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Improving Development Outcomes With the Use of New Technologies

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8 May 2012

Aleem Walji, Head of the Innovation Team at the World Bank Institute, explains how the bank has applied a knowledge-based approach in combination with new technologies to revolutionise capacity development.

The World Bank Institute (WBI) and DG DEVCO recently held a joint one-day workshop to share examples of best practice, innovation and to identify complementary areas for collaboration.  

Mr Walji, former Head of Global Development Initiatives at Google, provided a fresh viewpoint on today’s development paradigm, and advised how he thinks development outcomes can be improved by embracing new technologies, opening data sets, attracting untraditional partners and, most importantly, involving the beneficiary. 

Here are excerpts of an interview that he gave to  Please give us your perspective on the current development paradigm.

I’ve just come from the Skoll Forum, which has been called the ‘Davos of doing good things’.  The neat thing about the Skoll Forum is that you meet social entrepreneurs, people who are actually trying to change the world every day.  Having just come from Skoll in Oxford, what I realise is that the world in which we live has changed and the traditional development paradigm has to take that into consideration.  As part of a large multinational institution, I can’t help but be struck as to how can we catalyse that energy, ability and talent (from Skoll); the knowledge and learning of those people to support them to change the world, and what’s our role, and I think it’s fundamentally different than it used to be.  We are no longer the provider of solutions; how can we enable them to solve the problems that they face.

C4D:  How can big institutions like the World Bank and European Commission address this challenge?

One of the things that I think institutions like the World Bank have is, in addition to lending, the ability to connect practitioners with practitioners because we have a footprint in a lot of countries.  We have access to learning and knowledge and data and I think the launch of our Open Data Initiative has been shocking to us.  Once we opened up our data a couple of things happened:  one is that we realised that our users and our clients were different.  Our clients are a handful of countries; our users are hundreds of thousands of people that want to know information and knowledge about the world.  Within a very short amount of time our page data catalogue exceeded the traffic of our home page and that’s when we realised we were on to something.



C4D:  Tell us about the opening of WBI’s data sets

People have taken that information and done things with it that we would never have imagined. There are examples of people who have taken our agro-climatic data and created an application called Save the Rain, where you can put in any address in the world and it will tell you exactly how much rain you can expect next year and what crops to grow.  There’s an organisation called StatPlanet that has taken all the World Bank data on education, health, nutrition.  In the education space they do very sophisticated country level trend analysis – things that we would never have done with our own information.  But when we invited the world to work with us we had immense pleasure in looking at the results.

C4D:  How do you see WBI’s role today?

I think that our role has changed.  We are no longer this provider of solutions from north to south, we are no longer just a bank and we are no longer an institution that can just work with governments.  I think we recognise that most learning will happen between countries, we can be a connector. I think we have to recognise that perhaps our value added is what we know about the countries, the access to information we have.  We spend close to 70 million dollars a year on data collection, most of which is  background for the work we do.  Imagine if we gave that data to the world, what could they do with it, both the private sector and the not for profit sector.  Third is if we look at governments alone as agents of development and change I think we’ve really missed the boat.  There are all kinds of private actors both for profit and not for profit and, having come from the Skoll Forum, you see people changing the world.  How can we enable, learn from them, empower them and where we see something that works, how do we help to scale that up, how do we create the conditions for them to succeed …  I think that the World Bank is more of a development institution rather than a lending institution.  There’s a saying that if the railroads had thought of themselves as a transportation company rather than as a railroad company, today the railroads would own the airlines.  So if we think of ourselves as a development institution rather than a lending institution perhaps we’ll have a role to play in development going forwards.

C4D: How can we improve our use of data?

I think we have not been as good as we could have been in demonstrating results, and in showing in a sense who does what, where.  It seems to me incredible having come from a technology company like Google that when you look on a map we don’t know where the government is working, where the Americans work, where the Europeans work and where the World Bank works versus where children are dying. That seems to me like an unforgiveable oversight, so I think that people in Europe, in the world, deserve to know where their resources are going and are they having an impact, are they having results? And now you‘ve got platforms that not only allow us to show that information but to ask the end user, the beneficiary, are teachers coming to school? Is there medicine in the clinic? What do they think of their health care service ? You can actually ask the user themselves because today there is a device that is more ubiquitous than almost any device in history which is the mobile phone, and that is a device to not only listen with but to speak. If we can use it to listen to people’s voices then we can figure out how to do development better.

C4D:  What advice would you give to colleagues about using new media/technologies in development design and implementation?

I think that sometimes there’s a fear of technology … how do we navigate all of these complex tools, information and data complexities? But I think the key is, how do we find untraditional partners to work with?  At the World Bank when we opened up our data sets for the first time we started talking to software developers and we realised that the partnership between software developers and development people can actually be quite amazing.   We can invite in people who don’t have our same background, that have patent recognition and can help us solve problems that we can’t solve alone.  And don’t be afraid of technology, embrace it.

See Aleem Walji’s powerpoint presentation from the WBI meeting here:

This collaborative piece was drafted with input from Aleem Walji and Paul Riembaultwith support from the Coordination Team.


DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.


Have been very inspiring to be part of the seminar! the use of New Media, new technologies - collecting the citizen feedback -via simple sms collecting systems- bringing those citizen voices and feedback out to the world gives innovative and breakthrough insights on the capacity development and situation all over the world.

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