We are actively engaged in the dialogue and debates of our space: on issues of social justice, global development, and democratic innovation, and on the ethics and methodological evolution of design, mediation, and co-creation practice. More of our writing can be found at Medium.

More Clarity on Service Design, Reboot, Gardner

More Clarity on Service Design

Last week, I discussed the basics of service design, an emerging field dedicated to creating more user-friendly services. Today, I’ll discuss some of the definitions within the service design framework and provide an example of how the service design framework might apply to a practical situation. The list below is by no means exhaustive, but serves as a broad overview of some of the more common terms. Please add terms and examples in the comment section, or send us a tweet @theReboot.


The entities that comprise a service

Stakeholders: Individuals or groups that affect, or are affected by, the creation and/or delivery of a service.
Service Provider: The entity responsible for the design, creation, and delivery of a given service.
Agent: A person or organization that is involved in the delivery of a given service. Usually somewhat autonomous from the service provider.
Users: The individuals and organizations that use and benefit from a given service.


The ways services are delivered and accessed

Service Delivery: The channels, methods, people, and tools through which a service reaches a user.
Engagement: The interaction between two or more of the following entities: service providers, agents, and users.
Touchpoint: Every contact point between a user, a service provider, and/or an agent. These can be any place, interface, or interaction where engagement occurs.

Branchless banking, a field that Reboot has worked in throughout the world, provides an apt application of service design terminology. Branchless banking is a strategy for delivering financial services without relying on physical bank locations. When designed correctly, it has the potential to provide crucial banking services – such as savings accounts, credit, and insurance – to populations far from a major city or a physical bank.

Let’s imagine the case of John, a rural man living in a country in southern Africa. He’s far from the capital city that houses the national bank. However, the bank has astutely realized that remote populations cannot access their financial services. They’ve created third-party bank outposts (often small retail stores) in rural villages and implemented mobile banking platforms. Grace, a local business woman who runs a small convenience store, serves as the third-party retailer. John has a mobile phone, through which he can now make banking transactions. Grace becomes his “human ATM,” allowing John to deposit or withdraw cash through her certified third-party outpost.

In this example, the national bank is the service provider. From the perspective of the bank, then, Grace is both an agent and a user of the bank’s service; and John is a user of both the bank’s consumer service and of Grace’s offerings as well. Both Grace and his mobile phone are touchpoint — one human and one technological — as John uses both to engage with the bank. When John successfully deposits his money with Grace and his cousin in another province receives it at his local third-party outpost, the full service has been provided.

This branchless banking example is just one of many applications of service design thinking and terminology. And while the given example focuses on the developing world, service design is equally as important in the developed world. As we’ve emphasized before, effective services that value users are critical components in the realization of human rights and in social progress.

If you want to learn more about service design, you can visit the Service Design Network, the UK’s Design Council Service Design site, the Service Design Tools website, and Kerry Bodine’s blog from Forrester Research. We also highly recommend the book “This is Service Design Thinking” for an in-depth, user-friendly (of course!) explanation of service design.

New Media for Your Mission, Not Your Message

Reboot recently had the opportunity to lead a workshop for major national non-profits to share best practices and insights learned from our experiences using new media in advocacy, international development, and governance programs. With the ever expanding role of “new media” in society, non-profits must now make sense of how these communication technologies can support and enhance their mission. The full-day, executive-level workshop combined hands-on training with larger strategic discussions, pushing non-profits to re-think their approach to new media and develop more effective solutions to current organizational challenges.

The workshop was hosted by the National Human Services Assembly (NHSA), an association of non-profits committed to delivering accessible health and human services. Many of NHSA’s member organizations – including the American Red Cross, Girl Scouts of America, and the Y – attended the workshop. Held at AARP’s headquarters in Washington D.C., the interactive workshop was a chance for c-level executives from these organizations to voice concerns and hopes for how their organizations can strategically use new technologies to improve their operations and programing.


In addition to highlighting many frequently used new media tools, Reboot also pushed attendees to think about new media from a more strategic perspective. Instead of viewing these new tools as an end unto itself (“we need someone to Tweet!”), we encouraged participants to think about new media as a means to achieving their organizations’ overall mission. How might thinking about these tools less as disparate units and more as an integrated whole change an executive’s priorities? How could organizations better understand the human interactions that these new media tools facilitate?


We introduced concepts from the emerging field of service design (which you can learn about here) to better understand organizational shifts caused by these disruptive technologies. Using the service design framework, attendees could identify problem areas in how their organizations communicated with the public, their staff, and their constituents – and develop new solutions to address them.


The interactive workshop served as a platform for participants — most with decades of rich experiences leading companies and non-profits — to learn from one another. Visual facilitator Jim Nuttle created the illustrations that so beautifully capture the main ideas, concerns, and thoughts expressed by participants. Attendees were guided to discuss media related challenges that each of their organizations was facing, and consider new solutions through the lens of service design.


Through case studies, discussion, and design exercises, executives left the workshop better able to integrate new media technologies into the larger strategy of their respective non-profits. We came away with some new friends and an expanded understanding of the constraints and needs of large, national non-profits. We hope to continue this cross-sector learning in the future.

To learn more about Reboot’s presentations and workshops, contact ethan AT thereboot DOT org.

What is Service Design?

We’ve written previously about why Reboot focuses on services as a practical approach to achieving social progress and human rights. Inevitably, the next question that arises is: how do you create these effective and accessible services? This is where the principles and process of service design come into play. In this post and others to come, we will discuss the value of service design and how it can shift the focus of project design from building ever more tools and technologies to developing solutions that nurture people and relationships.

An emerging field, service design is a multidisciplinary approach to creating more useful, effective, and efficient services. Service design, therefore, isn’t aimed at creating tangible products, but developing better ways for people to access the services they need. These might range from the most mundane (renewing a driver’s license or figuring out which subway to take in the morning) to the life-altering (accessing quality healthcare or crop insurance to protect against a flood). These services are often so everyday that it’s easy to forget their existence. But consider how different your life would be if it took you 15 hours to reach a doctor that could see your sick child, or if you had to spend the equivalent of a half-year’s salary to obtain a passport? These are realities in some parts of the world, and realities service designers address to make services more intuitive for both the user and the service provider.

A key aspect of service design — and one we feel strongly about — is the value of understanding the user experience. This means a focus not on the institution delivering the service — which service providers sometimes forget — but also on the person using the service. As Laura Forlano writes in Urban Omnibus, “services require designers to empathize with users, to understand interactions as a series of ‘touchpoints’ and to develop a holistic understanding of the ways in which our relationships to services govern everyday life.” Service design values users, conversations, relationships, and context, using empathy to make sense of them and their interplay.

At Reboot, we employ this user-centric philosophy. We believe empathy is the foundation of good solutions. We take great time and care to understand the disparate groups who use each service. We immerse ourselves in our target communities for weeks at a time, gleaning intimate knowledge and understandings not otherwise available. Armed with original, research-sourced insights, our experts, business analysts, designers, and technologists work together to develop services and service improvements that better serve people.

We’ve applied this approach to tough problems of development and governance the world over. In Pakistan, where 90 percent of the population lacks access to affordable basic financial services, we worked with private sector and non-profit partners to design branchless banking programs for marginalized citizens. Often, branchless banking solutions center around product and policy. Yet, after extensive service design research, we discovered the optimal solution wasn’t an innovative new product, but instead a reorientation from product strategy, to service strategy.

By approaching the fields of international development and governance from the perspective of service design, we’re articulating a systematic method for documenting, improving, and implementing critical social services. Our over-arching goal is to help our clients create services that are inclusive, efficient, technologically appropriate and, ultimately, empathic. Service design has the potential to shift the focus from tools and technologies to people and relationships — a reorientation that can help create lasting change.

Next week, we’ll dive into the nitty-gritty of service design, from key definitions to a more in-depth exploration of the design process.

Special thanks to Jim Nuttle for his wonderful illustration.

Why Services? Reboot, Brisson

Why Services?

At Reboot, we like theory — sociopolitical, socioeconomic, you name it — as much as the next social enterprise. But we are also practitioners, working hand-in-hand with governments, international organizations, non-profits, and the private sector on realizing social change. We understand and support the role of advocacy and policy — some of us still bear battle scars from past lives in these arenas — but as an organization, we are more concerned with the moments where the rubber meets the road. With those tangible points where outcomes are made.

Hence our fixation on creating better services.

We focus on services because we believe the moments when people successfully interact with the institutions that shape their lives are those moments when social progress is achieved. For the majority of people, these interactions do not happen at the polling station or through a letter to a political representative. Rather, they happen at the social services office, the bank, or the health clinic. At these points of direct and indirect service delivery — whether from government, private sector, or civil society — citizens are tangibly experiencing ‘governance’. For it’s in the everyday transactions, small and large, between people and institutions where human rights are realized in practical ways. Things work, or they don’t. People’s lives are improved, or frustrated. Faith in society is encouraged, or eroded.

Does a Pakistani farmer have affordable insurance so his family can still eat come a bad season? Can a mother in a rural Kenyan village get healthcare for her sick child despite the nearest clinic being 70km away? How can a high school teacher in the Bronx motivate his struggling low-income students and their families? These interactions — human, and facilitated by service systems in the noblest sense of the term — are complex but ultimately understandable, and therefore improvable. And solving hard problems in the areas of financial inclusion, health, and education through transactional rather than political means avoids a lot of baggage and makes progress more immediately achievable. Inevitably, our focus on services touches on politics, but policy is then a means to an end rather than the end itself.

There’s a growing demand for our approach as the nature of citizen-institution transactions continues to change rapidly. In the same way that our consumer habits in reading, travel, or communications are all radically transforming, so too are our expectations for interacting with institutions that serve the public interest. Citizens now expect a certain standard of efficiency, feedback, accountability, and accessibility from those that purport to serve them, and they aren’t necessarily willing to wait for them to come around. Such expectations are spreading from the private sector into the public, from the developed world into the developing. As expectations evolve, so too will Reboot’s work and those of our partners, to ensure citizens’ faith in their governance systems strengthens, not erodes.

