ICT4D Projects and Failure

Last week I was asked to prepare a presentation for CHANGE, a seminar group at the University of Washington that explores the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in improving the lives of underserved populations in low-income regions.

I wanted to lead a discussion that explored how and why ICT4D projects are done in certain regions while ignoring others. Among other things, this question/topic is motivated by the fact that very little ICT4D work seems to happen in places within close proximity (e.g. Haiti) to the United States. However, a pressing deadline and the inability to find works that tackle this issue caused me to abandon that and prepare to lead a discussion exploring why ICT4D projects fail with my partner Alexis Hope.

We decided to that we would build a discussion around Dr Clint Rogers’ et al. video called Top 7 Reasons Why Most ICT4D FAIL!

The Discussion

After defining how ICT4D would be used within the one hour session, Alexis and I asked the attendees to list the reasons they feel ICT4D projects fail. The list we came up with was:

Cultural translation problems Solutions looking for problems
Maintenance /support costs Lack of understanding (constraints/users)
Bad ideas /not feasible Good ideas executed poorly
Cross cultural communication Problems Funding fizzles
Expecting technology to work by itself Lack of local ownership

Using the list above, the audience decided that top five reasons were:

  1. Lack of local ownership
  2. Cross cultural communication Problems
  3. Funding fizzles
  4. Good ideas executed poorly
  5. Cultural translation problems

To see if the the reasons above were in aligned with what local stakeholders feel are reasons that ICT4D projects fail, Alexis and I shifted to the the video. The rest of this document will be dedicated to highlighting some of the key points made during the discussion that developed around statements made in the video & in the audience.

Reason for Failure #1 – Idea/Results NOT directly tied to improving economic conditions of end-user

Attendees thought the view that ICT4D projects need to be connected to economic conditions to be successful was a narrow one. The group consensus was that whether it’s through tools that allow family members separated by distance to communicate more often or  helping hospitals do a better job of tracking patients with illnesses, the overarching goal of ICT4D is to improve overall quality of life.

This led to a discussion questioning “success” We concluded that success looks different in different situations and means something different for every stakeholder. Whereas success for a researcher may be collecting enough data to write a paper, success for the community may mean increasing the income or extended lifespan of livestock. Planning ICT4D projects that address the different perceptions of success can be quite difficult.

To mitigate the aforementioned issue, attendees emphasized the importance of collaborating with local stakeholders. Attendees made it clear that collaboration meant clear, authentic communication by researchers. This includes informing stakeholders that you have an idea that may have a meaningful impact; that you would like to test it out in their community; The potential shortcomings are x, y and z;  That if it works fabulous; If not, sorry. Though this does not mean failure will be prevented. It may make it easier to deal with failure if a project is not successful.

An attendee rightly pointed out that it is easy for us as ICT4D researchers to make the above statement because figuratively speaking, it is not our skin on the line. At the end of the day, we are free to pick up our things and leave—a critical power dynamic that cannot be ignored. It is the local stakeholders who are left to deal with the impact of our failed attempts.

Reason for Failure #2 – Not Relevant to Local Context/Strengths/Needs

This clip led to a lengthy discussion covering several interrelated topics. In the video, one of the speakers challenged those in the ICT4D field to consider what their intervention might look like in 100, or even just 10, years. Many CHANGE participants thought that was unreasonable because conditions in developing countries can change rapidly, and it is unrealistic to think that a particular technology will be around in 100 years, or even 10 years.

An audience member found it problematic that the conversation taking place in the room seemed to focus on the technology instead of discussing the human element because even if the technology would be gone in ten years, the wouldn’t. Consequently, a greater attempt should be made to ensure that interventions introduce seriously consider this.

 

 

 

Reason for Failure #3 – Not understanding infrastructure capability

The audience validated the statements made in the video regarding infrastructure-related issues and that when thinking about infrastructure, one should consider both human and information infrastructure, in addition to technical infrastructure. Attendees believe that the ICT4D field as a whole was beginning to get better at anticipating these issues and accounting for them in proposed interventions.

 

 

 

 

 

Reason for Failure #4 – Underestimate Maintenance Costs & Issues

This claim was validated and identified as a big problem. One example to illustrate this was that there was a lab where several computers were donated. Within a few weeks all but three were up. When the person in charge of the lab was asked about them, they stated that they had contacted someone at an office and they had not yet come. Upon further investigation, the storyteller noticed a sticker with a phone number and the words “3 year complete warranty” besides the computers. When the person in charge of the lab was asked if they called the 800 number they said no and they had no intention on calling the phone number because they had already called their contact who was not associated with the computer’s manufacturer or reseller. This illustrates some of the complexities associated with maintenance. In additional to me associated with maintenance related issues, an audience member thought this was also an example of “lack of local ownership.

Though everyone did not agree, some participants stated that high maintenance costs can be attributed to the “design for throw-away” and not “design for repair” culture.

 

Too Many Reasons, Not Enough Time

Unfortunately, we ran out of time and weren’t able to discuss the other reasons mentioned in the video—that’s what you get for having such a lively and engaged audience! The remaining three common reasons for failure that we didn’t get a chance to cover were:

  • Reason for Failure #5 – Projects supported only by short-term grants
  • Reason for Failure #6 – Not looking at the entire context and system
  • Reason for Failure #7 – Project built on condescending assumptions

Take aways

The five key points by attendees were:

  1. There is no fool-proof way to prevent failure
  2. The intention and all possible shortcomings of an ICT4D intervention needs to be clearly stated up front
  3. Local ownership is important because it will help carry projects beyond the piloting phase
  4. It is naïve to believe that “your” ICT4D project by itself will have a life-changing impact
  5. Technology must NOT be the main focus of ICT4D-related research or discussions

The five key points by local stakeholders in the video were:

  1. ICT4D projects need to enhance activities that are already going on
  2. Outsiders DON’T know what local stakeholders need, so include them in the development of ICT4D projects
  3. Make sure the infrastructure to support your project is in place
  4. There must be funds to help take projects beyond the pilot stage
  5. There are so many things (e.g. weather, trained staff) that make the maintenance of technology complicated

Though the conversation in the room concluded, the conversation in the field continues. Let us know what you think about the ideas expressed in this post.

Use the comments section below to make sure your voice is heard.

 

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