On Statues, Robots and Shifting-the-Power

10/2022 | Patrick Meier

When we hear the word “statue”, our mind conjures up a confident figure of a likely-important human of epochs past. This figure stands resolutely on top of a firm and heavy pedestal. But my absolute favorite statue has no such VIP posing entrenched on top of an immovable platform. In fact, nothing stands on this rather unusual pedestal. Either the hero or heroine has long vanished, or was never there in the first place; an alarming sight either way. But, if you get closer to this piece of art, you’ll find hundreds of small stone figurines under the massive monolithic platform. You’ll notice that each of these figures is standing tall and strong, with both of their feet firmly on the ground and their hands outstretched far above their heads to meet the weight of the pedestal. And that’s when you realize that these small figures are propping up and carrying the entire pedestal together, walking towards a hopeful new future; a more just society. This is by far my favorite statue. 

Image 1: Books that have had a strong impact on my thinking

I admittedly get angry when I see injustice. Maybe it’s because of the values and principles instilled by my parents. Maybe it’s the injustice I witnessed while growing up in both the Global South and Global North. Reading Uvin’s, Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda and de Waal’s, Famine Crimes: Politics & The Disaster Relief Industry in Africa, made my blood boil, while Scott’s, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed and Ackerman’s, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, gave me hope in “The Power of Local”, hope in those smaller figurines shouldering the weight of history and holding the promise of a better future. (As an aside, these books also made me realize that our reading lists in grad school were anything but gender balanced). 

So, what kind of injustice makes me mad these days? Well, here’s the thing, 99% of discussions on social good applications of emerging technologies focus on which technologies to use and how. Barely 1% focus on who actually gets to use them. Why? Because the latter leads to harder questions about power, equity and social justice.

Image 2: We are in the stone age of social justice in the “Tech for Good” space

None of this is new, of course. More than half-a-century ago, in Toward a Rational Society, the German philosopher Habermas described “the colonization of the public sphere through the use of instrumental technical rationality. In this sphere, complex social problems are reduced to technical questions, effectively removing the plurality of contending perspectives.” This explains why today’s social problems are “addressed only in aspects that are susceptible to technical solutions .” Yet the problems that pervade aid, health, development, conservation, etc., are never just technical problems alone. This means the solutions cannot just be technical solutions alone. Solutions must be social, inclusive, plural, and diverse.

Image 3: Who gets to lead in the “Tech for Good” space?

This is what motivated me to co-found WeRobotics (my fellow co-founders have similar and complementary motivations). In the years leading up to the founding of this social impact organization, I had repeatedly witnessed first-hand how proximate leaders and local experts were being systematically excluded from meaningful leadership opportunities when it came to using emerging technologies for social good. Talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity certainly isn’t (nor is access to emerging technologies). So we used WeRobotics to co-create practical alternatives to systems dominated by foreign-led, top-down and technocentric interventions. As such, our focus on technology is motivated both by social justice and the power of technology.     

“The significant risk, of course, is that a focus on the technological aspects of a problem can restrict our attention to merely those aspects. A computing [or technology] lens can have the effect of masking and pulling political capital away from other and more insidious facets of a problem, as well as other (non-technical) means of addressing it” (Adebe et al., 2020). This brings us back to Habermas’s warnings form 50+ years ago, which is why my colleagues and I adopted “The Power of Local” as our mantra at WeRobotics. It’s important for me to always remember that it comes down to power. “The Power of Local” derives first and foremost from local expertise and lived experience rather than foreign technical expertise and special connections. In an ideal world, the Power of Local is valued and celebrated as a distinct comparative advantage. 

As many others have said before us, international organizations and donors are unlikely to become more effective, relevant or sustainable until we correct the fundamental power asymmetries that pervade the social good sector. Tackling these asymmetries collectively and responsibly will get us closer to the world we want to live in. Fact is, emerging technologies won’t resolve long-term historical inequalities, social injustice, discrimination and racism. Instead, historical inequalities, social injustice, discrimination and racism significantly constrain the equitable, sustainable and tremendous positive social impact that emerging technology can have. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and equal opportunity are thus essential. If minority groups and marginalized communities are prevented from sharing their expertise, agency and creativity to address the world’s most pressing problems, then none of us will ever have the combined knowledge necessary to save this blue dot of a planet we call home. We won’t have the collective strength to carry the pedestal of society towards a more just future.

In my next post, I’ll introduce the successful localization model that we co-created (and continue to co-create!) with hundreds of local experts and dozens of local organizations in 35+ countries. This model has measurably expanded the space for locally-led practice. I’ll also explain why this model needs to be complemented with a reduction in our own “Power Footprints” in order to collectively correct the power asymmetries that pervade the sector of social good.

About this article

This blog was written as part of the “From where I stand: Unpacking ‘local’ in aid” series. Through this series, CDA aims to listen to people most affected by aid as they explore and amplify their leadership experiences, stories, and lessons for the aid sector. 

For recent blogs in this series check-out:

And many more to come soon! If you are interested in contributing to the series please contact Hasangani Edema at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you and include your perspective.  

About the author

Sarah Cechvala

Dr. Patrick Meier works at the intersection of humanitarian technologies and social justice. He currently serves as the executive director of WeRobotics, a social impact organization committed to offering practical alternatives to systems dominated by foreign-led, top-down and techno-centric interventions. Prior to working on social justice more explicitly, Patrick spearheaded the development and application of next generation humanitarian technologies for 10+ years. In 2010, Patrick was publicly praised by President Clinton for his pioneering efforts in the new field of crisis mapping, which he later published into a book, entitled Digital Humanitarians, to share lessons learned and best practices more widely. Patrick is a certified drone pilot and holds a PhD from The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, and a Pre-Doc from Stanford. He is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and has held fellowships at MIT, Harvard, Rockefeller, PopTech and UBS Global Visionaries. In addition, Patrick has given talks at the Obama White House, Skoll World Forum, Mobile World Congress, Web Summit, TTI/Vanguard and SXSW. He has also given multiple TEDx talks in the US, Europe and Asia. He was born & raised in Africa.