Jan 22, 2014

What Can Balloons Teach Us About Development?


Last week, I came across an article in The Atlantic on North Korean defectors who have been launching balloons from South Korea into North Korea to provide citizens with information on the outside world. These vinyl balloons contain brochures on life outside of North Korea, DVDs, transistor radios, and other items.

North Korea has a population of approximately 24 million people. 80% of the population experiences food shortages -- one of a laundry list of human rights violations perpetrated by the regime. Numbers partially illustrate the grim consequences of these violations. The average 7-year-old in North Korea is 8 inches shorter and 22 pounds lighter than a 7-year-old in South Korea. Through propaganda, the government has tried to manipulate the population into believing that North Korea is the most desirable place to live in the world.

The Atlantic article explains the regime well. "While other regimes oppress their dissidents and censor the internet, North Korea has no dissidents and no connection to the outside world. It has no internet. The Kim family rules with absolute authority, arbitrarily imprisoning or executing anyone who stands in their way. The regime goes even further; not only is the offender imprisoned, but entire generations of his family are also sent to the gulags. The embargo of information into and out of the country has forced human rights groups to be creative in their methods of reaching North Korean citizens."

Balloon launches, one of these creative methods, are a desperate attempt to provide information flow to citizens. By providing the citizens of North Korea information on the outside world, defectors believe that citizens will have the context they need to understand the extent of the regime's human rights violations. Defectors hope this will lead citizens to overthrow the government. This is one step of many needed to create effective feedback loops in North Korea. Many organizations within the international development community including aid agencies, NGOs, social enterprises and corporations have struggled to develop effective feedback loops also, and can learn a lot from North Korean human rights activists including the following:

  • North Korea is one of the cruelest regimes that exists in the world today. Effectively functioning feedback loops are a pipe dream under the regime. Yet, defectors have still found creative mechanisms to improve information flow to citizens. Likewise, development communities need to start enacting creative ways to open up feedback loops. Despite challenging circumstances, development practitioners should commit to providing users with full information and to incorporating user feedback into design.

  • I applaud the balloon launching concept because it was conceived and is led by North Korean defectors. Defectors have the deepest understanding of life within North Korea. They have unique perspective on what citizens can and can’t access, and how they can most effectively water the information desert in North Korea. Several defectors turned activists have said that receiving leaflets during their time in North Korea led them to view the regime differently. Similarly, international development programs should also focus on building upon the needs and expertise of low-income people in developing countries. Often, we fall prey to meeting the needs of our organization rather than the end user.

  • The concept of sending balloons into North Korea took experimentation. Park Sang Hak, the chairman of Fighters for Free North Korea, started this work in 2003. By trial and error he perfected everything from the launch sites of the balloons to the content of the balloons. The North Korean government threatened to kill him, but even that did not dissuade him from pursuing this cause. The development community should not stop short because of the challenges in providing information and obtaining feedback from low-income people. Instead, we should publicize and share our failures, detach ourselves from solely serving the interests of particular organizations, and work together in the collective interest of our global citizens.

These lessons learned can help us create effective feedback loops that include the following steps - develop ideas, create a product or service with transparency (the user should have full information and be able to provide feedback during the design process), measure data points including additional feedback on the product or service, and make improvements based on this data.

If you are interested in learning more about the situation in North Korea, you can follow North Korea Now, a global awareness campaign to preserve the dignity and human rights of North Koreans.

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