Tag Archives: grassroots

Is Development Knowledge Exclusionary?

I do not mean to detract from the theme of the specific application of ICT for development, but since our last class I have found that I cannot stop thinking about our discussion of development theory and failure. In chapter 3 of ICT4D, Unwin relates how current discourses realize the flaws of modernization theory and its belief that development beneficiaries were to be the passive recipients of Western information, for it was inherently more valuable than any knowledge that they may have possessed. Development has now embraced a people- centered model that sees traditional knowledge systems and community based approaches as critical to the development process (Unwin 40). However, though development has primarily shifted from “top-down’ to ‘bottom- up”, local information is still lost in translation, and Western actors are regarded as the ‘experts’ who can bring development to where it is needed.

Development must absolutely embrace participatory projects, but it also needs to reassess the degree to which development projects can be created and sustained by members of a developing community themselves. For, in the end, isn’t one of the primary goals of development to empower the poor to be their own agents of social change? However, the nature of development can be prohibitive of such grassroots entrepreneurship. Consider this: proper development practice, as taught to students at universities like Tulane, requires an enormous amount of literacy on subjects like management, budget-making, organizational frameworks, and perhaps most importantly, monitoring and evaluation. I have seen first hand that these topics have become skills that we must possess to be development practitioners and to carry out successful projects. At the root of this, these skills are required so that we can obtain grants and partnerships to stay sustainable and garner attention from donors. I am not naïve enough to think that development does not require people with such abilities. Yet we seem to forget that development knowledge itself is not only a Western concept, but also a privilege that many in the developing world cannot access. For example, how could a woman who has started her own village empowerment group write a monitoring and evaluation report for a grant-maker if she does not have more than a 6th grade education? Does this mean that she does not deserve a grant? Does her inability to send the grant-maker a 3-year strategic framework plan mean that her organization will fail?

My point is that development needs to go beyond cultivating practitioners in the first world. As we recognize that those who have lived their entire lives in impoverished areas know the most about what they need, we need to take the full step and embrace the fact that these individuals are perfectly capable of coming up with and executing a project on their own, although it may be in ways that lie in the margins of standard development practice. By this I mean that organizations such as the school I worked for in Ghana have found ways to sustain themselves for nearly a decade with little to no grant money per year and hardly any assistance from larger educational organizations or agencies (i.e. UNESCO). There is no M&E plan, institutional documentation is poorly organized, and the founder has not had more than a basic education, but hundreds, if not more than a thousand impoverished children have received a free basic education over the last decade and many have been given the opportunity to continue their studies at a higher level. If this is not ‘successful’ development, I do not know what it is. More importantly, it occurs informally, in a very Ghanaian context, in a Ghanaian way of doing things. This is important to realize when reflecting upon Mchoumbu’s point that “traditional channels of communication [should be] respected and not regarded as barriers to development” (Unwin 41). Development practitioners, grant-makers, and other Western actors must understand that practice and communication are culturally contingent and that seemingly improper conventions have merit in their own right. What must not occur in development is that a practitioner requires a local development worker to do A, B, and C, but that they adapt their own practice to local practice. Furthermore, a local entrepreneur cannot be excluded because they do not do things ‘by the book’. There is no room in development to be exclusionary; rather, we must take these locally made ideas and run with them, even if they do not fit status quo development protocol. These are the manners of doing things that reflect a culture and tell of the true needs of a society, and we have much to learn from how they may have been carried out before we try to change their execution.


Redefining the User Experience

This week in class, we discussed the various reasons that ICT4D projects fail as well as common instances of successful implementation of ICT4D. A general theme that is supported by our readings and class discussion is the notion that when projects are conceived and constructed with the community it is proposed to impacted, projects have a better chance of succeeding.Generally, the bottom-up approach is best.

mWomen Design Challenge invites designers, programmers and innovators to reimagine a smartphone’s core user interface so that it can be more intuitive and accessible when implemented in development contexts. The challenge was created to address the problem that most woman mobile users in developing countries rely on basic feature phones, which generally offer little beyond basic voice and SMS functionality. The mWomen Challenge explains that “smartphones will drive the next stage of the mobile revolution, offering access to more phone features, as well as being the primary tool for internet access for many in the developing world.”

