the Egyptian revolution, Reboot rushed to the country as quickly as possible. We landed nine days after Hosni Mubarak was ousted—a chaotic, important time in the country's transition, as well as in the foreign response.
The international community had started preparing to support Egypt's transformation almost as soon as citizens took to the streets in early 2011. Yet simultaneously, concerns for safety led almost all institutional personnel to leave the country. While all eyes were on Egypt, few eyes were actually on the ground. Press reports and special interest groups had their own biases and blind spots, leaving big question marks about who was doing what, and who the international community should support. Significant investments were being planned without a clear idea of what was actually happening.
I've written before about the common shortcomings of traditional approaches to international development and governance; the willingness to craft programs from afar is among the biggest. It's also an area that the discipline of design is well-suited to address.
We at Reboot knew that without an educated understanding of the mechanics of the revolution, future aid and investment initiatives had, at best, a good chance of failure. So, before the standard slew of governance, democracy and rule of law programs was rolled out, we went to Egypt to pursue a design research program. We planned to (and did) share the results with institutions that were planning investments in Egypt in the coming months and years, to inform their policy creation and increase the positive impact of their programs.
We decided to focus our research on identifying the groups that would play key roles in the new governance structure. Prevailing media narratives had focused on a relatively small, digitally connected and Western-friendly group—basically, youth activists on Twitter. While these youth were certainly part of the revolution, Western media reports tended to overplay their structural importance to a society where many diverse groups were driving the revolution and would drive the post-revolutionary period as well.
We wanted to tap into the experience, credibility, networks and organizational prowess of these other groups, neglected but important actors. They would be critical in creating a more participatory Egyptian governance system, and they deserved attention and support.
We conducted a robust assessment of Egyptian civil society and the role various actors could play in the post-revolutionary period and beyond. The two of us from Reboot who led the project worked with a local team of three journalists and one university student. All were Egyptian, and each had critical connections to the four towns and cities we visited—four, by the way, is three more than international governance specialists in Egypt typically visit—lending us critical clout in a country where wasta (connections or influence) is everything.
Our research process stresses in-depth interviews, both scheduled and ad-hoc, and always in the contexts of where people work and live. We spoke with 200 individuals (199 Egyptians) from all walks of life—day laborers and government officials, farmers and lawyers, labor organizers and white-collar professionals. (For a detailed explanation of our research methods, you can read this post on our blog.)
While in Cairo, we stayed one block from Tahrir Square and visited the hub of the revolution twice every day, morning and night. Gathering information, intelligence, and insights directly from the source was far more valuable than monitoring international or even local news. It was overwhelming, but invaluable, to get the news where it began. And it was clearly necessary: Mass media narratives often diverged widely from what we witnessed and heard on the ground.
Our time in Egypt was immensely rewarding, but you won't be shocked to hear that we faced some roadblocks. During our time there, there was a widespread distrust of foreigners. State and military powers had cautioned Egyptians to be wary of "foreign elements" (spies). My research partner is a white American and I'm a Taiwanese-Canadian; we attracted suspicion, especially in smaller and poorer towns and neighbourhoods where foreigners and foreign interest are rare.
Reluctance to talk to us also stemmed, in part, from a strong sense of national pride and wariness justified by centuries of damage done by foreign involvement. Despite this, many Egyptians were eager to speak with us and to exercise their newly-won freedom of expression. But our presence sometimes led to public, emotionally charged disagreements among Egyptians about whether foreigners—us, specifically—were welcome during this time of change. "This is our revolution," some felt. "We want to first get our house in order, before outsiders come in to write our history."
One of our team members, Mostafa, had an insightful answer to this reticence. When people became suspicious of our presence, he would ask, "Has anyone ever come here to ask about your life? About your opinions and what you need?" The interviewees would get quiet and contemplative; for all the foreign aid they had heard was streaming into their country, they had never experienced it. After thinking that over, they were often much more willing to engage with us.
Of course, policy development can't happen entirely in the field. Eventually, we left Egypt and began the toughest part of the process: Synthesizing and making sense of the data, identifying patterns, drawing insights and detailing opportunities for meaningful change.
We had very little time to get our findings into the hands of decision-makers that could use it; the process was done over two (fairly sleepless) weeks in New York with frequent calls to our local team in Egypt for additional research and analysis. The Egyptian team had equal say in interpreting our data and formulating recommendations. We were working to make sense of widely divergent viewpoints—both our respondents' and our own—and a healthy debate amongst our team led to balanced analyses that reflected local realities and larger considerations.
The findings we published were among the first pieces of original research into Egypt's post-revolutionary social and political landscape, done on-the-ground and directly informed by Egyptian citizens.
Our research uncovered critical revelations—many of which contradicted prevailing narratives about the revolution. For example, we found that while youth activists played an important role in the organization of the revolution, other groups (as we expected) had the experience and political carrying capacity to rebuild governance systems. We also found that the technology's role in driving the revolution had been overplayed. And we found that while political change had certainly occurred, many citizens, especially the poor, felt that the realities of their day-to-day lives weren't going to be changed by protests in Tahrir or on Twitter. They were hungry for more than a cosmetic change to address social and economic problems; powerful, society-deep tides would have to turn, they felt, before Egypt could truly claim a revolution. Insights like these reveal opportunities for organizations to make lasting, impactful investments. (More of our findings are publicly available on our website).
Egypt has long been a political, cultural and social leader in the Arab world. Its people's success in unseating Mubarak after 29 years was both historic and emblematic of larger patterns in the region. How Egyptian society navigates this present period will have outsize impacts on both the region and the world—and how the international community responds will set precedents whose impacts will be almost as important. Together, we have an opportunity to do governance development right. Reboot is honoured to have contributed an early part of the long road ahead.
Panthea Lee is co-founder and principal of Reboot, a service design firm working in the fields of governance and international development. At Reboot, she leads a multidisciplinary team of designers, researchers, development experts, and policy strategists to improve social outcomes globally, working for organizations such as the World Bank and the American Civil Liberties Union. Panthea has led projects in over 20 countries including Afghanistan, China, Sudan, and Tunisia. Before founding Reboot, she was with UNICEF Innovation.
Panthea speaks frequently on new approaches in international development, and has lectured at Columbia University, McGill University, NYU, the School of Visual Arts, and Pop!Techâ€™s social innovation program.