We like to start these newsletters with a data point – a hard-to-find nugget of information that has important implications for policymakers, funders, and private companies. But the truth is, finding the right data can be challenging. It’s a common, almost tired, observation that the evidence base in the field of Digital for Development is thin and inadequate, which has on implications for funding large-scale digital interventions. The argument goes: donors and government ministers won’t invest long term in a large-scale solution unless there is strong evidence it will have clear impact on people’s health or economic well-being. But does that argument hold water? Well, partly.
Evidence is lacking because “impact” is hard to define or measure. In addition, there is no agreement on what evidence is needed, and for whom. Donors don’t necessarily need or want the same data required by governments. When stakeholders do get what they need – data showing improved health or economic activity – it’s nearly impossible to draw a straight line from a digital solution to these improvements. There are too many other potential influencing factors. Even with a plausible claim that a digital intervention caused a clear and obvious result, many believe that success is contextual and non-transferable. Why bother gathering evidence and data when other countries or industries will say, “It won’t work here”?
Over time, longitudinal evidence will develop to illustrate the impact of large-scale digital solutions on goals such as improved agricultural productivity, health outcomes, or women’s empowerment. But, how does one measure long-term impact if the opportunity to implement for the long term is not afforded in the first place? To address this vicious cycle, the development community would do well to continue speaking about the anecdotal evidence of impact on health and well-being while also measuring the impact of digital on quantifiable, short-term gains. For instance, direct evidence can be more readily gathered on the operational and cost efficiencies that are realized through digital implementations. This particular evidence also speaks clearly to the holders of the budget purse strings (i.e., Ministries of Finance). By encouraging near-term investment based on the business case of savings and operational improvements, other bodies of evidence will be afforded the opportunity to develop, as well. Or, perhaps, the digital aspect of development work will become so embedded in development programs that the demand for direct evidence will slowly fade away.