Development interventions over the years have suffered from the last mile problem. That last step that prevents oral salts from treating diarrhea, hinders the use of bed nets for the prevention of malaria or discourages parents from allowing girls to receive sex education. It is grounded in problems of information asymmetry and behavioural constraints, where awareness of development interventions is patchy and communication campaigns are unable to create a lasting impression for successful project take-up and implementation. It is that last step where the science of development breaks down and the art of development takes center stage. It is that humbling point where development professionals are made to think about the project beneficiaries as humans who face real trade offs in the decisions they make in their daily lives. In my opinion, technology can play a critical role in helping development professionals to make the “last” mile a “first” opportunity. Technology innovations can be used to listen, learn and launch.
Listen: Beneficiary voice needs to be a key ingredient in project design, not an afterthought.
Development practitioners are increasingly focusing on better understanding the behaviors of beneficiaries around the world. Technology innovations can make this listening an organic and more systematic part of program design and delivery. Given that cellphones have deep penetration in most developing countries (India has greater access to cellphones than toilets (UNU 2010), development practitioners can leverage the interactive nature of technology to create effective feedback loops within their projects and understand the decisions that people make when benefiting from development interventions. This can be done through SMS surveys such as TextIT or games such as 9minutes.
Learn: We have entered an era of rapid technological advancements and vast usage and there are unparalled opportunities for leveraging technology to enhance the practice of development. In the past decade, the share of population in Sub-Saharan Africa using internet has grown over 2500%. Improved Internet connectivity and technology awareness has led to an enhanced interest in social media, especially amongst the youth. Using technology, it is now easier to synthesize knowledge, reach project beneficiaries and create partnerships around the world.
Launch: It is critical to inspire behavioral change rather than force it. A father who faces the decision of feeding his children or protecting them from malaria is likely to use a bed net for fishing and forcing him to change his mind is not going to work. He needs to be able to understand the trade-offs of his decisions, imagine the harms of malaria and then make an informed choice. In order to raise awareness, communication campaigns need to move beyond pamphlets and brochures. Technology can be used to tell stories through voice messages, simulate scenarios in games or encourage community action through SMS campaigns.
International development has come a long way. Gone are the days of cookie-cutter interventions being replicated across regions without much appetite for beneficiary feedback and cultural context. Today development projects are more attuned to responding to beneficiary voices and technology is changing the way we listen, learn and launch.