Recently, we were delighted to earn the respect of an international human rights lawyer, who upon learning about our business, articulated our belief in the primacy of services beautifully: “Human rights is more than just ‘all people deserve this, all people must have that,” she said. “Getting people what they need most — that is human rights realized, human rights that we can provide despite a complex, nuanced, imperfect world.”

Mobile Justice in 500 Words, Reboot, Krontiris

Mobile Justice in 500 Words

“Mobile justice” is the idea that mobile technologies, broadly defined, can be used to extend and improve access to justice. An emerging field, mobile justice includes initiatives such as virtual courts in Kenya, live-streamed court proceedings in Massachusetts, and SMS-sharing of legal judgments in Ghana. These innovations can be launched by judicial systems, government agencies, civil society groups, or even technology companies, and almost always require the strong collaboration of all of these stakeholders.

The human rights movement in the last 50 years has done an excellent job of criminalizing those acts that plague most poor people across the globe, including extortion, human trafficking, and child labor. What is classified as a crime, however, is not always punished as such. Often, this is because the judicial systems in developing nations do not have the capacity required to enact sanctions, due to infrastructure and geographical challenges. In addition, citizens are often poorly informed of their laws and rights, court procedures, and available dispute resolution channels.

The next frontier in the human rights movement will be the bolstering of public justice systems, so that human rights abusers are held accountable for their crimes. Today’s technologies are particularly well-suited to confront this challenge and, if properly harnessed, can help to strengthen democracies over time.

In the same way that technologists, industry experts, and governments have mined the power of mobile for banking transactions and health delivery, entrepreneurial judicial actors are revitalizing the practice of justice. Court participants, lawyers, and judges are also mobile phone users and understand the value of that technology, especially as mobile broadband becomes more widely available. In addition, there are continuing needs for information-sharing, data storage, record-keeping, and court-community engagement, for which connection technologies are well-suited. Through public-private partnerships, a number of judicial systems are starting to explore the potential of mobile justice initiatives.

As with any emerging field, there are open questions: Are we putting a band-aid over system delivery issues that need a more permanent physical infrastructure response? What is “public” and what is “private” in our digitally connected era? What legal considerations must we bear in mind as justice system participants become ever more connected — and will the law need to catch up with technology?

Connection technologies offer incredible potential for improved judicial service delivery, such that governments are able to project their presence to parts of the territory previously unreachable. Not only can human rights issues be addressed more immediately and broadly, but enhanced rule of law also allows for a stronger business environment, more advanced development outcomes, and a more robust democratic society. When citizens and institutions alike can more easily access their rights, their laws, and their responsibilities, everybody benefits.

This post originally appeared at

Branchless Banking Terminology

We’ve recently featured a series of posts about our branchless banking work, including posts on branchless banking in Pakistan, better development through mobile banking, and designing financial inclusion. Recognizing that some of these concepts are not yet commonplace, we thought we’d offer our perspectives on them. This post will focus on branchless banking terminology, but we plan on offering explanations of other concepts in the Reboot domain in the next few weeks. These definitions are gleaned from our own understanding and from previous posts on Reboot Ideas. If you’re curious about a term or idea you dont see below, please comment in the space below or send us a tweet (@theReboot).

Financial Inclusion:
To anyone living in the US, it may seem like there is an overabundance of banks and financial services. In parts of New York City, banks are as ubiquitous as Starbucks. Throughout the US, credit card offers arrive in the mail almost daily. Yet, in other parts of the world (and in certain parts of the US), a large swath of the population is excluded from these financial opportunities. Many of the world’s poorest live without access to basic financial services such as savings, insurance, payment services, and basic credit. Or, they access them in informal, unregulated (and hence costly and risky) markets. These services are often crucial to one’s economic survival. As Panthea explains in “Mobile Money: Why ‘Innovation’ Misses the Point”:

“Savings allow us to decrease our risk in handling cash and insurance allows us to protect against economic shocks, payment services help us save time that can be spent in more productive ways, and basic credit allows us to use current assets to capitalize on future opportunities.”

The push for financial inclusion is an emerging movement that addresses these global imbalances. Through the affordable delivery of financial services to traditionally underserved populations, financial inclusion brings the world’s poorest into a formal, regulated, and accessible banking system. There are numerous methods for making these financial services more inclusive. With mobile phones becoming ever closer to being a ubiquitous platform throughout much of the developing world, people can make payments and transfer money (see below for more information on mobile banking). Through microfinance institutions, impoverished communities can receive small lines of credit to start businesses (visit CGAP for more resources). Ultimately, by providing underserved populations with low-cost alternatives to the traditional banking system, financial inclusion can help more and more people control their own economic destiny and lift themselves out of poverty.

Branchless Banking:
Branchless banking is a strategy for delivering financial services without relying on physical bank locations. In many parts of the world, physical banks are few and far between. Often, people in these bankless communities lack access to much-needed financial services. However, through branchless banking alternatives, people can take advantage of these financial services without a physical bank. Often, branchless banking involves creating third-party bank outposts (such as a retail store) and implementing mobile banking platforms.  The retailer may act as a “human ATM,” and branchless banking customers can make banking transactions via their mobile phones and then deposit or withdraw cash through the retailer. Card-based systems are another way to deploy branchless banking.

Branchless banking and mobile banking are often used interchangeably, although this isn’t quite accurate. Mobile banking is a form of branchless banking, but as outlined above, there are also other forms of branchless banking that do not use mobile platforms at all. In general, when talking of new financial service delivery models in the developing world, we prefer to use branchless banking as a more inclusive term. To learn more about Reboot’s work around branchless banking, please see our post “Towards Inclusive, Relevant Branchless Banking in Pakistan.”

Mobile Banking:
Mobile banking is increasingly popular both in the developed and developing world. However, as user realities and potential applications are very different between these two contexts, this definition refers primarily to mobile banking in developing markets. Mobile banking allows users to open bank accounts, access basic banking services, transfer funds, and save money through their mobile phones. In a basic mobile banking model, customers deposit funds by giving cash to specialized agents, who then credit customers’ mobile accounts using SMS (short message service, or text message) or other mobile-phone based applications. Using SMS or these applications, mobile banking subscribers can transfer funds from their mobile account to family and friends, or make payments to registered retailers. Fees are, on average, 19 percent cheaper than traditional banks for comparable services. (This definition adapted from Panthea’s upcoming post on the Health Unbound blog).

The financial concepts addressed in this post are just one of many areas where traditional services are being redefined through the use of information and communication technologies. Other fields from education, to healthcare, to the form and function of government are also being drastically restructured by new tools, processes and business models. In the coming months, we’ll continue to compile definitions that are helpful to understanding these changing realities.For more information on financial inclusion, branchless banking, and mobile banking, be sure to check out the resources below.

Further Resources:

Center for Financial Inclusion

Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (C-GAP)

The Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion (IMTFI)

Microfinance Gateway

Core Questions in Technology and Human Rights

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the 2011 Personal Democracy Forum conference where I sat in on a panel about technology and human rights. The discussion ranged from safety concerns for human rights activists using social media (see Jillian C. York’s “Safety and Social Networks in the Middle East”) to whether niche human rights technology platforms might be a better option (not necessarily, says’s Susannah Vila). The question, however, that I’ve been mulling over is how and when might the actions of developers and designers in Silicon Valley or New York City lead to grave consequences for citizens a world away.

In a globalized world, technology originally designed to solve a particular problem for a subset of people in the US (say, allowing college students to stay in touch and flirt through wall posts, photos, and pokes) very well could spread to another part of the world and be used for a completely different purpose (say, organizing protests, demonstrations, and movements in the Middle East). Given this, how can software developers, technology enthusiasts, and designers better anticipate and design for unexpected use-cases? How can we come together to evaluate the impact of our decisions on the lives of people throughout the world?

One concept that may guide future thinking on this matter is “intersectionality.” A term originally coined by feminist thinkers, intersectionality “is a tool for analysis, advocacy, and policy development that… helps us understand how different sets of identities impact on access to rights and opportunities” (from “Intersectionality: A Tool for Gender and Economic Justice”). The basic premise is that individuals hold not one identity, but instead several intersecting ones. Policies designed to empower all women may end up affecting rich women differently than poor, elderly women differently than young girls, or minority women differently than the general female population. Given this, the Association for Women’s Rights in Development recommends that policy makers and program managers consider a core set of questions when designing gender-friendly projects.

Though conceptually simple, intersectionality is easily overlooked in practice. All too often, “women” become one end-user of technology, “human rights activists” another, and “youth” another. Thinking about users through the lens of intersectionality might have important implications for technology and human rights and, if done more often, might help us better evaluate the consequences of various technologies.

At Reboot, we think through issues of intersectionality when developing and implementing projects. Take, for instance, our recent branchless banking project in Pakistan, where we supported the efforts of a bank in expanding access to basic financial services for flood victims and others in need. One goal of that project was lend depth, nuance and diversity to the broad group of ‘unbanked’ Pakistanis. We asked questions like, how might this potential mobile banking platform affect Pakistani women differently than men? Would branchless banking place the elderly, illiterate, and others less adept at learning new technologies at a disadvantage? Could indirect stakeholders, such as the government, use the platform to monitor citizens’ banking behaviors?

These questions informed the design of our project, and their careful consideration ultimately contributed to the success of our recommendations. Yet, instead of asking these questions on an ad-hoc basis – company-by-company, project-by-project – perhaps it’s time for designers, technologists, and subject area experts to come together and determine a core set of questions we all need to consider when creating new products and services? Building upon Jeff Jarvis’ proposed Hippocratic Oath for the internet, perhaps a series of questions might generate much-needed discussion around this topic.

Of course, no one can predict how a technology may morph over time and space. The point of these core questions would not be to nail down a moving target, but instead to conceptualize how technology might affect different populations in drastically different ways.

