Tag Archives: top-down

Rachel’s Lessons Learned

            If you take anything from our ICT4D class, take away the common problems in ICT4D, and how to turn them to your advantage. One that stood out to me, most likely because it was in a Zimbabwe case study, was the solution to the “first mile”– to find alternative channels to reach your target population. Another salient lesson for those working in ICT4D, is to harness the local knowledge and make sure there is a shared ownership in whatever program you are implementing. And thirdly, make sure that if you upset the status quo, then consult with the community so they can create their own solutions.

Personally, I’ve learned a lot about top-down, one-size-fits-all development projects: what they look like, how to spot them, and when to switch to a better fit for my own program implementation. The ability to crowd source and build on existing technology are also helpful resources for a development professional. I cannot chose one most useful theoretical concept, but I’ve narrowed it down to two. One, the concept of leapfroggings is key to any ICT program being created for a developing country. Its simple and should be obvious, but sometimes it takes development professional to see it. Two, the concept of individual versus communal, for example a cell phone v pay phone or personal internet browser v FM radio. These concepts interrelate in that they both deal with how technology is used, whether it be influenced individually, communally, or competitively. In conclusion, an additional topic that could be explored in future semesters is: ICT4$ — the new movement, a push for private business models and entrepreneurship, instead of ICT4D non-profits.

Guilty As Charged

A perfect testament to the constant argument of the inappropriateness of Western cultures invading developing countries with their ideas of improvement was my reaction to the following statement by Mchombu in Unwin’s text, “All traditional forms of information and communication (music, dance, poetry, theatre, and indigenous knowledge) were condemned because they sustained cultural forms of social structure and authority.” Unwin goes on to describe an intellectual elitism that affects the type and form of the transfer of information. After reading that I was stunned at myself that I had never even bothered to think ‘what are the present methods of communicating information in these developing countries?’  If I wanted to defend myself I would say that, where I am situated, cell phones and computers etc., are the dominant methods for information and communication technology of which I am aware. But rather I am angry in recognizing that my mindset is the exact top-down attitude of development that literature is scrutinizing.

Unwin describes how “supply-led rather than demand driven” initiatives focus too heavily on the actual technology instead of its space as a communication tool in a poor community. What development professionals are trying to move away from is not ignoring the traditional knowledge systems of indigenous people. Communication is an incredibly natural human thing and the technology we interact with often depersonalizes the connection. Methods of communication in some developing communities are rich with tradition from the history of the culture.

After reading the “10 things to know about how microfinancing is using tech to empower global entrepreneurs,” I have come to a comfortable place in my conscience that it is possible to appreciate local knowledge and utilize information technologies. The use of microfinance puts the enterprise and trust in the hands of the poor. These are the people who know their land and should be trusted to improve it with their own local knowledge. Thankfully, technologies introduced into the world of microfinance have had a positive effect.  The article discusses that, “Mobile technology and wireless internet make all the difference when it comes to microfinancing by using devices as banking channels and payment systems.” As well, using the web instead of intermediaries can lower interest rates. Empowering the local people is the best way to sustain and honor traditional knowledge (and communication) systems.

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.

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?

Choosing Appropriate Technologies

International hotel developers have recently released plans to roll out close to 40,000 new rooms across Africa in the next few years. Travel and tourism accounts for about 9% of Africa’s total GDP, so it makes sense that developers would look for ways to grow these revenues. Travelers will enjoy luxury high-rise hotels with rooftop pools, wine bars, and menus retrieved from iPads. Hotels are to be equipped with satellite televisions and wireless internet connections. It will run off a reliant source of energy, while nearby towns suffer in the heat and dark. The article cites an emerging middle class and rising GDP as key indicators that these hotels are needed, but are they really benefitting the African people that are so far behind the rest of the world? We are basically putting advanced technologies within their reach but asking them to pay ridiculous prices for access. Yes, the hotels may bring jobs and generate some revenue from the tourism industry, but is it ethical to dangle these technologies in front of the actual citizens and have outsiders utilizing them in the midst of their own poverty, starvation, and severely lacking education system? By encouraging the middle class citizens of Africa to use these hotels, we are simply furthering inequality, not only in the distribution of wealth, but in the digital divide between the middle class and the lower class. The middle class is not the key to development; rather it is those at the bottom. Again we see the issue of the top-down approach. In reality, all this money that is going into building hotels with foreign resources could instead be shifted to a project that starts with the communities that they will be impacting. Why not employ native laborers and native staff and teach them the business of developing hotels? Why not let them learn the business world for themselves and equip them with the knowledge they require. The top-down approach has proved faulty in the past, and it certainly will not work here.