Technology in international development in an age of disruption - Nicaragua


I liked this quote in a book I’m reading called Designing Delivery by Jeff Sussna:

"In order to succeed in the age of disruption, companies must change their basic approach. They need to shift their emphasis from perpetuating stability to disrupting themselves. Instead of excelling at doing the same things better, faster, and cheaper, they need to challenge themselves to continually do different things, and continually do them differently. They need to learn to value learning over success, and to value the ability to change direction over the ability to maintain course. In other words, they need to shift their core competency from efficiency to adaptability"

Disruption is the word for our times. Everything is disruption. Everyone is disrupted. Assumptions about the world and the future made easily at the beginning of 2020 are upended. New markets are emerging, and old ones are dying. New realities show us new problems to solve, and in that chaos lies opportunity.

Disruptive thinking involves challenging current assumptions and realities to solve problems that others have overlooked or that your clients have learned to live with. It doesn’t have to involve enormous risk, or a technology that is new under the sun, or even give you “first mover” advantage. But it does lead to identifying bold new ideas that have the potential to be commercially profitable and using tools and technologies that are ready to commercialize.


The post-COVID world needs disruptive thinking. Lauren Paddleford, the CIO of Shopify said that COVID is a time machine that brought the marketplace of 2030 to 2020. So how do we handle this paradigm shift without a clutch?


We need new ways of patching together value chains and working with marginalized populations; all while considering diversity and intersectionality. So how do we become disruptive in our approach to designing projects?


Digital technology gives us powerful opportunities to enter new kinds of relationships and "conversations" with our clients that consider their diversity. This leads to transparency that can help us see how our programming is working and allows for iterative development while the work is in progress. When programming is couched in a context with diverse and many stakeholders, we (and our donors) need to appreciate that determining the end from the beginning is hopeful at best and harmful at worst. The Waterfall Model doesn’t appreciate the program’s true orientation as a complex system.


Technology simply provides a lever that can change our interactions with clients at a fundamental level, if we put them together with a complexity model in mind. When properly engaged, technology can also allow different voices and perspectives to the table in creative ways. Combine that with disruptive thinking, and program designs change:


But changing the model requires also changing the way we think about charity. Currently western institutional donors are rightly concerned about maintaining appropriate responsibility for the money they give. And many of those practices have evolved from a 1950’s model of overseas development and charity.


So what would it mean to update the donor-centric, command-and-control centered execution with feedback-based steering derived from front line operations? There are many legislative, contractual and compliance requirements in the way.


Would changing this environment be easy?


No. Hard and uncertain? Yes.


Interesting? Yes!


And potentially more satisfying and impactful for our clients? YES!


And would our donors and clients be happy with that result? Absolutely.


And would we have access to fresh insight that our clients, partners, donors and even industry peers could use for positive change? Absolutely YES!


And would it require commitment and discipline from everyone? Definitely YES.


The change environment MEDA works in is complex and always resists a “one-size fits all” approach to program design and development. Instead, MEDA seeks to recognize the unique circumstances in each of its projects yet bring the best thinking and software to solve these problems. From a digital, (and COVID) perspective this is very exciting, because we can’t create bespoke solutions for every situation and yet we need tooling that can be standardized and reused, that still respects the nuances of each project and meets our new contactless realities.


Every invention builds upon learnings gleaned from experience and the work of others. MEDA built upon earlier successful methods of gathering, storing and analyzing data and began with experiments using Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems in select projects. But the magic is not in the CRM system, it’s in MEDA’s adaptations of the system. MEDA’s business approach to addressing poverty makes this technology recognizable to businesses, yet it requires adaptations for our project management and reporting requirements as well as our data collection in environments with low bandwidth and low smart phone saturation.


Non-profits using CRM systems is in itself nothing new. But putting the client first is a subtle but profound change. Our project in Ukraine was the first project to begin experimenting with CRM and putting the client at the center of the project transactions. Today they can track clients through their various interactions with the project: business interests are defined and customized invitations to training events are created. Topical links in emails send users to the website where their interaction with the material is known. And this further helps the leadership of the project test, pivot and test again, steadily increasing the impact and reach of the interventions.


In Nicaragua, we have incorporated a beta version of MEDA’s market stimulation tool called Smart-MarkAT. Together, CRM and Smart-MarkAT are enabling insights into how clients are interacting with each other along the value chain, providing information to enable more rapid decision making and faster reporting.


In Jordan, our program team is using data that helps illuminate the journeys clients are taking with MEDA and to see the gaps and challenges they face that can be addressed. This is pointing the way to tailoring interventions for MEDA’s clients that are best suited for them. From the donor’s point of view the data from the project can be linked to performance indicators that can give a right-time window into how the project is coming along.


In Nigeria, we are working in partnership with MEDA’s Integrated Digital Solutions Team, has has developed best practices that incorporate a Results Based Management (RBM) framework (required by many donors) into CRM without compromising a client-centric system. This important development allows us to meet donor reporting requirements while also reaping the benefit of a client-centric approach to project management. Client-centricity is key to having greater insight into how the project is impacting clients and allows for right-time analytics to drive decision making.