A strategic mindset shift is needed by NGOs to fully embrace technology

A center in Mogadishu issues biometric identification cards to Somali citizens. Photo by: Tobin Jones / AMISOM

LUSAKA, Zambia — Tech innovations such as biometrics, facial recognition, and drones could be used to improve a range of services provided by the development and humanitarian sector, but adoption remains slow. A change in mindset and strategy is needed to ensure that the sector does not fall behind, according to panelists at the 10th Conference on Information and Communication Technologies for Development, or ICT4D, held last week in Lusaka, Zambia.

There will be a lot of money spent in digital innovations in the coming years, which the humanitarian and development sector can tap into, said Lauren Woodman, chief executive officer of NetHope, a consortium of American NGOs that works to join nonprofits with technology innovators worldwide. According to the World Economic Forum, the digital economy could unleash over $100 trillion by 2025.

“That’s a lot of money to do a lot of good work,” said Woodman. “The downside is that we are very poorly positioned as a sector to take advantage of any of that.”

One of the key issues is that NGOs aren’t thinking about this digital disruption in a strategic way, she said. This can be illustrated by the fact that most nonprofits don’t have a formal, internal digital strategy. A survey conducted by NetHope found that 70 percent of its nonprofit members lack a digital strategy. Leadership was pinpointed as one of the top reasons for this. The survey also found that only about half of nonprofit executives believe that digital disruption will have a significant impact on their operations in the near future.

“When leadership steps up and shows through the way they are behaving and the way they are using data to the rest of the organization, it encourages others,” said Michele Broemmelsiek, vice president of overseas operations at Catholic Relief Services.

Hiring can also help: Having a chief technology officer will ensure that changes are engrained into an organization’s operation, said Bobby Jefferson, vice president and chief technology officer at DAI Global Health. Creating this role at an organization also helps to set up a technology-focused career ladder within an organization.

“For many NGO groups, when they want a project, they will hire a developer or programmer. Then, when they want another project, they will hire another developer or programmer. That programmer doesn’t see a career path with that NGO group,” he said.

According to a survey conducted by Devex and released at the conference by CRS, some 64 percent of respondents use information and communication technology in less than half of their programming in the past year. Eighty-one percent of respondents also said that easier tools for data collection and analysis would be a top enabler for aid and development organizations to deepen a culture of data use. The survey polled senior development professionals in donor agencies, government, development consulting firms, NGOs, foundations, and corporations.

“Certainly, right now there are great tools. But the question is, ‘how do you make a good decision about which tool to use?’” said Broemmelsiek.

It also comes down to communication and making sure that the right people are talking.

“You can’t simply have the technology people talking to each other and not having that cross-communication with the programming teams,” said Broemmelsiek.

Organizations also need to understand their own strengths and not take on too much of the burden of implementing technological innovations internally, said Woodman. They need to look to technology providers as services providers, rather than trying to replicate these technologies internally.

“It’s not about taking technologies and applying them on top of what we do. That’s not enough,” she said. “It is a question of business models, delivery methods, of rethinking the way we deliver aid.”

About the author

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    Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.