“Simple but not easy” – Why strategic integration of ICTs into development programmes is simply not easy
By Patrick Kalas
This personal learning reflection and contribution is based on 7 years of engagement within the Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for Development sphere, including with non-governmental organizations, multilateral and bilateral donor organizations. It aims to spark a critical reflection on initial lessons to be learned exploring (a) why the strategic integration of ICTs is simply not easy while (b) formulating 3 critical lessons learned.
To start with two confessions: (1) I am not a “techie” but a political scientist by training and a development practitioner by doing, working as a Programme Officer for ICTs for Development in SDC. My personal fascination within ICT for Development was always to look beyond the technological logic to explore the transformational dimension of ICTs to facilitate socio-economic and political change processes. (2) I am biased, as 7 years exposure to discourse and projects around the globe have molded my conviction that ICTs can indeed make a tangible (and significant) contribution to more effective development results but they must be implemented appropriately and managed intelligently beyond the technological logic, a process that seems to be simple but is not easy.
Secondly two contextual clarifications.
(1) What do we mean with “ICTs” and “ICTs for Development”? The United Nations offers some guidance. The term “Information and Communication Technologies” (ICTs) refers to technologies designed to access, process and transmit information and facilitate communication, encompassing a full range of technologies, from traditional, widely used devices such as interactive radios, telephones or TV, to more sophisticated tools like Satellites, computers and the Internet. At the heart of ICTs for Development lies the question how can these tools be integrated to enable a) better access to critical information, knowledge and communication, b) facilitate networking and knowledge sharing while c) increasing voice and participation in decision-making processes, all to improve the effectiveness of development projects and programmes.
(2) What does the global development discourse have to say? A skewed world divided between the have and have-nots is visible below, illustrating the digital divide.
It is undisputed that a) the digital divide illustrates a development divide requiring massive efforts to enable a digital provide and b) the potential of ICTs as an enabling tool to address various developmental challenges is real, illustrated by results from projects where ICTs were strategically integrated:
- 40% increase of HIV / AIDS testing and 70% increase of intake of retroviral drugs in South Africa and South East Asia visible
- 20% increase of income in poor fishing communities in India
- 70% decrease of corruption on centrally allocated public funds for education to the local level in Uganda
- 40% increase of marketability in rural agriculture in Tanzania
Are ICTs therefore the missing link, the silver bullet within development cooperation that we have been waiting for? Experiences indicate: there is potential, it may be simple, but certainly not (that) easy.
“Simple” – Invest in infrastructure and hardware and the rest will follow
“4.5 Billion global mobile phone subscribers by 2012 with most users having an income of less than USD 2 a day” (ITU 2010)
“Simple” means to follow conventional wisdom and integrate ICTs through focusing on ICT hardware and infrastructure (principally through the private sector investment) with the hope that the a) desired transformation of the digital divide into the digital provide and b) fulfillment of all the leveraging potential will follow. Lessons learned include unused plasma screen and dust-collecting computers in rural areas around the world. Experience shows, that in terms of poverty alleviation, equipping implementing partners and beneficiaries with computers, giving laptops to students and distributing mobile phones to farmers or health workers is not enough. A more comprehensive approach with a focus on people and processes is required, and this recognition renders the strategic integration of these tools “not easy”.
“Not Easy” - Going beyond infrastructure to capture people and processes for real impact
“Les TIC ont reveillé le potential qui était endormant dans nous” [ICTs have reawakened the potential that has been slumbering within us….]- Female Farmer in Zabré, Burkina Faso 2009
Going beyond technologies, hardware and infrastructure is more complex and subsequently “not easy”. Focusing on people and processes within ICT integration requires a different mindset and alternative analytical and diagnostic tools. It is necessary to understand the programmatic, organizational and individual processes where and how ICTs can provide a real added-value in terms of improving effectiveness and results. It is also necessary to approach ICT-integration differently from traditional mainstreaming efforts. The following 3 Critical Lessons Learned provide a glimpse into this complexity.
3 Critical Lessons Learned from strategically integrating ICTs
I. Applying the 7 C’s Approach beyond Infrastructure and Hardware only (i.e. Content, Capacity, Context, Convergence, Communication, Communities and Conservation)
Initial experiences indicate that such a holistic and systemic approach increases the likelihood of sustainable solutions and subsequent impact.
- Content (include applications what the tools are used for)
- Capacity (training the people on how to use the tools including maintenance)
- Context (influence the enabling environment to allow for more universal access and affordability of the tools)
- Convergence (focusing on the appropriate technology and technology-mix for each particular context realizing that most potential lies in the interplay of various tools)
- Communication (stimulate interactivity and participation to foster change of practice / behavioral change while including the central role of interactive media to provide people with a Voice in decision-making processes)
- Communities (embedded in pro-poor, rural development strategies focusing on public access rather than individual access to information and involving the communities from the start in defining information / communication needs)
- Conservation (addressing critical issues of e-waste).
II. Overcoming the Mainstreaming Dilemma of Theme, Tool or Hybrid - Abandon traditional Mainstreaming and Focus on bottom-up strategic integration.
The “mainstreaming through outreach approach” within SDC failed. Defined as a theme (instead of a transversal tool), it was attempted to be mainstreamed at the strategic level (i.e. priorisation within national and regional Cooperation Strategies) rather than strategically integrated at the Project and Partner Level (enhancing tool within the Project Cycle and the Capacities of Implementing Partners). Bottom-up, strategic integration would require:
- Applying the 7 C’s approach with asking systemic questions starting with the challenges, needs, channels followed by technologies
- What are the challenges within a particular development programme (e.g. Rural Development?)
- Does Access to Information, Knowledge and Communication play a role in addressing these challenges?
- What are the existing information and communication needs of institutions, partners and beneficiaries?
- What are the existing information and communication channels available?
- What are the available technologies (ICTs), what is the “e-readiness” (ICT literacy, access and affordability, enabling policy framework)
- Focus on the needs of Implementing Partners (Capacity Building lens) at country level
- how can the ICT capacities be improved to further strategically objectives?)
III. Streamlining strategic ICT-Integration approaches with General and Theme-Specific Standard Operating Procedures / Instruments (such as “Quality Assurance”)
- Embed questions of ICT-enabled access to information, knowledge and communication within mainstream institutional instruments such as Project Cycle Management, Sustainable Livelihood Approach, Human-Rights-Based-Approach, Empowerment
- Link questions of information and communication needs to Standard Operating Procedures within different themes (for instance the Climate Change Proofing Checklist SDC is about to develop)
What is your reaction? Intrigued, skeptical, in agreement? in total disagreement? What are your experiences with integrating strategically ICTs in your programme and policy work? I look forward to your contributions.