Tag Archives: Failures in ICT4D

Failures of ICT4D : The Lesson

Although Tulane makes us take a number of development classes, this was the first time I had the opportunity to learn about ICT4D. I found it interesting how, while projects may be different, the overall concepts are still the same. The concepts that we discussed related to ICT4D projects and why they fail will be very helpful with anyone’s future professions, but especially in the development sector.

When we discussed the reasons why ICT4D projects fail, I felt like the reasons were so obvious and questioned why more people weren’t listening to them. Two of these that really stood out to me were that the projects weren’t relevant to local context/ strengths/needs and that projects were supported only by short-term grants. These ideas are important to apply to development jobs as well as any other job that you choose to do. The most important concept is to focus the project on the group that you’re doing it for and give them a say in the matter. Many people in the development world think that they know what is best for the people that they’re trying to help. However, without asking them what they want, you have the potential to spend a lot of money on something fails miserably. Second, it is important to always think about something in the long-term. It is great if you are given a grant to build a computer center in a rural village, but it is important to think about what will happen to the project when you leave. It isn’t just whether it looks good when you leave, but about whether it makes a difference in the long term.

In the future, I want to work internationally in the health sector. For health projects, it will be important for me to create a project that will make a real difference in a community. That means I need to create a project that will be accepted in that culture and will make a difference in the long term, not just when I’m there with my grant. Many organizations create health projects that don’t work with cultural norms. For example, handing out condoms for men who have sex with men in an area where being gay is not allowed. This automatically creates problems with the culture and results in no progress being made. I also know that just giving someone a project with my grant money won’t make a difference in the long-term. Health projects that go into a community and build a health clinic to stop people from dying of disease don’t consider what will happen to that health clinic when they leave. While the failures were originally related to ICT4D projects, I think that no matter what sector you choose to go into, they are important to keep in mind to create a sustainable, beneficial project for a community.

Scaling Innovation at the World Bank Group

Scaling Innovation at the World Bank Group

The linked article is an interview of Aleem Walji, the Director of the World Bank’s Innovation Labs done by Skoll World Forum’s Rahim Kanani. Walji previously worked for google (a company well known for innovation), and was brought in by the World Bank to “help expand the space for experimentation, learning, and prototyping with an emphasis on emerging technologies.”

The feeling that I get after reading this interview, is that the World Bank recognizes that there are a vast number of shortcomings with the current approach to development, and that they are making positive steps towards finding a better way of going about it. The first success of the Innovation labs was the Open Data Initiative. The WB realized that by making these data/knowledge/analytical resources available for researchers, NGO’s, policymakers, etc. they would create value in ways that they didn’t need to have control over.

Probably the most interesting part of the article is when Walji discussed generally what their plans were to overcome challenges in development. He talks about how the world’s hardest problems to solve are “moving targets” and how initiatives and organizations shouldn’t over-analyze before we act. He believes that innovation is about risk management and traversing uncertainty wisely; “fail fast and fail forward. You learn fast and iterate. You document what you learn, share it with the world and look for insights wherever you find them.

Walji also goes on to discuss knowledge management and how it can help us to form solutions. Large amounts of data, information, and knowledge are created daily, “If we only knew what we knew collectively, and could find it when we need it, we would be so much smarter… It’s not about getting the answer right the first time or developing “cookie-cutter solutions but about using a process that gets us close to better solutions better adapted to end-users” By assessing everything we know about a particular issue we can move towards creating a solution.

I would highly recommend reading the full article as I could not include everything in this blog post. After hearing a lot recently about the shortcomings of ICT projects, it was nice to read an interview where someone has full knowledge of the problems, and an intelligent direction that we should go in for putting a stop to them.

Sometimes ICT Projects Fail

It is hard to admit when something doesn’t quite go as planned, especially when money and time are invested. ICT projects, for example, only succeed about 30 percent of the time. However, it is important to learn from mistakes and help the rest of the ICT4D community avoid the same errors. This is why it is important to say that you failed and discuss what went wrong. In December of 2012, Ben Taylor from Daraja gave a talk about lessons learned from an ICT project that had failed.


In 2010, Ben and his colleagues set up a program in Tanzania that rallied citizens to put pressure on local authorities to fix broken water pumps by using mobile phones.  Local communities were asked to use SMS messages to report the state of the water supply to the authorities. They also informed local radio stations to observe any action that the water authorities were going to take in response to the text messages. This program received a lot of national attention before it was launched; however, after the launch only 53 text messages were received. This disappointed Ben and his colleagues, who were assuming that more than 3,000 text messages would be received.  When they looked into the reasons for the program’s failure they came up with 3 major problems. The first was for political reasons; since the relationship between the local communities and authorities was sensitive, the citizens did not feel comfortable reporting on their government. The second reason was gender-specific, as women and children were often the ones who were collecting the water and they did not have access to mobile phones. The third reason was that there was limited mobile network coverage and electricity in the villages. Ben and his colleagues shared the reasons for failure on the web and in leaflets in order to prevent others from making the same mistakes.

