I’m pleased to be participating in the judging panel of this year’s Rural Innovation Award at Imagine Cup 2008—evaluating the brilliant work of the young students who have created new technology solutions targeted to the needs of the world’s least fortunate citizens.
Technology is a key capacity building service for effective communications, operations and strategic impact on poverty in the world. Capacity building is a much used term in nonprofit organizations. It can mean training, adding headcount and the ability to scale up programs. But these are often linear growth opportunities. Increasing the impact of scarce resources requires the productivity enhancing capabilities that only technology can offer. In short, technology helps the same people get more done. And this means reaching more of the disadvantaged in the world.
Why is technology such a critical need in addressing world problems such as poverty? The bottom line is that we are not having the impact needed to stem this rising problem and begin to reverse it. There is a strong and compelling need for greater effectiveness, efficiency, and yes, capacity building. We need a quantum leap in impact that requires doing things in radically different ways.
To illustrate, let me share a couple of examples of on-the-ground program results where technology is making a difference at Save the Children.
In Bangladesh, we are distributing food to 192,000 people monthly. Historically, food distribution was tracked and reported using paper forms, a long, administrative process. Laptops made it possible to serve more people, but laptop batteries died after two hours of use and fieldworkers had to revert to paper. Porting the tracking application to PDAs which with maximum battery packs could last ten hours, translated into a 39% savings in data entry time. Lest anyone think this is merely a data efficiency gain, being able to handle 39% more transactions per day could mean the difference between life and death for women and children who walked kilometers to the food distribution center and who are waiting in line in 90 degree and 90% humidity weather for food rations. Going home hungry is not an option.
And in Bolivia, 18,000 poor are enrolled in SC’s food distribution program. Historically this program was tracked by collecting paper forms in El Alto, traveling an hour back to the country office in La Paz and taking 17 days per month to transcribe data into a database and report on results. Again, by applying PDAs to this work flow, we were able to reduce data collection and reporting from 17 days per months to just over 7 days, for a gain of 57%.
A key principle of all of these efforts is the relevance of the technology used. Connecting the poor with information relevant to their livelihoods has delivered interesting and important results from the pay cell phone cottage industry that Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank has incubated among poor women in Bangladesh to the elimination of fraud in the Dominican Republic by connecting farmers to the on-line port of export prices.
How nonprofits can move their technology investments in this direction will determine how strategic their technology use and impact will be. And how effectively corporations and the academic community can partner with INGOs will determine the quality and reach of our impact.