Blair Glencorse

What are you most trying to accomplish in your work? 

Inclusive, fair societies should be a reality for everyone on the planet. Through the Accountability Lab, I am empowering citizens to find technological and media solutions to their biggest problems- like corruption, poverty and exclusion. Corruption alone costs over $1 trillion a year- this is money that could be spent to radically improve schools, hospitals and other services. The tools we are building give people the information and knowledge to hold their governments to account, which is unleashing the rich potential for political and economic development around the world. Technology and new media tools are more accessible than ever- but if we do not act now, large segments of the global population will be left behind. I’ve spent a decade working on these issues in some of the poorest places on earth. I have learned that unless we offer ordinary people new, creative ways to stamp out corruption and build integrity, governments and the international system will alleviate only the symptoms rather than the causes of suffering. Empowering local communities shouldn’t be charity; it’s essential to dignity, justice, and human progress. Through the Lab, my team and I—and the thousands of people with whom we partner—are changing the status quo. I can’t imagine doing anything more important.

What do you think sets your work apart from the work of others in your field?

Our work is forming the basis for a new, collaborative approach to development which is low cost and high impact. Projects engage young people in ways they understand- the team has recently run a highly popular TV show called “Integrity Idol” for example, which highlights the work of honest bureaucrats on TV and allows online and social media voting for the winner; and developed successful online communities that have supported citizens to monitor government budgets and expenditures. These tools build trust between citizens and decision-makers allowing for real needs- like poverty- to be addressed. The Lab is truly innovative in three ways. First, in function: we develop small-scale, innovative programs from the bottom-up, like the first citizens film school focusing on women’s rights in Liberia, and the first crowd-sourcing tool for information on public education in Nepal. Second, in form: we ensure radical transparency with all accounts and documents online in real time and honest, contextualized impact reporting. Third, in financing: we only work through collaborative models and innovative revenue generating projects that benefit the very poorest people on the planet. We have been recognized globally for these innovative approaches, winning prizes for leadership and innovation from organizations as varied as Echoing Green, the BMW Foundation and the Case Foundation.

What or who inspired you to get into your field? Do you have any individuals or groups of people that you credit with helping you achieve the goals you set out to accomplish?

The inspiration for my work is in the life changes of those I hope to empower. It was one of these people- a young Liberian girl called Dorcas- that inspired me to quit my job at the World Bank and set up an organization that could use technology and media tools to support positive change. I was in a very poor community of Monrovia- asking citizens what they needed most. I expected answers like education, running water and sanitation. One street girl called Dorcas- who suffered unimaginably during Liberia’s civil war- said something very different. She argued passionately that what Liberians need is justice, integrity and accountability- as these are at the heart of all the other problems. I knew then that I had to quit my job and set up an organization that could engage Dorcas around these issues and help voices like hers be heard by people with power. With Dorcas, one of our first projects was to set up an accountability film school. She then made a film about sexual exploitation (of which she was a victim). We supported her to lobby the government to address the issue and she won a prize at a national film festival. She has since made several other films, developed her skills further and with our efforts to bring in international support- is now running a film school for girls so others like her can benefit from her opportunity. She has been transformed and has said herself that “she can now see the light”. This is real people-centered change- no achievement is more inspirational to me.

What role has serendipity played in the turning points in your career? 

I have been fortunate- I won the lottery of birth. I grew up in a society where I had access to modern healthcare, a good education and a family that could afford to buy me enough food to eat. Billions of people around the world are not nearly that lucky- and I have devoted my career to making sure it doesn’t stay that way. Part of the reason for this is two serendipitous incidents that have shaped who I am and what I do. The first was an extended visit I took to South Africa on my own as a young boy. During that trip I at one point got lost as the sun was going down in a dangerous part of town. I was mugged with all of my money and my passport stolen, but a wonderful woman- aptly called Grace- found me and was incredibly kind. She had very little but made sure I made it safely home, even paying for a taxi and waiting while I organized to replace my belongings. It was the first searing realization for me that we are all bound by a common humanity- and have to do everything we can to collectively improve the human condition. The second serendipitous incident was very different. As I was beginning my career I was put in touch with the parent of a friend of a friend for advice on how best to explore my options- he provided me with some fantastic advice on always sticking to my principles and ensuring that integrity is at the heart of everything I do. We lost touch after that but almost a decade later as I was setting up the Accountability Lab, I happened to be sitting next to an older gentleman on a flight. I recognized him as this same mentor who had given me such sound advice all those years ago. I thanked him for his thoughts, which had stayed with me all that time. We began talking and he is now a key advisor and donor for the work of Accountability Lab.

