We seem to have endless ideas on how to use Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D). From job creation to women’s empowerment to civic participation, a number of ICT4D interventions have been developed and implemented over the years. Common question asked in my work is “what type of technology that might have biggest impact in our society in the coming years?”. As we have learned, ICTs in itself aren’t sufficient. While factors contributing to the success of ICT4D have become apparent, and many have written about them, I feel there's still a need to highlight some of them.
Start from the problem, not ICTs
The phrase “when you have the technology, everything else looks like a problem” is comical to ICT4D. Organisations, intentionally or unintentionally, often fall into this trap. Despite the suggestion to be more demand-driven focus, many ICT4D projects are still supply-driven, e.g. because of funding availability. We simply forgot the experience of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). OLPC which meant to revolutionise education by giving cheap laptops to poor children in schools did not live up to the hype. What was gone wrong? It turned out that fixing broken education system in middle and lower-income countries requires systemic improvement in policy, strategy, curriculum and resources. Before jumping to the conclusion that we need to use AI or blockchains or big data, let’s ask ourselves a question: what the problems that we actually want to solve?
Manage and minimise risks associated with ICTs
In a discussion I attended this year, the speaker mentioned how Facebook Zero helps them to reach large number audience without acknowledging negative implications for the users. At that time, several countries had banned Facebook Zero for undermining net neutrality protection. And media had circulated the news about Facebook data scandal revelation that affected 87 million people. It's concerning that we haven't always been open about the possibility of implications and risks associated with ICTs in our work. My personal view, organisations have moral and ethical responsibilities to protect the people they work with. We can do, and should do, better in managing and minimising these risks, e.g. digital gender divide, privacy risk, health and safety risk etc. Arguing in the final report that these risks are “unintended consequences” isn’t good enough.
Support from organisational leaders is critical
What often being overlooked in ICT4D is the role of organisational leaders. As highlighted in the Organisational Guide to ICT4D, “leadership is the single most important factor” in ICT4D. Leaders have the power and responsibilities to drive changes within the organisation, hence gaining their sponsorship and commitment should become a priority. Without leaders being onboard and effective leadership, ICT4D projects will unlikely to succeed. Asking leaders to commit their time and to invest resources for building ICT4D capacity is undeniably easier being said than done. It can take months or years, depending on organisational circumstances. One of the ways is perhaps to align ICT4D project with organisational priority and capacity.
Leverage the use of ICTs but don’t forget to invest on people
I often hear comments such as “we don’t have enough resources”, “we need to be realistic”, “we don’t have the skills” or simply “we don’t think this is in our future plan”. Organisations, of course, want to be “lean”, “agile” and “efficient”. But it’s no brainer that behind a successful ICT4D project, there are experts and solid teamwork. Ideally, ICT4D team consists of people with different expertise such as project management, computer science, data science, sustainable development, communication, research etc. As ICTs changes rapidly, team also need to be empowered through training and capacity building. Opportunities should be provided to meet with internal and external peers: to debate, to learn, to share experience and to collaborate.
Be transparent and accountable
ICT4D community has called for organisations to be more transparent, accountable and responsible. Where does project funding from and where it goes, what are the process involved, how project outcome is measured, what are negative implications - if any, and on what human cost. Initiatives like IATI, Open Data for Development and 360Giving open data standard or Principles for Digital Development aim for these objectives. Project design, progress and results should be communicated internally and to public honestly and openly.