Devex World was a full-day conference held in Washington D.C. where around 1,000 people convened to talk about relevant trends in the international development sector. Devex is a global media platform that reports on salient issues in the field, ranging from humanitarian responses to world crises; to using technology for more efficient programing; to how best (and ethically) organizations engage communities they serve.
Attendees heard from trailblazing organizations such as: Tala, an NGO designed to help beneficiaries obtain a credit score through nontraditional metrics that create a more holistic picture of financial inclusion; The QED group, an organization that uses impact evaluation and “data for good” by uncovering the story from the numbers; and The Rotary Foundation on partnering with communities through clearly defined roles and strategies when looking to innovate programs in global health. There were conversations on “lean methodology” and how it could be used to achieve the 2030 agenda for underrepresented groups, and an examination of cybersecurity, consent, and privacy regarding the data revolution.
WeWork was represented by Oregon-based Chief Creative Officer, Miguel McKelvey, who spoke about operationalizing love and creating work-related culture spaces that resonate with our personal values as well as our work goals and objectives. Notable companies such as Cargill and Pfizer also shared their unique perspectives on corporate social responsibility, and how – as representatives of the private sector – they hope to create new, responsible ways of partnering with local communities to achieve their mutual interests. Attendees also heard from related speakers about new funding models, and how project evaluation must fit within overall project needs in order for us to have more appropriate and meaningful metrics.
Some key questions that were especially compelling were: What is the social floor we can all agree upon, or the basic tolerable minimum that we don’t let any human being in the world fall beneath? And, how do we encourage or empower the development of a “whole citizen,” for ourselves, in our work places, as well as through our programs?
Innovation and Data
One of the central themes of Devex was the concept of “innovation” and how we as practitioners can benefit from it in improving and scaling our programs. This can range from better processing project evaluation data, to resilience-building in our partnerships by creating trust. Of the many opportunities to participate in this conversation, the one I attended was a panel that discussed the ethics of innovation, and to what purpose it is used. Does innovation always serve communities in the ways in which they desire or prefer? What kinds of protection does or should exist in terms of widespread data collection? Innovation as a term means different things depending on your point of view: as aid worker, farmer, corporate partner, or grassroots community worker. Choice was agreed upon as paramount in this distinction; i.e. who is choosing the innovative policies and to what end?
In regards to innovative scaling, this is achieved through enabling choice and enabling dignity as the foundation for growth. The platform for scaling should then be “value-driven innovation” that focuses more on how we run our programs and the depth of our efficacy in reaching underserved and underrepresented populations. It means we are considerate about our programmatic/financial processes (e.g. funding guidelines and project evaluation), as well as our human processes, which may not be as glamorous. In essence this can be understood as relational scaling, or using our human-centered philosophies to carry us deeper and further to better serve the needs of our communities.
The forum on scaling framed it in a helpful 360 degree light: what we’re trying to achieve with our programs, i.e. the overarching goal, is that more people have more rights to choose what to have. As program developers, we can set simple goals to collect meaningful metrics so that you aren’t compromising any facet of your programs or the human side of the work (which is largely emotional, relational, and at times quite difficult to measure). The other side of the scaling discussion was how we use data to develop quality quantitative evidence for the efficacy of programs. The specific example was in relation to setting out to reduce global health issues such as infant mortality or the prevalence of certain diseases in lower-income countries. When bringing programs of this nature to scale, it will be incredibly important to accurately and responsibly assess efficacy, meaning the ways in which we measure and collect data will have to be done keeping certain ethical obligations in mind (such as privacy and consent).
A key takeaway was that there are many ways for an organization to be evidence-driven. For instance, Alex Thier with the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), mentioned the importance of partnerships in bringing programs to scale. In his words, we’ll need quality leaders that base their actions on an understanding: “there can be no win wins or transformative change without sacrifice.” If our national interest involves engaging more people with a global mindset, then we will need to see the world as interconnected, including the world of our programming. With a refreshingly realist attitude, he closed with a call to action for all of our organizations to consider how we can enable people to build their own bridges to the future – which is critical in how we can scale as a field.
