“Simple but not easy” – Why strategic integration of ICTs into development programmes is simply not easy

December 08, 2010 | Manuel Flury | SDC Experiences |


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Patrick KalasBy 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.

Internet Users 2002

Internet Users 2002 (Source:

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.


Comments to““Simple but not easy” – Why strategic integration of ICTs into development programmes is simply not easy”

  1. I agree (as a practitioner), and your 7Cs are interesting. Its is a good reflection after a lengthy engagement.

    Adding a positive story, I must admit, we (Sarvodaya-Fusion) are beneficiaries of the SDC’s investments in the ICT4D sector (though IDRC via Have a look at this Social Impact story – ( ) – for evidence.

  2. I guess I would be tempted to add an 8th “C”, namely connectivity. While I fundamentally agree with you that we need to look “beyond infrastructure”, and in particular we need to move the debate on beyond access, there is nevertheless still a big divide in terms of the connectivity gap between the developed world and the least developed. As websites make increasing use of adverts, video and graphics, the connectivity gap converts into a frustration gap.

    Incidentally, I think Madan Rao may have trumped you with his “8 Cs on the Information Society”, see:

  3. Hi Patrick,

    Great to see such a thoughtful analysis.
    Would be great to see more and more discussion around these critical issues.

    Going along with your post, here is a video we created that was shared at an E.U. meeting in Brussels about 2 months ago:
    Top 7 Reasons Why Most ICT4D Fails

    Best regards,

  4. Very valuable comments, Patrick, and provides a good gist of the lessons of the last decade of ICTD. Top level generic inclusion of ICTD in policy frameworks have had little meaning and outcomes in absence of the top level policy makers having any clue about what really was being talked about here. The problem is; neither had the ICTD evangelists much clue themselves, other than an ardent belief that some thing extra-ordinarily useful will come out of employing ICTs in development. This belief, it must be said, was largely earnest and well-meant. In fact, I think, it is even true. But what and how was the questions to which answers were not forthcoming, and it is in this respect that the first decade of ICTD largely failed. The less-enthusiastic development policy makers and workers became increasingly disillusioned. Consequently, we are witnessing a kind of a backlash against ICTD in many ways, which we are all very conversant about.

    In the context, Patrick lays out a very useful framework of lessons learnt and the further direction to take. I agree that ‘it is simple, but not easy’ and also to the basic 7 C framework. However, let me add a couple of things, very briefly.

    The biggest argument against junking a specialized ICTD approach versus a ‘mainstreaming approach’ is the ‘productivity paradox’. The impacts of ICTs on development, as were on business where the term was coined, in complex in mnay ways. While the final impact is huge, it mostly has low investment to benefit ratios early on. That puts off most people who work in specific areas of development like education, governance, health, livilihoods etc. This is quite understandable. At the best of times, and these are not among them, people in the field are overworked and juggling multiple priorities. If there is ICTD experimentation to be done, they will much prefer someone else does it for them. It is here that specialized ICTD groups become relevant. However, where these ICTD groups/ agencies have failed is to build the right relationship with those working in the substantive development areas. This failure for me is the biggest one of ICTD.

    The right relationship between the ICTD agency and the substantive development area agency would give centrality not only to the needs (a term much too glibly used in a technology-centred discourse) of the latter but also its vocabulary, ideologies etc. It is from this point of departure that a new ICTD approach may need to be built. But we do badly need specialised ICTD agencies to be around, at least for another 10-15 years. Dis-investing in them will be amajor loss to the field of development.

    One last point, I agree with Patrick that the way to go forward is a ‘strategic’ integration of ICTs bottom at project and programmatic levels. ‘Strategic integration’ is the key term here. Too many ICTD took a small community approach and stayed inward-looking without ab initio planning larger systemic integrations. And ICTs work and show impact best when they are part of the whole larger system – whether it is in area of education, health livilihoods etc. And it is here the much neglected role of the state ( I dare say, perhaps due to some ideological predilections) in systemic ICTD approaches in different development sectors (even when they are built bottom and not through top-level PRSP like documents) is glaring, and another major failing of the ICTD approaches of the last decade.

    Anyway, thanks Patrick, for your pithy thoughts, and setting the scene for what I hope is a collective reflection on what can be learnt from the past years and where to go on towards now.

  5. Walter Fust says:

    well done. congratulations.

  6. Thanks for those insights and very practical recommendations. I particularly liked the emphasis on embedding the ICT-questions into mainstream institutional instruments. I would like to add one thing to your “heart”, where you define ICT4D as “enabling access to info, fa-cilitating networking / knowledge sharing and increasing voice …” – Perhaps it is wise to not limit ourselves to these three (very prominent) areas, but also think of other enabling functions such as fostering open bottom-up innovation, sparkling business and process innovation in all sectors etc. (=the economic function of ICTs). Of course, I say that with a background in running programmes such as “ict@innovation – creating business and learning opportunities in Africa” ( ). Finally, on the c-hunting side, I would like to honor Hans d’Orville (then of UNDP), who had 5 Cs as early as 1999: connectivity, capacity, content, communications networks, creativity. ( ). Cheers, Balthas Seibold

  7. Nice summary all around, but one nitpicky point – your digital divide map dates to 2002 and I suspect it would tell a different story today. It doesn’t undermine your major points necessarily, but the world is changing and Africa, at least, is indeed going online, largely due to infrastructure improvements and submarine cable landings. I agree with Tim Kelly – connectivity belongs in that list and is a big player here.

  8. Thank you Patrick for setting the discussion on the right track in the ICT4D debate! ILRI is part of the (new) CGIAR. Agricultural research is asked to increase its developmental impact. After working for 20 years in the reform of agricultural extension in many countries. ICTs offers powerful ways to amplify knowledge access/sharing, dissemination of innovation and training efforts at farmer level, key extension functions and, at the same time, streamlining organisational KM processes. From here my interest in the topic. Yet, there is a lot of misconceptions from proejct managers and researchers on the topic and wrong doing in many ICT initiatives, also here in India, where ICT4D is really big. This makes ICT integration in CGIAR proejcts still a contentious area. Strategic integration in PCM and partners’ KM and service delivery processes, together with the choice of the right technologies and media, are the keys to move the ICT4D debate to the next level. However, it is also worth mentionning another trend, which emerges from the past decade of intense expereimentation in ICT for Agriculture, here in India. It is the emergence of ICT driven agro-info enteprises. ICT has created a new niche market. The market of agricultural information delivered and accessed through your mobile. And this information is in demand and, by many, worth to pay for. Is this a wake up signal for public development institutions?

  9. The G3ict Self-Assessment Framework is the first comprehensive tool made available to policy makers to evaluate their country’s compliance with the many dispositions of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (United Nations) in matters of ICT accessibility.

    Developed by the G3ict Research Committee, it is designed to facilitate consensus building among governments and multiple stakeholders seeking to identify priorities at national level.


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