The most important lessons we learned this semester were about failure. Too often in IDEV classes, we get caught up in success, but learning about failure is most important because it allows us the opportunity to learn. Successful ICT projects require thinking about things from many angles. Giving laptops to children is useless, for example, unless the children also know how to use them, repair services are available, and internet and power infrastructure exists. The overall most important lesson I take away from this class is flexibility. We’ve seen many examples of how projects fail, but the ones that are successful are the ones that are flexible.
In any development project (and most things in life), flexibility is the most important attribute to have. We live in a rapidly changing world. Even in my lifetime, technology has progressed in unimaginable ways. To be successful in this world we need to be willing to adapt and we need to know how to learn quickly. Because of this class, I have begun thinking about technology in my everyday life from how something works to how it can be used to change the world.
Flexibility is the most useful theoretical framework to teach in this class, but it is difficult to teach in a theoretical way. I’ve learned most by reading about different projects and learning from our guest speakers who brought real world knowledge with them to our class. I’ve enjoyed this class. I have learned to think as a more technologically competent person. This attribute will help me in any career, development or otherwise.
I think the most important lesson I took from this class is that understanding the local context is critical for the success of ICT4D initiatives. “One size fits all” initiatives will not help anyone, and they will probably fail. However, it happens too often that well-meaning individuals or organizations don’t consider local contexts and challenges. We saw this in the case of One Laptop Per Child.
There are a few different things to keep in mind when considering the local context. One is local language. Many people living in remote areas do not speak the “national language,” which is typically the colonial language. In many countries, there are few people beyond educated urban dwellers that speak the language of the government. Therefore, it is essential that initiatives use local languages. Related to this is local content. Initiatives should focus on giving people information that they need. An example of this would be an initiative aimed at fishermen that gives information on tides, currents, and any impending bad weather. Finally, it is important to remember local capacity. Many rural areas don’t have sufficient resources to support computer-based initiatives, or the electricity to keep phones charged. It is important, then, to work with pre-existing technology and resources. Keeping these things in mind will reduce the probability of failure.
The vast majority is very quick to criticize ICT4D projects and highlight statistics such as the World Bank statistic that states that about 70% of ICT projects fail, without even understanding the context of these numbers. In this case, how does the World Bank define failure? What constitutes a project as a failure? Some projects may be black and white with a clear boundary between success and failure; however, most projects lack this definitive boundary. For example, the Zambian Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) program, known as Learning at the Taonga Market (LTM) was launched in 2000 to create low cost, high quality education for educationally and geographically marginalized areas in Zambia. The LTM integrates IRI, which acts as an active teaching tool, and the Lifeline radio, which is a dual-powered device that uses both wind-up and solar technology minimizing the dependency on other energy sources to teach lessons written and recorded by the Educational Broadcasting Services in conjunction with the Education Development Center. This program was designed to use existing technology, such as the radio, to provide high-quality education for over 800,000 children who cannot attend school. Since its implementation, over 160,000 children have received education through the LTM and these children have tested better than the children attending mainstream schools.
While this program appears to be working, some people argue it is another failed ICT project. Even though the demand for the LTM program and the enrolment of G1 participants have steadily increased, the retention rate is uncomfortably low as only 2,916 of the total 7,782 learners completed G5. Additionally, when testing the participants’ literacy and numeracy skills, it was apparent that the children had gained knowledge. However, the mean numeracy score dropped from 71.5% in 2001 to 63% in 2003 and the literacy skills dropped from 56.6% in 2001 to 48.8% in 2003. Even though observers noticed an improvement in literacy and numeracy skills, the tests proved otherwise. Does this mean that the project failed?
The lowered retention rate could be due to a lack of monitoring and evaluation; some people could be counted as “drop outs” even if they just switched IRI centers. Additionally, the discrepancies in the numeracy and literacy tests could be due to the different sample sizes tested in 2001 and 2003. Therefore, is it accurate to consider this project a failure on the basis of somewhat skewed data? And even if the data were accurate, should this project be classified as a failure based on two statistics, even when vast improvements and increases in demand have been noted? All these questions cannot be answered unless we define failure.
On Tuesday, we talked a lot about why ICT4D projects fail. We even attempted to watch a YouTube video that detailed the main reasons why ICT4D projects fail but the video failed to load. Hopefully that was just a coincidence.