The forum on data revolution primarily brought to light ways in which M&E can be a great opportunity to create actionable items or “galvanize action.” More than once panelists mentioned how it’s not about the data itself, rather it’s about the stories behind the data, and bringing those stories to life. Technology on the whole was described by QED’s founder, Neelima Grover, as “a game changer” because it changes the paradigm and drives decisions. It’s now easier to organize and analyze data, and to embrace technology to really further our work. Our job moving forward will be to consider how we make that data meaningful and insightful. This entails turning data into information so that it can tell a story, and that story can carry meaning, and that meaning can inspire action.
The age-old story with nonprofits is that we all need to shift our abilities to better partner with other nonprofits, to work together in order to really scale on a global level. This means organizations will need to value and prioritize storytelling and creating various channels for connection at both the individual and the corporate level – while also retaining the human touch that development work requires.
Global development is very much a people-to-people business, or the business of knowing and caring about humanity. In many ways it remains to be seen how tech will revolutionize the industry. In terms of funding, donor agencies no longer drive the industry, but rather public/private partnerships with corporations and local governments. Venture capital is no stranger to philanthropy, so part of this process will be a move towards development-based investing. These funding partners interested not only in philanthropy, but also their investment, and receiving something in return for their money, which can (at times) be framed in terms of M&E metrics. Finding or measuring these “social” or “human-centric” returns will be pivotal in forming these kinds of partnerships.
One aspect of partnerships that is difficult to measure, yet equally if not more so important for organizations to practice, is the idea of reciprocity. Oxfam America representative Abby Maxman discussed how the act of partnering is when we amplify and respect voices or initiatives that already exist and encourage a sense of mutual learning. Basically, development is a two-way street. In order for us to put partnerships at the forefront of our programming, we can envision what we do on a scale of local to global all within the umbrella of interdependent relationships with the mutual goal of creating meaningful impact and sustainable change.
Her 2-3 overall key lessons for partnerships were: 1) the importance of bringing more women’s voices in leadership, especially in post-conflict areas for peace-building; 2) the need for long-term collaboration and long-term commitments for countries in crisis situations; and 3) the way in which organizations bring together local partners and governments for collaboration and longevity of project success. She commented further that, in her opinion, gender equality in leadership should be a sector-wide commitment in order to enhance women’s voices and opportunities to improve their communities. Her final thought was that in order to best achieve this, as a field we will need to learn how to engage the private sector and local governments.
Jaha Dukureh, founder of an organization in Gambia to fight FGM, Safe Hands for Girls, summed this issue up nicely: this isn’t a career for her, it’s her life, and her community’s. Her story created change for her community because she built an initiative around something she not only believes strongly in, but has lived. These are the kinds of initiatives that deserve more of the available resources because they are organizations that have a level of dedication, integration, and ability to bring about change in their communities that is beyond ours as a sector.
What WECO does varies in comparison to many of the organizations that were present at Devex. So many of them focus on solving issues directly related to global health, food security and agriculture, and humanitarian crises, so many of the innovations discussed revolved around expediting those kinds of programs. From the community-building side of things, how WECO fits within this puzzle is by working to build the infrastructure of local civil society so that those organizations can have more influence over distributing viable solutions to their own community members. These are simple innovations with high, widespread impact. In relation to our projects, we will continue to measure the success of our partners and our projects primarily guided by relationship-building principles of partnership.
The COO of Co-Impact, Pam Foster outlined how the funding system is now made up of high net-worth individuals in a sense having their choice of causes to support. One of her key takeaways was regarding data collection, was the importance of stakeholder feedback. Our challenge and our task as a development community will be to bring all sides of the story together in order to build a different model of engagement. At heart, this is systems change: through collaboration and impact reporting, development organizations can better mediate the needs of both donors and their target populations. In many ways, it’s viewing each group as partners. If NGOs are traditionally funded based on their results, then one area for innovation will be exploring ways in which quality programs can be reported to people in impactful ways, based on more than simple numbers. This is where the art of storytelling comes in.
The private sector has the majority of the resources, and consists of people who are also interested in the health of humanity. Moving forward, they must be engaged in ways that speak to their priorities; that is, without altering programs to better fit the needs of donors, we will have to work to create channels of understanding and meaning for them to apply to their lives and their experiences. WECO projects are small ecosystems of innovation that exist in tandem with our partners’ total operations. One way we can help them is by sharing their story as an organization and shedding light on what development in lower-income countries does, and should, and can, look like. These are the lessons we carry home with us, share with our domestic partners, and create bridges from which more resources can flow – to the people that make who make the best use