Oxfam research poses a challenge to NGOs in Digital Development – what should their role be..?

Today Oxfam launches the research that they commissioned my colleague George Flatters and I to do last spring.

(Download Digital Development: What is the role for international NGOs?)

What research..?

Oxfam wanted information to help them decide what is the most useful role they can play with regards to technology in the HECA region (Horn, East and Central Africa); what is happening now; what success/failure factors seem to be important; what opportunities are out there…

George and I were excited to get involved and after reading a ton of related literature, we talked to Oxfam staff from across the region about the really interesting ‘ICT in programme’ work they are doing, interviewed around 50 interesting ‘tech 4 dev’ types across the region (NGOs, tech start-ups, government, donors, civil society and academics), pushed out an online survey to reach around 300 more, and facilitated a very fun participatory learning workshop at Oxfam’s offices in Nairobi.

What did we learn..?

Lots!  Read the report to delve into all the findings, I’ve only highlighted a few things here.

Some findings were interesting but unsurprising – everyone thinks adaptable and user-focused methods are best, and that scaling is hard… (Ok, so that’s hardly news)

Some findings shed more light on known areas – why do flexible user centred approaches remain relaticely rare across the sector, when everyone agrees they’re good?  Is part of the challenge with achieving scale down to the lack of a shared understanding of what it actually is?

And some were surpirising (to us at least) – increasing survey fatigue – the ease and low-cost of mobile surveys means everyone is doing them, and hearing about some fascinating projects like using tiny internet connectivity devices to directly monitor water supplies in rural areas.

A few of my personal favourite quotes give a flavour of what’s in the report:

“It’s a very basic idea—old stuff, known technology, not trying to be fancy—that’s what works in Africa”, Erik Hersman, BRCK

“NGOs tend to do RFPs to build something, rather than scanning for existing services and just using one… this wastes millions of dollars.”, Fabrice Romeo, Echo Mobile

“Building something yourself should be a last resort… Resist the urge to invent “a better wheel” every time you plan a project — explore what else exists first, and challenge yourself to make it work.”, Alexander Nash, Atkins Water and Environment

“Initiatives should be owned by the community and co-created with end-users… a challenge within typical development cycles of planning and funding.”, Linda Raftree, M&E Consultant

“We’ve heard the same ‘lessons learned’ for 15 years: basic issues around understanding your audience and their technology patterns and needs. These aren’t ‘lessons’, these are common sense approaches — and the fact they are still being re-stated shows that we have not succeeded in bridging the gap between the people who are learning and the people who are designing ICT4D projects.”, Carol Morgan, HIVOS

“People are reaching saturation points with mobile surveys in some countries—we risk exhausting the population and it won’t work for anyone in future.”, Claudia Lopes, Africa’s Voices

There is lots more good stuff in the report.

What I really wanted to focus on though, is the unexpected ‘calls to action’ that emerged from our analysis of the results.

What is the call to action for the international NGO sector?

We heard a range of views and comments about the role of the NGO sector in general.  But in regards to their role in the ICT4D space, one thing came through loud and clear:

Those working with tech in Africa want NGOs to support them, not compete with them.

Many NGOs (including Oxfam I should add) have already embraced local partnership working and policies like “buy/adapt, don’t build internally”, which is a great start.  But as a sector we can do much more…  The three core NGO roles we identified as being welcomed by the majority of those in the ICT4D ‘sector’ are:


Almost 90% of those surveyed thought international NGOs can play a valuable role in convening partners from different sectors and helping develop the capacity of local actors – co-creating shared best practice guidance for technology development and product selection, supporting upskilling of local people and partners and, ultimately, facilitating the emergence of a bottom-up ICT4D agenda owned and led by African partners.


Another role with widespread support was as collaborators – working with each other to develop shared product requirements and reduce the waste and overlap in producing overly similar tools, working more collaboratively with local partners (as equals not just as service providers) and, most interestingly, collaborating on M&E so that it becomes something outside of projects, even outside of individual organisations, but directly owned by the communities who are collaborating with the NGOs.


