Q&A: Development budgets in jeopardy — time to embrace a digital transformation

Data-driven technology accelerates access to education, decent work and health care so more people live peacefully and equitably in society. Photo by: BroadReach

Public and private organizations working in emerging markets face intense and unrelenting pressure to radically boost efficiency and create sustainable outcomes as public funding, previously earmarked for development, declines. Judson Althoff, executive vice president of worldwide commercial business at Microsoft, believes that digital technology could play a significant part in the solution by helping to cut costs, streamline services and encourage shared learning.

Talking with John Sargent, the co-founder of BroadReach — a Microsoft partner organization — Althoff discussed how government ministries, donor organizations, NGOs and private sector companies can harness the power of digital technology to elevate the quality of life in underserved populations.

“Technology is a means to an end,” said Althoff. “When used thoughtfully, cloud technology connects people and decision makers; improves access to information in a more secure way than current approaches; fosters greater transparency and accountability; and creates efficiencies.”

Having worked in developing economies since 2003, BroadReach’s Sargent agreed that technology can have a significant impact in improving the lives of many.

“I believe that [those] who embrace data-driven analytics, decision-making, and processes readily embraced by organizations working in developed markets, will breakthrough to fundamentally strengthen and scale quality health care, education, job training and more,” he said.

In a conversation with Althoff, Sargent asked how technology can be implemented practically, and why partnerships are a key component to effective implementation.

Below are more highlights from this conversation, edited for length and clarity.

John Sargent: How do you see technology empowering underserved populations across the world?

Judson Althoff: We have already seen technology, especially mobile and telecom, make a substantive difference in the lives of underserved communities globally. Mobile money transfer services — the best known example — have given people in underserved communities access to financial services on a scale that would have been hard to imagine even a decade ago. We also see developing country governments and NGOs use mobile tools to reach more students and enrich classroom learning experiences and farmers in developing countries use their mobile devices for on-demand access to market and price information that helps them participate on a more equal footing in transactions for their products.

JS: Can you share examples, relevant to public and private groups working in developing markets, of how moving beyond dashboards and key performance indicators to data-driven analytics has helped transform organizations and/or industries?

“A data- and analytics-centric organization can seek funding for specific projects that are responsive to local needs and priorities and that are likeliest to produce the biggest impact.”

— Judson Althoff, executive vice president of Worldwide Commercial Business at Microsoft

JA: Dashboards and KPIs are useful for data compilation, but there are a range of cloud-based analytical tools that enable data to “speak” to project teams, funders and other stakeholders. For instance, we are working with a [Washington] D.C.-based development organization on a five-year project evaluating delivery of health and support services to more than 470,000 Tanzanian orphans and vulnerable children, especially those affected by HIV and AIDS. Using secure cloud technologies, program managers and the ministry of health can now do real-time performance evaluation at the individual, community and overall project levels.

In practice, this capability means that instead of a static, end-of-project data set and report, the organization and its project funders can identify best practices and areas for improvement at each level as well. Plus, they can more easily share and collaborate around their project data by storing it in the cloud, which allows other project teams to learn from it over time and make dynamic and data-driven decisions.

Microsoft recently honored USAID/PEPFAR, KwaZulu-Natal Province Department of Health (South Africa) and BroadReach for groundbreaking work in data analytics and workflow management in improving the results of its HIV testing and treatment program. Scroll the video to 44:40 to begin watching the case study.

JS: What return-on-investment can partners in the development ecosystem expect from digital transformation?

JA: Organizations that embrace digital transformation see a return on transparency and accountability, plus a return on investment for their funders. On the transparency and accountability side, digital transformation enables project teams to enter data from the field, allowing measurement and evaluation teams to assess outcomes in real time. And funders — whether from government, private sector or philanthropic donor organizations — benefit because assessment reports take minutes, rather than hours or days, to produce.

Digital transformation defined by Microsoft

Digital transformation is about reimagining how you bring together people, data and processes to create value for your customers and maintain a competitive advantage in a digital-first world. It is about engaging customers, empowering employees, optimizing operations and transforming products and services.

The timesaving allows project teams to focus on service delivery and the insights they generate increased support among funders for the project. At a time when development budgets are stagnant at best, or shrinking at worst, those on-demand insights can make a big difference between projects that receive ongoing funding and those that do not.  

There is also a programmatic case for digital transformation in the development ecosystem. The standard model sees funders set development project parameters, with a three- to five-year timeline. A data- and analytics-centric organization can seek funding for specific projects that are responsive to local needs and priorities and that are likeliest to produce the biggest impact.  

JS: When it comes to catalyzing digital transformation, why is Microsoft building partnerships with organizations in emerging markets?

JA: Technology has the potential to raise the quality of life for people living in emerging economies. Many of these economies are growing at a breakneck pace; that growth suggests there is an expanding group of organizations keen to transform and tackle some of the world’s thorniest challenges. For policy and decision-makers in emerging markets, digital transformation can improve service delivery for communities at the grassroots level and increase transparency.

Microsoft is committed to building strong partnerships with governments and organizations in emerging markets because they provide localized know-how and help ensure that the benefits of digital transformation are shared broadly, especially with underserved or marginalized groups. For example, next year we will start offering cloud services throughout the African continent via two South African-based data centers. These data centers will potentially allow us to expand our partnership with an East African energy provider using mobile and cloud technology to develop an affordable, pay-as-you-go solar energy solution that will serve more than 500,000 homes.

For us, partnerships with organizations in emerging markets make good business sense and align neatly with our corporate mission of empowering every individual and every organization to achieve more. BroadReach is a partner with a longstanding mission to serve populations in need and the deep roots and technology to bring sustainable change.

Learn how BroadReach works with private and public organizations across the African continent and beyond to leverage technology for inclusive growth here.

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

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