Attendees at Devex World 2016. Photo by: Joy Asico

Devex World 2016 was two weeks ago. The conference was billed as “the global development event of the year” and the agenda, venue, and attendees spoke to Devex’s ambitious design. The venue was beautiful, the sessions were engaging and fast paced, and the participant list was packed with heavy hitters from Silicon Valley, donor institutions, development implementers and the private sector.

I lead an organization, Crown Agents USA, committed to improving global prosperity, and I’ve been thinking a lot about my Devex World experience and what one can distill from this convergence of traditional development actors, technology disruptors, international humanitarians, change advocates, and new development actors/partners.

Here are five insights from the conference and implications for the future:

1. Technologists and development experts must communicate better to drive change and development innovation.

Thinking about — and describing — development in new ways is exciting, but we need to be careful about putting old wine in new bottles. At times during Devex World, it felt like a new language was being used to discuss development and innovation, which was exciting and stimulating, but, in many cases, what was being discussed is already development practice.  

The discussion of “human-centered design” is a good example. It’s really important that development interventions are designed and implemented with the specific beneficiaries and host country communities at the table from beginning to end. The good news is it’s already happening and has been part of the global development approach for most serious development institutions since the 1980s or earlier.  

The bad news is it doesn’t always happen deeply enough. Program designs and inputs by host nation beneficiaries and their community of partners get watered down by donor and implementer institutions striving to meet multiple strategic requirements for effective, measureable and sustained implementation. These (sometimes) competing requirements can include: political (e.g. earmarks), programmatic (e.g. regional or country development cooperation strategies) and financial considerations (e.g. limited 150 sub-account funding availability; narrow foreign assistance authorities; or competing host government directives/planning).

2. Human-centered design could become a bigger deal if we collaborate more actively with nontraditional development sectors.  

We in development have a lot to learn from the private sector generally and the tech sector specifically on human-centered design and collaborative program development. Dr. Nahid Bhadelia made great points at Devex World 2016 about how human-centered design implies a longitudinal approach following an individual’s experience of an intervention to identify and fix the gaps and unintended consequences. She described how this kind of approach could have dramatically reduced the spread of Ebola and improved the global response to the pandemic. Devex President and Editor-in-Chief Raj Kumar encapsulated that idea by saying, “Development has largely been wholesale. Maybe we need to be retail.”

The U.S. Agency for International Development and other bilateral donors are endeavoring to practice development that is more collaborative, more learning-focused, and more adaptive. The rest of us can support an increased role for culture and gender, for improved economic and predictive analysis and for increased use of technology — not just for monitoring to help with evaluation and learning, but for helping developing nations to better manage their own humanitarian and development affairs. Such improved collaboration is really the definition of human-centered development, isn’t it?

Photo by: Joy Asico

3. Engage the private sector early; seek mutuality in mission and program focus; commit to a results framework; and measure, assess and adapt to succeed.

Throughout the day, my team and I heard stories at Devex World 2016 like the one that Neal Myrick of Tableau shared: They were approached by a partner who understood Tableau’s capabilities, engaged them in the goals of the project and committed to let Tableau focus on what they’re good at. As time went by, the partnership deepened, and Tableau felt comfortable taking on new activities with this strategic partner.

The takeaway for development folks is to do your homework, find a private sector partner whose core offerings directly and easily translate to your work, engage them in the mission of the project and maybe even the shaping of it, and let them build confidence by starting with what they know how to do.

4. Innovation is about process, not outcomes.

I really appreciated that leaders from some of the world’s most innovative organizations, both in the traditional development sector and beyond, debunked “innovation as an outcome” and correctly positioned it as a process. If I understood correctly, innovation is essentially prototyping rapidly, measuring rigorously, weeding out failures quickly, and redesigning or adapting accordingly.  

“Fail fast” is what one presenter from Silicon Valley stated, but in development, failure — regardless of scale — is often fraught with consequence. Scientific measurement can be deeply challenging, especially in failed or fragile state environments. Access to good data is imperative but sometimes hard (or nigh impossible) to acquire. Nonetheless, this model of innovation as a process provides a blueprint to which we must aspire, because it will lead to better results and improved impact in most cases.

5. Tech is disrupting development supply chains.

Matt Devlin from Uber talked about using their service to deliver inoculations in peri-urban areas. Jehiel Oliver from Hello Tractor talked about using technology to improve agricultural productivity by getting on-demand farm equipment with remote monitoring to developing country farmers. My organization, Crown Agents, is renowned for its global supply chain management and logistical strengths. I will be meeting with my global leadership team this week to challenge us to better cultivate partnerships with tech companies, entrepreneurs and other partners who can help us to save more lives and improve our effectiveness.

It was incredibly stimulating to hear and digest ideas from innovators beyond the traditional development community. I would like to see more opportunity, at the next Devex World, for greater give and take between those who practice development as a discipline and those who seek to help improve that discipline.

Narrowing the gaps between implementation realities and new ideas for doing development can only help us as a community to improve.  

Follow Focus On: Devex World for more conversations emerging from the global development event of the year.

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

About the author

  • Alene McMahon

    Alene McMahon is the president and chief executive officer of Crown Agents USA, an organization working for greater global prosperity. A private sector development practitioner, prior to joining Crown, she served for 16 years in project and corporate leadership positions at Chemonics International. Her career in international development began with Peace Corps service in Togo, and has seen her work in 17 countries across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.