NGOs are uniquely placed to exert pressure on donors, multi-lateral institutions and governments.  If they can adapt to become more collaborative and become a voice genuinely representative of their local partners – they could be a powerful voice in changing the way these bigger players work – to be more flexible, less top-down, more supportive of developing local capacity, more driven by those actually working with tech in development than those working in policy in London, DC, Brussels etc.

How should NGOs respond?

leftbehindFirst off let’s all recognise – this is happening whether we like it or not.  The sector is going digital, and we all need to adapt to this new reality:

I’d love it if the senior teams of all the international NGOs were to engage with this challenge – however much ICT and ICT4D skills might be improved among staff and partners, without the leaders having a good understanding of the opportunities and risks technology pose, change will be slow.

If a few NGOs can take a lead, champion the idea that the technology actors on-the-ground know best, help them develop their capacity, work with them as equals, advocate with and for them…  Who knows what we might achieve?

So my personal call to action is –

  • Read and (if you like it) share the report
  • Try to work with local partners in a more collaborative and supportive way
  • Join up with other like-minded people working at our weird junction of technology and development/social-change – start to develop a positive ICT4D community in your region
  • Working together, seek to influence those around you to do the same – within your organisation, your partners and especially your donors!

If we all work together for common goals, as part of one community, who knows what we can achieve…

The full report, Digital Development: What is the role for international NGOs? can be downloaded from Oxfam’s Policy & Practice website from Feb 23

Training = Biz Dev..?

Since getting back to the UK, I have been doing some upskilling.

I identified a couple of key areas where I felt I wanted to improve my practice (primarily related to hands-on experience of participatory facilitation techniques), signed up for a few interesting courses (a fairly corporate facilitation skills class which was better than I expected, and – more directly relevant to the development sector, an excellent 3-day workshop on Participatory Action Research with Dan Buckles and am spending a week at the start of March in India at the Praxis annual commune on participatory methods with Professor Robert Chambers, which I a quite excited about!), not to mention a few other workshops, learning meetups etc.

Now all of these were undertaken strictly for my own learning and professional development.

But I just got an email from Action Aid about some potential work.  It may or may not lead anywhere, but it that made me reflect on the fact that – from the PAR training alone, I ended up doing some work with Dan Buckles, discussing some potential future work with CRS and now Action Aid, and there were a couple other interesting conversations during the training that could lead on to work-related opportunities.

Now don’t get me wrong – I am not suggesting anyone go on training courses as a sales vehicle – it would be tacky in the extreme!

But I do feel a bit better about shelling out the money for courses knowing that, not only does it make me (hopefully!) more able to contribute in the sector, but there is a chance it may end up bringing in work to pay for itself.

Hmm, maybe I best look for some more courses! 😉

Navigating the world of ICT4D jargon…

Do you sometimes feel a bit lost in a sea of IATI, m-Money, eduTech, m-Agri, m-Health, big open responsible data, MERL/MEL/PMEL/MEAL Tech, data collection, analysis, science and visualisation, GIS mapping (participatory or otherwise), participatory video etc.  Not to mention drones for development and the Internet of Things..?

If so, maybe my little jargon-busting glossary will help.

It’s a start anyway.  I’m sure I have missed off some important jargon (please let me know!)

And if you need help figuring out what these all mean for your work or how they can improve your impact, maybe I can help

Tech tools for M&E?

At yesterday’s Bond group for MEL, a few people were recommending Kobo Toolbox for data collection, or Salesforce for M&E (something which lots of NGOs seem to be doing and which continually amazes me – it’s a CRM!!)

When a couple other people suggested alternative tools, I remembered a list we collated as part of the World Bank evaluation work I led in 2015.  Well I think the list (an appendix to the Guide) is still useful.  And probably more useful on a web page than in an appendix of a 100-page PDF, so here it is in all it’s glory.

So far it only has one addition (Riwi, who we’d accidentally got left out of the original, sorry guys!), but if you see other tools that you like and aren’t here (or you see tools that are in this list but no longer available or supported), let me know and I’ll do my best to keep it up to date.

