Last week, NetHope, Microsoft, and the Rockefeller Foundation co-hosted an executive event at the Microsoft Technology Center in New York to examine how international nonprofits can most effectively leverage (ICT) in pursuit of their missions. The discussion was fascinating and opened up a wide variety of conversations and challenges deserving further attention.
The event was unique in that participants – NGOs, technology companies and donor organizations – represented a wide spectrum of perspectives in the international development space, but all shared a common belief that ICTs can have a meaningful impact on the areas that development organizations seek to address: poverty, disease, conservation, education, disaster response, and gender equality.
From our discussions surfaced the realization that almost every stakeholder in the development community believes in the potential of technology to address these problems — that if we could figure out how to best leverage the power of technology to confront these challenges, we might be able to implement more effective interventions, gain a deeper understanding of the interrelated challenges, and develop sustainable long-term approaches that build resilience and empower local communities.
Perhaps just as important was the realization that technology allows us to gain these insights and adapt approaches with unprecedented speed, breadth and depth. This, too, sparks a difficult question, as not all technologies are suited for all environments or should be applied against any problem. Here is where the partnership between technology companies, donors and NGOs is so valuable: by leveraging the expertise, resources and scale of each, better solutions can be found. This requires all of us working in the development space to be open to new ideas, partnerships, and approaches to tackling these long-standing problems.
Unyielding optimism in face of systemic obstacles & unanswered questions
The desire and drive to work cooperatively is beginning to take shape. Lona Stoll, the Director of USAID Center for Global Solutions (part of the recently-announced Global Development Lab), noted
“USAID can’t do it alone… ICT innovations are changing the face of development. With the establishment of the Global Development Lab, we [will]… open up problem solving development.”
Carolyn Woo, President of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a NetHope member organization that has been a leader in integrating ICT into its field programs, said that for CRS, engaging with partners, technology companies, and local communities was critical to reaching scale and ensuring sustainability. Getting to systemic integration of ICT was “a journey,” she said, but one that all stakeholders can take together.
These changes are encouraging and will undoubtedly have dramatic impact on the future of international development. But that’s not to say there aren’t any looming systemic obstacles. Several participants noted that progress takes time to take root in a community and show impact and the rapid pace of change in technology often encouraged well-intentioned but misguided investment in “the latest” tools rather than in those that have shown initial promise. All too often, we fail to build on promising pilots rather than take them to scale.
Other participants noted that NGOs relative low level of investment in IT has inhibited timely adaptation and flexibility, as donors direct their resources towards field programs rather than enabling infrastructure. And still others added that there is too often a disconnect between “back office” and field technology, and that bridging the gap between the two requires organizations to think differently about how ICT can be used more strategically.
Despite the challenges, there is an undeniable undercurrent of optimism. Organizations are taking concrete steps to create new partnerships and organizational structures. CRS has explicitly included technology in its strategic plan. Rockefeller is looking at “catalytic innovation” to spur new approaches relevant to the development space. And more and more NetHope member organizations are turning to the cloud, technology enabled payment innovations, big data and mobile phones to increase their impact by partnering with companies like Microsoft to bring enterprise-quality approaches to some of the most intractable development challenges.
As I mentioned above, the event opened up a number of key conversations and challenges that demand further attention:
- How do we best evaluate which technologies are appropriate for each environment and challenge?
- How do we help organizations develop deeper integration between back office and field technologies?
- How can we build upon promising pilots to take them to scale, and share knowledge among development community participants in a meaningful and effective way?
- What changes to funding and resourcing norms would help us be more impactful?
- How might beneficiaries of field programs be more deeply integrated into field programs, so that local communities build capacity and support sustainable, long-term efforts?
- What are the emerging models for effective partnerships among all of the stakeholders in the development community?
- And last, but certainly not least, what technologies show real promise and impact?
A collective journey ahead
As I reflected on the event in the days after, I was struck by the reality of this period of dramatic change. Every industry, sector, and market goes through times of transformation and innovation, and the development sector’s turn has indeed come. We are in it. New tools and resources, evolving organizational models, new partnership opportunities, the shifting of participants, and the opportunity for scale through the ubiquity of technology all point to an opportunity to reimagine the work that our member organizations carry out every day all around the world.
For some, the change is long overdue; for others, a more calculated and strategic approach is warranted. At NetHope, we’re eager to work with our members and partners to adapt and evolve in response. To paraphrase Dr. Woo, we are all on this journey together.
NetHope thanks Microsoft for its generosity in hosting last week’s event, as well as the representative speakers from Rockefeller, USAID and CRS for sharing their valuable insights. NetHope members can access the event materials at http://bit.ly/nhmsftrockfellernyc2014event
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