Facing the Fear of Thinking Big

Written by Gisli Olafsson on behalf of the Case Foundation: 

NetHope collaborates with 35 leading international humanitarian organizations to better serve the developing world through innovative technology and communications. Their focus is on five practice areas: Connectivity, Field Capacity Building, Emergency Response, Shared Services, and Innovation for Development. NetHope’s Emergency Response Director Gisli Olafsson writes about making big bets and reaching beyond your bubble in the face of fear. He was recently named a finalist for the Microsoft Alumni Foundation’s Integral Fellow Award for his leadership in the field of emergency response and especially telecommunications and information management. Olafsson has worked in the sector for more than 20 years.

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” – Gandhi

I remember how I felt the first time I read the quote above: it profoundly touched me and gave me the additional courage to keep advocating for the change of things I feel are inefficient or simply wrong. It is never easy to be the one that raises questions about the status quo. It is certainly much easier to take no action and use the excuse that “this has the way it’s always been done, so why change it.”

Many people talk about money and technology as keys to being able to drive development in emerging markets. But interestingly enough, money and technology usually aren’t the biggest hurdles when trying to address huge issues. It turns out that the more technologically difficult a problem is, the more smart people can be mobilized to find a solution. I have also found that the bigger the problem, the more likely donors will be interested; they understand the big impact solving a big issue can have and they are tired of endlessly funding small steps that often never lead anywhere.

The most difficult hurdles you face are usually political, organizational or personal in nature. Achieving a consensus, building partnerships, establishing a common vision and getting people to think outside of their own little box requires the biggest effort. Every time you introduce a new vision, new idea or a new way of addressing things, people and organizations are afraid that it will make their current role irrelevant, leading them to lose funding or jobs: helping others overcome that fear is the difficult task of change leaders.

I have had the great opportunity over the last year to bring together a broad partnership of organizations and individuals who believe in the power of open data in humanitarian response under a program we at NetHope chose to call the Open Humanitarian Initiative.

Bringing together all of these different organizations around the common vision of improved humanitarian response has not been easy, but by investing time in understanding our partners fears, concerns and needs, we are getting close to bringing about big impact to our field. Later this fall we will be formally launching this initiative then it will be one of the broadest and most ambitious public-private partnerships ever in the humanitarian sector. By facing our fears and helping others do the same we have been able to bring together enough critical mass to cause humanitarian response to move from the industrial age to the information age.

Bringing these different organizations together and helping them face their fear of collaborating has been a learning experience for me. It has helped me understand that my own fear of thinking big is one that is worth facing, because the bigger your vision, the more impact you can have on the world we live in.