Development Alternatives Inc.'s Steven O’Connor talked to Staff Writer Doug Beizer about the company's aid projects and the role of technology in international development.
Development Alternatives Inc., of Bethesda, Md., seeks to make a lasting difference in developing countries. In pursuit of that mission, the company has on-site projects in about 65 countries with a wide range of goals, including spurring environmentally responsible economic growth and promoting effective democratic governance.
The growth of the international development market has helped propel DAI to No. 59 on this year's Top 100 list. Steven O’Connor, DAI’s director of communications, spoke with Washington Technology Staff Writer Doug Beizer about the company’s mission and business model.
WT: What kinds of problems are you asked to solve?
O’Connor: We might be asked to protect orangutan populations and mitigate global climate change by conserving rainforest in Indonesia, for example, or to set up household gardens for HIV/AIDS-affected people in Ethiopia by constructing gardens that simultaneously improve the health, food security, self-sufficiency and incomes of the women and children who participate.
We might be asked to nurture Afghanistan’s agricultural economy so that rural people have viable alternatives to raising poppy [for opium] or to strengthen parliaments and legislative processes, as we are doing in Pakistan. We might be asked to reconstruct social infrastructure in the wake of conflict, as we are doing in Liberia and Sri Lanka; to improve the regulatory environment for the small businesses that create jobs, as we are doing in Morocco, Moldova and Vietnam; or to lay the foundation for a thriving micro-finance industry, as we have done in Haiti.
Whatever problems we seek to solve, we do so in close consultation and collaboration with local people and institutions, with the aim of leaving behind an increased local capacity for problem-solving in the future.
WT: Who are your customers?
O’Connor: The ultimate consumers of our services are the people in developing nations whose lives we are trying to improve. However, the entities that conceive our projects and hire us to implement them are international development agencies and lending institutions, private corporations and philanthropies, and host country governments.
DAI clients include the U.S. Agency for International Development, European Commission, U.K. International Development Department, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, U.S. Defense Department, Millennium Challenge Corp., AusAid [the Australian government’s overseas aid program], GTZ [Germany’s development agency], World Bank, International Finance Corp., and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
WT: Where does most of your funding come from?
O’Connor: USAID is by far our largest single client and has been for our 39 years of operations. When you combine that with our more recent work for the DOD, where we’re helping the military with its new emphasis on development in stabilization operations, and other U.S. government agencies, that makes the [the U.S. government] our principal source of funding.
We are proud to consider ourselves a long-term partner in America’s commitment to economic and social development around the world.
WT: What role does technology play in international development?
O’Connor: DAI is not a technology firm per se, but technology plays an increasingly important role in our world, both in terms of facilitating DAI’s own operations and in the content of our assistance programs. A critical role technology plays is connecting people to one another, to ideas and to information. Information, in turn, empowers the people of developing nations to make informed decisions for themselves and their families, for their communities, and ultimately for their countries. Technology tools enable the application of knowledge and have the potential to improve efficiencies and streamline processes for both public and private institutions.
For example, DAI recently has been involved in implementing something called the Global Development Commons, a USAID initiative to better share development information and find ways to use technology to amplify development impact. Given the increasing capabilities and decreasing costs of information technology hardware, the greater access to Internet bandwidth, and the prevalence of personal devices such as mobile phones in developing countries, we see an exponential expansion in the opportunities to deliver innovative solutions using technology.
But the key to success for any technology initiative in international development is integrating the technology into overall program goals, which, in turn, involves taking careful account of local culture, local capacity and local context.
WT: What core competencies does a company need to have to participate in that market?
O’Connor: It really boils down to people, technical expertise and highly professional project management. To these three things you might add the convening power, global networks and institutional relationships that come from having worked on thousands of development projects, for the better part of four decades, in 150 countries.
People. DAI is and always has been an employee-owned, independent company, and we are a 100 percent, employee stock ownership plan enterprise. We hire and strive to retain the very best people and create a productive, motivating and rewarding place for them to work, where they have a tangible and personal stake in the success of our mission.
Technical expertise. DAI brings many technical disciplines to the table: crisis mitigation and stability operations, democratic governance and public-sector management, agriculture and agribusiness, private-sector development and financial services, economics and trade, HIV/AIDS, avian influenza control, water and natural resources management, and energy and climate change. This breadth of coverage enables us to tackle cross-sector projects that address the interrelated nature of complex development problems.
To tackle health in Indonesia, for example, you have to address the issue of clean water and sanitation services, and that, in turn, implies attention to local and national governance issues. DAI employs 1,600 people worldwide — 350 in the Washington metro area — and where we cannot field appropriate expertise in-house, we tap a network of 42,000 consultants.
Professional project management. It’s impossible to do this kind of work in the kinds of places where we do it without top-flight project management capabilities. Our teams — both in the home office and the field — pride themselves on their flexibility, creativity and attention to detail, and they’re supported in everything they do by contracts and finance departments steeped in the details of government contracting and backed by the kinds of systems and technology that enable the sure-footed implementation of multimillion-dollar projects in some of the most challenging environments on the planet.
WT: How are new technologies such as social networking and cloud computing changing how you work?
O’Connor: Collaboration is critical for our projects, and new technology tools help us collaborate in new and more effective ways. In Indonesia, we are using Facebook to connect interns around common challenges, enable them to create their own content and share it with their peers. Through sites like YouTube, program achievements can be contextualized: Whether we are implementing a project in Serbia or Malawi, people can see through the power of video what is actually happening on the ground. Where infrastructure remains a challenge, mobile phones are filling the gap and allowing previously isolated people to engage with information. In Afghanistan, for example, we have implemented a market information system through which farmers receive text messages that list price information for their crops.
In general, social-networking tools, along with other new-media and mobile technologies, enable our projects to link their participants and partners to time-sensitive information, to increase participation and transparency, and to support community engagement in new ways.
Geographic information systems have also had a big impact here at DAI, bringing a visual dimension to our work that improves decision-making and enhances our communication with clients and with communities on the ground. Our GIS team has used geospatial planning tools in a host of applications, from facilitating community-based land-use planning in Malawi to mapping the availability of financial services in Haiti and responding to infectious disease outbreaks in Indonesia.
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