The Emerging Development Ecosystem

AB1Meade Center for American Theater, Washington D.C. hosted the Devex World conference 2016.On June 14, I made my way down to southwest Washington, DC to the Mead Center for American Theater to attend the Devex World conference. The website informed me this was the global development event of the year! From among its line-up of impressive speakers, the conference created five thematic tracks: Data Revolution, From Story-telling to Movement Building, New Funding Models, Innovating at Scale, and Business Transforming Development

Needless to say, my interested was piqued and the conference did not disappoint.

For those that are unfamiliar with Devex, it’s a member-based, for-profit social enterprise and media platform for the international development community. With over 700,000 registered organizations globally, the Devex website serves as a clearinghouse for news, business, and job recruiting for its over 1 million active users. Started in 2000, Devex is a relative newcomer to the international development arena, but its quick popularity is indicative of the need for such a platform; and in fact, Devex’s founding president and editor-in-chief Raj Kumar’s goal in founding the organization was to reduce administrative burdens and maximize development organizations’ impact in the field. In 2008, Devex launched the Devex Forum, which brings together top development donors and implementing organizations from around the world for an annual exchange of ideas and best practices.

Devex World is their newest initiative, with the aim of highlighting data and technology for development. From the format, to the content, to the participating organizations and speakers, the conference was informative, engaging, inspiring, and thought-provoking. So much was packed into a single day, it would be difficult to describe it all, so I’ll provide the 3 reasons I think the Devex World conference was important:

Reason 1: A major theme of the conference was definitely technology, and specifically Information Communication Technology or ICT. ICT for Development (ICT4D) is not new, but its short history has been somewhat problematic. Richard Heeks does a great job in tracing the evolution of ICT4D, suffice it to say that previous ICT4D attempts have suffered from two main problems: 1) knowing when an ICT solution is an appropriate intervention strategy and 2) being realistic about what an ICT solution can achieve. Kentaro Toyama, discussing the ten myths about technology and development, highlights these problems repeatedly and succinctly summarizes “Myths about its [technology’s] potential persist because we have a strong desire to see the triumph of clever ideas and ingenuity, and to believe that one time catalytic investments can have such an impact. The reality is always more complex.”

For these reasons, I think the international development community has not had particular success with integrating ICT into development programs. But in addition to this, I also think that the industry is often short-sighted in recognizing the potential business case for technology in development. How do you convince development practitioners working with people struggling to meet their basic needs on a daily basis that high tech solutions are relevant? Again, we need to keep in mind the appropriateness of the technology and its transformative limitations, however, as the world becomes increasingly digital, anyone not included in that wave will become marginalized. This is particularly true for the world’s poor, who are at jeopardy of becoming even more marginalized as the economy around digitizes and the basic tools for socio-economic inclusion change dramatically.

The global digital divide is already great, and growing. Current estimates predict 500 million to 900 million people will come “on-line” by 2017. However, this still leaves about 4.2 billion people offline. Of that, over half are women and girls, who already represent a huge vulnerable population globally. Yet we in development know that investments in women have a disproportionally greater impact on community development than development interventions that do not specifically benefit women. In May 29 at the "International Girls in ICT Day 2012" held in Geneva, Switzerland, the ITU's Secretary General, Dr. Hamadoun Touré, said that "Technology needs girls for all sorts of reasons – but perhaps the most important one is that women drive social and economic growth.”AB2Virtual Reality (VR) demonstrations can bring development issues into stark perspective for donors and policy makers.

Reason 2: What differentiates Devex World from other industry events was the diverse group of development, philanthropic, and social enterprises in attendance; there were over 300 organizations ranging from the usual international development suspects like USAID, PATH, and RTI to what some might consider development outsiders like Uber, Google, and NASA. Of particular interest were the seemingly unrelated technology companies like WeRobotics, CauseLabs, Ushahidi, and Tablaeu. This seemingly eclectic mix of participants highlights the growing circle of development actors and the need to include diverse perspectives in creating new solutions.

I think another reason the development industry does not do a good job an integrating technology solutions is that we tend to talk mostly to each other. It’s difficult to know what you don’t know when other perspectives are not presented. Including tech-savvy experts in project design discussions can yield some very interesting and innovative new approaches to development’s longest standing problems. But just like ICT is an interdisciplinary area between communications studies and technology, ICT4D requires intermediary experts and organizations that are capable of bridging the gap between the unique complexity of development work and the highly technical area of ICT.

AB3International Development needs to find the intersection with ICT.Reason 3: Innovation is an often talked about buzz word in international development and was a definite theme at the Devex World conference. However, seeing some of the technologies and their applications made me realize that innovation is another thing that development does not do well. The project I manage in Ghana has an Innovation Fund associated with it, but what I realized was that fund is used mostly to stimulate uptake of existing technologies. To which there is benefit, but it’s a top down approach; we’ve identified a problem and we’ve identified a solution.

True innovation in international development suffers from 3 inherent disconnects:

  1. Donor agencies often don’t allow for piloting/testing. They want assurances that development interventions are going to have impact and therefore usually only opt for proven methodologies and leave very little room for what they would consider failure.
  2. Compounding this, is that implementing organizations don’t fully understand how to properly pilot innovative development approaches. The cycle then become mutually reinforcing. If we take a note from the IT world with its Agile and LEAN software development models – adapted to development context – we could have a methodology for integrating innovation appropriately, and more cost-effectively, into all development interventions. More importantly, the methodology can re-shape our understanding of failure less in terms of mistakes and more in terms of learning. This can also help implementing organizations better pivot on their intervention strategies, thus become more efficient with development dollars and more impactful with outcomes.
  3. One of the biggest mistakes with innovation is not including the end-user in the design and development. Apple has perfected the process of integrating end-user experience into its product development, but much of development’s programs are still top-down interventions. True empowerment would be providing people and communities with the know-how and allowing for convergence – the adaptation of technologies to location contexts, often taking newer forms of technology and mixing them with older/existing forms to better satisfy needs. As M. Bernardine Dias, Associate Research Professor at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University says, “Just as its leaders will not come solely from the developed world, the benefits of ICT4D will not be limited to the developing world. When faced with innovation challenges that present a large number of constraints, researchers are likely to develop solutions that are more economical, robust, and accessible. An increasingly diverse set of innovations and innovators has the potential to enhance technology for the entire global population.”

The Devex World conference was a truly unique event within the area of international development and a milestone in the evolution of what Devex’s Raj Kumar calls the “development ecosystem.” The conference certainly highlighted the idea of international development as an ecosystem, with a diverse and expanding array of actors that bring new perspectives and expertise to solving old problems. Among these new perspectives is the need to integrate technology into development strategy, not only to provide new solutions, but because if we don’t integrate technology we run the risk of losing more of the world’s already marginalized to the Global Digital Divide. The conference also highlighted the need to open space for innovation, both by international donors and implementers alike. I think the tagline on the conference webpage succinctly captures this idea well: “We enter a future where new models reign. No sector, no function, no professional can afford to miss the data revolution or arrive late to innovations transforming lives at scale. This more global, dynamic, competitive ecosystem is brimming with possibility.”

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