Obama's Tech for Int'l Development Agenda

How would you suggest the Obama Administration leverage technology to improve the international development agenda?

With a reluctance to innovate, little flexibility to react to conditions on the ground and central planning that Breznev would be proud of, the development establishment often seems hopelessly out of touch. Unfortunately, while many groups are recommending changes in policy, too many of these ideas are centered around bureaucratic re-shuffling or funding increases [here is my take on the 'state of play' on ideas from the Dupont Circle think tanks].

What if the aid community embraced the values of the African tech community- experimentation, low cost innovation, local solutions and flexibility? This would be an unprecedented opportunity to leverage new tools to reach economic development and poverty alleviation goals.

Here is a very quick first cut at recommendations to the Obama Administration foreign assistance team. I'm open to recommendations on re-organizing headings, but three priorities I see now are innovation, private enterprise and collaboration & accountability. Suggestions most welcome!

Technology and U.S. Foreign Assistance
Priorities for a New Administration

The Obama Administration has an unprecedented opportunity to promote sustainable development, fight global poverty and rollback disease around the world. New technology can encourage more good ideas, provide opportunites to sustain and scale ideas that work, and make the funding and planning process more transparent and inclusive.

Mechanisms for collecting more good ideas

Provide Seed Funding for Start Ups
More tranches of seed funding should be available without significant bureaucratic and administrative restraints. This will allow new solutions to practical challenges to emerge from anywhere instead of only from centralized experts. Y Combinator and GlobalGiving provide an online prototype for how the Internet can be used to lower transaction costs and utilize the wisdom of the crowds.

Provide more ‘Pull’ Incentives
While push incentives provide funding for research or project implementation, pull incentives provide rewards if results are achieved. Similar to market forces, pull incentives encourage recipients to use efficiently utilized resources and stay results oriented. Pull initiatives range from advanced purchase commitments (APCs) for developing a vaccine to implementing a cash-on-delivery scheme for school enrolment.

Collect and Share More Information
Internal blogs, Wikis, chat, email groups and other basic tools should be available to staff around the world. Data should be easily accessible and searchable, allowing a staff member who has implemented a farming project in Guatemala to share tips with a colleague gearing up to do a similar project in Kenya.

Create Diaspora Committees
Business leaders in the Diaspora often have a useful understanding of the policies that lead to growth and innovation in their home countries. Foreign assistance communities should leverage the intelligence of this community to advise development policy.

Private Enterprise
Opportunities to sustain and scale ideas that work.

Catalyze Pro-Poor Enterprise
By serving the poor while creating new jobs, pro-poor enterprises play an invaluable role in promoting growth and fighting poverty. However, supporting these enterprises has been continuously sidelined. Aid agencies should make pro-poor enterprise growth a critical component of a poverty reduction strategy.

Engage Local and Global Private Sector in Business DNA Transfer
Business practices can be injected at every level of the aid value chain. Aid agencies can promote alternative funding by encouraging the business community to focus more resources on business solutions at the bottom of the pyramid. Also, hiring more staff with business experience is likely to result in better enterprise-oriented interventions.

Increase Internet Penetration
Just as oil is the driver of the manufacturing, access to digital technology is the driver of the information economy. Delivering connectivity to universities, as well as rural and urban regions should be considered alongside funding other public utilities ranging from power, sanitation and irrigation.

Facilitate the Emergence of Development Clusters
Throughout the developing world, local entrepreneurs are experimenting with agriculture, logistics and mobile phone solutions that are generation jobs in their communities. Aid organizations should support the 'clustering' of research institutions, access to capital and markets that are necessary to transform ideas into profitable businesses. The African Rural University for Women in Uganda, Ghana's University of Development Studies, and the Pontifical University ofRio de Janeiro are already fostering these innovations. Aid organizations could stimulate growth by incorporating the best innovations into their development programs.

Openness & Accountability
Getting more people involved in the policy-making process

Hire a Technology for Development Czar
Thinking carefully about the use of technology in development can lower overhead costs dramatically and improve effectiveness. A technology czar, reporting directly to the Director of Foreign Assistance, could choose the appropriate mobile software for field reporting and develop mechanisms for better information sharing within the U.S. foreign assistance community.

Place More staff In-Country
Along an increasingly de-centralized funding process, more staff in-country with more autonomy will allow for more creative solutions to emerge. These staff should directly contribute to the planning and project implementation process.

Support Flexibility and Autonomy for Aid Recipients
Aid recipients are often left sidelined in the foreign aid decision making process. Working with industry partners to develop an experimental voucher system, where aid recipients can choose amongst many donors, will enable recipients to vote with their feet.

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  • great post bud!

    By Blogger Unknown, at 1:23 PM  

  • Lots of good stuff in here, Josh. I don't much care for the czar suggestion - that suggests to me another bureacratic layer to move through in organizations like USAID. I'd much rather see much better openness to outside tech ideas within the state department and USAID, rather than internalizing that function. (That, plus literally everyone one of these policy rec documents includes a new czar.)

    I'd put a strong emphasis on universities in any set of suggestions. I've been surprised to see how many projects that focus on solving African issues through innovation, technology and private sector development involve no African universities. There's a perception that African academic institutions can't carry out these sorts of projects - if that's true, there needs to be a commitment to strengthen university capacity in that administrative capacity.

    By Blogger ethanz, at 2:44 PM  

  • Drew Bennett adds:

    *Maintain a Local Focus*
    -Technology solutions need to be appropriate to the local needs and
    conditions of the aid recipient community. This requires policy makers to remain technologically neutral and practitioners to focus on providing open source tools as opposed to closed-case products.

    Also, local content is a proven driver for IT demand - devices are useless if they don't transmit information that aid recipients deem valuable and malleable.

    By Blogger Joshua, at 3:02 PM  

  • Fantastic post. Is this part of a larger piece that you will be submitting?

    By Blogger Corey, at 4:28 PM  

  • Fantastic post. Is this part of a larger piece that you will be submitting?

    By Blogger Corey, at 4:29 PM  

  • Josh,
    Thanks for the shout out on our platform and work. We would love to be part of helping the new administration democratize international giving and aid. So much opportunity...
    Donna @

    By Blogger Donna, at 4:57 PM  

  • I think there has to be a concern for promoting human rights on the web (freedom of expression and privacy). An expanded internet is only as good as the people who will use it to express ideas, share information, voice opinions, and the like. If we're talking about Africa, Egypt is becoming a very dangerous place for bloggers, who are regularly imprisoned and prosecuted for what they post.

    The USG should both promote freedom of expression and privacy in its relations with other countries, and ensure that US companies are enlisted to help in the effort.

    By Blogger Sarah Labowitz, at 6:24 PM  

  • via Wachira:

    Really cool. I think the USAid can contribute a lot if they supported more programs to computerize the Criminal Justice systems in africa. Judges take long hand notes of proceedings and police and Justice depts still use typewriters in Kenya and elsewhere. This is one was of bringing accountability to democracy using modern technology. It will reduce the courts' undecided case backlogs which goes back a decade ago.
    The idea is to scale up departmental reforms.

    By Blogger Joshua, at 10:53 AM  

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