When I first came across this challenge, I qualified it as a top-down ICT4D approach, simply because the designers who are taking part in the challenge aren’t living in the communities, asking women what they want from apps and interfaces. However, as I investigated further, I recognized that the challenge asks participants to consider factors that should be taken into account when designing apps and even offers personal stories of women who explain their needs right on the website. The challenge explains that in order to design a mobile experience that meets specific needs, participants need to consider the context in which the beneficiary lives. The challenge explains that demographics for the women that they are trying to affect,  “are incredibly diverse, with no two countries, communities, or families exactly alike. Likewise, no two women are alike, but many living in resource-poor settings experience similar constraints.” The challenge also provides ample information about the various factors that should be considered:

Written literacy 

  • ‘Literacy’ is not a black and white concept. Many people who are classified as ‘illiterate’ can read and remember numbers and recognize a small vocabulary of written words.
  • While individuals may not be literate, they can usually turn to people who a
  • In some countries, there are multiple languages. For example, there are 22 official languages in India, including Hindi.
  • In some countries, some ethnic groups don’t speak (and hence read) the national language. Sometimes, in these cases, people will speak their local language and an international language such as English or French, rather than the national language.

Technical Literacy

  • Many women learn to use new technology through friends and family.
  • Many women buy second-hand phones, which do not often include instruction manuals.
  • Often, when women already have a phone, they are unfamiliar with anything but the basic voice features, and struggle to identify how to use other common useful features like the built-in flashlight.
  • 77% of resource-poor women have made a mobile phone call, but only 37% have sent an SMS, regardless of literacy levels. Resource-poor women reported that they did not find the SMS service useful.


  • In some countries, women are expected to stay home. In other settings, women are the chief breadwinner, working long hours as smallholder farmers or shopkeepers.
  • In many countries, due to culture and economics, families live together. In many cases, women move to their in-laws’ homes after getting married. Often, elderly family members or nieces and nephews live as part of the immediate family. Often women are responsible for caring for the entire family.
  • In some settings, women are discouraged or even prohibited from using a phone, as it is considered as being at odds with their role in the home.

Resource Gaps

  • Battery life is important from both a cost and convenience perspective.
  • Many people do not have electricity in their residences, and so will take their phones to a charging shop that will cost around $0.20 to $0.40 per charge. For the many people living in rural areas, this requires the additional cost of travelling to a village.
  • In some settings, homes or communities may have power consistently during some parts of the year, but not others, for example during the monsoon or very hot seasons.
  • Mobile phone signals are often intermittent either due to poor coverage or network technical problems. It is commonly required for rural people to change their physical location to access coverage.
  • Both urban and rural populations, and men and women alike face these constraints, although women tend to have additional challenges related to disposable income and ability to travel outside the home or community.

The website includes additional factors such as the economics of obtaining a phone, purchasing airtime, costs associated with using a phone, and common phone practices. If you would like to see additional factors, you may view them on the website.

So here is my question: If the challenge designers aren’t physically taking a grass-roots approach, is this challenge automatically considered a top-down implementation of ICT4D? Or is giving the designers ample information to meet the nuanced needs of the user enough to qualify this remote project as bottom-up?

Lessons Learned: ICT4D

ICT4D has such potential, yet often fails due to poor planning and implementation. The most important lessons I have taken away from this course are as follows:

1. You must focus on a bottom-up, collaborative approach. ICT4D projects will fail if outsiders simply hand in technology and expect communities to be receptive. The time and effort it takes to properly utilize an ICT is going to deter users unless they can immediately see the benefits. Successful projects thoroughly account for the local context and emphasize participatory interaction.

2. Proper monitoring and evaluation measures must be implemented at the start of the project to ensure sustainability. For example, in handing out laptops, what is going to happen when one breaks and there is nobody with the skills to fix it?

3. Partnerships provide networks of resources that can be combined to more effectively implement ICT4D projects. However, these partnerships must be built on trust, honesty, openness, mutual understanding and respect or they serve no purpose.

4. You must learn from past failures. Many projects implement previously failed strategies thinking that for some reason their organization can get it right. FailFaire is a groundbreaking resource that can help us understand the whys of project failure and the hows of changing failure to success.

Over the course of the semester, we studied many ICT4D projects– most were failures. This was discouraging to me for a while until I conducted my own studies on Burkina Faso, a little known country in West Africa. Here in Burkina, where 80% of the population relies on subsistence farming, opportunities are scarce. I saw a project, built at the grassroots level, that enabled these same farmers to triple their selling prices by taping into technology required for an online marketplace. Globalization like this is going to be key to the future of struggling countries. We all have resources that others can benefit from– the challenge is creating accessibility, which can be done through the right combination of ICTs.

I see the capabilities approach as the most useful framework for ICT4D projects. As the old saying goes, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t force it to drink.” (or more applicable for us, you can lead a person to a laptop but you can’t force him to Facebook)  ICT4D needs to be by the people and for the people, with some help from outsiders guiding the way.

Important Lessons Drawn from ICT4D

I think that the most important lesson to take away from this course is that any development effort needs to begin with a bottom up grassroots approach. If an organization or a non-profit attempts to swoop in, bring a community some form of technology it deems applicable, and then leave, nothing is going to be accomplished. This is relevant to many failed development projects, specifically in terms of the failure of kiosks that were placed in grocery stores.

