July 14

Diana Páez

Equipping a New Era of Global Development

At Devex World 2016, new innovations,  responses to poverty

Sometimes it can feel like NGOs, social businesses and big development aid institutions are in competition with one another to improve the world. But in an increasingly complex world, we should view violent extremist organizations, such as ISIS, as development competitors. After all, they too are doing development, in their very own (albeit very destructive) way through their influence in poor communities around the world. This is the view expressed by Jake Harriman at last month’s Devex World conference. Harriman is a former U.S. Marine who leads the Nuru Foundation, which works to end extreme poverty in remote, rural areas.

Nuru works with communities to co-create solutions in four areas of need: hunger, coping with financial shocks, preventable diseases, and access to quality education for children. Its approach places sustainable development at the core and sticks to a “get in, get out” model that allows local communities to develop and exercise ownership of their own destiny.

Harriman’s paradigm-shifting perspective was a running theme – but one of several facing social entrepreneurs and global development leaders at all levels – discussed at Devex World. The Washington, D.C., event brought together a host of luminaries from the development community, TED-style talks, workshops, experiential labs and networking opportunities. Many of the discussions, the highlights of which I’m including below, reflected unconventional alliances, new innovations and asymmetrical responses to poverty and global development.

USAID Administrator Gayle Smith echoed Harriman’s thoughts and indicated that local ownership “will only intensify drastically” as the development community moves forward. And, central to the principle of local ownership, human-centered design (HCD) was demystified by Pam Scott, the founder and chief executive of the Curious Company. As much as the development community loves buzzwords (synergies, anyone?) it is important to remember that HCD really just means that the target community is placed at the center of the effort to solve the problem. Through her work, Scott helps equip organizations to work with communities to “understand a challenge from their perspective and creatively solve it with their guidance and input.”

IT’S ALL ABOUT FRAMING: visualizing, storytelling

We live in a world where data is more readily available than ever before. But how do you make data actually tell a story? The challenge is to make data useful and easily understandable, which can help strengthen decision-making. Since numbers alone do not tell the full story, there is a need to craft compelling narratives from a human perspective to express collective impact.

Data visualization uses metrics to tell a story – and Tableau’s Neal Myrick was on hand to share the firm’s perspective. On a mission to “help people see and understand their data,” Tableau creates products to make analyzing data fast, easy and useful. One example shared during the conference was the partnership between Slalom Consulting, Tableau and PATH, through which the three organizations used data visualization to answer the toughest questions about malaria – like how and where people are being infected – to help Zambian leaders get closer to eliminating the disease.

Virtual reality (VR) may be the next step in immersive storytelling. Using VR, the ONE Campaign and United Nations Development Program are driving home the issue that “Poverty is Sexist” by showing how girls are disproportionately affected by poverty. By developing a VR short film to make participants part of one day in the life of Monica, a 10-year-old living in a village on the border of Tanzania and Kenya, the organizations used a powerful personal narrative to illustrate the difficulties she faces every day. The short film can be viewed here.

matching talent to opportunity

A recurrent theme was the challenge of matching talent to opportunity, or as it was presented during the conference: “Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.” When access to opportunities is recognized as a key lever for development, how do you tap into the talent to capitalize on it? Christina Sass, co-founder and chief operating officer of Andela, talked about how the social enterprise selects the top 1 percent of tech talent from the largest pool of untapped talent in the world: the African continent. Andela’s fellowships vet thousands of applicants, train a select number, and place them with software development teams, enabling companies to scale their teams while minimizing hiring time and expense. With an acceptance rate of just 0.7 percent, Andela is touted as “the most selective technical program on the African continent.”

The startup just announced a series B venture round of a $24 million, led by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which chose Andela as its first investment.

PRIVATE SECTOR: No Longer Foe,But not Quite BFF

A recent Devex survey confirms that most people in the development community see the private sector as “playing an important role in development.”  Hence, it is no longer a question about whether the private sector should have a seat at the table; the question now is how to best work together to achieve development goals. We have moved from considering public-private sector partnerships as a novelty to cross-sector collaboration being the norm – with greater interest on the part of the private sector in “the problems of the poor,” as put by Jane Thomason, CEO of Abt JTA.

The novelty may have worn off, but that doesn’t mean each side is truly comfortable. Sandhya Hegde, a general partner with Khosla Impact, highlighted how the private sector is “still skeptical about doing business while doing good” when it comes to the subject of impact investing. This is why work still needs to be done to ensure companies absorb the notion that without an underlying social mission, for-profit business “will not truly serve its customers in the end,” Hegde said. On that note, I was reminded by KP Yelpaala of Access Mobile that it is important to remember that “impact isn’t for free” so investors must move beyond focusing exclusively on a full return on investment to see actual impact. In other words, it’s all about how one frames the outcome.


Devex World featured a number of enterprises and organizations recognized for their use of innovation and technology, and putting those to the service of development. In other words, how can we connect innovations in solving large-scale problems?

We Robotics, for example, is building a global network of labs where people accelerate and scale the impact of their humanitarian aid, global development and environmental protection efforts using appropriate robotics solutions. Patrick Meyer, executive director and co-founder, discussed how robots are transforming multiple industries and how the firm is using them to map humanitarian interventions in communities around the world.

A new partnership between the USAID, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Korea International Cooperation Agency was announced at Devex World, too. The Global Innovation Exchange will aggregate thousands of innovations around the world and connect them with funding opportunities, collaborators and experts.


When asked her take on the current development landscape, USAID’s Smith described the larger, richer menu of options available to advance development goals. She emphasized the way the agency is now doing evaluation, and how its emphasis is more than ever on marshaling the evidence to show development outcomes.

Reflecting upon the dynamic dialogue, it is clear that a broader range of traditional and nontraditional actors are shaping the development dialogue and breaking barriers to collaborate as never before. Multi-sectoral models that bypass previous barriers and old siloed approaches, said PATH’s President and CEO Steve Davis, can help us be better at anticipating future challenges – so we need to “get these right.”


Top photo: Nuru International helps to equip families with tools and knowledge to lead their communities out of extreme poverty. Image credit Nuru’s Facebook page.


Diana Páez-Cook is Director of Grants Management for the William Davidson Institute.

Note: WDI is the parent organization of NextBillion.

Health Care, Impact Assessment
public-private partnerships