It’s been nearly three years since we officially set up Akvo Foundation USA. Since then we’ve achieved quite a bit, including securing core funding for the organization, expanding our partner base in the region, as well as working with these partners to build monitoring and evaluation (M&E) capacity to promote the value of common standards, innovative ICT interventions, open data and how to use this data effectively. But as always, there’s more work to be done.

Looking ahead, I caught up with the executive director of our US foundation, Henry Jewell, to get an understanding of what we are working to achieve in 2016 and beyond:

What are some of the key issues in development aid that we’re seeing now and how has this influenced our strategy for 2016?

The creation and implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) pushed the sector to generate more evidence about international development results, with Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) being the common approach to developing such evidence. It was no longer acceptable to substitute good results with good intentions. Organizations were pushed by donors to generate M&E plans to show their programs were effective, with those with the relevant capacity creating best practice while others managed to just ‘get by.’ However, there was too much focus on collecting data to report back to donors and not enough focus on using that data for better decision-making at the local or national level upon which the program was focused. To confound this, the data was usually of poor quality and not accessible and, unfortunately, in many situations this is still the case. Now, there is a feeling of data fatigue within the sector: is collecting all this data worth the effort and is it leading to better outcomes? To rectify this, data must be useful and it needs to be demonstrated at the local level where it can have the most impact.

The MDGs are being replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With lessons learned from the MDGs, the creation of the SDGs was an inclusive process to make sure that the voices of the member countries were heard and that these goals were a reflection of the priorities of the governments. However, this process has led to an extremely complex set of goals – nothing is left out in the 17 goals and 169 targets – that now need to be implemented if they are going to be widely adopted.

We want to help partners collect good, quality data, but we also want them to actually be able to use that data to make better decisions about their programs and policies.

What do you see as our partners’ biggest challenges at the moment? What are we hearing from partners in this part of the world in terms of what they need right now to succeed?
As I mentioned, within international development there has been a huge push to gather information to understand the impact of our work and subsequently be able to learn lessons, share knowledge and in general just be more transparent about what we are doing. Learning from our partners, we have seen that, as a sector, we have been successful in the first part of this equation, by using innovative ICT tools to collect information. But being able to use this to improve understanding and outcomes in programs at the local level remains a challenge.

Tools have proven very valuable, and innovative ICT tools will continue to be key components of a good strategy, but there has to be context – if we don’t use the tools or the data they generate effectively, all we are doing is making it more efficient for organizations to end up with evidence that is not being used to its full potential. As an organization, we do not want to help partners collect bad quality, irrelevant data faster and then for it only to be sent to donors. We want to change the way the sector looks at information. Thus it is important for us to focus on building individual and organizational capacity in using these tools for effective M&E. When the right combination between innovative technologies and human expertise are applied to a program, results can be dramatically improved. To address our partners’ challenges within the context of the future trends in international development, Akvo USA has developed a new three-year strategy, which we are currently beginning to implement.

What are the key strategic initiatives that we will undertake as part of the new strategy?
There are three key pillars to the new strategy:

Capacity Building – People, Organizations and Governments
The ability to build capacity among people and organizations is critical to achieving our vision of a future in which country governance and international development cooperation are open, transparent, effective and collaborative. This is not a shift in thinking; we have always believed this, but instead a shift in priorities. We still believe that innovative ICT plays an important role, but ICT alone is not going to create the impact to deliver real change on the ground. Hence the capacity building will focus on building Information Communication Technology (ICT), data and M&E skills at the local, national and global level.

Monitoring and Evaluation for Transparency and Effectiveness
Historically, our main focus of work in the US has been within the WASH sector. This strategy will necessitate a shift in focus towards Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E) for transparency and effectiveness, which can be applied to multiple sectors (still including the WASH sector). It has become clear that there is a need to provide M&E advisory services to make sure we achieve our mission and this is driven by the demand we see within the sector for these services. In keeping with Akvo’s philosophy we will work to achieve this in an open, replicable way and to collaborate with local partners where possible. We are also looking to create a community and portal where organizations and teams can share best practices within M&E to drive the conversation for continual improvement in this field.

Expanded Geographic Focus – Latin America
Up until now Akvo USA has focused primarily within the US market. Towards the end of 2015, we began moving towards increasing operations within Latin America. A few key moments have shown the demand for our service within the region. The Inter America Development Bank and FEMSA awarded us the Water and Sanitation Prize for Innovation within the region and we signed a contract to work with the Government of Bolivia to use Akvo FLOW. We see great potential to have a significant impact by increasing our focus on working with partners in Latin America. A key challenge historically in being able to work within Latin America was making sure that the tools and services we provided were available in Spanish. Over the last year we have made great strides in this area (though we still have some work to do) and are now at a stage where we can actively engage in the region.