These core questions are still in the infancy stage, but some might include:

  • What are some potential communities throughout the world that may use this technology? Can user research be done to better understand the potential effects of the technology on various groups within the communities?
  • How might this technology affect different users, and especially traditionally marginalized or less powerful groups of society? For example, how might a product be used by women differently than men, rich differently than poor, young vs. old, human rights activists vs. casual user, state actor vs. civil society actor, etc.?
  • What laws or other limitations (political, social, or economic) throughout the world might limit the potential of this new technology?

We will never be able to predict all of the consequences of future technologies. But the first step in ensuring that technology and human rights thrive together is to start conceptualizing a few core questions – and asking these questions of one another. Until we consider technology’s impact on a diverse range of actors with intersecting identities, we’ll never have products and services that are responsive to the needs of a global citizenry.

Given the collaborative nature of these core questions, we welcome your feedback. What are we missing? What other questions could help inform the design of technology-driven programs and services? We invite you to join this conversation with your thoughts and ideas on a very thorny issue.

Emma Gardner is the Director of Communications and Outreach at Reboot. You can contact her at emma @ thereboot (dot) org or on Twitter at @EmmaBGardner.


On the Many Manifestations of “Mobile Justice”

I’ve been thinking about mobile justice for about a year now.

The notion, as I have come to understand it, is as follows: as in the examples of mobile health or mobile banking, perhaps mobile technologies could be harnessed to increase citizen access to justice and to improve the public administration of justice.  It’s a topic that is both old (legal informatics practitioners have been using electronic case databases for years now, in many places) and new (virtual courts in Kenya use video teleconference technology to pipe in a judge, live and direct, to your locality).  I can point to examples that use satellite video link, radio, SMS forms, and live web-streaming.  I can come up with cases in India, Cambodia, the Philippines, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the United States.  Taking into consideration the differences in objectives, geography, technology, and scope, these examples seem to form an emerging field of practice.

A kindly commentor on mobile justice recently offered the following simple but honest question: if you were to ask the people who were implementing mobile justice projects how they would characterize their work, would they all identify with the term “mobile justice?”  Honest answer: probably not.

The picture above is an example of the “probably not” scenario.  It depicts a poster on the back of a truck in Accra, Ghana.  The poster reads:


Confidential information hotline

Call MTN short code


Kill crime before it kills you!

MTN is a multi-country mobile network operator in West Africa, and the toll-free short code described is a number that anybody can call to report a crime to the police or get information about crime-related issues. It launched in 2009 and is similar to the “911” system, which in the United States is a free, government number used by citizens to summon the police.  In Ghana, MTN owns just over 50 percent of the mobile operator market, followed by Millicom/Tigo at 20 percent and Bharti Airtel at 10 percent.

The Ghanaian short-code is offered as a free service of MTN — and according to the company’s CEO, has been made available as an example of MTN’s responsibility to social welfare and local community development.  Whereas the 911 system is coordinated solely by government actors in the U.S., it is the mobile operator that is really best enabled to provide this crime-fighting service in Ghana.

This brings up interesting questions about the emerging role of private actors in resourcing public activities — to what extent will governments be able to rely on private actors for the provision of these services?  How do we navigate the murky waters of conflict-of-interest (for example, what if I reported a crime committed by an MTN employee using the MTN short-code)?  And will these activities remain sustainable for telecom industries that are (necessarily) concerned with connecting people to their technologies?

All of these questions bring us back to my original probe: is this short-code a manifestation of “mobile justice?”

It is, effectively, a way for citizens to access the processes of justice more easily — and it also has the potential to provide data that can help the Ghana Police Service more accurately track crime and crime reporting.  (Although it appears that there have been some problems with serial “fake callers” — and in the coming days, I hope to get more information about outcomes two years after the launch.  Stay tuned …)

But it is also just “good business practice” or a “public-private partnership” or my favorite, plain ol’ “common sense.”   Call it what you will, the short-code example is part of a set of evolving, tech-fueled trends in judicial innovation, in corporate social responsibility, and in government-industry partnerships.  I think we should ultimately let the practitioners decide for themselves whether their activities are all part of some larger whole — and why that larger body of work is meaningful and important for the future.

This post is by Reboot associate Kate Krontiris. Kate is currently in Ghana developing the mobile justice portfolio for Google Ideas, a new think/do tank at Google.

Expanding Access to China’s Financial Transformation

Good field research starts with a focus on training. This ensures that the entire team, including new local staff, fully grasp and support project goals. This shared understanding is critical to the ability of each team member to effectively execute his or her responsibilities. This is true everywhere, but the importance of training and buy-in increases in direct proportion to the authoritarian-ness of the local government. In contexts where asking an unbefitting question can lead to a visit from national security, or an invite for a less than pleasant ‘cup of tea’, local team members are understandably wary of missions they don’t thoroughly understand.

Our current project in China is no different. Thus, our team in China has spent much of the last week between Beijing and Hohhot training our crack local staff on project vision, goals, and the broader ‘why this stuff matters’.

At the top line, we’re trying to get our brains around the massive economic transformation that is occurring in this country of 1.3 billion (potential) consumers. New political and economic forces are sweeping away ancient custom in short order. Value systems that have served as effective means of social and financial exchange for centuries or more are facing pressure by forces both domestic and foreign.


Today, we are in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, where generations of Mongol herdsmen are now forbidden from raising livestock. To compensate these herdsmen for forfeiting their traditional ways of life, the Beijing government provides social support payments. The effects of this decade-long policy has been devastating to both the psyche and the economic independence of the Mongol minority in this supposedly autonomous region of China.

Here we’re asking, what are the benefits of traditional value systems? Other than the conception of value itself, how do traditional modes of storing and exchanging value differ from modern-day approaches? If one accepts that change is coming, for better or worse, what are the aspects of these informal value systems that should be preserved in new ones?

These questions are driving our research, and have led our focus to specific subsets of the Chinese population. This focus is, we believe, succinctly summed up in a back-of-napkin diagram — cleaned up below — we prepared for our local team in the initial training period.

Click for larger, more detailed version.

We’ve charted our research focus along two axes. On the Y-axis, we have the degree to which a demographic group has seen its economic opportunities change in the New China. This considers whether and how a particular group has changed its behaviors along with the new economic landscape, and the impact of such changes. On the X-axis, we are charting the nature of the Chinese economy on a spectrum from very traditional (which was itself multifaceted in nature, and included subsistence, agrarian, and market economies) to highly market-driven, as now centrally directed.

Taking a look at the various demographic segments we have identified:

  • Party and Traditional Elites: These are the groups that initiated and institutionalized the economic changes over the last three decades, and are at the heart of China’s current market focus. Government officials and their affiliates have, however, seen the least change in their access to opportunities, as they have always benefited from the reigning order.
  • The Nouveau Riche and the Middle Class: These groups are fully integrated into the new economic order, and have vastly improved their opportunities and livelihoods as a result. Whether industrialists driving the Chinese economic engine, or white-collar professionals ensuring its smooth operation, these groups have leapt into new social strata and are enjoying the fruits of change.
  • Low-Income and Marginalized Groups: These populations — including rural agrarian cultures or a newly urban workforce — are trying to change their way of life to keep pace with the new national order. They are, however, struggling to adapt and have thus seen the least change in terms of opportunities and benefits. Some groups, including ethnic minorities, have also been actively excluded from progressing with the rest of the country.

Our project focus is heavily on the left side of the curve. There has already been vast study into the groups that have prospered from the economic shifts, or those that controlled the change to begin with. Our interest is thus in the populations that are either just beginning to enter the new Chinese economy, or those that still have a ways to go before they can successfully access it. This focus has led us to the poorer and more remote regions of China, as well as areas with minority populations, where the economic gains have not been equitably felt.

Stay tuned in the months ahead, as we’ll have much more to report on the changing nature of value in the Middle Kingdom.

For those following the current unrest in Inner Mongolia, not to worry: the Reboot team is fine and taking precautionary measures as we continue the project.

Towards Inclusive, Relevant Branchless Banking in Pakistan

This is the third post in a series on Reboot’s ongoing work in Pakistan in the areas of branchless banking and financial inclusion.

A Reboot team recently returned to Pakistan, where we are supporting the efforts of a bank to expand access to basic financial services to those in need. We recently presented the project findings from our recent field study in Punjab Province to the bank’s management and staff. Some of the resulting design recommendations addressed how the bank could:

  • Enhance delivery mechanisms for humanitarian relief funds and government-to-person payments.
  • Graduate aid beneficiaries into viable branchless banking customers.
  • Strengthen its business model through selective, strategic investments.
  • Better serve marginalized market segments, defined here as rural populations, the poor, and women.

The team also led a series of interactive workshops with each of the bank’s functional areas, where staff at all levels were encouraged to test, challenge, and build upon our findings, and to develop concrete next steps towards improving their branchless banking services.

Some shots from the 90-page final publication, designed by our talented Erin Moore, follow:

Blog-Pak-Final-1-Cover Blog-Pak-Final-7-Methodology Blog-Pak-Final-6-Watan-User-Journey Blog-Pak-Final-5-Watan-Experience Blog-Pak-Final-3-User-Profiles

Pakistan is among the most exciting m-banking markets in the world, and we’re honored to be working with a market visionary in developing more inclusive financial services for its citizens.

This project was developed in collaboration with MEDA, with the generous support of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Project Notes: Branchless Banking in Pakistan

This is the second post in a series on Reboot’s ongoing work in Pakistan in the areas of branchless banking and financial inclusion.

For some researchers, travel in insecure regions or the mid-project client check-in are the most nerve-wracking parts of a field study. For me, it’s recruiting the local team.

