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How to make tech innovation succeed in a development context

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Soren Vester Haldrup, Søren

Technological innovation is an important driver of economic growth and development. It is crucial for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and it has the potential to transform how governments, donors, and development practitioners think and operate. Big data analytics and machine learning have the potential to help governments and development programmes improve how they monitor, evaluate, and learn from their interventions, improving value for money and impact. Similarly, remote sensing can be used to improve responses to natural disasters (such as floods) and make more accurate measurements of oil production in conflict areas. Mobile phone technology, civic data generation, and blockchain solutions hold similarly promising potential in the development space.

A range of innovation funds support the piloting and scale up of new technologies, including the UNLEASH Innovation Lab, the UNICEF Innovation Fund, the Global Innovation Fund, DFID’s Frontier Technology Livestreaming Facility, and USAID’s Global Development Lab. In this context, it’s easy to get carried away by all the hype.

When tech innovation doesn’t succeed

Unfortunately, promising initiatives often fall short of expectations. In a wide-ranging review of tech-focused initiatives, The Engine Room describes how beneficiary organisations frequently express dissatisfaction with what a new tech solution has been able to do for them. Similarly, the Transparency and Accountability Initiative reviewed more than 100 tech-focused projects and conducted interviews with dozens of practitioners across the world. They found that, despite early successes, many efforts lack credibility and could be counterproductive when it comes to promoting transparency and accountability. KfW and Making All Voices Count have published equally sobering accounts.

Sometimes a main challenge is technical feasibility. Poor internet penetration, limited smartphone usage, and poor ICT infrastructure can all play a role. However, some of the most important problems that tech focused initiatives run into are about issues that have nothing to do with new technologies. The Center for Global Development has explained this in the context of blockchain technology, but more generally a variety of non-tech-related factors help make or break tech interventions in international development. These factors are all too often overlooked.

Based on our experience of designing, implementing, and evaluating change initiatives (including those using new technologies), we have identified some of the key non-tech related factors that enable or hamper the success of tech-focused initiatives in development:

Power and politics

Tech interventions are disruptive initiatives, and people who benefit from the status quo may often oppose them. The ways in which “things are done” in a country, sector or organisation are usually underpinned by some sort of understanding between people with power on how resources are distributed and power is exercised. Public financial management systems, cash transfer mechanisms, and land ownership arrangements will reflect these existing power structures. Cash transfers, smart contracts, and digital land ownership registries, underpinned by blockchain technology, hold the potential to change how, when, and to whom certain power and resources are allocated.

To gain traction in such a context, tech interventions must be informed by a nuanced understanding of the political environment that they operate in (you can read more about the political economy of technology adoption here). Support from senior political figures and other elites will be key, as it can help overcome the resistance of potential spoilers as well as set the direction for the administrative staff who will work on the day-to-day implementation of tech solutions. In some cases, such as with land grabbing in Afghanistan, smart contracts and digital land ownership are unlikely to have any real world effects in a context where the rule of law is weak and armed local strongmen have the military might to forcefully – and with impunity – seize land from the state and from ordinary citizens.

Organisational capacity and non-technical skills

The maturity of a new technology and the wider political context are not the only factors that affect the uptake and sustainability of new tech-based solutions in an organisation. A set of non-tech factors internal to the organisation in question also matter. Looking at ‘pockets of effectiveness’ in lower-income country governments, David Leonard highlights the importance of having competent and committed middle managers and front-line officers, a sense of commitment to a shared mission, and the presence of the right organisational culture. These factors make organisations perform better, and they increase the likelihood that tech-focused change initiatives will be adopted, gain traction, and be sustained.

This is demonstrated in a review of ICT enabled citizen feedback initiatives across the developing world, which highlights how the presence of managers in government with adequate capacity and a strong sense of commitment to the organisational mission affects government responsiveness to citizen feedback. The Citizen Feedback Monitoring Programme in Pakistan provides an excellent illustration of this, as it underlines how a committed mid-level manager, supported by an influential decision maker such as the provincial chief minister, is crucial for a tech intervention to succeed.

Policy and legal frameworks

A country’s policy and legal framework sets the parameters for what tech interventions can and cannot do. On some occasions frontier technologies may create the need for new regulation. For example the requirements for how organisations process, retain, store, and destroy biometric data. Technologists and enthusiastic donors may unfortunately not always pay due attention to these constraints. This is a problem. A recent World Bank report highlights one of these problems explaining that ‘in the absence of strong data protection laws, regulatory frameworks, and practices, [digital] identification systems may reduce trust and undermine individual rights to privacy regarding the use of their personal information’.

Implementation approach

The funding, design, and implementation approach adopted in tech-focused interventions matter a great deal for the likely success of these interventions. The development and piloting of new technology is usually a non-linear and incremental design process that has to respond to evolving client demands and adapt to a highly unpredictable and complex environment. This requires a flexible funding and implementation approach, for instance modelled on the problem driven iterative adaptation framework from Harvard University. Unfortunately, donors (and innovation funds) usually prefer to disburse one-off finance against a set terms of reference for the delivery of a final product within a pre-defined timeframe. This is understandable, but the approach makes innovative tech interventions less likely to succeed. A recent report co-authored by my colleague Valentina Barca provides an insightful description of this challenge when it comes to the introduction of Management Information Systems for social protection in Africa.

Prerequisites for success

New technology has the potential to help us all solve difficult problems in international development. But a mixed track record and persistent problems with scale up and sustainability of initiatives suggest that we have to look beyond the allure of technology in order to make these initiatives work.

Interventions have to always be driven by problems – not solutions – and they must be rooted in the context that they are implemented in. To achieve this, tech initiatives should make sure to consider the non-tech related elements of success discussed above. Initiatives should also deploy cross-disciplinary teams with a mix of skills and the right leadership able to broker between professions. The broker role is key, because technological know-how adds the most value when it is married with substantive experience with the sector in question (e.g. social protection) as well as with contextual awareness of political economy constraints and organisational reform challenges (see this DFAT publication for a discussion of the importance of so-called ‘hybrid’ staff able to broker between professions).

Furthermore, funders of tech initiatives should make sure to invest adequately in early consultation and scoping missions in the context where an intervention is expected to be implemented. This will help ensure that the political, regulatory and capacity related prerequisites for success are adequately accounted for. Following these recommendations, and adopting learning from initiatives such as the Pathways for Prosperity Commission, will go some way towards helping development actors leverage the full potential of technology for sustainable development.

Get in touch with Søren Vester Haldrup and OPM’s Public Sector Governance team. Søren is based in our New York office where he works on public sector reform, political analysis, and technology and innovation for governance.