Development Tech in the Age of Trump

Searching for a silver lining: development tech in the age of Trump

CNN reports Trump planning budget cuts at USAID and State

Budget-Slasher-in-Chief

Since the US presidential elections of last November, the news for international development has been grim, with planned cuts to State Department and USAID of roughly 30% routinely cited in the news. For those working in international development programs, it’s hard to find any kind of silver lining – but there may be one: drastic funding cuts may finally break the sector free of its spendthrift focus on building and piloting new technologies – rather than using (and thereby supporting and improving) existing ones.

By “tech”, I’m talking about the activities of “ICT4D” (“information and communications technologies for development”) and its subsidiary “mHealth” (ICT4D for health purposes).  These are the parts of global development that create technology focused on the needs of international development and global health, including for mobile data collection.

Examples include Magpi itself (along with other mobile data systems) –  originally developed 15 years ago to collect vaccine coverage information – but excludes general purpose technology like Excel and Facebook and cell phones that are used by international development.

So might tech in the age of Trump finally move beyond pilots and projects?

The ICT4D goldrush: “too much innovation”, or just money wasted?

The unfortunate fact is that most technology created for international development has been a flop. The IRC‘s Geoffrey Ssembajjwe puts it this way:

 Believe me or not,there has not been any success story of sustainable mHealth innovation in the developing world. At least in Uganda, none to talk of that has survived beyond donor funds. I urge you to name one.

This failure has at least in part been driven by large budgets.  Organizations flush with money from USAID, Gates, or other grant-funding sources – and listening to the siren song of programmers who overpromise and underdeliver – have consistently underestimated the difficulties of creating software from scratch (not to mention maintaining it).  It doesn’t hurt that these organizations get paid more to build software from scratch or from an open-source kit than to use less expensive existing solutions like Magpi.

To put it plainly, the international development funding system has incentivized re-invention of the wheel at every opportunity.  This was charitably described by AidLeap as “too much innovation”, and by ICTWorks in this way:

The funding creates “almost a gold-rush frenzy to get one’s own brand of smart phone and wheel-reinventing Android app out to a handful of Village Health Team workers and change the world”.

Pilots, Pilots, Everywhere

A related problem has been that of “pilotitis”: constant funding of pilot projects, which fail as soon as the initial funding dries up.  Pilots have not been an effective way to scale basic technologies for development, but they have been an effective way for ICT4D programmers and consultants to get paid, and for funding organizations to get good PR.

Failed mHealth Pilots in Uganda

Failed mHealth Pilots in Uganda

The issue has been so problematic that in 2013 the Uganda government — noting the 23 pilot mHealth projects launched in the country in 2008-2009, none of which survived the end of the pilot phase) — famously declared a moratorium on mHealth pilots in the country.

This inability to survive the end of project funding has been even more noticeable because of the frequent description of new ICT4D technologies as “free”: it might be hard for someone outside the sector to understand how “free” software could be so dependent on funding.  This apparent contradiction arises because in ICT4D “free” means there is no software license fee – but the software typically requires at least a few ICT specialists to set up and operate.  And ICT specialists are decidedly not free.

At least we’re learning – aren’t we?

Even if pilots don’t ever seem to scale, proponents have argued, at least they provide a way to experiment and, through evaluation, determine what works and what doesn’t.  This argument doesn’t seem to hold water, either, though: most ICT4D projects are never rigorously evaluated.  In fact, a review of mHealth published in PLOS in 2013 – which included both developing country activities and projects in richer countries – noted that, of 42 trials examined, “none of the trials were of high quality”.

Taking a page from Gmail

Outside of ICT4D, the view is starkly different: useful information technologies seem to roll out every day, each one less expensive than the last (or free!).  These commercial technologies are widely used by development professionals and their beneficiaries alike: from Facebook to Gmail to Skype to WhatsApp to the mobile phone itself.  Magpi itself, though very definitely started as an grant-funded “mHealth project”, moved quickly to a more commercial footing (with free and paid versions) after observing the business and technology models of useful commercial software like (back in the day) Hotmail. Hotmail

Now nearly 15 years after we started, Magpi continues to provide a widely-used free version (free in the “really free”, “doesn’t cost anything to use” sense, rather than the “no software license but you need to pay programmers” sense), funded entirely by our even more capable paid versions.  Our users include organizations like the WHO, Oxfam, many Red Cross organizations, the London School of Economics, MercyCorps, the World Bank, UNICEF, and others.  We’ve noticed, though, that sometimes organizations flush with cash from grants might still choose other options for mobile data collection that are dramatically more expensive (sometimes by hundreds of thousands of dollars); this is a routine occurrence, not a rarity.

A scarce funding environment favors cost-effective tools

Like many others, we’re still trying to digest the election results .  We believe that if there is a silver lining to “tech in the age of Trump” it is this: we have observed that when funding is easy organizations are very likely to waste time and money building their own mobile data collection and other software systems (though for some reason they never think to develop their own automobiles or laptops!).   Maybe, just maybe, in a more difficult funding environment those same organizations may be more likely to follow their colleagues at UNICEF, LSE, the Red Cross and elsewhere in seeking out existing cost-effective tools that allow them to focus on their core activities.

As we like to say at Magpi: “it’s better to spend money on programs than on programmers.”

 


Also published on Medium.

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