Going in to each study, we know the what’s, why’s, and high-level how’s regarding the data we seek. The actual on-the-ground how-to’s, however, require the input of shrewd local researchers. Without the right field team, a study is doomed before it’s begun. This was no less true for our work in Pakistan, where a Reboot team has been doing research and analyses around how to achieve greater financial inclusion through sustainable market-based approaches. Friends old and new rallied for our cause and we now boast an exceptional Pakistani team. To Irfan Kareem and Uzma Aziz, this post is to you.


But how do you take seven relative strangers from four countries — an inclusive finance expert, an agricultural economist, a gender reform specialist, a sociologist, an interaction designer, a systems analyst, and a design researcher — and rapidly unify them in vision, purpose, and action? Some are new to financial inclusion, others to design research. Given the diverse backgrounds, how much of the broader strategic vision is productive to share with the entire field team?

At Reboot, we believe in as much transparency as is efficient. We create shared ownership of project goals by recognizing that all team members have value to contribute if they’re given appropriate opportunities. We keep to each other intellectually honest, morally accountable, and programmatically focused. Training a team on the nuances of social interaction and on how to draw out critical insights is invaluable for delivering on the field study, but infusing them with a sense of higher purpose is paramount for delivering on the broader vision.


We pursue our fieldwork in full recognition that research is never an end but rather a means to improved outcomes. We strive to map the human and social systems we examine against the capabilities of our partners and clients. To do this, we apply a bifurcated approach. Once in the field, the lead researcher has tunnel-vision focus on data collection. She must adjust scope and focus daily as data accumulates and is synthesized. Meanwhile, the lead analyst embeds with the client team to probe their capacities and current workings. Armed with a deep understanding of client realities, he rejoins the field team to ensure that data collected is additive and will ultimately interact easily with the client’s operational models .

This approach is also reflected in our engagement with study participants. The researcher is the sympathetic listener and the enthusiastic service-tester, while the analyst sits in the corner as cold-eyed observer. The former trades on empathy to connect with participants and source data. The latter analyzes observations and responses in real-time, and maps them against broader identified opportunities.


Our current efforts in Pakistan are in the areas of financial inclusion, branchless banking, and mobile service delivery, with a specific focus on innovations for vulnerable communities. These include the rural and the urban poor, as well as the victims of last year’s devastating floods.

Speaking with more than 300 individuals over three weeks, the team was able to detect patterns in attitudes and behaviours that inhibited economic empowerment, and to identify opportunities for progress in serving marginalized populations. In seeking out flood victims, we looked for key psychographic indicators on how that experience has and will continue to impact their economic livelihoods. Nearly 2 million flood victims now have access to a basic banking account, they just don’t know it. The question now is how to evolve existing banking services and delivery mechanisms so they can also benefit Pakistan’s most vulnerable communities. How do we graduate aid beneficiaries into empowered customers? How do we make savings, insurance, and credit meaningful to and useful in their lives?


To understand the social forces at play, our lines of inquiry included family power dynamics, community information flows, informal financial systems, and changing gender roles. We studied end-users as well as service-agents and stakeholders in the value ecosystem, and we sought to understand and even experience the services they were already using. We studied public-, private-, and public-private delivery models for basic services in healthcare, education, and social welfare. We also examined consumer services including informal credit lending (pervasive amongst the poor), travel (whose agencies function as international employment brokers for most), and insurance (an industry that faces similar market barriers as banking).

And we didn’t just ask people about their lives. So much as was possible, we tried to gain firsthand experiences of the services they use and the systems they operate within. By listening to others, we learn; by doing as they do, we understand. Memorable was the night I spent plying the streets of a Southern Punjab city with the local loan shark, shaking installments out of debtors. By motorbike, we did nearly 50 home- and office-visits in under two hours, and collected on all but two payments. The value of such interactions cannot be underestimated. Through many such experiences, we grew to appreciate the longstanding norms around rural service delivery and, unsurprisingly, found that ingenuity abounds in resource-constrained markets.


The team is nearing the end of our field study, and some of us will be heading back to New York for data processing and synthesis with our partners and the rest of the Reboot team. In May, we will return to Pakistan to work with our partners and clients in creating even more value out of this research. Our findings will inform the design of social and financial services for Pakistan’s rural poor, for the country’s flood victims, and, hopefully, for future emergency response and early recovery programs.

A final note of gratitude to those who made the fieldwork what it was. There were several episodes of delightful serendipity during the study. Thank you to those who stumbled across our work and chose to support our vision. From the founder of Mobile Money Karachi to Pakistan’s former Secretary of Economic Affairs to the ever so kind Raja Ayub to the various journalists we encountered — we are grateful for your curiosity, enthusiasm, skepticism, wisdom, and eagerness to help relative strangers. We look forward to updating you on our progress.

Images: Zack Brisson and Panthea Lee

Institutional Overview: Independent Media

In a region not known for an exceptionally robust press, Egypt can claim one of the more diverse and independent media ecosystems in the Arab world. In print and via broadcast, citizens can choose from a range of perspectives and outlets. Online, a growing movement of bloggers and commentators led Harvard’s Berkman Centre to, in 2009, name Egypt the most active online journalist community in the Middle East.

With few other legitimate channels for political participation, the independent media in Egypt have often served as de facto opposition parties. The robust media are made possible by an active customer base and ready human capital. Egypt’s middle class, while relatively poor, is sizable, well-educated, and increasingly hungry for political information. It is also from these ranks that a large proportion of Egyptian journalists are drawn. In a society where middle- and lower-class citizens were routinely harassed by security forces, the power of a press card reading “Please make it easier for the holder of this card to do his job”—a cheeky circumlocution—has long been seen as an upwardly mobile force.

The recent revolution has vaulted the media into atmospheric prominence. Egyptians now compulsively consume the media for clues to what their future will hold. Many are desperate to stay abreast of the rapidly changing political developments so as to better participate in the national transformation process. “Previously, no one cared about politics; now, we all follow every word,” was a common refrain. Popular television sitcoms and dramas have been replaced by political programming. Independent newspapers are growing in audience every day. Correspondingly, regime-controlled media are quickly drying up as Egyptians reach for outlets they can trust.

Cognizant of the role of the media—past, present, and future—in Egypt’s democratic transformation, we pursued key media figures and institutions in our study. Likewise, we probed attitudes and behaviours around media with nearly all respondents. Extremely informative was the day we spent at Al-Dustour, one of the leading independent newspapers which has gathered a robust following on the strength of its reporting against government corruption.

Conversations with Al-Dustour’s journalists, editors, and management revealed an institution that is actively seeking to cement its role as a positive facilitator to the national dialogue. Journalists of all ranks expressed strong interest in developing new editorial models that move beyond cataloguing the failures of the past and onto constructing an achievable vision of the future.

One editor in particular was excited by the prescriptive model offered by his section, ‘Post Box’. The section’s colloquial title, ‘The Complaints Page’ paints a clearer picture of its purpose. Once a week, it documents the challenges, both quotidian and structural, faced by ordinary citizens as they navigate a broken governance system. From critical but out-of-reach medication to trash that is never collected, these citizen grievances reflect the challenges of everyday life in Egypt. Complainants can submit their issues via print, email, or old-fashioned office visits.

Al-Dustour then documents and publishes those it believes are most compelling or widely applicable. The editors also determine which government ministry is responsible for the particular issue and publish a photo of its minister alongside the complaint. Ministers then have the opportunity to address or resolve citizens’ issues, and have their actions recognized in a later Post Box. Whether driven by a sense of responsibility or a concern for their public image, many government officials work to resolve issues publicly addressed to them.

Al-Dustour believes providing a feedback channel to government—however indirect it may have be—is what has made Post Box so popular. Such organic ‘hacks’ to the political system demonstrate the lengths to which Egyptians previously had to go in order to exert influence over governance structures. The feature’s success and the overall vision of the Al-Dustour team offers a model for the Egyptian media’s role in the nation’s long-term political transformation.

Of course, Al-Dustour represents only one outlet in a rapidly expanding media landscape. As a new sense of openness settles upon Egyptian society, we can expect to see a blossoming of homegrown platforms for discourse. The Muslim Brotherhood has already announced a new television channel and every week sees the launch of new citizen-driven websites eager to provide an online meeting place for civic debate.

Likewise, internet and satellite connections continue to broadcast and build audiences for foreign news entities. Several international media outlets have gained prominence in Egypt from their coverage during the revolution. The BBC was repeatedly cited as one of the most fair international broadcasters. Numerous respondents from diverse backgrounds turned to it for insights into how the global audience was interpreting events in Egypt.

The role of Al Jazeera has also been heavily stressed in Western outlets. Without a doubt, the Qatari network produced reporting that was was highly visible in Egypt during the revolution. Its coverage of events was a powerful tool for some Western-oriented organizers who saw it is a willing, even eager accomplice in their efforts to win the global public relations campaign. However many Egyptians, including those actively demonstrating, felt that Al Jazeera was not sympathetic to their perspective. They saw the network as an agent of foreign interests, altering its coverage to support a predetermined narrative. There is certainly an element of national pride in this view, but its repeated assertion should give the international community pause in considering the network a universal friend to the mythic ‘Arab street’.

This explosion of voices and perspectives in Egypt is undoubtedly a positive force. The public desires, and the established media industry is willing to provide, a balancing information force in the governance transition now underway. Yet it remains unclear to what extent the numerous and divergent channels will contribute value to a national dialogue. Many are likely to just add noise. The challenge faced by media policymakers in Egypt is a sharpened version of one that societies are facing all over the world. In the age of new media, how can a country develop an inclusive, constructive discourse on national issues? What are the mechanisms to differentiate sophisticated political ideas from well-intended but ultimately amateur voices? These questions have eluded many of the brightest minds in media policy the world over. Yet the Egyptian media is now tackling them head-on, with the added complexity of a revolutionary operating environment.

To succeed in their role as host to an important national dialogue, Egyptian media require significant support. New business and publishing models, which take time and resources to establish, are necessary. To strengthen the quality and ambition of their accountability-making journalism, respected, credible outlets such as Al-Dustour need help building organizational capacity. As their editor told us, only half in jest, “Having the organizational charts of [the major Western newspapers], with corresponding job descriptions, would be immensely valuable.”

