The Role of Mobile in Development: An Interview with Priya Jaisinghani, Mobile Solutions Director at USAID

PriyaPriya Jaisinghani serves as Senior Advisor to the Administrator and the Director of Mobile Solutions for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She has previously served as Program Officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launching a $1 billion Global Development Program, and as Development Officer in the South Asia Program of the UN Foundation. Priya received a BA in Commerce from the University of Virginia and received an MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University’s SAIS.

Q:  What is your role at USAID, and what does your office do?

A: I’m the director of mobile solutions for USAID, we’re part of an independent office that reports directly to [USAID Administrator] Raj [Shah]. People are working on technology issues across the agency: in health, in agriculture, and in education, to name a few. My team is helping to coordinate ICT activities across these areas, and pushing the agency on issues that are crosscutting, such as financial inclusion, mobile data solutions, and mobile access.

Q:  Can you tell us more about one of these crosscutting areas, like mobile data solutions?

A:  Everyone is talking about big data, but in this case we’re looking at small, project-based data. USAID has a programs budget of over $20 billion per year, which is largely focused in humanitarian assistance, agriculture and health. We have an opportunity to use technology, including mobile technology, to collect real-time or near real-time data on the progress and performance of these programs. And [we’re using technology] to hear directly from the communities we serve about whether and how programs are fulfilling their needs and wants.

In Afghanistan, for example, we’re using mobile [phones] to survey teachers about how they’re currently getting paid, and if they’d prefer to be paid in a different way. So far we have about USAID600 people surveyed, and the results are showing that there’s a strong preference to be paid by mobile or by card instead of being paid in cash, which is how most teachers in Afghanistan are paid today. Having this kind of information gives us the impetus to work with our partners, [including the government,] to pay civil servants through electronic means.

Q:  Could you talk a bit about the intersection of technology, including mobile, in the monitoring & evaluation of development programs?

A:  The opportunity is huge. Technology can make monitoring and evaluation work faster, cheaper, and of higher quality because of the reduction of human error involved in transforming data collected manually into an electronic system. USAID has been very methodical about how we approach this issue. You don’t want to create a situation like the one we saw in Uganda where everyone is out there doing mobile data collection – but doing so using systems that don’t connect, and in the absence of policies about what data to collect, how to do so securely, and on what kind of platform this data should reside. So while there is huge promise around the potential of ICT for transforming M&E work, it’s also important for large organizations with offices around the world like the United Methodist Church to think about the design and policies around the M&E system first.

Q:  Speaking of policies, could you talk a bit about USAID’s policy on the use of ICT for development?

We’re in the process of updating USAID’s ICT4D guidance now to help us focus our investments in ICT4D and achieve greater impact through them. We’re seeing that there’s not a lot of clarity about how best to procure ICT4D solutions. There’s also a lack of awareness in the development community about existing solutions. A lot of partners are building their own solutions, which leads to reinvention rather than existing solutions really scaling.

The USAID guidance will, for example, encourage reusability by suggesting partners to either choose from the existing landscape of software solutions or provide justification if they feel they need to build a new tool. This guidance will also probably include language around sustainability, such as by asking partners to identify, at the outset, who will pay for the project after an initial USAID grant, and how this project will be maintained and upgraded over time. We all, collectively, need to be much more thoughtful about the longevity of these solutions, including their reusability, sustainability and scalability.

Q:  What do funders like USAID look for in the ICT4D projects they fund?

A: In a very decentralized organization like USAID, we’ve got deep content experts who aren’t themselves focused on the ICT4D element of their investments. The vast majority of USAID staff is thinking first and foremost about the impact their investment is having on the poor. So it’s incumbent on partners to demonstrate how investments in ICT can lead to faster, cheaper and better program impact. And when you have a tough budget environment as we do today, ICT tends to be the easy thing to lop off unless prospective grantees show how ICT-based investments can have a real, direct impact.

Q:  In your opinion, what is the significance of the United Methodist Church developing an ICT strategy to guide its development work?

A: I think we’re entering a new world of development. There’s increasing emphasis on local sustainability and building up capacity among non-traditional partners. And we’re beginning to see a shift from funding flowing to the big organizations, to funding flowing more directly to the communities themselves. So we’re looking at world where traditional development funding methods could be totally reorganized.

Larger traditional organizations focused on humanitarian relief and assistance need to prove that they are as or more effective than just giving money directly or to local partners. If you don’t have the systems in place to track and prove impact, and to get funds flowing directly to these communities, then you risk being left in the wake. I don’t mean to be alarmist, but I do think big development organizations can’t stay still.

In part due to the way information can now be collected through advances in ICT, increasingly there will be a litmus test in the development space. Donors will ask: Should I really give money to a large organization, or should I just give it directly to a local partner? So it will be incumbent on large development groups to be laser focused on impact, best practices, ability to track in real time what their performance. ICT can enable and empower these efforts.

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