USA strategy diagram
The diagram above shows Akvo’s approach. Credit: Linda Leunissen

Let’s talk more about capacity building – what will this entail?
There’s a great book called Geek Heresy by Kentaro Toyama from University of Michigan. In it, he identifies the challenge of organizations working to leverage technology for social good: “Even in an age of amazing technology, social progress depends on human changes that gadgets can’t deliver.” Our strategy addresses this challenge by focusing on building capacity within organizations and governments to capture, understand and share good quality data so that they can improve policy and programmatic decision-making.

Capacity building will focus on three areas to build ICT, data and M&E skills:

  • Capture: This refers to collaborating with organizations to collect useful data, in better ways. We provide training to improve skills in data gathering using phones, mapping, and visualizing data over time. In addition, capacity building around data capture includes strengthening planning skills to ensure that data collection efforts respond to information needs and produce relevant data. It also considers that the best data collection tools are those that best meet the specific information needs of an organization and thus, partners must have the skillset to select the tools that better respond to the questions they want to address.
  • Understand: Here the aim is to work with partners to analyze their data in combination with other data sources. This gives insight into complex situations, turning data into knowledge that drives better decisions. When we refer to the “understand” pillar, we mean helping partners transform data through the use of quantitative and qualitative analysis methods to find meaning in it and be able to translate it into information that they can actually use. Generating valid visuals, graphs, and charts is part of developing capacities to understand data.
  • Share: We need to help improve openness and coordination between colleagues, networks, civil society, NGOs, and governments. Our systems publish and exchange project data easily to improve partners’ performance, and build understanding and support of their work. Capacity building activities around share include sharing best practices about how to ensure data uptake by key stakeholders and how to generate effective communication material. Telling the story behind data can be challenging and is therefore part of the capacities that we aim to strengthen.

Offering M&E advisory services is also one of our strategic initiatives for 2016. How are we defining M&E? How does M&E help our partners deliver more successful projects and programs?
At Akvo we want to generate transparency and effectiveness so our approach to M&E should reflect the same goal: M&E for transparency and effectiveness. If we can help our partners build capacity around M&E best practice to improve the quality and relevance of the data being captured and how to best understand this data, then there is a better chance that improved policy and programmatic decision-making (the effectiveness component) will follow, as will the ability to share knowledge and results (the transparency component).

We also take a granular view on effectiveness. We believe that it occurs when projects are well planned and when implementation is informed by data and evidence in an iterative process. That means that project managers and policy makers analyze data and use the findings to learn and resolve situations that affect implementation through evidence based decision-making.

Simply making information available is not sufficient to achieve transparency. Engaging with people to make sure that data is used and that it is made available in a way that promotes participation and accountability is key to ensuring that the use of our tools contributes to transparency and not opacity.

My colleague Ethel Mendez, who is an M&E specialist, is going to outline her view on the importance of M&E in an upcoming blog, so keep an eye out for that.

What do you see as absolutely critical to successfully implementing our strategy?
There is a great article in the Harvard Business Review about the ‘The Big Lie of Strategic Planning’ that outlines that fear and discomfort are an essential part of strategy making and that true strategy is about placing bets and making hard choices. All too often, to remove the discomfort and scare factor, we build strategies by producing comprehensive plans to mitigate risk and achieve set targets, while not focusing on the hard choices to achieve an overall vision. Thus, this strategy aims to address the larger picture thinking and not just outline a picture for survival. However, I also believe that it is still important to have a comprehensive plan to implement the strategy, otherwise it is just words. So driven by this strategy we have developed a detailed operational plan that focuses on six main areas: core funding, partnerships, products, knowledge and thought leadership, organizational growth, and communications.

For me, the key component of implementing this strategy is about our partners, which is a theme that runs through all of these areas. Can we deepen our engagement with existing partners to improve outcomes? Can we expand our partnership base to achieve a wider impact? Can we work with partners to improve knowledge sharing and learning? Can we increase collaboration amongst partners (as it is important to remember that we are part of an ecosystem)? Only if we are able to do this, will we be able to achieve our common goals around a future where country governance and international development cooperation are open, transparent, effective and collaborative.

Henry Jewell is manager, Akvo USA hub and executive director, Akvo Foundation USA. You can follow him on Twitter @hejewell. Emily Armanetti is a communications manager at Akvo. Follow her @earmanetti.