Likewise, as credible voices from grassroots and amateur outlets continue to emerge, they will need support to better take part in the national dialogue. Well developed publishing platforms editorial models will help package and disseminate their voices. Both professional and amateur journalists lack knowledge of investigative methods and reporting technologies, a product of the previous media environment. Training and knowledge transfer in these areas will be critical to their growth.

Collectively, these policies and investments will contribute to a sustainable, diverse, independent media landscape. International institutions with the knowledge and resources to support these needs have the opportunity to make powerful investments in the Egyptian fourth estate in a period critical to the region’s history. A viable democratic media will give the Egyptian people a necessary platform for addressing the political, social and cultural challenges ahead.

Designing Financial Inclusion in Pakistan

This is the first post in a series on Reboot’s ongoing work in Pakistan in the areas of branchless banking and financial inclusion.

Those that follow this publication know that Reboot is passionate about improving the nature of transactions between citizens and the institutions meant to serve them. From Egypt to the United States to China, we are looking at how these interactions are changing, and how to design that change in a way that leads to improved outcomes.

This focus has led us to Pakistan, a country roughly the size of Chile that generates a disproportionate share of the world’s grim headlines. While we’ve only been here for under a week, our time thus far — spent between Karachi and Islamabad — belies the negative narrative dominating global consciousness. Pakistan certainly has a history of painful strife, yet there are countless reasons to be optimistic about its future. For one, the Pakistani government is serious about expanding access to basic services for a population that has been battered by conflict, natural disaster, and economic despair. For another, there is an able and sizable middle class eager to help steer their country towards positive growth.

One area where Pakistan is making progress is in financial inclusion. In a country where nearly 90 percent of people lack access to basic financial services, recent public, private, and non-profit collaborations are working to change this reality for its most marginalized citizens. We are now here, working with an international NGO and a leading local financial institution, to understand how new technologies, combined with innovative business models and progressive public policy, can be used to empower market segments that are often left at the economic sidelines.

The Pakistani people are skilled at creating opportunity out of adversity. One example emerged in the aftermath of last summer’s devastating floods that affected nearly 20 million people. In the midst of tragedy, Pakistani institutions and the international community swiftly mobilized and worked together to support afflicted populations. Building upon years of innovation in branchless banking, the bank with whom Reboot has partnered quickly joined forces with the Pakistani government and international donors to deliver emergency cash transfers to more than a million flood victims. Preloaded debit cards allowed beneficiaries to securely manage their relief funds. Utilizing a vast network of cash-in cash-out agents, aid recipients could collect their relief assistance easily and at no cost to themselves.

In addition to being a mechanism for secure, speedy relief assistance, the cards also represented de facto bank accounts — and the related services and benefits — for a market segment that has traditionally been excluded from formal financial services. As a majority of aid recipients were previously ‘unbanked’, newly possible access to secure savings, cash transfers, bill payments, and opportunities to establish a credit history represent critical steps towards financial inclusion.

However, as often the case, particularly in disaster situations, optimal outcomes weren’t realized. While the aid relief payments were a broad success, recipients are not using the secondary financial services newly available to them. Having no experience with banks, the value proposition isn’t clear to them. Why hand precious cash to a faceless institution when the concept of ‘banking’ is still fuzzy? How to guarantee the cash put into a mysterious digital machine would actually reappear whenever you wanted it again?

Their hesitation at adopting these services is understandable. All of us know the anxiety that comes from dealing with a large, important institution for the first time. From earning your first driver’s license, to obtaining a foreign travel visa, interacting with unknown bureaucracies can be scary and confusing. This is particularly true when the services these organizations offer haven’t been designed with the end user in mind.

Given these challenges, our goal is to understand how to better design banking products, delivery mechanisms, and business models to meet the needs of a new, previously unbanked market segment. Instead of asking, ‘Why won’t they use the great products on offer?’, we and our partners are asking ‘How can we better design products that meet this market segment’s specific needs?

To answer this question, we’ll be exploring the lives of low-income and rural Pakistanis who stand to gain from access to financial services. Multiple trips to Pakistan across several months will see our team traveling through many regions of this stunning country, with a focus on Punjab Province. We’ll also be critically examining the operations of the facilitating bank to understand how to connect the dots between user needs and organizational capacity. Our ultimate goal is to bridge the gap between customers and the financial services that offer them greater economic security and opportunities.

Our work will take us to disparate contexts, from embeds at the bank’s headquarters in Karachi to visits to flood refugee camps. We’ll join communities as diverse as tech entrepreneur meetups, to government representatives and civil society groups. We’ll seek answers to important questions such as: How can we break out the unique market segments that are too often lumped into one, woolly, ‘bottom of the pyramid’ designation? How can we better understand the low-income and rural market segments to develop tailored products for their specific needs, just as is done for segments traditionally attractive to commercial banks? How does illiteracy — textual, numerical, financial, and technological — impact access to and use of financial services? And how can the formal financial sector be opened to allow a new class of entrepreneur to create greater social value through its supply chains? We’ll place a specific emphasis on women and how to better serve them as customers and as potential agents in the financial ecosystem.

Rapidly rising mobile penetration in Pakistan and new P2P payment systems, combined with government foresight and innovative business models, offer the opportunity to bring economic hope to millions of Pakistanis. Willingness from all stakeholders — government, private sector, NGOs, and the people they all serve — to try new approaches gives cause for optimism. We’re grateful to be part of this period of experimentation, because Pakistan is so much more than dour headlines. It is a hotbed of social innovation that is redefining the relationship between citizens and those institutions meant to serve them.

Image: Save the Children

District of Imbaba

Just 5 kilometres from the quiet, tree-lined streets and historic villas of Cairo’s affluent Zamalek neighbourhood is the district of Imbaba. Its streets are strewn with garbage, roamed by skeletal strays, and flanked by long expired street lights. In this impoverished neighbourhood, where population density is three times that of Manhattan, we met two friends: Saeed and Mustafa.

Saeed is elated about the events of the past month and eager to detail his involvement. Starting on Friday, January 28—orchestrated as the “Day of Rage” by organizers—this taxi driver abandoned his job. “For two weeks, I served my duty in my country’s liberation.”

Daily he crossed the Nile on his way to Tahrir, often merging with like-minded mobs along the way. In Saeed’s mind, there was only one path to liberation: the road to Tahrir. “And so we stood our ground, we fought.” Saeed does not mention the riot police’s use of tear gas or water cannons and, later, when the topic is brought up, his face darkens. “Those are events that should not have been broadcast across the world. Al-Jazeera had good coverage of events in Egypt, but they were wrong to shame the Egyptian people,” he says quietly. “There are some things that are private to a nation, our own business.” Unlike several youth activists we spoke with, Saeed does not stress the hardships he and his fellow protesters endured. They were part of the price of freedom, we are made to understand, and the conversation moves abruptly forward.

Saeed is optimistic about a better Egypt, but recognizes getting there will take time. “I didn’t care about politics before January 25, but now I am motivated to learn more.” This sentiment was repeated by many others we encountered over our time in Egypt. Saeed is grateful to Facebook for helping bring forth the revolution. Though he himself has not used the website, he believes users of Facebook and similar tools will be critical to his country’s salvation. “Technology is powerful. It allows true dialogue.” And although Saeed has never used the platform, he adds, “Everyone should be on Facebook. It is our duty.”

Within Imbaba, Saeed is very much the organic leader that emerges in any tightly knit community. He was the one that collected the 20 Egyptian pounds (USD 3.40) each from more than 30 neighbours to repair the long broken street lights in his alley. Yet despite his proactive nature and his optimism for Egypt’s future, Saeed grows visibly dejected when the topic turns to Imbaba’s prospects. “I want people from here to be represented, but I just don’t see how that can happen. People from Imbaba can only take part in politics up to a certain point: we could participate in Tahrir. Now, it is out of our hands — the rest is up to others, and up to God.”

Three things, Saeed says, brought him to Tahrir: the desire for freedom, for greater class equality, and for ‘a normal life’, defined as having enough money to provide for his family of eight. To his mind, there has been progress on the first. The path to the latter two demands, he believes, is far more uncertain. Saeed believes the barriers of entry to politics are impossibly high for people like him. Serving as a physical body to bolster the protests, he says, was one thing. The next step in national reform requires facilities he simply doesn’t have: “We are too illiterate, too poor. We don’t even have enough money to take care of daily life, to pay the baksheesh I need to pay to get by,” hey says, referring to the greasing of the palms customary across the Middle East. “How will we have the resources to make things better?”

He is, however, determined to remain a vigilant watchdog for progress. If those entrusted to rebuild Egypt fail him, Saeed says punishment will be swift: “We now know the way to Tahrir, and we won’t be afraid to head back,” he proudly declares. Like many in Imbaba, Saeed supports the Egyptian-American scientist Ahmed Zewail as one of Egypt’s future leaders. “He won a Nobel Prize in 1999 and,” pausing for dramatic effect, “advises President Obama!” (Zewail is one of Obama’s advisors on science and technology.) He looks thrilled, and the trademark Egyptian pride is on full display.

Saeed also places hope in select institutions. For years, entities including the non-governmental organization Resala and the well known religious group the Muslim Brotherhood have provided critical social services to Saeed and his neighbours. Such groups have earned the type of strong, popular credibility and trust that can only be established with time and effort. Though he does not politically identify with the Brotherhood, nor with its interpretations of Islam, Saeed recognizes its immense societal value. His family has received medical, education, and financial services from the Brotherood, and he knows it also operates social support programs for widows, orphans, and the disabled. Saeed hopes groups like Resala and the Brotherood will take an active role in rebuilding Egypt, for these are parties he knows he can trust to care for him and his family.

