It’s time to make data for development more inclusive
Over the last decade, as the availability of data increased exponentially, international development practitioners envisioned new, exciting opportunities for governments to more effectively achieve development goals. And in the last decade, we’ve helped governments and multilateral organizations use data to do just that.
The use of data is constantly becoming more sophisticated as analytical tools become more powerful and ways of sharing and using data continue to evolve.
For instance, many governments are using geospatial data to address food insecurity, improve water quality, and monitor deforestation, among other things. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), companies, and multilaterals are leveraging data and technology to improve sustainable development.
Data has been the thing everyone is doing. Digital, data-driven, and innovation are buzzwords plastered across the websites of development agencies and NGOs alike.
But much of this work is not meeting expectations. So much money and time is poured into custom data platforms that aren’t used at all once the project is over. Leaders develop digital strategies that make sense on paper, but don’t translate outside of their offices. And too many of these decisions are made by people who don’t understand, or have any stakes in, the problems they’re aiming to solve.
Where did we go wrong?
From our perspective, the international development space is lacking formal mechanisms for incorporating local knowledge into data and technology-focused development work. This means it’s rare, and difficult, to do the level of user engagement needed for the platform to be purpose-driven and drive uptake.
Despite the extensive use of terms like “country-led” and “local priorities,” data for development projects are too often designed and implemented with a “build it and they will come” approach. Local knowledge and expertise seldom make their way into decision-making around what is needed, how it should be delivered, and where money should flow.
This is an issue of ethics and justice—to move beyond neocolonial approaches that have the potential to do more harm than good, development practitioners must ensure local experts are in the driver’s seat.
But it’s also an issue of efficiency and effectiveness.
Without engaging end-users to develop a clear, nuanced understanding of the needs and challenges, it is difficult, if not impossible, to create the agile, relevant, and adaptive solutions necessary for these projects to succeed in the long term. This is what we’ve seen across regions and over decades of experience.
When D4DInsights partners with governments or multilaterals, our first and most important recommendation is always to begin with meaningful, robust stakeholder engagement. And there is often resistance, for a couple reasons.
First, it requires time and money—two things that are often tight in grant-based international development projects. Oftentimes, every dollar is already allocated toward specific activities against a timeline. There simply isn’t time to consult with a range of stakeholder groups, some of whom may be hard to reach.
Even when they want to, many—particularly larger, bureaucratic—organizations simply don’t know how to do it efficiently. Agencies often consider user-centric design to be finished when a single questionnaire or survey is complete. As a result, data platforms, digital transformation strategies, and tech innovations are often developed and implemented without local ownership, buy-in, or capacity required to keep it running once the grant runs out.
In many cases, a purely technical view of technology development is undertaken without considering users needs, without building trust or relationships, and without securing political will to sustain these initiatives for the long term.
Second, the gap between real needs and donor priorities is often wide. And typically, the donor already knows what kind of project they want to fund. Identifying and understanding the nuances of the challenge, from new voices or perspectives, might necessitate an unwelcome change in direction. Donors necessarily prioritize their own goals first.
So how can we address this disconnect so that every project is user-centered and demand-driven? Ultimately, this is both a philosophical and a practical question.
We’ve written before about how D4DInsights builds all of our projects to be demand-driven with an emphasis on engagement. It’s these kinds of experiences that inspired our guiding principles, which are the building blocks for everything we do.
But governments and multilateral, international organizations that hold both power and pursestrings are incentivized to uphold the status quo. To move the needle, we need to flip the paradigm for how data for development projects are funded in the first place.
As much as we can, we must start shifting money—and ownership—to the actual users of the new technologies and data platforms that so many international aid organizations are eager to build. But what does this look like?
Engage local experts throughout the process, from identifying and understanding the need to designing the intervention and deciding what gets funded. Local leaders and stakeholders must also support the project’s governance and implementation.
Procure services and contractors in the country where the work is taking place, not the country where the funding is coming from.
Create pathways for multi-stakeholder engagement and public-private partnerships. Governments and civil society organizations often don’t know how to engage with the private sector, and yet, the private sector often wants to and is able to help. Resources and intentional planning can bring these groups together.
Smaller actors that partner with larger funders, and smaller foundations with a bit more flexibility, should raise their voices and demand locally-led, demand-driven development.
Create new, inclusive funding mechanisms. For example, funders could create mechanisms for accepting submissions from low- and middle-income countries, allowing them to articulate their own needs and lead the project from the start.
Develop a business plan that centers sustainable financing. Low and middle-income countries are often skeptical, for good reason, of new “innovation” projects—too often, these projects overpromise and then disappear after a few years. Provide mentoring, support the development of the value proposition and theory of change, and prioritize the projects’ long-term sustainability in ways that empower those in the country and region.
These are just a few ideas, but it’s a complex issue. We don’t have all the answers, so please, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org if you agree, disagree, or have other ideas. We’d love to continue the conversation.