mSTAR comes to a close this June after 7 years of implementation. During the successful run of the project, mSTAR helped usher in the era of digital development, working closely with USAID’s Global Development Lab, USAID Missions, implementing partners, civil society, local governments and the private sector. In this closeout blog series, staff share their perspectives on the impressive accomplishments, activities, and lessons learned from 7 years of work in digital inclusion, digital financial services, development informatics and digital tools in agriculture.
By Hannah Skelly
In the fall of 2012, it was clear that mobile solutions presented many opportunities to accelerate social and economic progress in low- and middle-income countries. Across the world, 3.8 billion people had gained access to mobile phones and 1.4 billion people had joined a social media network. International headlines entranced readers with the promise of the digital revolution underway.
However, despite the exponential growth of technological innovations around the globe, billions of people remained excluded. Innovations had failed to reach scale for adequate impact in many development programs. Recognizing these opportunities and challenges, USAID created the mSTAR project as a broad, flexible, and responsive technical assistance and action learning program to accelerate the adoption and scale-up of mobile solutions in developing countries.
A lot has happened in seven years in the wider sphere of digital development and tech since the mSTAR project launched. An additional 1.4 billion people gained access to mobile phones and the number of people accessing the internet increased by 61 percent, with a 281 percent increase in the least-developed countries. The number of social media users surged to 3.5 billion.
Amid this transforming digital landscape, mSTAR worked closely with USAID’s Global Development Lab and USAID Missions across 28 countries to promote the use of and integrate digital financial services, digital inclusion approaches and real-time data for decision-making in development projects. Over 50 partners and 60 specialists supported this massive effort over the last seven years. With the engagement of these specialists, private partners, countless government counterparts and champions, mSTAR has also supported over 280 convenings and 650 learning products. Each year of the project progressed with different themes and presented countless highlights and challenges. Below are some highlights taken from the first five years of the project, a small slice of the work mSTAR and partners have accomplished.
Over the course of the next two months my colleagues will share highlights from their own work in digital development and delve deeper into several of the project’s key learnings, achievements and challenges.
Year 1. Laying the foundations for the mSTAR partner network and flagship country projects
In mSTAR’s first year, one mSTAR staff in DC grew into four to continue building a partner network and set the course for project implementation and communications over the next several years. That same year, in our first of over 280 learning events, the Mobiles! Conference brought together over 300 people for a one-day conference to take stock of what had been done in the field thus far and to discuss the future. One has to wonder, what would the theme of this conference be in 2019? Algorithms!?
Also in 2013, we laid the foundations for our flagship work with the USAID Bangladesh Mission, supporting the acceleration and adoption of mobile money and e-payments within the Mission’s programs, with an emphasis on health and agriculture. The activity ultimately grew into a four-year activity that exceeded its targets in transitioning cash payments to digital by 176%, supporting USAID/Bangladesh programs to transact over US $2.5 million digitally, saving IPs time, reducing costs and lowering risks. One highlight of the Bangladesh activity was its focus on working with private fintech players to develop services that tap into business opportunties and help further development outcomes. A major success of this was the introduction of unique DFS products through the formal banking channel, such as development of the ‘A-Card’ with DAM and Bank Asia and the ‘Amar Account’ with IFIC Bank and IRRI for the farmers in remote locations. Farmers in both cases received more flexible repayment terms and lower interest rates through these modified DFS offerings.
Year 2. Building external knowledge-sharing and tools for digital development
Beginning in year two, mSTAR staff worked alongside USAID to serve as mobilizers and conveners of the digital development community and facilitate the working group that would produce the Principles for Digital Development. We’ve been delighted to witness the Principles take off within the community, with more than 150 organizations endorsing them today.
