May 27, 2011

Transparency-Tech and the Changing Landscape of International Development

The winds of change are nearing gale-force in the international development sector. In ten years time, the landscape of development work will be vastly different than it is today, or has ever been. Giant leaps forward are on the horizon. There are rumors of what’s to come, and if one keeps an ear to the ground, the rumble is growing.

IT has emerged as a force in development work. At the time of writing, Charity: water has no less than four openings for software and technology developers. Water for People unveiled its new monitoring software, FLOW, last November to much acclaim. On June 1st, A Child’s Right is unveiling robust project-monitoring software unlike anything else that’s been done by such an organization, incorporating FLOW as only one small component. The Dutch Government, whose annual aid budget comes in at more than $5.9B (.82% of its GDP) just agreed to work with the international aid organization AKVO to put its entire portfolio of projects online.

Metrics for success will change, and donors will then turn into investors

International non-governmental organizations and development professionals alike are awakening to the fact that the global proliferation of technology—from cell phones to satellites to remote monitoring devices—brings new opportunities for lasting, transformative impact on a scale previously unheard of. Technology will soon change the face of development in ways that will foster increased transparency and accountability, and by doing so will alter the international development landscape forever. But how?

Travis Ramos shot this image of washing coffee cherries in Nueva Esperanza, Nicaragua, and other beautiful photos during his work with developing communities. Photo credit: Travis Ramos

When I worked as an intern for Water for People a few years ago, one of my main tasks was to wade through paper records in a giant wall of filing cabinets. I had to fish out stacks of folders filled with project reports from years past and enter the numbers of beneficiaries from these project reports into an Excel spreadsheet. While I learned a great deal about Water for People’s work in the process, I remember thinking about how useless it was to have so many project archives buried in dark recesses of the office. Once a project file entered the cabinet, the chances of it seeing the light of day again were slim to none.

While Water for People has since made huge changes in the way it measures success (and reports on it), this is still the story at many other organizations. With a myopic focus on increasing the numbers of beneficiaries, organizations inadvertently leave a wretched cycle of dependency and failure in their wake. And there are cabinets full of files silently attesting to the fact.

Forward-thinking leaders at organizations like Water for People are now integrating new technology to bring their entire portfolio of work out of the dark cabinets and into the public eye for all to see. Under the old system, no one really knew whether a given project was still functioning five days, or five years, after it was installed. With new technology, however, the projects in which organizations such as Water for People and the Dutch Government take part will be visible for all to see. And those organizations will regularly update the status of each of their projects around the world.

Using such transparency tech, development organizations will become more accountable and have an impetus to ensure that the work they do truly does have long-term impact. Metrics for success will change, and donors will then turn into investors seeking to put their money into organizations that actually make a difference. And that difference should be apparent three, five, 10, or even 20 years down the road.

A household water tap in Pasmata, Nicaragua. Photo credit: Travis Ramos

What will it take for such technology to gain a solid foothold in the industry and deliver on its promise to hold organizations accountable? As the leaders in this space incorporate new technology into development, the challenge will not only be to gather the data, but also to synthesize it in meaningful ways. Having data available is fantastic, but few are willing to go online, dig down and check on every single one of an organization’s projects. Organizations will need to take the data gathered from all their projects and make it easily understandable. They will need to create new metrics showing, for example, the percentage of successful, functioning projects worldwide, available for all to see. The projects will also need to be updated regularly.

I believe there is no stopping the incorporation of transparency tech

Doing so will require workers in the field to use the set of technologies available now, such as remote monitoring devices, SMS monitoring, and updates via smart phones. Ideally, organizations will also need to agree on a programming language that is the same across all monitoring platforms, so that each can plug its information into the same database. That will help them avoid overlap and understand what work has been done in a given location.

I believe there is no stopping the groundswell of activity in the international development sector as it incorporates transparency tech. I’m excited to see it grow and I’m excited to watch as the landscape of development work, as we know it, changes.

Photo credit: Laura Ramos /fuse-photographic

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