This concept is relevant to the human centered design approach we learned about in class. The tenet “hear” involves interacting with the community, talking to them, and understanding what they feel the community needs in terms of development projects. This approach not only allows for the potential success of projects because they are targeting issues people actually feel are relevant, but it also integrates the community into the project. Integrating community members into development projects is important as it allows for channels of communication between the developer and the recipients.

Next, I think an important concept in ICT4D is that program implementers need to adequately make sure they have built up technological capacity among the recipients, before they leave. This is especially important in terms of ICT’s that are integrated into the education sector. From the readings and various research done for the sector project a big problem identified was that with programs aimed at implementing technology into the classrooms the teachers did not incorporate it into their lessons due to their lack of knowledge of how to use it. This design fault is relative to the one laptop per child initiative.

Lastly, I think an important idea to think about is that new development projects should center their approach on local knowledge. Instead of bringing a completely new idea/technology into a developing country, they should focus on pre existing knowledge. This involves first communicating with community members to gauge the extent of local knowledge available, and the specifics of it. This approach allows for less time spent on building capacity and more time catering the specifics of the actual program so that it will yield positive results.

These are just some of the important lessons learned throughout this course, but there are plenty more. ICT4D showed me that there is no one “right” way to approach development, and that a lot of projects do fail. The important thing in development projects is that despite all the failures, it is vital to celebrate the small victory of one project being successful. This is because after the success of one project, we are one step closer to improving the quality of lives of people in developing countries. With that knowledge in mind, the high number of development projects that have failed in the past suddenly do not seem that significant anymore.

The Growing Importance of Technology in Development

Overall, this course has opened my eyes to the challenges of a very specific tool that has growing prevalance in the field of development: ICTs. The introduction of ICTs into development has had many positive effects, but has also created some new problems, as well as exacerbating or growing off of some traditional problems.  For instance, gaps between genders, ages, or economic stratas are not unique in the development field.  However, ICTs have taken on their own form of this problem through the digital divide, as traditional gaps have been applied to ICTs and are a specific challenge in ICT4D. Another example of a problem that has always been seen in development, but has taken on its own form int he ICT4D field is the fight between the top-down and bottom-up approach.  Often in ICT4D, such as in the case of OLPC and other projects, the implementation of technologies from large organizations or projects have not been applicable or useful on the ground level.  Often, when a new field in development has growing prevalance, it can seem like a “magical fix” to all possible problems.  Therefore, one of the most important lessons learned in the course was to be aware of the challenges faced by ICT4D, so that they can be dealt with and addressed in the future, instead of believe that ICT4D is a fool-proof method for success in development.

I believe that something I have personally learned this semester that will help me as a development professional is the importance of infrastructure.  Overall, often people can think they have a great project idea, and then get on the ground and realize that it is not possible due to a lack of infrastucture. I think that in the future, this course will make me more aware, and will remind me to fully evaluate the conditions in the country I am trying to serve, and not assume that infrastructure (such as roads, electricity, potable water, etc.) that I take for granted living in the United States will be readily available where I am going, and to always look into those issues first to see the feasability of my project.  I also think that one of the most important lessons I have learned is to not be afraid of admitting failure.  With programs such as FailFaire, it is increasingly acceptable to learn from your mistakes in development, and not repeat the same problems just to attract more investors.  This mindset of accepting your mistakes and learning from them will allow you to grow more as a development professional, rather than pouring money into projects that are flawed because you are too afraid to admit a problem.

One of the most useful frameworks we have learned about in class, in my opinion, is the capabilities approach to development.  In this framework, the focus is on increasing freedoms and promoting equality in order to better advance development.  I have always been a strong proponent of equality in gender, and its ability to contribute greatly to development.  Therefore, this particular approach really reached me, and I think it is particularly useful.  I also think that its potential in the ICT4D field is extremely useful, as gender equality will not only lead to greater ICT penetration in communities as a whole (since women will be using it too) but greater ICT use can also have a great effect on equality by disseminating information and progressive ideas on equality, democracy, etc.  Therefore, as many tools in development, these two tools can help build eachother.

I think useful information to be added to future classes is more information about ICT4D in areas where we live, such as the United States and especially New Orleans.  I think that New Orleans has been well served, and can continued to be served, by many topics we have discussed in class. Although we have heard a some of these projects from our guest speakers, it would be interesting to learn and see more, as well as some of the history of ICT implementation in New Orleans, so that we can have a more direct interaction with a number of topics we have been discussing.

Grassroot education, collaboration between ICTs & MDGs?

