09 December 2011

A cure for pilotitis? – Defining the role of NGOs in the evolution of mHealth

The following post is by Olivia Reyes, Program Support Specialist for Venture Strategies Innovations. The views expressed here are Olivia's and do not represent VSI.

On my flight home from the mHealth Summit, I began to think about how the past three days of presentations, debates and what appeared to be speed-dating with business cards, could genuinely improve the role that NGOs play in the epidemic of pilotitis. There were the obvious lessons learned and scale-up strategies shared that would improve projects and planning, but the actual role of NGOs – the organizations closest to the ground, implementing the programs, touching the people – was left awkwardly undefined. With vested interest in seeing non-profits succeed in the mHealth space, I couldn’t help but wonder why the conference left me with more questions than answers, seeking second opinions.

Why was there only a small contingency of implementing agencies working in LICs present at the Summit? 

Either I missed them amongst the crowd of 3,000, or the poster presentations should have received a spotlighted area in the exhibit hall – none of that quarantined “back in the far corner of the room” placement. The absence of a critical mass of program implementers reinforced the isolated nature of NGOs, with the Summit failing to apply its diversely skilled providers to its groups most in need.

During several conference sessions, it was suggested that coordination of mHealth efforts would reduce pilotitis and provide strength in numbers for NGOs to mitigate risks for mobile operators. This would enable larger groups to collectively bargain for better contract rates and ensure some longevity with affordable scale-up budgets. Yet the lack of implementing NGOs available at the Summit to build these critical relationships and platforms turned the responsibility of coordination into a hot potato – one that was dropped onto the [absent] laps of NGOs time and again by the funders and telecom companies pushing this responsibility away.

So why should NGOs be expected to see the forest through the trees? And why was there no suggested mechanism for coordination? 

What panelists conveniently forgot to mention (which David Aylward pointed out during a Q&A session at the GBC panel on 12/7), is that non-profits typically have limited resources, both human and financial, which are heavily influenced by the rules and regulations of their donors. Room for coordination efforts from the ground up are an American NGO’s aunt’s dream. Between our limited funding and tight donor reporting requirements and innovative thinking sessions, we are left to question ourselves with how and when could we possibly organize a coordinating body?

It appears as though coordination should be reframed as a shared responsibility that requires at least one dedicated catalyst. The CDC Foundation and Deloitte may be rising to the challenge in Tanzania, but there should be another mechanism made available in the short-term to continue the vast momentum of other country programs in a more collaborative manner. Without one, pilotitis could continue to spread quickly and potentially discourage and desensitize participants from further mHealth adoption.

As a critical player in the mHealth field, what should be the priorities for NGOs to continue the Summit’s momentum and eradicate pilotitis? Any second opinions?