New tools and approaches promise a big change to the aid industry

Attendees registering at Devex World 2016. Photo by: Joy Asico

WASHINGTON — The global development calendar is chockablock with conferences and convenings. There are the official summits, where shareholders of multilateral development banks and member states of United Nations agencies come together to back a replenishment or vote on a reform plan. There are the many sectoral gatherings, regional events, and NGO assemblies — the U.N. General Assembly every September in New York’s Manhattan, and the World Economic Forum’s annual January meeting in Switzerland’s Davos, both host an expanding universe of side events and full add-on conferences.

Upright suitcases dot the hallways of Devex’s offices around the world for this very reason. Our reporters are covering an incredible number of events this year — at least 30 over the past 12 months, including the most recent European Development Days and World Health Assembly.

Event after event — once all these meetings and our analysis and reporting is done — one question still remains unanswered: Where is the aid industry headed?

This is the question we set out to answer on June 12, at our flagship conference in Washington, D.C., dubbed Devex World. It’s where we take the threads of information gathered in our reporting around the globe and weave them into a tapestry of practical insight. A place to explore the new tools and perspectives leading to a new approach to global development. An approach that promises to change the way the aid industry works — and even, who does that work.

These tools include real-time data from development initiatives around the world. One such tool is immediate feedback. Companies such as San Francisco-based Premise, and its global network of cellphone-wielding data collectors, are moving the aid industry away from preconceived projects and toward iterative business models that morph and change based on what’s working and what’s not. It’s agile technology methodology meets global development.

Companies such as Facebook, whose Africa policy director will be at Devex World, are also enabling direct communications at scale with frontline aid workers and the people they’re serving.

Then, there’s the revolution happening in financial inclusion, notably around the credit score for the poor being pioneered by Tala, whose groundbreaking Los Angeles-based CEO Shivani Siroya is another Devex World speaker. The ability to digitally identify, wirelessly connect with, and send money or services to billions of people previously off the grid, could transform the way those at the bottom of the income scale respond to health emergencies and other personal economic shocks, and the way aid and microcredit are delivered.

All this data and connectivity is enabling investments for impact — the “results revolution” — several of its architects from organizations such as Instiglio, IDinsight, and Evidence Action will be at Devex World.

If we can get this right — and there are huge institutional, cultural, and data hurdles in the way — we may see an upswing in global development efforts designed around pay-for-performance modalities including tiered funding, challenge grants, and development impact bonds.

Of course, all of these shiny new tools shouldn’t blind us from seeing the challenging context: More crises, displaced people, conflict, walls, and authoritarianism. For all the positive macro trends around life expectancy and economic growth, technocratic approaches alone won't address questions of fundamental rights.

At Devex World, we’ll be highlighting people who are finding new ways to challenge long-held societal norms, like Jaha Dukureh, the grassroots advocate who’ll share her story of banning female genital mutilation and child marriage in The Gambia. And Afghanistan’s first lady, Rula Ghani, who’ll explore the role of women in her country’s development. Both named by TIME Magazine in their list of 100 most influential people.

New tools and perspectives are upending major sectors, and we’ll discuss them in-depth at Devex World: Health is becoming more consumer centered, education more focused on learning outcomes, and the humanitarian aid sector more oriented toward cash transfer instruments and results metrics.

This transformation of approach goes well beyond individual sectors — as we’ll hear from Malcolm Gladwell and the Surgo Foundation, who’ll describe how a behavioral science, human-centered design and systems-thinking orientation, can offer a new way to go about global development work.

The players themselves are changing too. Just as “beneficiaries" are becoming “consumers,” the image of the aid worker is beginning to shift from the “expat expert” to the local leader. That too will be apparent at Devex World. We’ll challenge the way we think of employment itself, with an innovative take on the future of work culture from the co-founder of WeWork, Miguel McKelvey.

Disrupting the aid industry may be important but it can also create a host of new obstacles and controversies. Those too will be on the agenda at Devex World and the subject of interviews with newsmakers, such as the World Health Organization’s Tedros Adhanom and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation’s Ray Washburne.

These are consequential times, replete with the risks of failure and overreach. That’s why this event is so unlike any of the others. It's an eclectic mix of leaders, luminaries, and funding organizations — most of whom aren’t on the development conference circuit today — but if these trends hold, may come to define it.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Raj Kumar

    Raj Kumar is the Founding President and Editor-in-Chief at Devex, the media platform for the global development community. He is a media leader and former humanitarian council chair for the World Economic Forum and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His work has led him to more than 50 countries, where he has had the honor to meet many of the aid workers and development professionals who make up the Devex community. He is the author of the book "The Business of Changing the World," a go-to primer on the ideas, people, and technology disrupting the aid industry.