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What’s the problem we’re trying to solve seems to be the topic of the day here. It is a question almost everyone who works at a company, foundation, or association (the funders) seems to be asking (including me), and it has been hard for the NGO participants to come to any agreement on the answer.

So, thankfully, Mitul and Claire (representing the UN Foundation’s Technology Partnership) worked with the facilitators to restructure our agenda, break into smaller working groups and try a project-based approach to answer that question. By focusing the conversation on how you use technology to tackle problems related to community health or what the end goal of better data collection is or how to take projects to scale, we now have four excited and re-energized groups (instead of one larger, slightly cranky one).

Each group worked together for about two hours today and will work together again tomorrow before reporting back to the larger group about the problem they’re addressing, the technology solution, and then how they involve others (including the United Nations) in their work.

I think two things they heard today will also help them focus their plans. Dave Sessions of Microsoft walked everyone through the basic elements of a successful business plan (including know your audience, know what you’re trying to do, know how you’re unique or bring value to the solution, etc.). Gautam Ivatury from CGAP and Jessie Moore from the GSM Association also helped the group better understand mobile banking and how the lessons learned developing a mobile banking application for the “unbanked” in the developing world might be applied to mHealth. Known as MPesa, it started with 2,000 users but now more than 2 million people use it to do things I do at an ATM, including transfer money, check balances, pay bills, etc. And all using a mobile phone and text.

How did they do it? By including partners from all the different sectors including mobile phone providers, handset operators, banks, and customers, as well as organizations outside of the banking industry including the World Bank and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. One person was skeptical and asked how a commercial product, developed by a for-profit industry, could be used to create greater social change. The response: helping create a financially literate community and empowering people to control their own money would help free them from poverty. It will take time but was a strong reminder of how powerful a long-term, audacious goal can be supported by smaller but really innovative projects.

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