What have been the greatest challenges that you have encountered in your career?

Through my work I have faced some serious challenges. I’ve been caught up in violence in Zimbabwe; negotiated with Maoist leaders in Nepal; and am now working to shape the Ebola response in Liberia. These experiences have taught me that the greatest challenges I have faced are two- fold. First, is the critical importance of listening. I have realize how difficult- but also how important- it is to start by listening, to ensure real understanding and empathy. From the local fruit seller to the World Bank official, starting by listening allows me to build trust, which is critical to building bridges and overcoming hurdles. At the Accountability Lab, all of our technology and media tools have developed through a careful process of listening at the outset to the challenges that citizens face and the creative solutions they are coming up with to solve their most difficult problems. The second, huge challenge I’ve encountered in my career is how to change large, complex systems. I have come to understand that this is not just a technical but a political process, and the way to achieve success is not by taking on the status quo directly, but by finding ways to work with change-makers- in and outside the system- to generate reform. This means living by my principles; changing behaviors rather than pointing fingers; and finding collaborative solutions to shared problems. The tools which the Accountability Lab is developing to empower citizens and address issues of integrity do exactly this.

Do you believe leaders and innovators have certain qualities that they all share? If so, what?

I have had the privilege of witnessing leadership and innovation across a wide spectrum of contexts and cultures and understand that these can consist of varying types and styles. Leadership and innovation cannot be local or national phenomena anymore- our world is so inter-connected that regardless of context, they must be based on an understanding of global dynamics. I feel that these qualities require not only an ability to provide vision- but importantly- to ensure the follow-though and implementation of ideas. Leadership and innovation are not about singular actions, but about collaborative solutions; the ability to truly understand and relate to others; and the capacity to build alliances for collective movement towards shared goals. I feel that leaders and innovators share the ability to listen rather than talk; employ in inter-disciplinary thinking not singular approaches; and remain flexible, rather than sticking to rigid orthodoxy. I think leaders and innovators adapt to change by taking every opportunity for continuous learning to improve their knowledge and understanding. And I believe that these are experiential disciplines- only through leading innovation can we truly solve complex problems.

How would you most like to change the world through your work?

"My work is about supporting citizens to demand a better future for themselves and their children. The real poverty in the developing world is not material as much as a poverty of creative ideas that we can use to support governments and people in these places to improve their life chances. We have made incredible progress in fighting disease, building schools and empowering the voiceless- but we can do more. This means learning from the past and developing new tools for change that are built in partnership with the people we hope to help and owned by the communities they serve. This is what I am doing with my team through the Accountability Lab. We are finding creative ways to change the status quo using technology and media and allow people to demand the things that we take for granted- like the opportunity to go to school or equal rights for women. Plenty of non-profit managers and social entrepreneurs have great ideas and the organizations in place to make a difference. But relatively few are able to lead others towards truly collective solutions to shared problems around the world. That is exactly what I have been doing for the past decade. The Accountability Lab has now become the vehicle for a collective global movement for integrity and youth empowerment. This is work that takes generations. But it begins with my generation- and me- right now. We all have a role to play. I’m listening hard, always collaborating and constantly connecting dots from top to bottom to understand how to lead creative, people-centered change. The World Technology Network understands that innovation requires iterating, embracing failure and working across organizations to amplify progress. These are all ideas at the heart of my efforts to change the world. The people around the world who do not know where the next meal is coming from; who do not have access to public services; and for whom every day is literally a case of life or possible death- these are the real leaders. These are the untold stories and the unrecognized heroes who are battling to improve their societies. They are the people I am working with and for through the Accountability Lab. Accepting this award on their behalf would be a huge honor."

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