by Miguel Garcia-Gosalvez

Despite numerous articles, papers and discussions there is still a general conception that associates, or even equates, “innovation” to “new technologies.” In the international development arena this is worrisome because, although there is no doubt that some new technologies can enhance and improve the lives of many people, in many cases new technologies do not solve the problems they are supposed to and may even create new types of problems.

It is not uncommon to see projects or initiatives that try to introduce new technological innovations, many times even more advanced that what is available in so-called developed countries. However, those who have experience in international development know the high failure rate of initiatives that rely on the latest and newest technologies. Despite the benefits that many modern technological innovations may be able to provide, we understand and appreciate that some basic and traditional tasks, such as training, deployment strategies, durability, etc. are directly linked to the success and sustainability of these innovation efforts.

We would be wise to recognize that “innovation” can also be found in the design and implementation of new processes and procedures that might not require new technologies but instead use existing technologies in a different, more efficient, and/or more effective way. Spending time observing and asking the right questions in order to understand the circumstances of the communities is certain to be of great value. Understanding topics such as those related to culture, sociology, geography, etc. could be the key to the solution of many problems.

For example, many service delivery projects in Africa are using an “old” technology such as the Short Message Service (SMS) more successfully than the one provided by the latest smartphones equipped with full access to Internet. The key to the success of some of those projects was not the technology itself but rather a deep understanding of the problem, an involvement of the communities affected, and the use of tools that are affordable and easily available. From the technological point of view, and given that there are more than 2.4 billion active SMS users that represent 74% of all mobile subscribers[1], we can confirm that people are familiar with SMS. They also understand how it works and it is always on.

According to market research firms such as A.C. Nielsen, in Africa more people have access to cell phone service than to clean water. For the most part, however, the available cell phones do not include the latest models but instead are simple, durable, with long lasting battery life and easy to repair. Foreign and local innovations have improved service delivery in sectors ranging from health to agriculture to financial services. For example, CycleTel (for reproductive health issues) and BloodBank SMS improve the communication between local district hospitals and Kenya’s centralized blood bank. SMS is also used to share crop price information between buyers and farmers, thus increasing market transparency while raising prices paid to farmers and getting access to more quantity and better quality for buyers. Mobile banking is also entering some African countries via SMS.

Governments, international donors, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), etc. have to plan their assistance and solutions taking into account which technologies people can afford, already know how to use and will not represent an additional investment. That is what is needed instead of solutions based on the latest technologies that may or may not work or that will become unsustainable once foreign assistance dollars are reduced or eliminated. In addition, in the international development arena service delivery models have to be based on tangible results in order to catch people’s attention and that is also one of the reasons to use technologies already deployed and proven rather than technologies that might require not only extended investment but long implementation periods.

Innovations of any type cannot be created in a vacuum. They need to be designed and developed while interacting continually with end users. What makes perfect sense to those of us sitting in an office, far from the places where they are supposed to be used, might end up being a totally impractical, irrelevant or absurd innovation. That is one of the main reasons why all organizations involved in international development need to work closely and collaborate with organizations on the ground and with local people. Service delivery models have to make sense to those who will enjoy the service rather to the government agencies or organizations that might deliver them.

Delivery models based solely on technology are not good enough to deliver optimal results. The end users, in most international development programs and projects, are either not involved in the process at all or, if they are, consultation is often conducted at a very late stage of the process. Moreover, having an excellent technology and involving the end users might fail because of poor processes or procedures (e.g., training). This is why we represent graphically the ideal delivery model with an equilateral triangle where the three sides are equal.

Figure 1. Ideal model scenario where all three factors are considered equally

When more emphasis is applied on one or two of the three factors we end up obtaining triangles which different side lengths. Isosceles triangles (those with two sides equal) or scalene triangles (those with no equal sides) are not as perfect as the equilateral who was even given mystical significance. The value of this analogy is just to illustrate that successful delivery models rely on a balance of components. Making one side of the triangle longer or bigger will require, no matter what, changes to the others. Please see Figure 2 to appreciate this visually.

Figure 2. Scenarios where emphasis is not balanced between components

Innovation is not just technology but a component of a set that when combined appropriately can produce successful and sustainable results. Paying excessive attention to one or two of the components will force us to compromise the other and that is exactly what lies at the root of many innovation failures in general, and in service delivery in particular. For example, when technology is great but end users are not involved or poor training (processes/procedures) is provided the end result is likely to fail and may even condemn a good technology to obscurity.

These ideas may seem obvious but reality shows us otherwise. It is for that reason that international development professionals need to clearly understand and experience first hand these concepts to avoid being overly impressed by cutting-edge technologies, training techniques that promise miracles or consulting companies with “magic bullets.” Being informed, being in the field, and being in touch with end users while applying common sense might be more relevant than anything else and that is what we need to confront the many challenges that surround us.


[1] According to Wikipedia.