Saeed’s cautious optimism was balanced with the dark pragmatism of his neighbour Mustafa, who is blunt in his analysis of the situation. “There has not been a revolution,” he says flatly. “The worst has gone, but many more like him remain, in government and in society. Things will now get better for them—they have been waiting for this moment—but not for us. For people like me, things will forever stay the same.”

We are in Mustafa’s home, a two-chamber studio on the ground floor of a four-storey building. Graffiti covers the building’s outer walls. One particularly striking piece depicts the Kaaba, a sacred Islamic site in Mecca. Within the building’s unfinished concrete walls live 12 families. There is one bathroom for the entire building. In Mustafa’s own 250-square-foot home lives his family of eight. There are thin floral carpets beneath our feet, though the flowers have long since worn away and resemble little more than brownish pink blotches with dabs of faint green. A few pieces of decorative fabric cover the spotty walls. A mixture of peeling sea-green paint and grime pokes out beneath the exterior layer.

Mustafa seems tired. Really, truly exhausted. Unlike his exuberant friend, Mustafa views the events of the past month as more annoyance than anything. As a day labourer who collects and sells scrap metal, he found that business essentially shut down for two weeks while the nation was caught up in revolution. It was a trying, difficult time for Mustafa.

“One day I don’t work is one day that my family doesn’t eat. We had no food for two weeks and had to beg from our neighbours.” He believes Saeed was foolish to participate in the protests in Tahrir, and openly scolds his friend. “People like us are the wood on the fire. They wanted you to sacrifice, but they don’t care about you. There will always be more of you, more of us. We are always available for sacrifice.” One gets the sense that he is talking about more than just Tahrir.

Mustafa’s long list of complaints against his country centre around two themes: immutable poverty and injustice. His son was imprisoned because the family couldn’t afford to pay their electricity bill. Mustafa finally begged and borrowed the USD 10 in baksheesh–one week’s pay–needed to get his son out. He wants his children to lead a better life, but he can’t afford the private classes needed to get them there. “My son is in Grade 9 and still doesn’t know how to read,” despairs the father. “They keep just passing him up through the grades, just to get him through the system. But then how will we ever improve our place in life?”

To buy gas for their home in Imbaba, Mustafa complains, is 10 times what it costs in wealthy Zamalek because his neighbourhood lacks basic urban infrastructure. He says even the government ‘support’ his family does receive, is a joke. “We bought a loaf of government bread once [bread that is made from subsidized flour the government provides to bakers to allow them to make cheaper, poorer quality goods for low-income clients]. When we brought it home to eat, we found a cockroach in it. That would never happen for those that can pay; for people like us, they don’t care. They treat us however they like… It should not be this way.” He looks deflated. Tired.

As for the upcoming elections, Mustafa says he will not be voting. “What is the point?” he asks, returning to his favourite metaphor. “We are just wood for the fire; nothing will change for us anyway.”

Institutional Overview: The Legal Community

For the most part, the Western media spotlight has aimed at a technologically enabled, younger generation as the primary movers of the revolution. However, as we’ve shown, there are many important and well defined institutions that were critical in creating the political openings necessary for revolution the thrive. These groups, endowed with legitimacy and infrastructure, will be critical in building new and improved governance systems. With a strong basis in the rule of law, Egypt’s legal community is one such institution.

Under the Mubarak regime, the legal system was corrupted, preventing judges and lawyers from exercising their ostensible authority to curb the government’s abuse of power. Yet despite decades under such an autocratic governing style, Egyptian society still benefits from a robust community of legal practitioners. This community, frustrated by these political challenges, has been a consistent source of demands for political reform.

In recent years, the legal community has been increasingly vocal and better organized. In March 2006, nearly 1,000 judges demonstrated for full judicial independence and against state harassment of those who had criticized the 2005 elections. This sparked a series of protests that spring, many of which were violently suppressed by police forces. Lawyers in Egypt have also been actively calling for change. In the summer of 2010, after two lawyers were unjustly prosecuted for ‘disrespecting a state prosecutor’, 100,000 lawyers across the country walked out of courtrooms in a general protest to demand improved standards of fairness in the justice system.

Such examples point to the years of organizing work that culminated in a broad political agenda for reform. The work of groups like the legal community and the labour organizers outlined earlier, created critical cracks in the power of the regime, ultimately leading to a successful revolution. Given this important pre-revolution role, we sought to understand what this community’s continued function would be in the post-revolution transition period.

A day at the national lawyers’ syndicate (or bar association) in Cairo proved illuminating. Lawyers’ syndicates serve as the primary organizing body for Egypt’s lawyers, and the headquarters in Cairo oversees all chapters nationwide. Here, we spoke with an assorted group, from renowned human rights attorney Mamdouh Ismail to an Egyptian-American lawyer who had returned to Egypt to participate in his homeland’s transformation. We witnessed a roiling debate that spilled out from cramped meeting rooms into the lobby and courtyard of the majestic but decrepit headquarters. Dozens of men dressed in Western-style suits and clutching assorted papers, folders, and briefcases moved in one messy and ever-growing mass. Voices were raised, fingers were pointed, and dignities were insulted. As it turns out, competing factions were arguing over whom the syndicate should appoint as its new leadership. The previous executive body had recently been run out for their ties to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, affiliations from which they benefited unfairly.

This dialogue was echoed at a small regional lawyers’ syndicate in the Lower Egyptian city of Damanhur, where we found groups of lawyers huddled in similarly heated discussions. Frustrated by rampant corruption that saw an alleged 90 percent of their annual legal fees siphoned off, the lawyers of Damanhur were also struggling to appoint new leadership without ties to the hand-selected cabal that had previously sacrificed their interests for that of the regime.

The transitions the lawyers’ syndicates are undergoing are reflective of a larger trend across Egypt. In the psychological revolution of the post-Mubarak era, institutions large and small are determined to purge themselves of traces of the old regime. This has led to waves of ‘micro-revolutions’, staged by individuals and organizations at the local, state, and national levels who are desperate for a clean break from the toxic governance structures of the past. Complicity in corruption, they insist, will no longer be tolerated. In many instances, including the legal community, these shifts are being driven by younger generations desperate to change the rules of the game.

As with all democratic processes, this transformation is complex and positive outcomes are in no way guaranteed. Forces aligned with the previous regime extend beyond individuals — they are nested in institutional structures. Internal forces for change will continue to face robust opposition from the establishment powers who benefited from, and thus structured their institutions to serve, the status quo.
Established institutions such as Egypt’s legal community are at the heart of the political transformation now underway.

Mini-revolutions will continue to ripple through these organizations as internal reformers push out leader’s that were tainted by the corruption of the previous regime. These internal change agents need political, economic and organizational support to cement their gains and strengthen the democratic capacity of their important institutions. Groups seeking to encourage progressive reform in Egypt would do well do identify and enable the efforts of such actors. Their success will in many ways determine how far systemic reform advances as a result of the initial revolution.

Reflections on Egypt

Nine days after Hosni Mubarak stepped down, Zack and I landed in Egypt. We were there to explore how and what governance structures were emerging in a period of great excitement and uncertainty, and to document voices that we believed were largely missing from mainstream reporting and analyses. For two weeks, we spoke with as many people as would speak to us. Our conversations were, by turns, inspiring and troubling, encouraging and heartbreaking. We’ve just arrived back in New York and are continuing to process, distill, and make sense of all that we witnessed and heard in Egypt.We traveled to four locations across the country and spoke with day labourers, factory workers, factory owners, cab drivers, farmers, youth activists, labour organizers, community organizers, NGO officers, government officials, journalists, lawyers, white collar professionals of all stripes, and politicians.

Interviews were both arranged and ad hoc, and were conducted in homes, in workplaces, and on the streets. With the exception of one American, all those we spoke with were Egyptian. We interviewed those across the socioeconomic spectrum — from slum-dwellers to high society — and of Muslim and Christian faiths. Interviews were, for the most part, conducted in Arabic with a handful in English based on participant preference.


Research scope was initially determined by Reboot, with the input of various local and international groups we conferred with prior to and upon first arriving in Egypt. Though we continued to absorb all that we saw through our initial research frame, our focus areas and questions naturally evolved over the course of the study. Data processing was done nightly and data synthesis with the local team took place in Cairo at the tail-end of the study.

Our Egyptian team consisted of four males — two in Cairo, one for Mahalla and Kesariya, and one in Damanhur — three journalists and one university student. All team members were local to the cities or areas in which they guided our activities. And in a country where wasta (connections/influence) are everything, our team served the study well. You can expect to hear more from them in the coming months here on Reboot.

In Cairo, we stayed one block from Tahrir Square to allow for twice daily visits to the hub — first thing in the morning, and last thing at night — to take the national pulse. This proved far more effective than monitoring local or international news — Tahrir is a fount of intelligence and insights; it was where news began and was exchanged. Though often overwhelming, we eagerly drank from the source. Unsurprisingly, we noticed mass media narratives often diverged from what we witnessed on the ground. Reasons vary but, suffice it to say, being so close to the discourse proved its value.


And while immensely rewarding, our time in Egypt was not without challenges.

Studying a country in a time of historic change was naturally difficult. With a huge question mark over the future of Egypt and of its people, emotions were perpetually charged — much of what we heard was understandably hyberbolized, and our local team worked tirelessly to translate not just language but ever-changing national and local sentiments. Contradictory messages in the media and on the street proved disorienting both for researchers and those we consulted. To the best of our ability, synthesis activities have mitigated for bias derived from these constraints.

In the period Reboot was in-country, there was widespread distrust of foreigners. We encountered few non-Arabs, and state and military powers cautioned Egyptians to be wary of foreign intelligence. With Zack a white American — I’m a Taiwanese-Canadian — we attracted suspicion, especially in smaller towns and poorer neighbourhoods, where foreigners are in general rare, and especially unusual in the present period. Street and intercept interviews sometimes drew negative attention, and a few in Mahalla and Damanhur led to hostile verbal confrontations. A strong sense of pride also sparked public disagreements among Egyptians on whether foreigners were indeed welcome in such a time of change. Do we want outsiders to document Egypt’s revolution, or should we get our house in order first? Despite these challenges, many were eager to speak with us and exercise their newly won freedom of expression.