Also in our second year we released the first wave of toolkits and guides for USAID staff and implementing partners (IPs), including Digital Finance for Development: A Handbook for USAID, Integrating Mobiles into Development Projects, and the Mobile Data Solutions eCourse. We’ve found that five years later, and even with the rapid change we’ve seen, these first tools still provide welcome guidance for USAID and many of our peers. Today, we’ve produced approximately a dozen guides and toolkits for digital financial services (DFS), digital inclusion and real-time data. In May 2019, we’ll release our final two guides: the Digital Feedback Loops Guide and Considerations for Using Data Responsibly at USAID.
Years 3 & 4: Integrating digital tools into development programs and testing solutions
In its third and fourth years, mSTAR ramped up its activities, running 25 activities across our areas of work. We began to develop Digital Development trainings and forums for USAID staff in DC and Missions. This training model has subsequently grown as USAID and mSTAR build new components into the ever-evolving curriculum.
In Liberia, mSTAR built on positive results from an initial e-payments assessment to scale-up the use of government-to-person (G2P) digital payments for Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education personnel. The project eventually enrolled 5,000 staff to receive salary payments digitally.
In Mozambique, the large-scale MAUS Study provided information about the availability and accessibility of mobile technology and how people use it in their daily lives.
In India, mSTAR began an engagement that would later evolve into CATALYST – Inclusive Cashless Payment Partnership. We witnessed the initial idea of CATALYST transform into an incubation platform to demonstrate innovative and viable business models in digital payments. CATALYST was later complemented by our second activity in the country to identify business models with the potential to expand digital payments between merchants and consumers in a rural setting, with pilot activities in three value chains.
Year 5. Convening stakeholders and rounding up thought leadership
In year 5, two major convenings proved to be major highlights of progress in digital development and the promise of what’s to come. mSTAR organized the annual Financial Inclusion Forum and the first Financial Inclusion Practitioners Day. This two-day event brought together over 200 government, nonprofit and private sector leaders to discuss financial inclusion and promote the theme of evidence to action.
2017 saw the first-ever Digital Development Awards (Digis) for outstanding USAID programs that demonstrated best practices in line with the Principles for Digital Development. The Digi’s culminated in the Digital Development Forum in DC, designed to showcase best practices and idea-exchange.
Continuing our role as mobilizers, in Year 5 alone we released 208 learning documents across our diverse workstreams and held 77 events with over 6,000 attendees. These reports include Business Models for the Last Billion: Market Approaches to Increasing Internet Connectivity; Open Data in Developing Economies: Toward Building an Evidence Base on What Works and How; and a series of reports stemming from our partnership on Real Time Data for Adaptive Programming work.
mSTAR continued work in the ag sector, started first through our work in Bangladesh, now spread to global activities. Through case studies, mSTAR demonstrated how results and cost effectiveness can increase when ag projects use digital approaches. mSTAR helped USAID projects use those digital approaches in agriculture projects in Cambodia and Nepal.
Throughout the project lifespan, mSTAR has worked across sectors and around the world to assess and integrate the use of digital technologies in development programs. Over the last seven years we have seen digital tools become increasingly leveraged in every sector of development, from health, to agriculture, to humanitarian assistance. Development is now looking beyond the use of ‘mobiles(!)’ alone towards introducing meaningful digital inclusion and engagement into programs and emerging technologies. What happened in years 6 and 7? And, critically, what have we learned and what impact has been achieved? Stay tuned as mSTAR staff and partners delve deeper into our wide portfolio of activities in the next months.
For the past twelve years, Hannah Skelly has worked with donors, private partners and governments to provide technical and operational support, lead project design and implement programs in ICT4D, education and health. She has led workstreams and global activities for mSTAR for four years, ranging from a large-scale study on mobile access and use in Mozambique to a macro-level assessment of innovative business models to bridge the digital divide. Hannah currently serves as a Technical Advisor at FHI 360, working with mSTAR and other development programs to integrate inclusive digital solutions in program design. She has an MA in Development Economics from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a BA from Emory University.
Photo credit: KC Nwakalor, Digital Development Communications