Over the course of this semester, we have looked at ICT4D from many angles. Each framework, case study and sector investigation that we were presented with provided a lesson or prescription for how an ICT4D project should be conducted or, more often, how it should not be conducted. With such a high proportion of ICT4D projects ending in failure, it is important to recognize the value of these failures and try to tease out the lessons to be learned, something that we focused on a lot in this class. One of the lessons that struck me the most from this course was the importance of communicating with the target population. In many cases where ICT projects fail, it seems that closer examination of the realities of day-to-day life in the recipient community would have been beneficial and could perhaps have saved the project. The best example is probably the infamous One Laptop Per Child project. Without implementing a pilot project, Negroponte was unable to get any feedback from the technology’s end-user. This meant that both the set up of the initiative and the laptops themselves were riddled with problems.
Obviously, hindsight is 20-20, and it can be very easy to look back on projects that have failed and point out what went wrong. However, in my opinion, attempting to provide a service that is either not needed or not applicable to the lives of the people you are trying to help is one of the worst ways to fail, because it is essentially a failure of arrogance. It’s these types of projects that cause some people to view ICT4D as condescending.
In one class we watched a Youtube video called “Top 7 Reasons Why Most ICT4D Fails”. In one part, a man talks about a trend in projects that try to help rural farmers by providing them with market information via text message, the idea being that awareness of price trends will allow the farmers to get the best price for their crops. On the surface, this sounds like a great idea. However, as the man points out, many agricultural products have to be sold exactly when they are ready. A tomato farmer cannot hold on to his tomatoes until the prices improve, he/she has to sell them when they are ripe. This example really stuck out to me, because as first glance I thought the project would really work. I think, more than anything else, this is the lesson that I will take away from the class. Listen to your end user. They know what they want, and they know what works.
National ICT Strategy:
General Strategy and Lines of Action from the Commission on Electronic Government from December 14th, 2009, Document in Spanish
Brief Report on the Use of ICT in Nicaragua by the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit, from September 2010
National Plan for Human Development from November 8th, 2012, Document in Spanish
Commission on Electronic Government Homepage (GOBeNIC), in Spanish
Note: An overarching national ICT strategy for Nicaragua is hard to find. The above documents can be compiled to provide a general idea of the direction the government is taking with regards to ICT.
One of the most promising technological tools in the developing world is the mobile phone. Although there is still a significant difference in levels of mobile phone access and mobile phone usage, banking and money transfer has emerged as an area in which mobile phone technology can be useful and effective. This article gives a brief overview of the extent to which mobile banking has become a widely used technology. While in Eurpoe and North America, online banking is the norm, mobile banking is gaining more and more users in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, where people do not have as easy access to computers. While we generally talk about developing countries benefitting from The Leapfrog Effect, it seems like in this case, developing countries have leaped right over online banking and found a solution more fitting to their needs. According to a Swedish industry research firm, mobile banking is expected to reach 894 million users by 2015. That would be a sixteenfold increase from 55 million users in 2009. Many companies in the developing world are looking to be the first to invest in mobile banking technology, and this field could perhaps become a booming global industry.
Yesterday we had several guest speakers come talk to us about m-health and m-health initiatives. The program Text4Baby was cited as an example of a successful m-health program that effectively used text messaging to provide low-income mothers with useful information about pregnancy and infant care. This article from NYTimes.com notes that while there are hundreds of websites devoted to providing this type of information, many mothers do not have easy access to the internet. The monitoring and evaluation section of the project’s website cites the program’s many successes, including effectively reaching their target population, increasing health knowledge, and increasing appointment attendance. They also reported high levels of user satisfaction. Text4baby has also received a lot of publicity (Here’s a fun clip of a one of the mothers on MTV’s 16 and Pregnant explaining the program).
