For many people, the spring of 2020 will be referred to as the time before, during, and after COVID-19. For the first time in a century a global pandemic disrupted the lives across the globe. For people living in developing countries, this pandemic is hitting especially hard, since the majority of them is earning a living one day at a time. Strict measures, like lockdowns and travel restrictions, which are essential to limit the spread of the virus, are having a severe economical effect on those living at the bottom of the pyramid.

For development organizations, working in these countries, these restrictions are a severely limiting their abilities to continue their educational, health, agricultural, and economic development programs. Even those organizations, whose programs are deemed to be “essential”, are now faced with the “new norm” of social distancing and limitations on people gathering in groups. This often severely restricts the ability of these organizations to scale their efforts, using their traditional group-based methods.

These restrictions, if not addressed, can cause a much more dangerous “secondary wave” of crisis in the aftermath of COVID-19. One of the most mentioned one in recent days, has been the threat of food insecurity that will follow 6-9 months from now, but the same applies to all the different sectors that development organizations focus on.

For those of us, responsible for technology adoption and use within development organizations, this has resulted in an exponential growth of requests from across our organizations in technology solutions to address some of these issues. But, why is COVID-19 becoming one of the biggest driver for digital transformation in the development sector we have seen in a decade?

Reaching people at scale

One of the keys to making impact is having programs that are able to scale. In the past this scale was achieved by having staff in the field meet with groups of people and provide them with training and other services. This field staff and programming method was often referred to as the “levers of scale“.

In the new “post-COVID-19 world”, we must rethink how to achieve the same scale, without having to gather people in groups. Thankfully, there have been technological advances, that enable us to think of new methods of delivering these trainings and services, directly to those we are trying to impact. The key advance, is the exponential growth in mobile phone ownership and connectivity, even in the most rural areas of Africa.

Working together, the program people and the technology staff within development organizations are now collaborating on new approaches for delivering these trainings and services, using a combination of basic technologies, such as SMS and USSD, that work even on the cheapest feature phones.

Managing field staff at a distance

Organizations that rely on a large number of field staff as their “extension agents”, traditionally also use staff group meetings to manage and train their field staff. This model of interaction has also been disrupted by the implications of COVID-19 and organizations are looking towards digital solutions to address this disruption.

While the “work from home” effects of COVID-19 have been dominating the discussion in the developed world, the concept of working from home for rural field workers introduces whole new dimension to that concept. Equipped with nothing but a feature phone, many of these field staff, spent the first few weeks of the lockdowns reaching out to their constituents through phone calls.

The same applied to those managing the field staff. Days filled on the phone with the staff was the only way to keep in touch with them. Those organizations that had already rolled out smartphones or tablets for their staff, were able to send them emails, documents, and links to training videos to enable interactions at a higher scale. Organizations, where tablets and smartphones had not been rolled out, have in the past few weeks procured and distributed thousands of tablets and smartphones to their field staff. This is combined with procuring call and data packages for their field staff, often at a 10x the scale required before.

Moving away from paper based processes and cash

Physical distancing and the inability to gather in groups are not the only restrictions that are affecting development organizations in delivering their programs. Many programs are based on interaction with the beneficiaries that involve exchanging papers, such as order forms or contracts, as well as cash. Since this interaction of paper has been identified as one potential vector of transmission, many countries have placed restrictions on organizations using paper based processes or cash exchange.

These restrictions, are causing a great push from the program people to the technology arm of the organizations to move towards digital based services, including speeding up the adaptation of mobile money.

While many organizations were on a path of digital transformation, this has led to many of them to re-prioritize their digital transformation journey, to focus on speeding up these paperless processes. For some organizations, this means providing their field staff with digital tools, while others focus on enabling direct services towards the beneficiaries.

The role of technology

As the above examples showcase, technology can be a tool for addressing some of the restrictions and new norms that COVID-19 has introduced. Technology is by no means a magic bullet that will solve all problems, but when correctly applied, it can be an effective enabler of new approaches to doing old things.

There are of course a number of hurdles that must be addressed in order to effectively leverage and scale technology within development organizations and in their programs. These include:

  • Mobile phone ownership is not evenly distributed.
    While 98% of the population in Kenya has mobile phones, in other countries, such as Burundi, mobile phone ownership at the bottom of the pyramid is only around 40%.
  • Data and call costs will grow exponentially
    Moving away from meeting in groups and leveraging smartphones, tablets, and mobile phones for interaction, training, and staff management will result in an exponential growth in data and call costs for organizations.
  • Not all field staff are equipped with smartphones and tablets
    Not all organizations have already equipped their staff with smartphones and/or tablets to do their work. These organizations are now rapidly procuring, configuring, and handing out those to their staff.
  • Capacity of technology departments to meet the need
    Not all development organizations have enough capacity in their technology departments to meet the exponential growth in requests for support related to COVID-19. Technology investments in development organizations have traditionally been hard to get funding for from traditional donors.

The role of donors and the private sector

In these challenging times, donors and the private sector can play a key role in enabling these new ways of work, through effective use of technology. This is especially critical at a time where many development organizations are actively cutting budgets in anticipation of scaled down funding availability over the coming 12-24 months.

This support includes, but is not limited to:

  • Allowing development organizations to repurpose some of the existing funds towards enabling technology solutions – for example allowing transportation costs being used for buying data bundles.
  • Provision of funds earmarked for the digital enablement of existing processes/program efforts that are affected by COVID-19
  • Provision of in-kind donations (or funds for procurement) of mobile phones, smartphones, tablets, call-time, and data packages.
  • Provision of in-kind donation of software and cloud services required run these digital services over the next couple of years as the development sector recovers from the effects of COVID-19
  • Secondment of technology staff to development organizations during the next 3-6 months to help organizations address capacity issues.

Conclusion

As the immediate health related effects of the COVID-19 pandemic reach their peak and start slowing down across the developing world, it is critical to turn the attention to the effects of COVID-19 across the developing world. This attention must focus, not only on the immediate health related effects in countries with very limited healthcare facilities, but also on addressing the secondary effects across all sectors of development.

Now is time for donors and private sector to move quickly in support of development organizations and provide the support required to drive the technology efforts required that enables the new way of working COVID-19 is enforcing on us.

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