What is the difference between a mobile app and a toilet?

Not much actually. In the developing world, governments and international aid agencies are tripping over each other in order to provide toilets to the poor. Given that not all the poor are that keen on toilets, backyards are filling up with defunct ones from different donors.

Similarly, every donor agency is offering data collection apps to their implementing NGOs, who are at a loss trying to figure out what to do with this sudden influx. Their offices are now getting filled up with smartphones from different donors.

While donors rain toilets on the poor and apps on their hapless NGO partners, the latter are having a hard time. Unlike a toiletless poor household, they do not have the luxury of saying no, as their existence depends on keeping their donors happy. I recently got a call from one of our FLOW users in Nepal. He has been using FLOW and RSR for some time now. All of a sudden a donor supporting his organisation’s water projects in Nepal approached him. They too have come up with their “own” mobile data collection and management tool and want our friend to start using it.

He tries to explain to his donor that he is already using FLOW and that it's something he would like to use for all of his projects, as that would make things easier for him.

Forget it, says his donor. For our projects, you must use tools developed by us. As our friend sulks back to his office, tragedy waits for him in the shape of another donor representative. This donor works on disaster management, and is excited beyond belief. He wants to develop a mobile data collection tool for all his projects in Nepal. He wants our friend to "field test" it. "Why not use what we have?" says our friend, meekly.

"Forget it", says his donor, "I know this amazing developer in Kathmandu who will develop a mobile data collection tool for only 50,000 Nepali Rupees (700 Euros). Why on earth would I spend money on other systems when I can get one so cheap?"
Above: a participant on an Akvo FLOW training course in Manipur interviews a survey respondent. Photo by Joy Ghosh

The issue is not of cost or quality. Having spent considerable time in the development sector, I have come to realise how 'penny wise and pound foolish' we tend to be. The issue, to put it in a nutshell is that of "egos and logos".

This in turn is stretching the limited human resource bandwidth of NGOs as they rush from one training course to another and deal with non-performing apps. As one of my friends in Bangladesh recently told me, with a lot of irony, "Accept it, Amit da, at the end of the day, paper surveys at least was one single system."

Why does this happen?

In case anyone hasn't figured it out yet, donors too have to raise funds which then get transferred to the Global South. Their funders demand to see something different. Development sector achievements are not as tangible and visible as in other sectors (actually they are - or should be - but that's a separate blog). Developing a new system is a quick and dirty way of showcasing how vibrant and innovative a donor institution is. Result: another data collection app.

Sometimes there are pathological manifestations of this. In one Southeast Asian country we work in, 3 different systems of mobile-based data collection are being used in one single project commissioned by a bilateral aid organisation. The added value of such rich diversity? As of now, zero. The price of three different systems? Roughly half a million dollars. Burden to the bilateral in dealing with managing three different systems? Immeasurable.  

Proliferation is not necessarily a bad thing. A thick market ensures continuous development of new features, competitive pricing and market segmentation. It also highlights growing demand. But is the development sector a mature market that understands product differentiation and benefits from a proliferation of tools?

Err….not really. 

From where I sit, I see such efforts at introducing mobile data management systems as being neither strategic nor collaborative. Strategic requires one to think, "if I stopped funding my partner organisation tomorrow, how would they keep using this system I have made them use, if they wanted to? ".

Collaborative means asking "are there such tools already available" and " does my partner organisation have such a tool they like and are using already?" if yes, how can I get them to use the same tool for my data demands instead of asking them to use a new one? Does it mean I need to talk to their other donors?

These questions may help us set the compass of our efforts in the right direction. Of course, there are no easy answers. If the partner is using a system, which is proprietary, inefficient and expensive, then perhaps there is a need for change. However, they do push for increased dialogue between donors and their partners and lead to deeper thinking around introducing technologies. These dialogues are necessary if the end goal is to develop a culture of data based decision-making and transparent monitoring in development practice. However, without a synergised effort, a marketplace of data collection tools is all we may end up with. And that would be the price that egos and logos will exact. 

Amitangshu Acharya is programme manager in Akvo's Asia hub, based in Delhi.