Tech-Aid: Innovation and Development

As Global Washington’s Conversation with USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah came to a close last Friday, Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA) left the audience with a new way of looking at an old question.

As Congressman McDermott explained, when faced with contemplating the future of global development, one can readily apply the age-old question “is the glass half-full or half-empty?” Similarly, we can ask ourselves is this the time in world history that the human race bands together to solve the critical problems of our time, or will we allow the global financial crisis to stifle our humanitarian spirit and maintain the status quo? Can we capitalize on the momentum building up to the Millennium Development Goals and eradicate hunger, disease, and extreme poverty, or are we setting ourselves up for a big disappointment with such lofty goals?

But these questions, however important, are insufficient in finding the solutions to the world’s ills. To solve these problems, Congressman McDermott exhorted the audience to consider how to fill the glass, rather than consider how full it is already. Indeed we must not ask ourselves if we will succeed, but how we will succeed in meeting the basic needs of all. And technology is inevitably a part of the answer to that question.

Such was the purpose of this panel discussion. Bringing together the USAID Administrator, two Congressmen, and representatives from Microsoft, Washington State University, PATH, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the panel discussed the role innovation and technology plays in development projects, particularly in the health and agriculture sectors.

Before introducing Dr. Shah, Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA) opened the discussion with a case for investment in development, saying funding foreign assistance can create a more stable and secure global environment. However, as Congressman Smith pointed out, the current foreign assistance structure is not efficient enough to get the most out of our resources.

Dr. Shah echoed Congressman Smith’s sentiments on the state of the foreign aid system, saying that programs are too often ineffective because projects are not guided by results and evidence from the ground. Fortunately, Dr. Shah has committed to basing programs off of conditions on the ground, beginning with the two new development initiatives Feed the Future, and the Global Health Initiative.

Using the right technology and the right means of delivering that technology may ultimately decide the success or failure of many development programs. Innovative new pieces of technology have already played a large role in improving development programs. For instance, M-Pesa allows you to safely and securely transfer money via cell phone, giving people without steady access to a bank a way to easily access their money.

With such promising technological innovations and committed leadership from our panelists, I can’t help but see that glass filling up quickly.