The reasons for failure in Ben’s project correlated well with the documentary that we watched in class.  For example, I do not think that sufficient research was done on the area where the project was going to be launched. The reasons for failure -politics, gender, and access- would have been noticed if time was spent researching the area. In development projects, it is common for people from the developed world to go into a country and decide what the country needs and how to do it without consulting anyone from the area. This is why many development projects fail. Without truly understanding a community, it is impossible to know what is best for them. I believe that the only way to implement a sustainable development project is to live on the ground and make yourself a part of the community. That way, you will be able to see and hear what would actually make a difference in their lives.

The Importance of Analyzing Failures

Throughout our ICT4D course one of the main things we did in in every case study was analyzing what was done incorrectly and how that diminished the impact that the project had or how it made the project fail. Personally, I believe that the most important thing I learned this semester can be extrapolated from this process: the importance of effectively planning a project before applying it. Although this seems very obvious it is clear that for a project to be effectively planned a lot of factors have to be taken into account. In relation to ICT projects, for me, the main factors project planners ignored were having an appropriate infrastructure in place that can support the new projects and having an effective mechanism to make the project sustainable.


Failed projects are common in the development world, much more than many organizations would like to admit, but personally I believe that this course has showed me the importance of analyzing these failures in order to try to avoid the same mistakes in my professional life. A clear example for me in this aspect is the One Laptop Per Child project. Although it is a great idea and has a very positive mission the project is deemed a failure by many because they did not take into account the infrastructure of many places where they donated the laptops. Like the creators of the project its very probable I would not have considered that to be such a critical factor but now I know, as I’m sure the OLPC directors learned as well, that externalities are very important and for a project to be effective it should take them into account.

12 Habits of Highly Effective ICT-Enabled Development Initiatives

This week we talked a lot about the best and worst practices of ICT4D projects and FailFaire.  A classmate rightfully pointed out that most projects we talk about and look at are failures, and it seems to be difficult to find good examples of successful ICT4D projects.

Many are familar with Stephan Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and I bring to you the 12 Habits of Highly Effective ICT-Enabled Development Initiatives from Bridges.org.  I found that these 12 Habits are all good examples of best practices for creating a successful ICT4D initiative, and are consistant with what we have talked about in class.  Bridges.org does a good job of describing each habit and their importance, as well as providing the questions you should be asking your self each step of the way.

The 12 Habits are:

  1. Start by doing some homework. Look at what has worked and what has not worked, study good practices in the area, and build on what you have learned.
  2. Conduct a thorough needs assessment of the community to be served so you can plan to do what is actually required.
  3. Make it local: ensure local ownership, get local buy-in, work with a local champion, and be context specific.
  4. Engage a local problem-solver with some degree of responsibility, and involve them sufficiently so they can identify and address problems as they arise.
  5. Form sound partnerships and collaborations, and be good partners and collaborators.
  6.  Set concrete goals and take small achievable steps. Be realistic about outputs and timelines.
  7. Found your initiative on technology-neutral concepts so it can be adapted as needed to accommodate technology change over time.
  8. Found your initiative on technology-neutral concepts so it can be adapted as needed to accommodate technology change over time.
  9. Identify and understand the external challenges you face, and take practical steps to address them.
  10. Monitor and critically evaluate your efforts with effective tools, report back to your clients and supporters, and adapt your approach as needed.
  11. Make your initiative sustainable over the long term — either by bringing in sufficient income to be self-sustaining, or by delivering on a social mission so effectively that it is worthy of continued donor funding.
  12. Widely disseminate information on what you are doing and what you have learned so others can avoid your mistakes and build on your efforts.

Most of these habits seem obvious and have been mentioned and talked about both in class discussions and readings.

I found Habits 7, 8, and 12 especially interesting.

In Habit 7, it is pointed out that since technology is constantly changing, it is important not to get locked down on a specific technology as well as making sure that technology chosen can “stand the test of time.”  Choosing “technology-neutral” approaches will leave wiggle room for the project to adapt to any changes in technology.

Habit 8 specifically targets the digital divide, and that initiatives should aim to include groups that are marginalized.  It is easy to assume that ICT4D initiatives inheritly work to close that gap, since the target groups are the poor, discriminated, and marginalized, however it is important to remember that each nation and each community will have their own marginalized populations, and ICT4D initiatives should work to close that divide as well, not just the divide between the developed and the developing.

