As the world adjusts to seven billion people, and begins its creep toward eight billion, doing more with less will become increasingly important. Continuing economic stagnation and budgetary concerns in OECD countries will also put stress on existing commitments of foreign assistance and hamper new initiatives. Greater efficiency and effectiveness in development is paramount. Below are three trends to watch in the coming year that can help improve development outcomes.
1) mHealth and mGovernance
Applying mobile phone technology to global health challenges has huge potential to improve health outcomes. In previous blogs I’ve given a few examples of how mHealth is making a difference: in remote areas of Afghanistan, health workers are getting training through SMS; in South Africa, Project Masiluleke sends text messages with important information about HIV; in South Asia pregnant women are receiving important maternal health information also via text messages. Here are few more instances: FrontlineSMS, a free online text messaging system that sends texts between groups of people and online mapping systems like Google Earth, allows health workers in Cambodia to report cases of malaria in real time. This has permitted the government to track outbreaks and allocate resources more effectively. Previously, it took up to a month for cases to be registered. On the horizon are handheld analyzers that would allow community health workers to diagnose the strain of malaria a patient has using just a drop of blood. A reliable and speedy diagnosis would save hundreds of thousands of lives by accelerating the timetable for effective treatment. MHealth is still in its infancy, but the potential is there for some transformative improvements to health care delivery in rural areas.
MGovernance is also an area to watch. Mobile phones are becoming a tool for governments to communicate information, build connections with citizens, and receive feedback, particularly in countries with little infrastructure. Mobile phones are already being used in crisis management, in health campaigns and to facilitate cash transfers to the poor. Their spread is allowing governments to reach citizens who were previously outside of service areas. More than this, mobile phones offer a potential counterweight to corruption and an aid in resource management. They also allow citizens to put pressure back on governments to follow through on development projects. In Tanzania, for example, citizens are using their phones to report broken water pumps and push the government to make repairs.
2) Agricultural Productivity
As competition for resources becomes more intense in the coming decades, dramatically increasing how efficiently we use available resources – in particularly, energy, food and water – will be a critical part of the solution to closing the gap between supply and demand. For example, as much as a third of food grown in Africa rots before it reaches consumers due to poor infrastructure. Moreover, less than 5 percent of agriculture in Africa is irrigated, and much of that irrigation is large-scale, with an efficiency rating of under 50 percent, versus small-scale irrigation with an efficiency of more like 80–85 percent. Introducing simple, affordable technologies in small-scale agriculture has tremendous benefits in terms of productivity, empowering women, and increasing food security. Another area of unfulfilled potential is genetically modified organisms. USAID administrator Rajiv Shah has advocated for greater innovation and leadership in exploring how genetically modified foods can be used to feed the world’s growing population. In the horn of Africa, poor governance and climate conditions have combined to create chronic food shortages and famines. Genetically modified crops such as drought resistant or drought tolerant crops can play a crucial role in combating food insecurity in water poor areas. As drought spreads to West Africa, innovations in this field will be another important trend to watch in 2012.
3) Establishing Identity
Registering minorities and women allows them better access to legal channels to claim their rights, whether that is to report a crime, dispute ownership of land or other property, or gain access to social services and education. Gaining state recognition is certainly the first step for the 12 million stateless people in the world, but it is also the first step to citizenship for billions of people in developing countries that have no official identity. India is leading the way with its Aadhaar program. This voluntary and free program aims to digitally register India’s 1.2 billion citizens. The system is expected to undermine corruption by allowing citizens to collect benefits, open a bank account, or buy a mobile phone anywhere in the country, rather than relying on local bureaucracy. Additionally, it will make workers mobile, allowing them to migrate to where jobs are located and keep their money in a bank account. Although the program is costly, and could allow the state to erode civil liberties, it has the potential to be a transformative step in poverty reduction. Other countries with millions of unregistered citizens, who in some places are disproportionately women, should watch closely.