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3 Tips for Bridging Technology and International Development

By Guest Writer on December 19, 2019

technology for development

At the recent MERL Tech 2019 conference in Washington, DC, the panel “Technology Adoption and Innovation in the Industry: How to Bridge the International Development Industry with Technology Solutions” proved to be an engaging conversation between four technology and international development practitioners.

Admittedly, as someone who comes from more of a development background, some parts of this conversation were hard to follow. However, three takeaways stuck out to me after hearing the insights and experiences of:

“Innovation isn’t always creation.”

The fact that organizations often think about innovation and creation as synonymous actually creates barriers to entry for technology firms in the development market. When asked to speak about these barriers, all three panelists mentioned that clients oftentimes want highly customized tools when, they could achieve their goals with what already exists in the market.

Nanavati (whose quote titles this section) followed his point about innovation not always requiring creation by asserting that innovation is sometimes just a matter of implementing existing tools really well. Hawa added to this idea by arguing that sometimes development practitioners and organizations should settle for something that’s close enough to what they want in order to save money and resources.

When facing clients’ unrealistic expectations about original creation, consultancies should explain that the super-customized system the client asks for may actually be unusable because of the level of complexity this customization would introduce.

While this may be hard to admit, communicating with candor is better than the alternative — selling a bad product for the sake of expanding business.

An audience member asked how one could convince development clients to accept the non-customized software. In response, Hawa suggested that consultancies talk about software in a way that non-tech clients understand. Say something along the lines of, “Why recreate Microsoft Excel or Gmail?”

Later in the discussion, Selanikio offered another viewpoint. He never tries to persuade clients to use Magpi. Rather, he does business with those who see the value of Magpi for their needs. This method may be effective in avoiding a tense situation between the service provider and client when the former is unable to meet the unrealistic demands of the latter.

Closing the gap between tech and development

Although not explicitly stated, one main conclusion that can be drawn from the panel is that a critical barrier keeping technology from effectively penetrating development is miscommunication and misunderstanding between actors from the two fields.

By learning how to communicate better about the technology’s true capacity, clients’ unrealistic expectations, and the failed initiatives that often result from the mismatch between the two, future failures-in-the-making can be mitigated.

Interestingly, all three panelists are, in themselves, bridges between these two fields, as they were once development implementers before turning to the tech field. Nanavati and Selanikio used to work in the public health sphere in epidemiology, and Hawa was a special education teacher.

Since the panelists were once in their clients’ positions, they better understand the problems their clients face and reflect this understanding in the useful tech they develop. Not all of us have expertise in both fields. However, we must strive to understand and accept the viewpoints of each other to effectively incorporate technology in development.

Grant funding has its limitations

This is not to say that you cannot produce good tech outputs with grant funding. However, using donations and grants to fund the research and development of your product may result in something that caters to the funders’ desires rather than the needs of the clients you aim to work with.

Selanikio, while very grateful to the initial funders of Magpi, found that once the company began to grow, grants as a means of funding no longer worked for the direction that he wanted to go. As actors in the international development sphere, the majority of us are mission-driven, so when the funding streams hinder you from following that mission, then it may be worth considering other options.

For Magpi, this involved having both a free and paid version of its platform. Oftentimes, clients transition from the free to paid version and are willing to pay the fee when Magpi proves to be the software that they need. Creative tech solutions require creative ways to fund them in order to keep their integrity.

Technology can greatly aid development practitioners to make a positive impact in the field. However, using it effectively requires that all those involved speak candidly about the capacity of the tech the practitioner wants to employ and set realistic expectations. Each panelist offered level-headed advice on how to navigate these relationships but remained optimistic about the role of tech in development.

By Stephanie Jamilla and originally published as Three Tips for Bridging Tech Development and International Development 

Filed Under: Solutions
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One Comment to “3 Tips for Bridging Technology and International Development”

  1. As another development practitioner turned ICT leader I read this blog with interest and what struck me was the strength opinion on the value of highly customised software. Our Smallholdr software is designed for agribusinesses or NGOs that work with small farmers in developing contexts. Our clients absolutely see the value that our highly tailored systems offer – quite contrary to the panel’s views. Our prices also match those of competitors that do not customise to the same degree. So I would very much beg to differ on this point! I do agree that it is hard for non-tech buyers to know what to look for in a system, but one good way is to speak to others who have worked with a provider before.