Accessing female participants also proved challenging, but this was expected given the Arab context. In our photos, men also strongly dominate — this is due to widespread objections to the photographing of Muslim women from both sexes and from older generations. We did, however, speak with many strong women that played critical roles in the uprising and will continue to do so in the months and years ahead.


A common misconception around the role of research is that all the magic happens in the field. In our experience, the hardest but most valuable part happens after. We’re now neck-deep in synthesis and sensemaking of the data we collected: identifying patterns and drawing insights around various themes in governance and development, and detailing opportunities for making meaningful change in Egypt. This stage creates value out of seemingly unwieldy or otherwise passive data.

Moving forward, we will be supporting various actors in mapping the road ahead in Egypt. In the coming week, we will also be publicly releasing a few of our more interesting conversations and some top-level analyses. We’ll also be launching an Egypt microsite here on where we hope to share a sample of our data. We hope you find this material interesting and relevant. This is a time of immense opportunity for the Egyptian people, and we feel honoured to be a part of the vibrant conversation.

Egypt: From Revolutions to Institutions

A special report from Reboot highlights opportunities to support the people and groups that are designing better governance in Egypt.

Download publication: ‘Egypt: From Revolutions to Institutions’

Feedback or requests for more info can be sent to:

As Egyptians head to the polls for a historic constitutional vote, the world watches and waits to understand just how structural long-term changes to the country’s governance system will be. While mainstream media stories focus on admittedly appealing narratives of technology-enabled change, numerous groups and institutions continue to work outside the spotlight to build a new political structure.

Reboot’s focus is on understanding rapidly changing mechanisms of social interaction, and leveraging them for better societies. As practitioners at the intersection of governance, technology, and social science, we help our clients build effective programs and identify optimal investments that will lead to a better future. Developments in MENA in recent weeks provide many examples of the type of systemic change that is possible. Likewise, these events will prove instructive on the larger patterns of social change we are all observing. As a global population that has routinely been excluded from political power continues to gain access to information and communications tools, we can only expect more social ruptures. Thus, we decided to abandon the armchair analysis and get our feet on the ground.

In settling on a research destination, the answer was easy. Egypt has long been a political, cultural, and social leader in the Arab world. Its people’s success in unseating Hosni Mubarak, their autocratic ruler of 29 years, was both historic and emblematic of larger patterns in the region. As students of history, we know the story of any revolution truly begins on Day 2. How Egyptian society navigates this present period will have outsize impact on the region, and likely the world.

Therefore, we believe the lessons of the Egyptian revolution tell a larger story about emerging forces in global governance. It is hard to point to an example of a peaceful, popular revolution ousting a sitting regime in such a short timespan. And in the early months of 2011, the Egyptian military’s restraint set an example for governments pondering what state sovereignty is worth when it represents little more than a monopoly over the systematic use of violence.

These profound shifts occurring in Egypt demand deeper study. Yet despite the opportunities they portend, there are no guarantees that outcomes will indeed better serve citizens. The previous regime’s ability to rebrand and reconstitute is a major threat. The ability of a long oppressed society to quickly move beyond angry protests and on to civil debate remains an open question. And whether forces that have long benefited from a dysfunctional political system can be forced to cede their positions is hard to say.

The answers to all these questions are yet unwritten. The Egyptian people’s will to reform is formidable and resolute. Having endured a repressive governance ecosystem for decades, however, they now require support in building a robust civil society and participatory political institutions.

‘Egypt: From Revolutions to Institutions’ is a look at the people, organizations and forces that will drive the next stage of Egypt’s political transformation. Extensive conversations across societal strata informed our analysis. We traveled to four locations across the country and spoke with day labourers, factory workers, factory owners, cab drivers, farmers, youth activists, labour organizers, community organizers, NGO officers, government officials, journalists, lawyers, white collar professionals of all stripes, and politicians. Cairo provided a strong foundation for keeping abreast of the national dialogue as it evolved. Day trips were taken to El-Mahalla El-Kubra, a critical hub of dissent and labour organizing; Kaisariya, a small village outside Mahalla; and Damanhur, capital of the agricultural province of Beheira.

Yet even with that breadth, no field study can provide every answer. This is only the tip of the iceberg in an extremely complex situation. Our goal is to provide timely analysis early in Egypt’s transformation process. Our hope is that institutions working for Egyptians can build upon this information in developing their programs and designing their services. There are many ways to support the Egyptian people in their struggle for a more effective state. We hope our research can inform responsible, impactful investment decisions.

This is only the beginning. Along with our team in Egypt, we will be continuing to build upon this preliminary analysis. In the coming weeks, we will be releasing additional data from our study as well as the Arabic version of this report. Looking ahead, we will be supporting various actors in mapping the path forward in Egypt. This is a time of immense opportunity for the Egyptian people, and we feel honoured to be a part of the vibrant conversation.

Download the full report here.

The Role of Technology in the Egyptian Revolution

The role of the internet, social media, mobile phones, and other connection technologies in the Egyptian revolution is a trendy topic. For many who have long argued that these tools will help topple autocratic nation-states, recent events in Egypt seemed to offer long-awaited corroboration. To those less certain of the structural importance of such tools, it was easy to cry foul of the media’s role in hyping the techno-utopian storyline.

Both arguments carry weight. Technological tools are indeed being used by those pursuing more participatory governance in Egypt. And many have used them to great impact, perhaps most famously the April 6 Youth Movement and Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who was one of the creators of the ‘We Are All Khaled Said’ Facebook group and accompanying YouTube campaign. Both have been much touted in Western media for galvanizing and connecting a new generation of Egyptian activists. Yet it is also true that technology was only marginally, if at all, used by several factions critical to the revolution. Even mobile phones, while near ubiquitous, were little used in campaigns by the labour movement and the judiciary.

Acknowledging this complex reality, it was critical that we did not focus our research on the use of technology. Doing so would have been unwise: media narratives around technology’s role in the revolution have penetrated deeply into all strata of Egyptian society, colouring participant responses. Thus, we explored technology largely by examining quotidian usage. Questions around everyday information flows and communications patterns led to more natural — and thus, we believe, more accurate — responses about technology, its uses, and its broader social role. The resulting conversations were illuminating, and often surprising.

Social Networking

So what did we find? Unsurprisingly, social networking is a prominent force in certain layers of Egyptian society. It is a common source for news and information for those under 35, middle-class and above, who use it to stay abreast of latest topics of discussion among their social network. Facebook is by far the most popular platform, outstripping Twitter which is confined to a relatively small collection of internationally-oriented users. Indeed, many Facebook users see the site as more of a publishing platform than a space for online socializing. These groups are using Facebook to create fully formed publishing cycles and advocacy campaigns, with limited to no use of external websites. This is an interesting example where efficiency over complexity is leading users to leapfrog the traditional technology adoption cycle.

Perhaps the most interesting application of new media we encountered was this use of Facebook as an advocacy and press management tool by certain opposition groups. One leading organizer with the Democratic Front Party described how they turned to Facebook as a spin machine whenever the government provided an opportunity: “When the security forces broke in our front door on January 26, we immediately put up a Facebook group to collect popular anger and let the media know.” This strategy is effective because traditional media such as newspapers and broadcast news shows often report on the size and vociferousness of these groups as a proxy for expressing their own political views. In terms of sophistication, this cross-media strategy compares to those used by Western advocacy groups, but it was certainly not one adopted by most organizers.

Technological tools have also become culturally important as myths about their impact continue to grow. Use of technology has always been aspirational — it all boils down to access and power — but this has become far more pronounced in present-day Egypt. Even those who haven’t used Facebook or Twitter are eager to sing their praises or to feign personal familiarity. Parents who peer over the shoulders of their web-surfing children boast about their own ‘Facebook usage’. Even those who admit to never having seen Facebook mumble something or other about internet access costs or the net cafe being too far away before eagerly pressing forward about how their best friend’s use of Facebook is really sufficient for expressing both their political wills. And the pulp literature and pop clothing emblazoned with ‘Facebook,’ now common in Cairo, remind us that technology has the ability to impact a people’s consciousness as much as their physical realities.

Mobile Phones

Mobile phones may have played the role of the most tangible technology in the revolution. At a basic level, text messages and voice calls enabled the Egyptian people to coordinate, to stay informed, and to communicate amongst themselves and to the outside world. That is, until the government began interfering with internet and mobile networks beginning on January 25. What began as the blocking of Twitter and Facebook became the complete shutdown of both services. Fully functional mobile services were not restored until February 3.

But beyond immediate communications, the near-ubiquitous mobile phone also provided protesters the opportunity to document the events that were unfolding. As tools for crafting the revolution’s narrative, mobile phones gave protesters a sense of ownership over the events. Their videos and photos will also be used to shape the story that will live on. From our conversations, this increased the perceived value of participating. As one youth activist in Cairo explained: “It was our revolution because we made it happen. And it will stay our revolution because we will be the ones writing its history.” (And, one assumes, their place in it.)

Projects such as #18DaysInEgypt, a documentary in development, illustrates this philosophy. This film about the Egyptian revolution will be “shot entirely by those who experienced the events [on-the-ground]”, done by crowdsourcing media content from tech-enabled protesters. A fascinating concept, bu we must not forget those who will be left out of such an interpretation of history. Tech-related access barriers aside, as of March 17, roughly three weeks after the project site launched, only its About section was available in Arabic. The other two key sections — news updates and team bios — were English-only, revealing the project’s biases and intended audiences. This strategy has met with the desired success, as it’s been covered by the regular parade of international media outlets.