Failure is not a new thing and it certainly won’t go away anytime soon. But all this talk of failure made me think about what these innovators and social entrepreneurs are doing to combat ICT4D projects that fail. What are they doing to overcome them and how is this impacting development? We are often measured in life in our ability to succeed and overcome failures and the ICT sector is no different. ICT4D projects and the innovators that spearhead these ideas are ambitious and risk takers so it is only natural that failure will come for some if not all. What donors and outsiders looking in need to know about failure in ICT4D projects is that these ventures will not give an immediate return on private investment. But sometimes these development projects are not given the chance to succeed and as a result the social entrepreneurs are forced to omit aspects of their idea and they are not allowed to be as wild and as innovative as they need to be.
I came across the organization Global Fund, a non-profit organization that utilizes a “21st century approach” to combat AIDS, TB and Malaria. The organization has grown immensely since its inception in 2002, currently providing ARV therapy to 6.1 million HIV positive people, they have treated over 11.2 million people with TB and distributed over 360 million insecticide-treated nets. But the organization has not always been a success. In 2011, Global Fund announced that it had mismanaged grant monies and donor funds leading to some countries retracting their support for the organization. But this negative turned to a positive because of the transparency of the organization and their decision to admit the failure. This honesty led to renewed support for the organization as it showed they were willing to admit failure and work to address the problem. Thus, this admission of guilt allow Global Fund to continue to be innovative as support for them increased, which is a win-win for everyone because the social world needs more programs like this to reach their full potential and make a difference in health and medicine.
Lastly, I came across a great site to read individual stories about development failure. The site is a great resource to help us (international development students or people interested in creating development projects) understand why failure is important and what we can learn from others to overcome that failure and succeed: http://www.admittingfailure.com/.
A recent topic of discussion amongst my classmates has been the failure of ICT4D projects and some of the reasons they typically fail. This video, from the ICT4D Poverty Reduction Summit in Winneba, Ghana, attributes failure to 7 major reasons.
It’s nearly impossible to disagree with the insight provided by these ICT professionals. However, a trend I’ve noticed is that many of the reasons we come up with are directed at the receiving end. For instance, we can attribute a project’s failure in Ghana to the lack of appropriate infrastructure in Ghana or the extensive costs of maintaining technology in Ghana. We don’t often analyze the failures on the giving end and, when we do, we’re mostly talking about flaws in perception or understanding. What if part of the problem is administration? What if there are technical issues on the giving end as well?
In a recent article from the IT section of one of Australia’s leading publications, Trevor Clarke discusses IT project failures and a new government standard for them. Clarke points out that over the years, IT market observers have been disappointed by the number of IT projects that have either failed completely or exceeded their budgets and/or deadlines. The new government standard is an attempt to increase efficiency and prevent failure on these projects. Of course, this refers only to domestically developed and implicated projects within Australia, but it just goes to show that when it comes to IT or ICT projects, failure does not discriminate. If ICT projects within a well-developed, first-world country often fail, we mustn’t be discouraged when the same happens in the third world.
However, that’s not to say there is no hope. With new initiatives like Australia’s new ICT governance standard, we can imitate their processes and procedures when we’re working in the developing world. Perhaps ICT4D professionals should attempt to develop a similar standard for their projects in places like Sub Saharan Africa or Latin America. Now, “if it worked there, it will work here” is not necessarily the type of philosophy development professionals should follow, but having some guidelines and sound advice won’t hurt. I think Australia’s ICT failures and imminent successes could help ICT4D professionals to learn from example.
This week our class had Wayan Vota, the Senior Manager at Development Gateway, skype into class and answer some of our questions. One of the major themes we have seen throughout this semester has been failing projects. Mr. Vota told us that he is currently hosting a fail festival, where the main topic of discussion is projects that failed and why they seem to fail. Their is currently about 500 people planning on attending this conference in Washington DC. This concept of having a festival where people only discuss their failures is really interesting to me. Typically, it is really hard for people to discuss their failures. In the field of ICT4D, I truly believe that discussing failures is crucial. This way people can learn from other people and can incorporate what actually works into their own projects. Failure is part of the process and can be part of possible future solutions.
The fact the projects fail in ICT4D world is something that I will take away from this course. As a senior IDEV major who is graduating in may, people expect you have some big, earth shattering idea that you will pursue after you graduate and will help the lives of those in the developing world. You never think that this idea will fail but in reality, majority of projects do and it is okay to fail. What isn’t okay is to not learn from your failures. I believe that this is what Mr. Vota is trying to do with the fail festival, making sure the same type of failures don’t happen over and over again.
A second thing I will take away from his class is the fact that technology really does have the potential to help develop all sectors of societies. In today’s world the countries that are the most developed also happen to be the most technology advanced. Because technology plays such a large part in today’s modern world, developing countries need to also become technological developed in order to be considered “promising” and no longer in the “developing” category.