Technology Salon

Washington DC

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a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

The Future of ICT4D is Digital Development

Future of ICT4D

Our technology for development specialty is changing. Macro forces like reduced government funding and PEPFAR’s push to local organizations are intersecting with increased local capacity and robust commercial solutions, forcing us to consider a post-ICT4D world.

This inspired a Technology Salon asking, “What does the future of ICT4D look like?”, where we had a lively debate, informed by four thought leaders with varied technology for development experience:

Side Streaming and Mainstreaming

Our discussion started with an interesting observation that most ICT4D efforts now are side streamed in a separate organizational division that supports the widespread mainstreaming of technology usage across an organization. This concurrent side streaming and mainstreaming is wonderful progress that I think Richard Heeks would endorse.

For example, most large organizations have a dedicated ICT4D team at headquarters that directly ties into a much larger set of people who are based in field offices and work directly on development projects every day. Skills and expertise flow between the HQ and field staff through cross training, resulting in well-rounded technology experts at all levels. It also results in two different staff profiles.

Often the technology field staff are nationals of that country or one of its neighbours, because they have invaluable local knowledge, technology development and deployment skills that equal any Western expert, and salary costs that are in line with their country of residence.

At HQ, the staff profile is changing from those that are skilled in technology development, to those who are skilled in foreseeing which technologies can be useful for development organizations, and the ethical ways in which they can be used in development programs.

For example, an HQ technologists doesn’t need to be a software programmer anymore – in fact only two of the 40 people at the Salon wrote code – but they do need to understand how something like artificial intelligence can be used practically and ethically in international development and be able to guide their organization in adopting good AI practices. No one wants to have a Cambridge Analytica moment in development.

The HQ technologist will need to master the usefulness of artificial intelligence this year or next, but in 3-5 years, that will be a mature technology that’s fully adopted by international development, and moving in the realm of the IT department who deploy commercial systems as organizational infrastructure, freeing up the HQ technologist to be an ethical futurist with the next cool innovation.

Or so is the hope.

The RFP is the Original Sin

In theory, mobile data collection has already followed this path from new innovation that needed specialized technologists to understand and deploy, to mature systems that can be mainstreamed by IT departments or even program staff themselves, without any specialized technology skills.

However, the ability of private companies to provide ICT4D services like mobile data collection is hampered by donor Requests for Proposals that have perverse disincentives and actively prevent development organizations from hiring technology vendors.

For example, it’s often easier to budget for ICT4D consultants and their travel than for the purchase of less expensive commercial systems. And forget about buying computer equipment, where even the smallest purchase can attract outsized scrutiny.

One result of distorting RFPs is that bespoke solutions are developed for each project, or even if solutions are reused in new projects, their often customized to the point that they become separate systems from the original. The few systems that do survive intact from project to project, are often crippled by underinvestment. There are efforts to change this, Digital Square and DIAL Open Source Center, are great examples, but to rare and too small to impact the whole of international development.

Another result of the RFP process is that technology solution providers move away from international development as their core focus and look to commercial clients to succeed. Magpai and FrontlineSMS are great examples of firms that started in the international development community and branched out into other sectors, where revenue streams are higher and less variable.

From ICT4D to Digital Development

As technology becomes more and more mainstreamed in everything we do, what are the big themes that will have lasting impact on international development as a whole and within the societies where we work? From this Salon, I came away with three options:

Ecosystem development: We still have much work to do in creating the enabling environment in international development where digital solutions can flourish. This is everything from educating our fellow development practitioners on the usefulness and ethics of technology innovations, to changing the way we invest in and purchase those innovations, to expanding the centrality of digital in development.

Government capacity: a major aspect of ecosystem development will be building government capacity to understand and regulate technology – including the capacity of our own governments, who can be just as clueless about technology as governments in the countries where we work. And to be honest, we have vastly under-invested in government capacity across all of international development.

Indigenous solutions: the ultimate goal that we should really be aiming for is supporting local companies to develop solutions that succeed in their context, where we as a specialty and the international development industry as a whole, invests in their capacity, and to be honest, their profitability in developing and deploying digital development solutions.

One Response

  1. Darrell Owen says:


    A good article that triggers a lot of thoughts…the following being but a few:

    RFPs—my experience has been the RFPs can work for donor organizations when crafted at a high level and with flexibility for providing centralized service to provide a wide range of digital-related consulting services. Task Orders or Subcontracts can be used to further refine country-local level bodies of work.

    Initial Country-wide Assessments—one of the tools we developed early on and refined and used in dozens of countries was an Assessment Template. This was aimed at a two-three week in-country survey to explore what the in-country dynamics were, what were local priorities, what held promise, what were dead ends, etc. These weren’t bound by the current country-level donor development portfolio, but included the entire landscape of the targeted country

    Focus Outside of Donor Projects—this outside the donor-portfolio box proved to be a critical factor for our success… sometimes opportunities fit within the existing donor portfolio, but more often they didn’t. Even where they didn’t fit, more often than not, the Donor organization would provide the funding.

    Get in and Get out—in my nearly 20 years of independent consulting for a dozen or so companies doing work with USAID, rarely did we design in-country initiatives that lasted more than a year or two. The interventions targeted being a catalyst for change and creating local skill-sets needed to carry things forward long after we were gone. Even when we had longer term engagement in a country, the portfolio consisted of multiple engagements where our direct engagement was again, limited to a year, sometimes less, and rarely more than a couple years.

    This list could be much longer, but this is a start.