Cross-post: Positive Collaboration Is Possible Between Aid and Mobile Sectors

Recently, the Digital Impact AllianceDAI and Accenture Development Partnerships hosted a London Technology Salon on the question of: “Is Positive Collaboration Possible Between Aid and Mobile Sectors?

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Eminent thought leaders Diana Sang (Digital Impact Alliance) and Oliver Rowntree (GSMA) shared their varied experiences of collaboration between development actors and mobile network operators (MNOs) and lead a lively debate of donors, implementers and SMEs on learnings, challenges and warnings for the ICT4D sector.

Is positive collaboration possible?

The general view was a cautiously optimistic yes.  It is already happening – sometimes, in the right circumstances, although success stories are perhaps not often as hoped for, with as many stories of failed attempts at collaboration.

Some of the more interesting learnings discussed (as always, under Chatham House rule so no names or attributions):

What are the right circumstances?

Many NGOs leave thinking of an MNO partnership until quite late in the day, and end up seeking a very straightforward ‘deal’ (free or subsidised messaging or data).  Unsurprisingly, these kinds of partnerships are often not forthcoming.  Some things for NGOs to think about before even considering approaching a mobile operator for a partnership that are modelled by successful collaborative relationships:

  • Understand why they are approaching the MNO – is it a real partnership that leverages the MNOs unique strengths and offers something to everyone? If this being communicated well?
  • Engage early – giving the operator the chance to get involved in the design of the app/intervention, not just asking for free SMS
  • Spend time researching who to approach, when, how and understanding their drivers and KPIs and how the partnership can be of benefit to their group within the MNO
  • Remember that MNOs are in a highly competitive sector – they may have limited capacity to hand-hold partners and their first responsibility is to their shareholders – most projects or partnerships will need to demonstrate a clear return on investment (and a zero-rated partnership needs a particularly good angle demonstrating other benefits to even rate consideration)
  • Learn from those who have done this before, some good sources are this advice from GSMA’s director general, and (for start-ups), this GSMA guide to working with operators in emerging markets

Don’t go it alone – convene and pool resources

No operator is able to form partnerships with every NGO in every country, so it is unsurprising that many report being wary of such approaches.  But when considered together, as a commercial vertical market rather than as individual projects, the development sector has the potential to be an extremely interesting commercial enterprise unit, which MNOs could address with targeted products and services (in the way they do for retail, manufacturing etc.).

This will only happen if we are able to come together collaboratively and make this possible (something the aid-sector does not have a great track record of!).

For example, DIAL recently convened multi-sectoral workshops in Malawi and Sierra Leone, and GSMA has recently held a Field Focus Week in Ghana – by bringing together the various different development and mobile actors in open discussion of the challenges of working together (and including vital, but often neglected, partners such as governments and the regulators), these build relationships and deeper richer understanding than is typically possible for one NGO alone.

Note: If you are interested in convening the development and mobile industries in another country, contact DIAL and GSMA to find out how they can help.

Mobile can be much more than SMS text messages

Often NGOs think of operators as just a way to get subsidised texts or data.  In reality they may be as or more helpful in working out how to transform your business – e.g. from cash handouts to mobile payments.

And above all – if the partnership works and the operator can continue to run the service themselves without the need for donor-funding – that may be harder to track in a log-frame, but surely that is the holy grail of ICT4D sustainability!?

NGOs often don’t understand their own strengths

It’s not just about presenting the CSR angle of how ‘worthy’ you are, there are also tangible commercial aspects – e.g. MNOs struggle to reach rural markets, a group which NGOs tend to excel at working with, and some may be willing to sacrifice short-term profits for access to new markets…

(But be realistic, and get accurate stats!)

For example, you work with women and an MNO has a gender-target – seems great – but if they are in search of urban middle-class women with disposable income, and your audience is the poorest 1% of rural farmworkers, is that really going to work…

Know your audience, have reliable stats to hand that directly support the business case for the project and help to demonstrate the ROI to the operator.  Then you may develop a genuinely mutually beneficial partnership – without such stats you risk misleading each other and things disintegrating when one or both sides expectations aren’t met.

And don’t forget, sometimes the best deal you are likely to find already exists – in the mainstream aggregator market!

Don’t Blindly Partner with MNOs 

The discussion above focused mostly on the how of collaboration with MNOs, there was surprisingly little discussion of whether this is a good idea.

While of course MNOs have enormous potential benefit to ICT4D programs, we need to be careful to remember that their profit-motive requires them to seek to maximise the commercial benefit from such relationships.

If considered and discussed carefully at the start, this is fine and can lead to exciting win-win arrangements.

If the safeguarding and due diligence are neglected by the NGO, they run the risk of exposing their poorest and most vulnerable stakeholders to ‘digital harms’ (e.g. being encouraged to spend scarce resources on online gambling.

Key Technology Salon Takeaways

For NGOs

For MNOs

  • The development sector presents a huge opportunity, but one that needs some TLC to address. With more staff who understand the development sector’s quirks, you are more likely to be able to develop sustainable, profitable commercial partnerships across the sector

Originally posted in TechnologySalon.