Digital Tools for Impact and Scale to Reduce Extreme Poverty
Editor’s note: This post is the third in a series that explores the way in which the Graduation strategy, a program that helps families in extreme poverty “graduate” into sustainable livelihoods, is changing the lives of millions of families – and how Fundación Capital is changing and adapting the program to reach even more people. The first post can be seen here and the second, here.
Here’s what can happen when you throw the development rulebook out the window and quite literally put knowledge into the hands of those who need it the most. Using tablet-based applications and e-learning platforms, we at Fundación Capital are changing the way that families living in extreme poverty, and the program mentors who work with them, access information and build local capacity. By integrating digital solutions, we have been able to cut costs, improve and standardize the quality of training, and as a result, scale national responses to eliminating poverty.
From Challenge to Opportunity
The question of how to effectively use and apply technology in development is a big one. While technology has been prevalent in international development for years and various experiments show the potential for technology to provide training in low-resource environments, few of them effectively address the complex realities of poverty or are designed for use by people living in poverty. We recognized a need for a diverse set of products specifically designed to support program mentors and adult learners, adjusted to the diversity of user profiles and experiences. This flexibility is perhaps the biggest advantage of working with technology.
In our work, we have taken proven methodologies for addressing extreme poverty and improved upon them by partnering with governments and using digital tools to reach more people and with greater impact. The Graduation methodology rests on a set of key pillars, centered on engaging participants in income-generating activities that will help them to “graduate” out of extreme poverty and into sustainable livelihoods. Training and capacity-building are therefore key components of these efforts, but there needed to be a way to decrease costs without sacrificing quality.
Given the challenge at hand, we began working with governments in Latin America to experiment with digital solutions, testing and iterating over and over again to find ways for technology to work in the program’s favor. Ultimately, this resulted in the creation of two products: an e-learning platform for program mentors and an app for participants.
Peer mentors from the local community support program participants, who also receive training and support throughout the program via an e-learning platform. Since most participants are spread out across disparate rural communities, the online access not only helps decrease implementation costs, but it also creates virtual spaces where they can share ideas and challenges, interact with their fellow mentors, and receive support and feedback.
What’s even more exciting is APPtitude, a tablet-based app that is designed for Graduation participants – families living in extreme poverty, many of whom have never before used a touch-sensitive device like a tablet or smartphone. Developed through extensive interviews, pilots and adaptations to the needs of each country, APPtitude delivers high-quality and specially designed educational and capacity-building content directly to participants. Using stories, games and real-life examples, participants are guided through a series of modules that motivate and empower them, and cover topics like managing personal finances and starting a business. Its ease of use is evident from the first time a Graduation participant takes the tablet into their hands. Furthermore, usage data can be collected from both the app and the e-learning platform, and later analyzed to understand how the program is performing and provide important inputs for design and future development.
The Case for Technology
Until now, traditional in-person or classroom-based interventions have been used most often to provide education and training, but they are difficult to scale at low cost, can be ineffective and rarely result in behavior change. In-person training requires a physical space, skilled trainers and printed materials, none of which get cheaper at scale. Attendance rates are often low, as most participants have to spend their own money to get to the training, and miss work to do so. If the training is not relevant to their needs, this rate decreases over the course of the multiple training sessions. Program costs have traditionally only been measured through an estimate of the cost to implementers, which obscures the true cost that factors in the direct and indirect cost to the participants.
Methods based on community-shared devices, such as APPtitude, are designed on the premise of a continuously decreasing required investment through economies of scale and a technology phase-out strategy based on global communication and digitization trends. In the absence of user-owned devices, such initiatives use tablets that can be shared within communities to not only increase learning and behavior outcomes but also to generate social capital through a peer exchange and rotation model, as well as expose participants to new technologies.
With both APPtitude and the e-learning platform, the more users the program reaches, the more the cost per person decreases, as fixed costs and investments in software development, coordination staff, communication and data management become more diluted, and hardware costs decrease over time.
And these programs work. While evaluations of APPtitude are still under way, a similar tablet-based program developed by Fundación Capital and evaluated with Innovations for Poverty Action saw important outcomes and positive spillover effects in areas of self-efficacy, digital inclusion, social capital, increased numeracy and improved outlooks.
The Right Blend
At Fundación Capital, we view technology as a key piece of growing effective programs at scale and at a lower cost, but recognize that this is not the only solution. Complex problems cannot be solved with just an app or a platform, but the technology can be a key piece of sharing the knowledge, building capabilities and strengthening communities to address those challenges themselves.
These digital solutions are created together with the end-user and iterated with their feedback. Through this process, we have learned important lessons about how to translate paper-based content into a digital medium, considering user interface design and distribution methodologies. There is no one-size-fits-all approach; rather, the technology must be adapted to the specificities of the user. Whether this is a program participant living in extreme poverty or a partner working to help these vulnerable families, technology has an important role to play. These tools allow for quality control through standardization, external monitoring through real-time data and feedback and big data analysis through the capture of information. For users, they generate a more entertaining learning experience through gamification and storytelling, and a meaningful exchange through real-time feedback and user interaction.
The Graduation methodology was designed as a comprehensive approach to ending extreme poverty, for which training and capacity building remains a core element. By putting knowledge directly into the hands of those who need it most, we have shown that technology, when properly used, can become an integral piece of this puzzle and address the challenges of scale.
Ana Pantelic is director of business and partnership development at Fundación Capital.
Photos courtesy of Fundación Capital via Flickr