All Children Reading in 2011 launched A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD) is a global competition that leverages science and technology to create and apply scalable solutions to improve literacy skills in developing countries. It is funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), World Vision and the Australian Government.

The problem identified is:

  • 250 million children – many of them from disadvantaged backgrounds – are not learning even basic literacy and numeracy skills. ¹
  • If all students in low income countries left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty, which would be equivalent to a 12% cut in world poverty. ²
  • Globally, one year of school increases earnings by 10%, on average. ³

They go on to summarize: “Once equipped with the power of reading, children will have greater opportunities, become life-long learners, and realize their full potential.”

In the current “Round 2” of the challenge, they are looking for creative, technology-based innovations that support improvements in reading skills with a focus on outcomes in the following focus areas:

  1. Mother tongue instruction and reading materials
  2. Family and community engagement
  3. Children with disabilities

Prize money: $100,000.

Sounds great.  There are a lot of innovators out here who have the capability to build solutions for this very real problem in the developing world.

Go on to read the fine print: The prize is designed to “spur the development of software solutions that allow authors to easily create and export texts in mother tongue languages to help early-grade students learn to read.”

The software should make the writers “follow tested early-grade reading instruction methodologies.” and “Ensure writers are kept within technical boundaries appropriate for the target reader and reading level.” What does that mean? Are these methodologies documented or are there a set of universally accepted guidelines or best practices? We know how much USAID loves the PRIMR methodology – are there others that are acceptable? If so, why not just publicize these guidelines? It is the vagueness of this outline which deters developers applying, assuming that someone close to the donor must be getting an inside brief.

So would a grant competition like this be an incentive for any half decent software developer? I don’t think so. Walk a mile in the shoes of a half decent developer for a moment: I put in months of work for a chance to be chosen as one of 3 finalists and I win $12k. Then I’m given feedback and told to put in a few more months of work while the product is piloted. During this pilot, I’ll cross my fingers that the implementers will not botch up the pilot and results won’t be affected by variables such as political strife, change in school administration, etc. aka operating in a developing country). If my software yields the best results then I win $100,000!

Wahoo, I’ve built a great software with proven results – surely the powerhouse implementation agency behind this grant will scale the solution and thus make it an economically sustainable source of further income for me with incentive for me to continue developing and improving on the prototype? No! “The winning software will be freely available and released to the public for open source development.

Come on Christie Vilsack! You are an amazing, dynamic and intelligent person who understands why this kind of thinking is so retrogressive – why is $136k being wasted like this? Gone are the “put in the hard work for free now and you might strike gold later” days in our industry. If you want me to work for you, pay me. I have bills to pay just like you. Why are donors always trying to change this scenario? Why the constant infantilization of the innovation and technology industry in the developing world?

If you have a specific objective and outcomes for a software solution, set up a competitive bid process with a clear set of deliverables – award it to a good, reputable software developer/development company. Get the product you want, develop a competitive industry and spend a fraction of the money!

Here is a sample outcome story from this kind of software development. And here’s one I made with PowerPoint after reading this document (USAID does love the RTI methodology): “Listen to the donor


¹ UNESCO Global Monitoring Report 2013/2014 pg. 18

² Ibid

³ Ibid

Listen to the Donor

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