Development 2.0: The skills gap

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No summer lull for the Development 2.0 world, it would seem, judging from recent activity: from Richard Heeks’ paper on Development 2.0: Transformative ICT-Enabled Development Models and Impacts to a comprehensive checklist comparing “old school development” with Development 2.0 aid; from Idealware’s Social Media Decision Guide for nonprofits to UNITAR/FAO’s e-learning course for social media for development professionals. The buzz generated by the 35$ laptop and the use of social media around the referendum in Kenya (see e.g. here and here) has filled the blogosphere and endless twitter streams. IDB’s recently concluded Mobile Citizens contest and the upcoming World Bank’s Apps for Development competition indicate that the “oh so 2.0” crowdsourcing-for-innovation craze has become mainstream in development, too.

In spite of all this fervor, one has the impression that Development 2.0 is still far from reaching its full potential and has not really had an impact where it matters most – in the core processes and operations, in the business model of development organizations. We are still far from a situation where, say, a community development specialist or a biologist in the field who is interested in testing out what my colleague, Prasanna Lal Das, has dubbed “Fieldwork 2.0” options, can easily find expertise to guide them through the process. Falling foul of organizational inertia, their requests are typically

directed to either communications departments (whose main focus is,

understandably, to “push out” the message) or IT specialists for whom

web 2.0 and the mobile web are often a brave new world.

As a result, efficiencies that could be gained by rethinking existing business processes (say, by using GPS to offer alternative routes for a pipeline or mobile phones to monitor water supply in rural areas) end up more often than not in the list of missed opportunities. Examples such as UNICEF’s Innovation Unit, especially dedicated to helping fieldwork through new technologies, are still too few and far in between.

Of the many reasons that slow down the transformative potential of Development 2.0, cultural resistance often tends to attract the most attention. However, the skills gap is, in my view, equally important. What can be done to address it? It seems to me there are three options. All of them are still quite a long way from coming to fruition:

  1. Training staff doing field work on Development 2.0 skills. Not everybody needs to become a techie, but a broad understanding of the opportunities opened up, say, by geolocation or QR codes, by open data or mobile communications can sparkle new ideas and foster innovation. To my knowledge, Fieldwork 2.0 training courses in development organizations are still far from common practice and are often the initiative of a handful of enthusiasts.
  2. Hiring new professional profiles with skills such as language pattern analysis, mobile technology or geomapping (more in a previous post) to accelerate in-house innovation. A cursory, utterly non-scientific analysis of development job ads I recently conducted indicated that there is no rush in this department (tip for the readers: any attempt to explain to your boss that you are checking out job sites to do research for a blog post is doomed to be met with a sardonic smile).
  3. Developing effective interfaces with external agile, grassroots movements that have the desired set of skills. The example of cooperation between the development “big guns” and volunteer initiatives around the Haiti humanitarian response has already become textbook. The impression, however, is that there is still a big gap to fill between the need for predictability and control dictated by the processes of international development and the spontaneous, decentralized surge of grassroots networks.

Is the skills gap just my personal impression, or do you think it is a reality? And if so, are there other solutions that could accelerate business model innovations in the work of development organizations?

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