Heeks’ views on the MDGs goals are very similar to my views.  Development projects aiming to accomplish MDGs should be guided by the head more than the heart. Sometimes the heart has good intentions, but success is not found. The industrialized gets richer by implementing projects that will advance their economy.  China’s work in Africa is a prime example. China claims to be helping with development in Africa by providing more work and improving its economy with more resources, but this isn’t true. Many Africans aren’t being hire by these Chinese companies, but these companies are bringing in their own people for labor. It is as if they are only using Africa for its resources and land. Philanthropy and social development aspects are only after-effects of these projects not the driving force behind them. As stated by Heeks, we should shift away from the hype of telecenters and e-government in remote regions where they will not be useful there. There isn’t proper infrastructure for these technologies in such rural places. The future of ICTs & the MDGs will rely on

  • Breaking the hegemony by leaving the one size fits all view
  • Back office implementation rather than front office implementation
  • Following the cowpaths by using things that already exists rather than develop new ideas

Three good ways to merge ICTs into development that can accomplish the MDGs is to use ICTs directly, indirectly, and strategically. We must provide access to these new technologies, but also improve the efficiency and connection between these technologies and the resources available in developing locations. In addition, we must strategically implement ICTs in a way to support development perhaps as a tool or resource hub. This I believe can be done through education.

  • We must engage users in the process. This will allow the population in question a way to voice their ideas, opinions, and state what they truly want rather than a “stranger” telling them what they need.
  • We must identify resources, tools, and trends that will help ensure better results. Background work will allow project leaders to understand and predict what methods will work and what methods won’t rather than just going in heads first.
  • Provide easy to understand and quick information to the population we are working with. This will promote advocacy for our project and gain more supports from those we are working to help.
  • Display transparency to ensure that countries are not implementing development projects with hidden agendas.

I think the idea of using grassroots methods to increase participation and success is needed for ICTs to work with the MDGs. This will build trust and cooperation among all those involved in a particular project, both those helping and those being helped.

The Development Potential of the China-Africa Relationship

As a political economy major, I try to read the news and keep up to date on trends throughout the developed and developing world. One of the most important (and, in many ways, unsung) trends affecting development in the world today has been China’s massive investment in Africa. Like the great powers preceding it, China has reaped huge benefits from investing in Africa in terms of both energy extraction and business development. But has China’s presence benefited any Africans? That is the question that a new article, written by Stephen Haggard, tries to ascertain. As with most development issues, the answer is complex, and hugely variable from country to country.

I’ll start with the negatives. China has shown few qualms about working with some of Africa’s most repressive and violent dictatorships, even in the face of international condemnation, if they can gain access to energy sources in return. The Chinese Communist Party gained access to Sudan’s considerable oil reserves in exchange for arming its genocidal regime, and enjoyed close ties to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe in exchange for extractive contracts there. These policies inexcusably granted economic lifelines to some of the world’s worst leaders and allowed them to continue stifling development in their own countries as they enriched themselves. Even in countries with less destructive governments, China has shown little genuine commitment to development, concerned instead with satisfying the wishes of national leaders, who often lack the expertise (or political will) to demand development projects that work effectively. The result has been a heavy emphasis on infrastructure. China has received contracts to build roads, bridges, and dams all over Africa which, while important and perhaps very helpful, does little to improve the lives of Africans at a grassroots level.

But this may all be changing, and much of this change stems from a shift in focus to ICT4D. As popular opinion in many African countries begins to turn against China’s presence (though still generally somewhat favorable, complaints about poor working conditions at Chinese firms and its willingness to arm rogue states like Sudan have become major political issues in some African countries), China has begun to make a more concerted effort to work with Africans themselves, and not just their leaders. The early results have been very promising, and have shown a surprising prioritization of e-learning. Haggard cites the case of Kenya, where China has agreed to supply every Kenyan secondary school with IT suites containing with 25 PCs and internet access. Though one could worry that this amounts to little more than dropping off hardware, it could also provide newfound connectivity to a country containing some of the world’s most remote peoples.

During this shift, China has shown a newfound willingness to survey the needs of African development, rather than simply appeasing African leaders. It will, for the first time, send a delegate to this year’s eLearning Africa conference to present on the successes of eLearning in China and to discuss how these successes can be exported to Africa. It also agreed to fund an $8 million African training initiative led by UNESCO. While $8 million may seem like a relatively paltry sum, it is representative of a larger change in how China views its role in Africa and what policies it will pursue in the future to work with, rather than separately from (or against) grassroots development and education in Africa. China’s growth as an economy and society over the last 30 years has been, in effect, the most effective poverty reduction program in human history. If China can export its development lessons to Africa (and sees it in its own interests to do so), the potential impact is difficult to overstate. By focusing on eLearning, China seems to be taking a step in the right direction–and greatly enhancing the impact of ICT4D as a field of development.

Citation: http://www.elearning-africa.com/eLA_Newsportal/the-china-africa-partnership-effective-for-education/