Being stateside during a college summer is a completely new experience for me, as I’ve spent my past two summers (and the beginning of this one) in foreign countries. The morning rush of a metro, having to adjust to a new apartment and watching English-language TV are more mundane changes compared to adjustments I made while staying in Kenya and India. Those summers were more fieldwork based, and were purposefully designed to get a much more local view at health and technology challenges. USAID takes that a step further, by actually shaping recommendations and policies for those local realities.
Most of my perspective so far has come through a digital lens, as I intern with the Digital Development Team, within the Center for Global Solutions, a subset of the Global Development Lab. Yes, that’s a lot of layers. The Global Development Lab is a newly formed entity within USAID that resulted from a merger between the Offices of Science and Technology and Innovation and Development Alliances. It relies on a variety of partnerships and design challenges to foster innovation from within the agency and the non-profit, public and private sectors. The Center for Global Solutions seeks to adopt proven solutions and bring them to scale across a wide geographic area. Within the Center, the Digital Development Team supports projects related to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). The Team’s work revolves around three workstreams: digital finance, digital inclusion and mobile data/data collection services. The team believes that, if leveraged correctly, ICTs can play a crucial role in development challenges and in furthering USAID’s mission of ending extreme poverty by 2030.
While I was placed in the team by chance, the field of ICTs for Development (ICT4D) has interested me for quite some time. In the summer of 2012, I worked with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India to help them start an e-Learning training program to reach their grassroots members. My work was part of a Service Opportunities in Leadership (SOL) grant from the Sanford School of Public Policy. As a capstone to my SOL project, I completed a portfolio on how access to ICTs is largely impacted by gender. In 2013, I traveled to Muhuru Bay, Kenya with a DukeEngage grant, and studied how mobile phone ownership was distributed among church and school leaders, and how they could be leveraged for teaching and health purposes. For the first month of this summer, I spent my time in Eldoret, Kenya, researching how a mobile phone system can help Community Health Workers (CHWs) assess and treat maternal depression. I’ll call it fate that I ended up with this specific team, as I’m getting a much deeper dive into policy aspects of issues. Digital finance and mobile-money, for instance, is a huge field In Kenya. It’s very common to see people using M-Pesa, which is a mobile money platform. But I haven’t understood any of the regulatory implications of such a service, or how the government involves itself in the process. Having to comb through mobile money materials, and sitting in on related meetings, has been fascinating. Even if I get hung up on development acronyms or don’t feel qualified to say anything, I gain a lot just from listening. My specific team is an exciting place to work; it looks more like a vibrant start-up with comfy chairs and a relaxed dress code than the more typical cubicle set-up of the Agency. I appreciate that everyone is excited to work on their specific issues, and cognizant of the end-goal. For instance, through digital financial services and digital inclusion efforts, a whole range of the poor and the marginalized will gain access to banking services we take for granted, like loans and credit lines. The digital data team understands that through more widespread mobile data collection services, raw data can efficiently be turned into actionable results. Even though the team is small (circa 10 people), its existence indicates that USAID is dedicated to promoting digital services for years and years to come.