Australia's foreign aid goes agile, making many assumptions

Agile development works for certain kinds of software, but will it be the right fit for the Australian government's new paradigm for foreign aid?

Something's been bugging me about innovationXchange, the agile software "development innovation hub" at the centre of the Australian government's new paradigm for foreign aid, which was launched by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop last month.

It's all the words.

But mostly, it's the words "agile" and "innovation".

The government's idea is that foreign aid should be delivered in "more creative, entrepreneurial, and innovative" ways. That's reasonable enough. That's just the standard 21st-century way of saying "improving things". Everything is entrepreneurial these days.

But as innovationXchange chief Chris Vein, a former World Bank chief innovation officer, explains it, it sounds like it's really only a particular kind of innovation, one that's wrapped up in agile development processes.

"The idea here is to use this concept of innovation, which is to search out new ideas, new products, new services, new business models, and really see if those new approaches can be used more efficiently and effectively in solving this region's problems. And using a kind of new process -- which is built on, perhaps, the software industry, or the IT industry called agile development, where it's not this top-down approach," Vein told Radio Australia.

"You actually build smaller products or services, and you test them out more regularly, you use your customers to help you do that, and the end result of that process is that you get change much more cheaply, much faster, and usually with much more buy-in from the customers or the people that you serve."

Yep, that's agile, and it works pretty well for certain kinds of software development, and in some other fields, too.

But does it always produce change cheaper and faster in more distant fields? And is faster change necessarily the right thing in foreign aid? It strikes me that there are some untested assumptions here.

Agile development and rapidly iterated innovation are cultural things that arose from the wealthy IT world. A few related cultural things have turned up at innovationXchange, too, like big data and apps, and magic swarm decisions without central government.

Vein said that a typical innovationXchange project might be something like Sense-T, a Tasmanian organisation that's helping build an "an economy-wide sensor network and data resource". That is, it's about capturing and sharing data, and creating apps for decision support.

"In the northern part of Tasmania, there was an amazing amount of water run-off. It wasn't evenly distributed, so some farmers had it, some farmers didn't. But by giving these farmers this data, and giving them the tools to interpret the data, they were able to work out the problem themselves, and distribute the water without having to involve the government at all," Vein said.

That sort of thing works culturally in Tasmania, but the cultures that have spun off from the wealthy Western IT world tend to assume that information technology is the answer to every problem.

These cultures also tend to be white, male, middle-class, and relatively young -- and their world view doesn't necessarily match the cultures of places requiring foreign aid.

Which is why, a few years ago in Africa, I just managed to avoid the embarrassment of delivering a gift of laptops to a school in a village that didn't have electricity.

Which is why the agile-data-apps-sharing-faster-cheaper culture may not necessarily be a good fit for the Indo-Pacific communities that will be the target of innovationXchange-style foreign aid.

We should always remember that what works culturally for "us" in the IT world may not necessarily work elsewhere.