There’s no info on each tool I’m afraid (space was at a premium), but they all have web links so I hope it’s still helpful!

ICT4D Meetups… Where are they all?

During my sabbatical, every place I went to I would try to find out who the local ICT4D or social-tech players were and, where possible, try to attend meetups or similar opportunities to meet them and share stories.

I was surprised at how few there were (or perhaps just at how difficult they are to find – they might well exist).

I know of and regularly attend the ICT4D Meetups in the UK, I have been to one in Washington DC and heard about ones in New York and San Francisco, but some of the other tech hotspots I was in… Nothing…

Bangalore, India? Nothing I could find.

Manila, Phillipines? No.

Brazil?  Not a thing.

Nairobi, Kenya.  Lots of interest (I actually kickstarted a new meetup group while I was living there), but outside of the iHub, nothing organised.

So… I thought it might be a good idea to at least track those that do exist and – hopefully – somebody reading this blog will let me know about others in other countries that I am unware of.

So I have added a ICT4D Meets page to this site – at the moment it is relatively sparsely populated, but hopefully still useful to some.

Please let me know of others, I can’t believe this is it! 🙂

The problem with blogging… (and a long overdue update!)

So, the biggest problem I have with blogging – and I am sure many of you will relate – is making time to do it regularly enough.

More specifically the fact that, after a month or two has gone by with no sign whatsoever of a blog post, it becomes harder and harder to write a new one.  Each additional month adds to the pressure of “the next one better be good after all this time”, making it ever harder…

indexEven though I know that this is unimportant, nobody really cares (not even my 8 followers! Joke, ish! ), it creates a mental block that seems to say “after this long you can’t get away with just a brief paragraph, an event promo, a guest blog…” even though any of these things would be entirely legitimate…

So, in the interests of unblocking my blogging (unblogging?), a brief update of what’s been going on since my last update in . . . January!?  Sheesh… Anyway, moving on…

  • The last quarter of 2015 ended up with a lot more travelling and a lot less working than I anticipated – Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, India (cycling tour then Christmas in Goa) and Dubai (for New Years).  Not that I am complaining… Ahem 🙂
  • In January I finally started some serious sabbatical work in Nairobi, Kenya.
    • Initially for a very cool civil society group who support pan-African social movements and political activists (Fahamu) and publish the well-known pan-African news website Pambazuka News.
    • Later, my colleague George Flatters and I undertook some extremely interesting research for Oxfam’s ICT in Programme , looking at the state of “ICT4D” in Horn, East and Central Africa and identifying gaps and opportunities where NGOs (or others) could play a useful role.  Watch this space, the research will be published soon and I will promote it here.
  • In June and July, knowing I was exploring opportunities in Latin America, I decided to brush up on my Spanish and spent two months living and studying in Valencia.  Interesting to learn the (over-stated) differences between Spanish and Latin American Spanish (not much apart from vosotros and being very careful with the verb coger!), although ironically… not as useful as I had hoped… (see below)
  • In August, my brother was finishing some work with an NGO in India and suggested we go to Burma.  Well, it would’ve been rude not to…
  • I then had to get to Latin America from Burma, which involved travelling through Bangkok, Hong Kong, Japan, California and Florida.  Ok, admittedly there may have been more direct routes, but what’s the point of an unpaid sabbatical if you don’t use the time to see the world and spend way more money than you can afford eh?
  • Finally…  I arrived in Latin America this month…  In Brazil…
  • Yes, Brazil… that famously NON Spanish-speaking country…
  • So, I am now working with a very well-known ICT4D NGO here, who until recently were called CDI (Committee for Democratisation of Information or the Centre for Digital Empowerment, depending where you look), and are currently rebranding but for the moment are known as RECODE (Digital Empowerment, Recode your life, Recode the system, very in-line with their Paolo Freire inspired roots).
  • So I am now living in Rio de Janeiro – probably until Christmas, who knows.



