The Digital Development Opportunity

Posted by Rajiv Shah
October 21, 2014
A Mobile Money User in the Philippines Checks Her Balance on Her Phone

At last month’s Frontiers in Development Forum, we welcomed some of the world’s brightest minds and boldest leaders to discuss how to best partner to end extreme poverty.  We not only heard from leaders like Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and Secretary of State John Kerry, but also from innovators who are creating mobile apps to fight human trafficking and using 3-D printers to build prosthetic hands in the field.  It was a recognition that we live in a unique moment, one where new technologies and partnerships are redefining what is possible.

Above all, the Forum was a reminder that -- as we near the 2015 deadline of the Millennium Development Goals -- we must accelerate progress.  For our Agency, new technologies and partnerships have created unprecedented opportunities to end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies.

From GPS to Skype to e-tablets, new innovations are fundamentally changing the way we communicate, work, learn, share and interact.  Almost two decades ago, we launched the Leland Initiative, an effort to expand access to information and communication technology in more than 20 African countries.  To build on this legacy, we teamed up with the U.K., Google.org, and the Omidyar Network to establish the Alliance for Affordable Internet.  Since then, the Alliance has grown to more than 65 members, from Facebook to the Government of Mozambique.  Together, they are building global consensus around a set of policy and regulatory recommendations that will lower the cost of internet access -- unlocking new opportunities for doctors, entrepreneurs, and local leaders across the developing world.

Much of this progress won’t happen at a desktop; it’ll happen in the palms of billions of hands.  Today, farmers are using mobile payments apps to send payments and receive loans; entrepreneurs are selling their goods on the global marketplace; and health workers are treating more patients, at less cost, and without expensive equipment.

We’re also tapping into affordable, game-changing technologies with the potential to transform the way we work.  In Uganda, we’re using mTrac, a tool that enables local health workers to send the government reports via SMS. Recently, the Ministry of Health used mTrac to survey 10,000 health workers on whether their health unit had a fridge that kept perishable drugs and vaccines cold.

The survey cost just $150 and took less than three days -- providing the Ministry of Health with information from 1,862 health facilities.  As a result, we learned that only about 70 percent of them have working fridges to store life-saving treatments.  As Uganda ramped up its national campaign to eradicate polio, it used this information to target the most vulnerable populations and protect more children.

Technology we often take for granted is creating monumental changes in developing economies.  In Senegal, rice millers buy expensive Asian imports, while local rice farmers are unable to sell their crops.  To build up local supply chains and improve the quality of harvests, we are helping farmers share information through Excel and Dropbox.  With this information in hand, rice millers can monitor local crops, schedule shipments in advance, and collect payments online.  With 30 farming networks involved to date, this project is helping tens of thousands of smallholder farmers boost their sales and reach new customers.

We’re not creating technology for technology’s sake.  There are too many apps that might look sleek, but are not transformative for the people who use them.  That’s why we have helped publish a set of guidelines on best practices for development programs that utilize technology.

We call these principles the Greentree Consensus, and they are built on earlier sets of principles that draw on the insight of more than 300 NGOs with expertise in the field.  Representing our commitment not only to innovation, but sustainable results, we’re thrilled to be launching these principles in partnership with over a dozen donors and multilaterals, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UNICEF, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the United Nations Development Program, and the World Food Program.

This is just the beginning of a conversation.  We must do more to take these insights into action.  Over the next year, we want to hear from the development community about your experiences in bringing technology to tackle development challenges -- from promoting media freedom to solving water shortages.  With our Agency’s new U.S. Global Development Lab at the center of this effort, we’ll be able to create, test, and scale breakthrough solutions like never before.  In doing so, we can make strides towards a day when extreme poverty -- like cassette tapes and dial-up internet -- is a thing of the past.

About the Author: Dr. Rajiv Shah is the Administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Follow @RajShah on Twitter.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears on the USAID Impact Blog.

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