How would tech entrepreneurs recode the foreign aid system?

By Catherine Cheney 13 November 2015

A glimpse of Silicon Valley in San Francisco Bay Area in the United States. What do tech entrepreneurs think of foreign aid? Photo by: Craig Howell / CC BY

Foreign aid agencies have started to pay more attention to the world of tech entrepreneurs in seeking solutions to some of the biggest challenges on the planet. But what do these entrepreneurs think about the world of foreign aid?

“The range of problems that live within the reality of extreme poverty and vulnerability that can be addressed with science, technology, innovation, and the Silicon Valley mindset of ‘can-doism’ tied to capital is really phenomenal,” said former U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah at the Stanford Global Development and Poverty Initiative’s inaugural conference in Palo Alto, California last month.

Shah described development as, “a discipline that’s grown its own set of practices and learnings around what works, what doesn’t work.”

Doug Galen was in the audience. Galen has spent the majority of his career in tech, helping to lead and scale companies including Shopkick, eBay and Shutterfly. Inspired in part by his involvement on the Heifer International board of directors, he launched RippleWorks, an organization that pairs technology experts with promising social ventures based in the developing world to help them tackle their scaling challenges.

“I have mad respect for all the companies in this space trying to do good in the world, and there is no silver bullet,” Galen told Devex. “Having said that, being a newbie to global development has its advantages.”

Galen said he always uses “air quotes” when he describes Silicon Valley, as he considers it shorthand for people who have experienced quick and massive growth and success with their organizations, no matter where they are based. Devex asked the RippleWorks founder and a range of other “Silicon Valley” tech entrepreneurs what they would do to “recode” foreign aid for effectiveness and impact.

Here are a few of the ideas that emerged:

1. Listen to communities.

A handful of foreign aid projects that haven’t met expectations might have done better had community needs dictated chosen solutions, according to some tech experts. That is the first rule of human centered design, a hot topic in Silicon Valley that is pioneered and promoted by organizations including IDEO and the Institute of Design at Stanford.

“Create real feedback mechanisms that come from the bottom and drive funding streams,” said Mahad Ibrahim, managing partner and cofounder of Gobee Group, a social innovation design consultancy based in n Oakland, California. “Build into funding the ability to iterate on innovations prior to evaluation.”

Sandhya Hegde of Khosla Impact told Devex, “tech entrepreneurs move fast when they identify problems and often take a learn-as-you-go approach to solving them.”

“To have greater impact, existing global aid organizations need to question their assumptions about what the right ways to have impact are. Should you give food or money? How much to invest in prevention versus cure? Do the kids need toilets or uniforms? We need to be more open to experimenting and taking a customer-centric view to solutions rather than prescribing them,” she said.

2. Think again about impact evaluation.

Traditional aid organizations might be surprised to learn that some tech entrepreneurs think they put too much faith in metrics. Global development professionals should be more realistic when it comes to how empirically they can measure impact, according to some of the experts Devex consulted.

Doug Galen at RippleWorks mentioned Off Grid Electric as an example of an organization that should not be subject to “empirical exactness overkill.”

The San Francisco-based company has deployed a distributed solar model in Tanzania and Rwanda. Galen explained that while CEO Xavier Helgesen is lighting up rural villages, turning off kerosene lamps, and saving children from burn injuries, sometimes the questions around impact have more to do with distantly-related special interests, like: “Are the children now better educated?”

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Galen said. “The impact shouldn’t be to make someone happy. It should be for the organization itself ... to make better decisions everyday. And empirical evidence is being used to please an agenda versus make better business decisions or impact decisions.”

3. Speed up the pace of technology adoption.

Tech entrepreneurs say the global development community should help developing countries become earlier adopters of new technology. There is particularly important with the emergence of new software and hardware products that have potential to accelerate the transition to higher standards of living.

“Global megatrends of open-source software, cloud-based infrastructure, and cheap hardware development are making it possible for entrepreneurs and engineers in emerging markets to build amazing products at an excitedly rapid rate and leapfrog innovations from the developed world,” said Wayne Fenton, vice president for engineering at iControl Networks.

Fenton is a RippleWorks volunteer helping a group called Kopo Kopo — a suite of apps for payments and lending based in Nairobi, Kenya — redesign its cloud architecture.

“The tech community can provide critical insights and resources that are common to all companies ... in ways that weren’t possible in the past,” he said.

4. ‘The advantage of being a newbie.’

Some tech entrepreneurs feel like their own human capital has gone untapped in international development so far.

“The tech community will best be involved through problem-specific, bite-sized engagements,” said Chris Kanaan, vice president of engineering of Ripple Labs. “We need to empower the innovation and impact that is already occurring internationally, and having these communities work together will lift all boats.”

The development community could do itself a favor by developing solutions in coordination with more nimble Silicon Valley innovators. And the aid community is slowly but surely acknowledging the need to bridge the divide between Washington, D.C., and Silicon Valley. For example, USAID appointed Danielle Cass as the U.S. Global Development Lab’s tech sector liaison. Cass works to develop partnerships with the tech sector and identify innovations to end extreme poverty.

“Development donors should consider other resources for programmatic delivery than the usual suspects,” Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami, a partner at Gobee Group and author of “Technology at the Margins: How IT Meets the Needs of Emerging Markets,” said. “New blood is needed to spark innovation.”

Tech experts can offer a dose of reality to the development community, like the importance of being mission driven rather than letting the internal politics of an organization or political interests of foreign aid allocation drive decisions.

“Follow the mission wherever it takes you and politics be damned,” Galen said. “That’s the advantage of being a newbie and a little naive and a lot idealistic.”

To read additional content on innovation, go to Focus On: Innovation in partnership with Philips.

About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


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