So, now that is out of the way, I have no excuse anymore not o start blogging regularly again.

Entonces…  então

Nos vemos pronto (6 months…)


Join me in Nairobi at ‘Tech for Tax Justice’ (Feb 1-3)?

So yes, I am now in Nairobi…  I clearly haven’t got the hang of blogging regularly, so intermittent snippets will have to do I’m afraid.

I am here spending some time helping out a really interesting group called Fahamu who help social movements and activists to have more impact and also publish the interesting, alternative pan-African publication Pambazuka News.  Oh and I am also meeting a ton of interesting ‘tech4dev’ people but more on that another time.

Next week I am attending a 3-day workshop/hackday organised by Oxfam Kenya (at the intriguingly named Homeboyz Innovation Hub!).

The workshop will explore how we can use ICT4D tools to shift the balance of power and create more transparent, responsive use of citizen generated evidence, and is seeking to identify and deepen understanding on the opportunities of ICTs to contribute to Oxfam’s “Progressive Domestic Resources for Quality Public Services” project as well as develop a strategic plan to introduce the ICTs and provide a platform for information sharing and joint action.

Sounds really interesting and am looking forward to it.

Hopefully I will find the time to do another blog afterwards sharing some of the learning, results, attendees and photos.  Hopefully!

Oh and there is still space, so if you’re even vaguely techie,why not come and be part of the Tech 4 Tax Justice movement and help Oxfam to use technology to contribute to reduced inequality and improved quality of life for poor and vulnerable.  

If you’re in Nairobi, join us!  Email or call 0725690506 if you’re interested.



(oops… not) heading to the eBorneo Knowledge Fair


*UPDATE* : Combination of various accumulated travel frustrations, cancelled planes, long van journeys, lack of sleep and a few other things – mean I didn’t make it to eBKF in the end and went to Kuching, oops!  So no blog about it I’m afraid but if anyone else writes one I would love to read it and maybe do a summary/link here? Have left the original blog intact below just because… well… why not…***

So after my disastrous attempt at getting a visa for Pakistan, and some time in the Phillipines looking at apps for facilitating cash transfers in emergencies (and then some time travelling and seeing some amazing beaches), I have headed to Borneo.

Obviously, I had to visit the Orangutans at Sepilok first (including a hairless one who bears more than a passing resemblance to Gollum, odd!)


The reason for the side-trip to Borneo..?  To attend the fifth eBorneo Knowledge Fair (formerly eBario Knowledge Fair).

I’d first heard of eBKF years back when I was reading Telecentre replication initiative in Borneo, Malaysia: The CoERI experience as part of my dissertation at IDPM in Manchester.  Since then I have exchanged occasional emails with Professor Roger Harris and so when I realised I was nearby (well the Phillipines is a very short flight from Borneo) and the 5th eBKF was imminent – I thought it would be rude not to go!

It sounds exciting for a few very important reasons:

  • Its an Unconference which is very much my kind of thing – at Aptivate we do Open Spaces all the time, and formal “sit and face the so-called-expert at the front” events just never seem to cut it for me any more…
  • In its own words it is organised “in conjunction with the local community, bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers with the resident indigenous peoples” – which couldn’t be a more textbook example of practicing the participatory approach we preach if it tried!
  • It includes sessions on wide-raning topics such as sustainability, innovation, indigenous knowledge, community-based tourism, the impact of research on policy and practice and many more.  Given the diverse range of attendees I have high hopes that these will go beyond the usual lip-service so often paid to these kinds of topic!
  • It covers a range of technologies – not just mobile phones (which a lot of the ICT4D sector seem to think are the only thing worth paying attention to), but telecentres, aerial photography using drones, digital arts and that old favourite so often forgotten – community radio.
  • It’s in a lodge in remote Ba’kelalan, which involves a Twin Otter small aircraft flight and a 4×4 journey to get there, exciting!

So, looking forward to it.

I’ll hopefully get some good notes and photos and do a proper in-depth blog after (either here or more likely on ICT Works so it gets seen more widely).