Habit 12 urges professionals to share their projects, successes  and failures so that all those in the field may learn from them.  This Habit connects “full circle” to Habit 1, which calls for initiatives to build on past projects.

In a field where there seems to be so much failure, there is certainly a lot of room for growth and learning, which professionals seem to try and encourage from each other.  This is a field where a win for one, is a win for all, and everyone must work together to achieve the greater goal.  The 12 Habits can help direct and focus project designs, and can be used to hold organizations accountable.

While there are many “best practices” and “checklists” (such as that in the Plan International article), I found this list to be one of the best that I’ve seen.  It is honest, practical, and thoughtful, and goes beyond the simple steps for drafting a project.

ICT4Do’s and ICT4Don’ts

Today, Wayan Vota, a big name in the ICT4D world skyped in with us to answer some of our class’s questions about ICT4D. A common theme was whether ICT4D really works.


  • Can ICTs stand alone as development tools or should they accompany specific development initiatives?  (You should be able to figure this one out on your own if you know anything about One Laptop Per Child.)
  • What were the best and worst ICT4D projects? (OLPC seems to have surprisingly blown everything else out of the water for both…)
  • What’s more difficult: getting infrastructure to support ICT4D or community buy-in for an ICT4D project? (Most of our class got this one wrong – getting $$ for infrastructure is actually less challenging than having communities accept something that’s being forced upon them. Participatory development is much more effective than development practitioners coming into a community with a “plan for development” that they came up with without the help of any community members.)

But let me get to what I really wanted to talk about in this blogpost. I just saw this great article from The Guardian that gives 15 opinions of “open data evangelists” and “information services professionals” on how to develop countries using “information.”

Surprisingly, the most frequently mentioned information-development-tool is something we touched on once in class – the LIBRARY! Indeed, David Banisar (senior legal counsel of Article 19 in London), Lawrence Gudza (coordinator of Practical Answers/Action in Zimbabwe and South Africa), and  Jelena Rajic (librarian in Jagodina, Serbia) tout the important role libraries can play in development because of their ability to provide information to whole communities in a way that promotes equality and fairness. So DO support the libraries and hook them up with information and communication technology!

On to the don’t list.

Tony Roberts (co-founder of Web Gathering in London) says don’t ignore the political system – it can distribute information and institutionalize it much more quickly than a small, individual-by-individual effort can – and don’t make inequalities worse than they already are – avoid this by having a plan for sustainability to enable the most disadvantaged to be able to fully get out of the hole.

Samuel Lee (open data specialist at the World Bank in D.C.) provides a puzzling don’t. He says “don’t build new communities if you can leverage existing ones“. I’m not really sure what he means by “communities” – I’m assuming something like technologies or projects that facilitate development because he mentions how “leveraging communities that already exist… will also help communities cross the digital divide.” In any case, what I got out of this is don’t pay for something new and flashy when you can upgrade what you already have, dull as it may seem.

You can read the article for more advice these experts have on ICT4D, and I’m sure there are plenty of other articles on the subject. I just thought this was an intriguing article because not all of the experts come from the ICT4D world, or even regular development.

And just for funsies, here’s the most awesome library I’ve ever been to – the Bibliotheek in Amsterdam! It’s got a fancy cafeteria on the top floor and an awesome children’s area (complete with the real-life model of what’s seen in Het Muizenhuis)!


Mouse house1


The “Process” Approach to ICT4D Projects

The main discussion yesterday was regarding the reasons for ICT project failures (a wopping 70% according the the World Bank Stats). Well on the ICT4D blog, Richard Heeks did a post about an approach that appears to be more effective in the success of projects. He defines this as a “process” approach, which according to Heeks came about as a reaction to the “blueprint”/top-down approach that we had discussed in class.

The following are five examples of elements that must exist in order for this approach to bring about success:

  • Beneficiary participation
  • Flexible and phased implementation
  • Learning from experience
  • Local institutional support
  • Sound project leadership

Heeks also points out questions that the process approach allows ICT4D practitioners to pose while designing a project:

  • What is the role of beneficiaries throughout the project’s stages?
  • What is the mechanism for changing direction on the project when something unforeseen occurs?
  • What is the basis for learning on the project?
  • What local institutions can be used for project support?
  • What is the nature of project leadership?

So with this information, I find it curious why more people haven’t employed such an approach? Why the continued top-down method when it obviously isn’t working? I guess maybe people are shifting towards approaches like this one, once it is now highly evident that the “blueprint” model no longer works – or never did to begin with. But still, it seems that good intentions end up causing more harm than good, as is the case with many development projects. Hopefully more focus will be given to M&E and project planning, which will in turn help with the success of projects.