Admitting Failures & Embracing Mistakes in ICT4D

Even with the best of intentions, ICT projects can fail.  There are many factors that lead to their failure, and as future international development practitioners, we could stand to learn from the mistakes of others. I believe that a main factor contributing to the downfall of these projects is that they are being organized and implemented by people who are outside of the community that is supposed to eventually benefit from these projects.  This concept is illustrated in the case of a Tanzanian based project, Maji Matone, or Water Pressure. This project, managed by the organization Daraja, intended to encourage citizens to put pressure on their local, municipal authorities to maintain and mend defective water pumps by using mobile phones. Local communities were asked to report on the condition of their water supply to the authorities by sending a simple SMS text message.  The agencies informed the local radio stations, which were supposed to follow-up on the actions taken by the local water authorities.

In theory, this is a great idea. The program utilizes a simple, easy-to-use technology to help people make a difference in their own communities.  Maji Matone builds the capacity among the local population and holds them accountable for reporting damages to their water supply. Does the program sound too good to be true? The implementation of the program was highly anticipated among both local and international audiences. But unfortunately, the program did not deliver. During its pilot phase, the program managers only received 53 text messages, when they were anticipating over 3,000.  Obviously, the community did not receive the program well, and Daraja investigated why.

They drew a few conclusions in a press release announcing the disbanding of the program.  First, the organization realized that the community members were reluctant to report to their government authorities.  It is tough to motivate people to act on an issue, especially with the possibility of achievement being so distant.  Also, there were some gender related issues.  Women and children are often responsible for collecting the water for their families, but often do not have access to a mobile phone in order to report on the supply pumps.  Lack of electricity and limited mobile network coverage also played a role in the continuation of this program in rural communities.

While these are all important factors to consider when implementing any ICT project, it is also admirable that Daraja openly admitted to their failures, and publicized this information so that lessons could be learned as a result.  Transparency is key in any international development projects, and admitting to your failures and embracing what you have learned can be crucial to public perception and continued success as an organization.

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4 responses to “Admitting Failures & Embracing Mistakes in ICT4D

  • Nilofar Ansher

    Loved this quick recap! This is what ICT4D professionals need, a ‘what-not-to-do’ manual or digital resource center that they can refer to, to see the status of projects similar to what they are doing and use a different set of guidelines to ensure success.

  • Jillian Waller

    I really enjoyed reading this perspective. So often we like to focus on the achievements of our projects and are reluctant to publicize our failures. It’s in human nature to be that way, but like you said, it’s important to learn from the failures or the shortcomings of our projects. One of the most common themes in our study of international development is the idea that you really have to spend time on the ground and understand the inner workings of a community before we try to implement projects there. I think Daraja had an excellent idea in theory, but it was clear that they didn’t do enough research or have enough background on the community dynamic. I think you highlighted a very important component of development work, and that is to build upon the successes of past projects and to improve upon the failures.

  • cmahoney2014

    This was a really interesting post. It just shows that you really need to know your community before trying to implement any kind of change or program. I strongly agree with the idea that for a project to be successful it is important to include actual community members.

  • claredtuck

    I also really enjoyed this post- it echoes Richard Heek’s point that while in theory providing mobile phones to local communities to report water conditions to their government via SMS message is a simple enough concept (to those in the western world), and should be effective, issues such as lack of access to phones for women and children and lack of electricity/network coverage make it clear that there are other more pressing issues that must be addressed before ICT efforts can have an effect. Funds would be more efficiently and effectively utilized through investment in, for example, a pre-existing ICT company that could improve the mobile network coverage for the area and provide jobs, which would eventually would promote the more comfort and increased usage of the technology for things like communicating with the government about water conditions. It seems that at times ICT4D endeavors try to skip ahead a few steps, providing a solution that does not have the basic foundations to succeed.

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