Thierry Barbaut is an expert in digital strategy, communication and new technologies, with 15 years’ experience in the digital-related development sector in Africa. In 2013, he joined the Micro-Projects Agency, a program by the NGO La Guilde, as Digital and Communication Director, where he has launched a dematerialization program. He is convinced that new technologies have a major impact on development assistance.
What is dematerialization?
It means moving from paper-based systems to digital systems, allowing data to be capitalized on, mapped, sorted, processed, analyzed and kept.
New technologies and dematerialization are a general driver for development. Digital technology provides the key in fields as diverse as water, agriculture, education, the environment and energy. There are very simple applications which can prove to be essential in terms of access to the law, for example, when you digitize a birth certificate or a land tenure document with a smartphone camera.
Today, in the field of solidarity, large NGOs and major donors are the only ones to have dematerialized systems, which are generally quite complex. At AFD, for example, the dematerialization process is underway. Small NGOs have a few digital tools, but they are often limited. When applicants request a grant, they must generally print the application, fill it in, add various documents and send it by post. Substantial means are required to process all these data.
What have you achieved at the Micro-Projects Agency?
In 2014, we fully digitized our interface for calls for projects. Before that, the Micro-Projects Agency (AMP) used to receive about a hundred applications a year by post, all with different paper formats. Only about forty projects were financed every year. The entire project submission process is now carried out online.
Applicants are guided through an 11-stage process – a workflow. Right from the first pages, they tick eligibility criteria and immediately know whether or not it is worth continuing. They describe their project and their partners online and attach all the necessary documents. Tutorials are available to guide them through each stage.
The selection and approval by a jury is also conducted online. The dematerialization has allowed us to build our expertise: we now call on 150 international specialists, who appraise make comments and approve the applications remotely by connecting to the platform.
Thanks to this efficiency gain, four people now handle 900 projects a year, appraise 600, and finance about a hundred, which will subsequently be supported throughout their lifecycle.
We have also set up a participatory financing platform on our website. Each project funded by the Micro-Projets Agency can easily collect additional funds through individual donations made by credit card.
The field appraisals are also available online. The project initiators are immediately informed by email. They receive all the decisions and assessments remotely and very rapidly.
Finally, partner donors and foundations have joined us on our platform. Consequently, the same application prepared online can be submitted to various funders. Data capitalization allows an enormous sharing, which saves a huge amount of time and human resources.
What are the other advantages of digital technology for development projects?
Dematerialization above all provides access to information for all. People used to have the feeling that everything was too complicated and gave up.
Applicants no longer waste time sending applications to foundations for which they do not fulfil the eligibility criteria. They know straight away. This avoids a lot of people being disappointed!
Dematerialization also brings a lot of transparency to donors and the general public in terms of the allocation of financing. The project supervision strengthens confidence.
It also allows data to be extracted, analyzed and sorted. The data are mapped and studies and best practice sheets are produced. A donor can thereby easily see what is happening in the field, on the basis of the countries and thematic areas.
Finally, there are major advantages in terms of communication, in particular thanks to the sharing tools on social networks.
What do you see in the field?
There is a real revolution with the massive arrival of smartphones. For example, in East Africa, there is an extremely rapid increase in 3G or 4G network coverage and in the number of devices.
The developments are much faster than in our country, as the technologies are often completely new to people. If we show them what to do, they learn how to use the tools very quickly. When we go into a village and ask who is willing to contribute to financing training in new technologies, everyone raises their hand.
There are major changes. For example, up until 2013, it took one to three months to transfer money to Africa, today, it only takes half a day, or sometimes just a few seconds, as is the case with mobile money [an electronic wallet linked to a phone number].
Communication is much easier thanks to Whatsapp, Messenger and Viber, even for people who live in the bush. Over 85,000 people follow the Micro-Projects Agency on Facebook and we receive about thirty messages a day.
The good surprise was seeing that interactions were coming about between beneficiaries. This is the magic of social networks! They have a look at who does what, how such and such a project has been financed and set up. Synergies are being created, certain project initiators are starting to work together, relations are being established with companies. Thanks to digital technology, extremely dynamic local ecosystems are emerging. It is a virtuous circle.
What are the limits and challenges?
Dematerialization should above all not amount to dehumanization. On the contrary, people must be at the center of the process. At the Micro-Projects Agency, we are very available and are always helping people with their requests by phone, skype, email or on a one-to-one basis.
The beneficiaries must remain at the center of the system. They are the ones who know the needs and culture. The tools must be accessible and easy and pleasant to use. We must at all costs avoid any technological divide. Consequently, digital tools also need to be developed for the most deprived, for people in villages with real needs in terms of health, education, water…, otherwise it means they are not the right tools! Training in digital tools is therefore of the utmost importance.
One of the limits is the cost, at various levels. In the field, the beneficiaries must buy credit so that they can connect and exchange with their partners in France, and electricity is needed to recharge the smartphones. In addition, projects based on new technologies increasingly include an electrification component, using renewable energy if possible. For NGOs and donors who want to adopt dematerialization, the initial investment is very high: a minimum of EUR 30,000 for a first platform and about EUR 80,000 for a more sophisticated and regularly updated tool.
There is very little training in dematerialization. At the Micro-Projects Agency, we are available to advise NGOs wanting to make the transition. We propose the use of our own open-source system. While considerable human and financial resources are required upstream, there is a major return on investment.
The opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.