The article (which is from 2011) mentions governmental interest in applying the Text4Baby model to other societal health problems like obesity and smoking. However, part of the success of Text4Baby stems from it’s focus on new mothers who may be scared and overwhelmed with the responsibilities of an infant and therefore are very open to tips and reminders. The fact is that people are probably more motivated to take care of their children than they are to take care of themselves, which has significant consequences for anyone trying to create an m-health project from the Text4Baby model. As we discussed in class with regards to m-health and diabetes, it can be difficult to recruit people to participate in a program with they are not even sure whether or not they have the specific health problem in the first place.
This week we discussed the various types of technologies available for use in the developing world. One of the sections in Unwin called “the changing place of libraries” discussed the evolution of libraries as physical places where knowledge is contained in books to a focus on the potential that digital libraries have to expand the capacity for each library to hold more information and therefore provide access to a greater supply of information. The section made me think about my grandpa and OCLC, a company that he worked for for many years. Although OCLC is involved in many different aspects of libraries and information sharing globally, most important for our purposes is the way in which they help libraries and universities set up systems of inter-library lending by facilitating communication and maintaining a database called WorldCat that keeps track of the books available in each individual library. I’m not sure about the specifics of the company or how far they reach into the developing world, but their website seems to indicate that they have member libraries all over the world, including in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.
On a more personal note, I know that my grandpa was involved in setting up an inter-library loan system for academic journal articles between several US universities and libraries in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The libraries in Russia were initially skeptical that the service could be provided for free, but the US universities were more than willing to engage in this exchange of information via fax. This story is just one example of the ways that information can be shared throughout the world.
Here’s a link to OCLC’s site.
This week’s article, “Connecting the First Mile”, mentioned an ICT project called the Simputer. The author cites the Simputer as an “accessible device” for the poor and a good example of a product that takes into account the infrastructural difficulties in developing countries. Since the article was written in 2004, I decided to look up the Simputer and see what exactly it is now and how the project has fared over time.
The Simputer was developed by engineers in India specifically for use in rural areas and was designed as a low cost option that would allow computer access to many of the nation’s poor. Due to difficulties in finding a manufacturer, the Simputer wasn’t released until 2004, well after the initial hype in 2002. Although Simputer’s website states that it can be shared by a community using their Smartcard technology, the product’s cost of $240 proved to be too much for most of its original target market. Initial projections were hopeful that 50,000 Simputers would be sold in the first year, but only 4,000 were ever bought (BBC News 2004). Additionally, many of the buyers were on-the-go, young professionals, not the poor rural families that the Simputer was made for.
From the articles I read, the Simputer is seen by most as a failed initiative, and similar projects by the Indian government have not been any more successful,
This week we talked about the Millennium Development Goals and the role that ICTs have or have not played in meeting these UN targets. This article focuses on the ways in which ICTs have been used to meet MDGs in the rural regions of India. Although India has recently experienced much economic growth, rural poverty remains a pressing problem, and Rao states that over the past decade, “India has become a test bed for innovations in ICTs to serve the rural poor”. (pg 130) The author, Siriginidi Subba Rao, suggests that India’s large, skilled ICT workforce can and has been instrumental in building the ICT infrastructure that will eventually tap into the semi-unexplored market represented by the country’s poor. Rao, who begins be stating that “Information is the key to democracy,” (pg 127) goes on to list each of the MDGs and the ICTs and ICT programs that have been instituted to achieve them in India. The article appears to refute Heeks’s assertion that the MDGs deemphasize ICTs, and even states that one project designed to allow women greater access to governmental resources, “dispels the myth that IT solutions are not for the poor and women.” (pg 134) Rao presents an interesting point of view, but while the focus on naming and explaining specific programs gives us an intriguing summary of development work in India, there seems to be little attempt to find the causal link between the projects themselves and the strides India has made towards the completion of the MDGs. Regardless, here are some of the links to projects mentioned in the article:
Hole in the Wall Training System,
The Habitat Learning Center
The Community Led Environmental Action Network (CLEAN)
The Datamation Foundation