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Technology & Design

The Challenge of Scaling Digitally

The role of emerging technologies in traditionally “high-touch” development organizations—insights from BRAC’s recent Frugal Innovation Forum.

Organizations like BRAC are built on the philosophy that development happens when people sit together. Though we work in a variety of sectors—including agriculture, health, education, and microfinance—community organization is a pillar of our model. And across our 12 countries of operation, including Bangladesh where we have our global headquarters, more than 95 percent of our staff members are based in the field.

Consequently, like many community-based organizations in Bangladesh, BRAC is deeply skeptical about emerging technologies: They seem to lack the critical human dimension of grassroots interaction that has proven instrumental for decades. If we move to dispersing loans and stipends via mobile money, for example, will staff and clients still have the same quality of rapport that weekly home visits and community meetings foster? Could algorithms and data-driven decisions replace field smarts and experience? At our second-annual Frugal Innovation Forum last month in Savar, Bangladesh, we tackled this issue head on by asking: Is it possible to “go digital”—to incorporate more technology, digital finance, and data-driven decision making into service delivery—without losing strong relationships with clients and communities? Building on last year’s forum, our constant emphasis on scale—whether digital tools would enable us to better serve our millions of clients or not—is implied in the question. We invited practitioners, including many from South Asia and East Africa who were utilizing or considering utilizing technology, digital financial services, or data in innovative ways, to share their experiences with us. We also shared some of our early experiences on these themes from BRAC. Here are some of our takeaways:

Members of BRAC’s first batch of international young professionals (right) greeting other participants at the beginning of the second-annual Frugal Innovation Forum. (Photo courtesy of BRAC)

Framing discussion around “going digital” from the client’s point of view. Anir Chowdhury, policy advisor for Bangladesh’s Access to Information Initiative, shared his organization’s definition of innovation: anything that reduces the time, cost, or number of visits for a citizen to access public services. Throughout the event, others turned to this definition as they considered digital financial services and their potential benefits. Wyn Davies, director of operations at Chars Livelihoods Programme, shared its experience with dispersing monthly cash transfers to some of the most remote communities in Bangladesh over the past two years, saying,“ Mobile money enables people to access their cash when they want to, not on the arbitrary day that our staff shows up with their stipend.” James Onyutta, CEO of Kenya’s cashless microfinance institution Musoni, stressed that technology would never replace the importance of the interactions between staff and clients. Home visits are an integral part of Musoni’s model, but he believed that its cashless products enabled flexibility, speed, and lower operating costs than other microfinance institutions could provide. Shameran Abed, associate director of the BRAC microfinance programme, compared BRAC’s pilots with mobile money in Bangladesh and Tanzania, explaining that while there are great potential benefits, it is important to give clients time and support to adopt the new technologies on their own terms.

Shameran Abed of BRAC discusses opportunities for development organizations to adopt digital financial services without putting clients at risk. (Photo courtesy of BRAC)

New data sources create opportunities for new financial inclusion strategies. Organizations such as First Access are experimenting with mobile phone usage data as a basis for credit scoring and risk assessment. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which has generated ID numbers linked to biometric and demographic data for close to 600 million people, points perhaps to the declining reliance on “high-touch” models to verify identification and financial history. UIAI’s Chief Product Manager and Biometric Architect Vivek Raghavan argued, “Sometimes high-touch models are a barrier to access. Imagine you are new to an area and no one knows you. Who will give you a loan? What if you are part of a marginalized group? Will high-touch models discriminate against you?”

Data can help organizations focus limited resources, especially the time of frontline staff. Leaders from Shiree, a Bangladesh-based organization that manages a nationwide consortium of organizations implementing programs to help the ultra poor “graduate out of poverty” (modeled on BRAC’s own ultra-poor program), shared its real-time, openly accessible dashboard, which captures important monthly metrics on well-being across thousands of households. After showing the audience a number of tantalizing graphs and maps, Shiree CEO Colin Risner said, “I’m showing you all the pretty things. In practice, managers use whatever level of visualization suits their purpose—for example, our operational managers make much more use of a very boring-looking table that simply records the achievement level of their field staff in providing data.” Keeping utility at the heart of any data-related initiative keeps an organization honest. Other presenters reiterated these same principles later in the day, presenting coordination tools used in Syria’s humanitarian response and in Myanmar, where a burgeoning number of development efforts are starting up.

Scaling digitally can complement and expand the tried-and-true strategies of community development, so long as organizations maintain a strong sense of purpose and critically evaluate their existing activities to understand the crucial elements to keep. We hope to capitalize on learning and inspiration from the Frugal Innovation Forum through our newly launched BRAC Innovation Fund for Mobile Money, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates’ Foundation. We’ve received more than 100 ideas from around the world on how we can integrate mobile money into our activities and will launch our first round of projects over the summer.

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