Bangladesh is surprisingly on the forefront of innovation when it comes to mobile and digital solutions to problems. With the 'Digital Bangladesh' campaign, the efforts of the ICT ministry and A2I, we have seen a huge burst in activity among tech startups and mobile solution providers. Union Information Service Centres are making online registration for various services possible. Many citizen support services have been digitised. Not only in the public sector do we see these changes, but also in the development sector.
Many leading donor agencies and development organisations are seizing opportunities to use technology to increase efficiency of service delivery, enhance targeted responses to meet individual needs, improve monitoring and evaluation of impact, optimise field force workflow and provide evidence to policymakers. Grameen Kalyan is using mobile phones to link marginalised people in remote areas with doctors. Population Council is using mobile video games to educate and raise awareness among the poor. Water Aid is using GPS tracking to keep track of deep tube-wells. Government of Bangladesh's multi-donor social transfer programme, Shiree, is using mobile-based platform to track asset transfers to 250,000 extremely poor households and smart phone apps to help manage the workflow of field officers.
Mobile-based banking, identified by the Gates Foundation as one of the top five innovations - likely to make the eradication of extreme poverty possible - is being used to deliver money to disaster victims by Plan Bangladesh and Oxfam. CLP experimented with mobile money transfers to financially include people living in the chars. These innovations are drawing global attention and can be scaled up locally.
What is important is not so much the technology, the value of which is by now well-proven, but the effectiveness with which it is applied to enhance and, in some cases, transform the management of pro-poor development processes. Management is key. Managers who are unable to innovate – or worse, unscrupulous managers who are only interested in personal rewards – may abuse new technology. One lesson from implementing ICT solutions is that it takes time to overcome entrenched resistance to change, for managers to start seeing new technology not as a threat but as an opportunity. Proper incentives need to be in place to encourage organisations to adopt new approaches.
Gathering data is a lengthy process and often the data NGOs receive is out of date. Meanwhile, most NGOs have large forces of field officers who are dealing with beneficiaries all the time, but they convey their data to their supervisors in an anecdotal way. We are not maximising data gathered from field level for decision making. Monitored data needs to be fed back to management and decision makers in time to be useful, not outdated. Dynamic data at the fingertips is now a reality easily achievable with the help of mobile-based monitoring platforms.
Beneficiary verification and registration is another challenge that leads to accountability problems. Transfer programmes that suffer from leakages can use more robust data systems to increase transparency. Money flow and invoicing can be made digital for greater clarity. Without proper tracking of financial flows, effective budgeting is not possible.
Enrolment and targeting systems can benefit from the creation of a digital database which may also serve as a baseline survey. This database then exists for future ongoing or periodic studies without requiring a repetition of the initial baseline legwork.
Management systems and ICT must be as simple as possible given the programme requirements, and appropriately tailored to the country's existing capacity constraints. Adding ICT to programmes that are already in implementation can sometimes be expensive. It is more efficient to design projects with ICT at the core of the design to reduce costs, save time, create learning loops and achieve better results.
Digital tools can empower the poorest by bringing them into the feedback dialogue. This gives clients of programmes the scope to steer their own growth and lodge grievances if necessary. Gender disaggregated data can help ensure that women also experience the benefits of economic growth and development programmes equally. For best results, managers need to know what is working and what is not, real-time!
Impact measurement is another challenge that is often not adequately addressed by programmes – both NGOs and GOs. The multi-dimensional and dynamic nature of poverty means simply measuring income is not only challenging but also insufficient. Again, innovative tools and indicators can help solve the problem. This is also necessary when tracking the specific needs of special populations, such as adolescent girls, or pregnant mothers, or skill-less youths, for example.
To make decisions, we need information. This information needs to be accessible, in a format that responds to our questions and actionable, to tell us what to do. Monitoring implementation and outcomes helps to generate timely lessons for improved impact and communication to the public and policymakers.
Data and analysis can also help identify the challenges and opportunities associated with different contexts and intended beneficiary groups; support cost-benefit analysis that enables policymakers to make more informed comparisons between cash transfer design options (and with investments in other sectors); deepen understanding of the political economy of cash transfers; track whether and under what circumstances transfer delivery supports access to and use of financial services etc.
With the current infrastructure for IT as strong as it is in Bangladesh, development practitioners and government players are well-positioned to explore innovative ways of managing data. Bangladesh has been a pioneer and leader in many areas of poverty reduction. Here is another space where we can lead the way. Let's be creative and see what sort of exciting solutions we can create!
The writer is an activist for the extreme poor and Head of ProgressTracker at mPower Social. She can be reached at email@example.com.