As with any information channel, mobile was also used by various government entities. The Egyptian military began blasting mass text messages as early as 8:17pm local time on February 10, 2011 — less than 22 hours before Mubarak’s resignation was announced. The first message: “The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is currently in a meeting to study the current situation and will speak to the people very soon.” (A curious observation: though the SMS messages themselves are in Arabic, their sender is only identified by its chosen English designation ‘ArmedForces’ as many mobile operating systems do not support Arabic script for contact names. But that is a separate conversation.) Since that first message, the military leadership has been sending mass SMS to its citizens every two to five days to update them on its view of events. As of publication, the last SMS sent by the military was on March 7, and was directed at those who had raided State Security buildings days earlier and removed sensitive materials. The message: “To all the responsible people, please hand in any National Security papers you may have to ensure we can take appropriate action on the information.”

The limitations of technology

In discussing all the possibility technology holds, we must also consider its limitations. Ultimately, technology’s impact is only as strong as the weakest links in the human system that uses it. Indeed, digital tools are seldom trusted in Egypt, and for good reason. Long accustomed to state surveillance, most citizens — from youth activists to factory workers — expect the same to be true online and on their phones, and recognize that monitoring is especially likely on digital networks. Thus, while services such as Facebook could be used in advocacy activities such as recruitment campaigns, they could not be trusted for sensitive organizing. Most senior organizers we spoke with still ran their core activities in a very analog, cell-based fashion. Top strategies were set by leadership committees that gathered regularly in hubs like Cairo. Upon returning to their communities, these leaders would distribute handwritten organizing documents to collaborators. Using such tactics, one group was able to slowly but confidently disseminate a confidential organizing strategy to a network of 8,000 activists nationwide.

The success and importance of these ‘old-fashioned’ techniques show the limits of technology in facilitating Egypt’s revolution. But trying to distinguish these tools from offline connections in Egyptian society is impossible. An incredibly social people, the amount of knowledge transfer that occurs in cafes, on street corners, and from roadside newspaper vendors is immense. It is this primary layer of offline interaction that provides much of the fodder for connections happening online.

To democratize the fruits of technology, tools must be tailored for wider accessibility. Adapting online tools for use via SMS is one possibility that could serve populations that lack computer acccess. Basic text messaging remains among the most inclusive technologies. If online services make greater use of this channel, the share of Egyptians able to use them will expand correspondingly. In the meantime, for excluded populations, technology will continue to impact them only a proximate manner and through exposure to other, technologically enabled parties.

Likewise, until and unless sound solutions to serious security concerns are created, savvy activists will continue to conduct their most sensitive organizing offline. While Egypt’s new Interior Minister Mansour el-Essawy has promised an end to online surveillance, the ubiquity of the practice, even in Western countries, gives little hope that his pledge will be honoured.

Speaking holistically, it is misguided to suggest that technology was the driving motivator in regime change. Technology played a defined and concrete role in the revolution, but its contributions were complementary rather than core. Technology facilitated and encouraged connections and organizing that would have happened anyway. The forces for reform in Egyptian society have deep roots, and they would have ultimately utilized other methods to achieve their goals even if technology wasn’t available. What is likely, and many observers will probably argue, is that access to technology did speed the pace with which reform was possible by lowering the costs of recruitment and organizing.

These tools will continue to penetrate deeper into Egyptian society, but it will likely be several years before many of today’s relatively unconnected demographics begin using them directly. Literacy, both textual and technological, will need to improve, to say nothing of the socioeconomic factors currently limiting access. Such changes take time. However this gradual pace of change shouldn’t trouble observers inspired by the possibilities technology offers.

As an amplifier of human intent, technology will only be as only as effective as the offline social networks it is built upon, and only as good as human intent is able to direct it. Deeper sociological change, from education reform to political restructuring, will be necessary before technology can increase it’s role in shaping the future of Egyptian society.

Reporting from Cairo: Mubarak’s gone, now what?

“Before, when I had trash, I would just throw it onto the street. I didn’t care, it wasn’t my problem. Nothing around here worked anyway; the system broke long ago. But now, I don’t put my garbage in the street anymore. After February 11, this is my country again. I even pick up other people’s garbage! We are now a free country, and it is up to us to decide what we do with it. Egypt is ours to fix, ours to rebuild.”

These remarks were from a Cairene shopkeeper sharing his take on recent events earlier this evening. Zack and I were sitting in his small, cluttered shop sipping cups of steaming red tea. Two blocks away, in a jubilant Tahrir Square, is where we later took the above photo. There, Egyptians had gathered to celebrate. Giddy toddlers wrapped in Egyptian flags waddled through the crowds as their wizened grandmothers, with a flag painted on each cheek, looked on.”No Mubarak!” barked street hawkers trying to wreathe us with commemorative necklaces, and to hustle our pocket change.

“But what happens after Mubarak?” I ask.

“We don’t know!” comes the gleeful reply. “But now, we celebrate. Later, we decide. But,” there is a long pause for emphasis, “we will decide.”

And so tonight Reboot is checking in from Egypt, where Zack and I will be based for the next two weeks. We are here to explore at just how the Egyptian people will indeed decide what happens after Mubarak. Just  what exactly happens on ‘Day 2’, after a successful uprising transforms a country’s governance equation? One area of focus is the sha’b, the common people. Though less digitally connected—and thus less media-friendly—many of these groups have and will continue to play significant roles in Egypt’s modern history. We hope to bring more of their voices to the fore.

How are the popular classes organizing and how are they advancing their agendas moving forward? What about the labour movement and the judicial system? How are disparate opposition groups coming together to create cohesive and operationally viable political entities? How are communities working together to coordinate critical service delivery and social protection efforts? What informal or ad hoc governance structures have disintegrated, and what new ones are emerging?

We will be speaking with communities that have been underrepresented in the larger narrative that has emerged around Egypt. And we will be working with experts, both in and out of Egypt, to try make greater sense of the data in the weeks ahead. We’ll be updating the site regularly with observations and findings, so please check back. In the meantime, if you have suggestions for specific areas of investigation or people we should talk to while we are in Egypt, we’re all ears.

Institutional Overview: The Labour Movement

Egypt’s labour organizers have long been among the most vocal and domestically persuasive movements advocating for substantive national reform. While its demands began with workers’ rights, over the years, labour has expanded its scope and vision for social reform. A matured focus necessitated leaders become better informed, organized, and networked. Indeed, the labour movement has been instrumental in mobilizing and educating regular Egyptians on their fundamental rights, and in orchestrating coordinated demonstrations against a repressive regime.

Industry syndicates (or unions) in Egypt previously required government sanction and were controlled by a state arm, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation. This meant that syndicates often sacrificed members’ interests for those of the state. Most syndicate members we spoke with — from factory workers to lawyers — unleashed torrents of complaints against their syndicate leaders. They claimed syndicates were ineffective at securing fair wages and the ability to form independent unions. These basic demands were sabotaged by syndicate leaders more interested in protecting their relationships to government and business groups.

Thus, organizations such as the well-respected Centre of Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS) formed as independent entities serving the labour movement. At first, the organizing efforts of these groups were largely sporadic, fueled more by potent resentment than by astute strategy. Over time, the movement improved its tactics and evolved beyond solely labour advocates to a general civil rights force to be reckoned with. Labour was actively involved in monitoring the 2005 presidential and parliamentary elections. The April 6 Youth Movement, which has received much praise in recent media, was born out of a labour strike in El-Mahalla El-Kubra on April 6, 2008.

Today, the 21-year-old CTUWS has four branches across Egypt. The organization provides legal support, financial resources, and training to labour organizers nationwide. They have no political affiliations, though their demands — the end of the Mubarak regime and a legitimate shift towards democracy — are inherently political. To better understand CTUWS and the labour groups it supports, we traveled to Mahalla. The city is known across the country as a hub for Egypt’s labour movement. There we met with factory workers, labour organizers and the head of CTUWS. We gathered in CTUWS’ office, a utilitarian space where the television is always on and heavy cigarette smoke chokes the air.

Given CTUWS’ history, we expected excitement around recent events, but the labour organizers — grizzled, chain-smoking men in their 50s and 60s — were unimpressed. “The regime hasn’t changed,” was the consensus. One organizer elaborated: “The regime is much more than man. We still have a lot of work to do.”

Leading a constituency that is largely digitally unconnected, and often illiterate, these experienced organizers described the face-to-face tactics they used to educate, mobilize, and deploy their communities. Mobile was only used for communications among the head organizers, but not among the masses. Internet-related anything was out of the question. Indeed, for all the possibilities of smartphones and social media, when it comes to mobilizing labour, printed flyers and break times in the factory cafeteria still reign. The organizers saw their strategic parameters not as constraints — quite the opposite. “It is risky to rely on phones and computers because you never know who is watching, listening, and reading,” one organizer explained. “And what if phone or internet service gets turned off, then what do you do? Talking to the people in front of you, that you can see, touch, and trust — that is the only thing you can rely on.”

Despite labour’s conventional techniques in an era of seemingly boundless technological possibility, their success and credibility speaks for itself. The Egyptian labour movement has drawn significant concessions from the government over the years, and boasts extensive support among the popular classes. In 2007, textile workers at a state factory in Mahalla won the right to receive hazard pay. In 2008, property tax collectors camped out for two weeks in front of the parliament before receiving a 325 percent increase in salary and the right to form the country’s first non-state controlled union.

In the present moment, popular opinion on the labour movement’s role in the revolution is divided. Some Egyptians say it played a decisive role in toppling the regime. Coordinated mass strikes in early February, they maintain, were the last straw that finally pushed Mubarak over the edge. Others insist labour was but one of many opposition groups. And a majority of those we met wished, ‘post-revolution’, that labour would now stop their “selfish” strikes focused on particular, rather than national, demands. “Now is not the time,” they say, “labour must be patient.”

Whether gratitude, skepticism, or resentment dominates popular opinion towards it, there is no doubt that Egypt’s labour movement was critical in realizing the January 25 Revolution. Whether labour is correctly credited in the history books remains to be seen, but for now, labour requires critical support — political, technical, and financial — to realize the socioeconomic gains their constituents seek.