And in the meantime, I’ll be tweeting as I am sure many others will on #ebkf.

Musing on Monitoring & Evaluation for ICT Works

I recently published a piece at ICT Works with some of my thoughts on the challenges facing the development sector when it comes to M&E/MEL.  It is provocatively titled “Why M&E is LAME (or should be)”.

I’ll say no more, except that it challenges a few preconceptions, destroys some much-loved and even more hated development industry tools (Log Frames specifically), and that LAME is a bit of a misdirection.

You’ll have to read it to find out what I mean though 😉

Could Agile + Adaptive Programming = A new dawn for ICT4D?

I am in Manila at the moment, supporting World Vision Philippines with advice around selecting and managing a local agile software development firm. It’s been interesting work, and I was particularly interested to discover that their internal IT teams are all in the process of adopting agile too. Agile is definitely coming of age within the sector!

This got me thinking about what might happen as both development and software switch to adopt these new paradigms…

Up until a few years back, ICT within development was simple.

Donors would give money for a 3-5 year program. An NGO would design a 3-5 year delivery and implementation plan. And any software or other ICT components needed would be designed and built at the start to support the duration of the delivery.

It was simple. And it worked.

Ok, when I say it worked… What I mean is… The ICT and the development-practice elements were compatible and mutually reinforcing… It ‘worked’ in the sense that the software supported the way the program was designed and helped it deliver what it set out to.

Of course it didn’t actually work – if by working we mean making a substantive positive change in the world, or reducing poverty, empowering communities, reducing inequalities of power, defending human rights, or any of the other things ICT4D and wider aid/development is actually supposed to be about. But it ‘worked’ in the sense that a lot of NGOs got and spent a lot of money, and the software helped them write reports about this…

Then along came two very similar disruptive ideas – Agile emerged in the software field, suggesting that designing software up-front is a bad idea, and it is more successful to launch the smallest piece of software you can as early as possible, and then evolve it based on interaction with real users. And in the development space, people began to argue against the top-down up-front planning and calls for participatory and ‘process’ approaches have steadily increased, leading to the emergence of things such as Adaptive Programming which challenges the way development programs are planned in a very similar way to the way agile challenges the way software is built.

These trends reflect the realtity of work in the field – it is impossible to plan for complex and evolving circumstances.  And development is nothing if not complex and evolving!  Reality is more like this great visual from Duncan’s blog (linked above):


The increasing use of these emerging approaches has led to some interesting scenarios and incompatibilities…

At Aptivate, we use Agile for all our software and other ICT4D development work. When we are working with a client who has this same approach and flexibility in their wider development activity it works like a dream. When we work with clients with very engineering-style top-down approaches to development, it causes tensions, frictions, and the results are less impressive.

Similarly, in previous jobs I have worked in (non-development) organisations seeking to implement highly flexible, evolving and adaptive charitable programs, but the ICT component has been delivered by non-Agile software companies who insisted on designing and specifying everything up-front, and building the entire application before launching anything. This caused enormous delays to starting work and continual frustrations when we wanted to adapt the software based on evolved understanding and learnings, but the budget had already run out and the software firm had moved on to other projects!

It seems that when methodologies align, things go smoothly. When methodologies clash, things can be fraught with problems and arguments.

And when the methodologies that align, are both built on an understanding that learning, flexibility and adaptiveness are key – the potential for improvement in the way things work is enormous.

So perhaps the time is right within development to bring these two trends together.

ICT/Mobile is a major component of many development programs these days. How would thing work if we start with Adaptive Programming for the wider planning, and then add in agile for the ICT elements within it (or even a hybrid of both sets of techniques which could apply across the board – after all ICT isn’t fundamentally different from any other aspect of delivery).

I’m keen to find out.

If you have something already going on, I’d love to get involved and see if I can help (see my previous blog post about my year’s sabbatical).

If you think you’d like to start something, or have the ear of a friendly donor and would like to put an idea to them, Aptivate would love to explore this area too.

Anyone else keen to explore this, drop me a line