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Smart Solutions: How iNGOs can survive and thrive

Craig Zelizer

April 19, 2016

For the second day of the Interaction 2016 Forum, the morning plenary I attended was a great session  on Smart Solutions: How iNGOs Can Survive and Thrive.


The panel convened a number of leading innovators in the NGO and other sectors including:

The session covered a number of issues including the growing collaboration with the private sector, the opportunities and limitations of tech in development, emerging trends and examples of failures and successes.

Martinez from the UPS foundation urged the humanitarian and development community to actively seek out partnerships with the private sector and to reach beyond just tech companies. He went on to say the UPS foundation supports 4,000 organizations each year. They operate in 200 countries and they believe their employees should be engaged. They encourage them to help local orgs and the foundation also works with organizations at the global level such as UNHCR. Martinez said what they examine at is similar to how they invest in a company, they look at governance, how well they serve a community, etc.

See this interesting earlier interview about the growing interaction between USP and the humanitarian sector.

The potential tension that exists between private sector companies taking on an increasing role in development work being both an opportunity but also an area of concern was acknowledged. Littlefield said that although historically both communities haven't interacted as much this has been changing for several reasons  First, annual Overseas Development Assistance ranges around $135 billion a year. However, estimates of what it will cost to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, is up to 100 Trillion USD.  Thus, development funding alone will never achieve the SDGs. Second development funding and supported projects are usually not sustainable as they tend to end within a few years (most projects are between one year and three years). There is a need to work with market based solutions as one tool to develop more sustainable and scaleable programs. Moreover, 20 years ago the private sector was largely not actively investing in health care, electricity, etc. in developing regions. But now that is increasingly happening in Africa and other locations as the private sector sees increasing economic opportunities.

Panelists agreed one of the key steps is to work on better linking development aid and private sector activity. Often bilateral or multilateral donors can provide support to pilot and test out out new ideas and innovations. Then if they prove viable and have strong impact, this can then connect to this market based solutions that can help scale and sustain growth. All agreed, technology is playing a huge role in transforming the development space. Littlefield said tech based innovations is happening in almost every sector where OPIC is engaged. One key change she has seen is the ability to reach the last mile. For example, mobile banking is doing amazing things, which is providing access to financial services for the previously vunbanked. Technology is also transforming electricity in terms of micro-grids, pay as you go and related areas.

Littlefield said it isn't about the technology but the business models and payment systems that drive such systems. Even in the education sector, Littlefield said we are seeing really innovative young organizations delivering training teacher training over Ipads. She also talked about the importance of connectivity. Every 10% increase in access in the Internet increases GDP by 1-2%. Thus, OPIC and others are working to increase access to connectivity as one of the key ways to advance growth.

Failure does happen. Kuraishi talked about a project that was supported via Global Giving 10 years ago that engaged youth in sport for development in Kenya. After some time, the youth left the project to engage with a different organization that was doing more innovative work. She  saw this as key reflection point in the framing of their work, that communities need to drive the process of development and not have interventions imposed on them.

Costello highlighted a tension in the field that we are now all swimming in data that can be tremendously useful in learning and making rapid changes based on real time learning. However, we also need to see people face and ask them  how is this project going in your life? How can it be improved? There is the potential tension to assets projects from afar versus the human engagement. He said it isn't only technology, but we need to engage the base. It is technology plus design. We need to engage the stakeholders.

He discussed one client Keystone has been working with that was very focused on evidence based programming and results with youth workforce development. The institution was doing regular survey of their beneficiaries and had regular meetings of staff to reflect on how the data would shape the programming. However, most the feedback was overtly positive and after some iterations they realized they were asking the wrong questions to truly get the feedback they needed. . The organization works on workforce development to help youth obtain jobs. The questions focused too much on the perspective of the organization such as How are we doing? How we can we serve better? He stressed the question we should have been asking which is How are you? This reframing let to much better engagement and learning. His takeaway if you really want to have development impact, if you want to empower people within, that is an exercise in design, and technology can help, but not a magic solution.

Kuraishi said crowdfunding in our space requires a reason to motivate people to engage. Many people see crowdfunding as a magic way to raise funds. But most people don't wake up thinking about how can I help refugees or others around the world. They might think about how can I get the latest IPhone or gadget. It is important to mobilize around events to see if we can get people to shift to provide assistance. She said when you're crowdfunding on the web, a cute cat story might be your competition. Strategies can be can be mobilizing around a day such as Mother's Day or back to school. Or someone who has a birthday who says instead of giving a gift please support a particular charity.

The clear lessons from this panel as highlighted above include:
1) Development is transforming and we can either help shape the changes (proactively) or be shaped (reactively)
2) Customers or beneficiaries need to be at the center - Development is moving away from centralized big planning and we need to ensure that the communities that are the focus of the programs need to be engaged in planning, providing feedback, and not just seen as a target population.

3)Tech is radically changing approaches but not a magic solution -  Tech has and will continue to radically change how development is done. But adding tech without changing overall way development is done, increasing transparency and engagement things will not work

4) Market based solutions are important - Donor driven development is inherently unsustainable. Donors can provide seed capital, help accelerate ideas, but increasingly the private sector is playing a major role. Of course there are some tensions (that will continue) but Overseas Development Assistance and civil society cannot address all the challenges to achieve the SDGs.
5)Data and Evidence are Key - As a field we need rigorous data and feedback mechanisms to rapidly look at programming trends.

6) Learn from Failure - Not everything will work and it is important to iterate and try things out.




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