Category Archives: Power

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

Three events, three perspectives on community participation, one week…

This week I attended three different events – variations on the common theme of community engagement and participation:

Each event was dealing with the concept of engaging communities in development or government, but each had very different perspectives.  One was a group of mainly ICT4D practitioners, one UK based civil servants and activists, and the last primarily academics.  Given this there are of course significant differences but some surprising commonalities between all three.  Each event and some common themes are explored below, in particular focusing on some key tensions or contrasts that people at each event identified.

Citizen Voices UK (19th March 2013)

While some of this event was familiar ground, some interesting topics were discussed and debated.  The first contrast which was apparent to me was simply how valuable having academics and practitioners together can be, similarly for ICTers and Ders (techies and social development people), as the perspectives and insights are often different and give rise to helpful debates.

Contrast of Participation / Democracy
Some interesting thoughts on the tension between participatory and representative democracy, in particular the role and value of intermediaries.  How can/should they be involved, what is different about local/international intermediaries, advocates vs. representatives etc.  While bottom-up seems most desirable, there is some value to an external/top-down perspective to appreciate the bigger picture, benefit of scale and ability to step outside local power structures…

Contrast of Government non-response / Citizen non-response
Some observations that in some cases despite a responsive government, people simply don’t engage…  And some surprise at this, despite relatively clear reasoning that 10-20 years of being ignored are clearly not going to be reversed by one well-meaning ICT4D project!

Also interesting highlighting of what is actually new in new technology – pretty much just two things, the fact that everyone is potentially a creator (not needing to spend a fortune to buy a printing press) and the granularity of data…  Everything else may seem new, but has probably been done before in other technologies.

Most interesting take-aways for me, or thoughts the event gave rise to were:

Iteration across multiple programs
Iterative approaches are beginning to be recognised as preferable (e.g. Agile as discussed in my recent blarticle).  However when a community has multiple projects happening over a long time-period, perhaps with different NGOs, governments and partners, how do you ensure the benefits and learning of an iterative approach can be embedded in this complex scenario.  It’s clearly needed!

Depoliticising through participation?
While it is possible that participation can lead people to become more engaged and active and move on to bigger challenges, it is equally possible that by participating in the micro-level things they CAN control, they end up ‘satisfied’, depoliticised and stop trying to change the bigger things.  It’s hard to know which is more likely, but a look at Bolivia is interesting.  There were very high levels of participation for 10-20 years enshrined in the constitution, but fundamentally changing nothing as the government ignored the people.  Then in a short period of time, the group excluded from participation (MAS) became a major social force and were elected as a highly developmental government.  Would this have happened earlier without the ‘fake’ participation or did this galvanise groups to organise.  Given that MAS was mostly excluded from the participatory programs, it seems that the former is more likely and perhaps supporting social movements is a better alternative than establishing participatory projects that serve to depoliticise the population.  While generalising from this experience is clearly difficult and dangerous, it is nevertheless interesting food for thought.

Role of champions in government
The power of the individual was also highlighted as extremely important.  The idea of identifying and nurturing people within government who have a genuine desire to change and power to implement or influence things seems plausible, achievable and a powerful tool to increase the chances of participation being successful and empowering.

Engaging Communities & Local Government (19th March 2013)

Ironically, the highest profile (hosted at the House of Commons) event, focusing on the mature democracy of the UK, which could have been expected to have the most mature and well thought out proposals for community engagement, was actually the least interesting of the three.  There were still some useful tensions to consider however:

Cooperatives / Outsourcing, Representative vs. Participatory Democracy
One model discussed was the co-operative council model, set against the ‘Barnet’ model of government outsourcing.  They sound very different but the discussion (with Steven Reed MP and Heather Wheeler MP) betrayed surprisingly similar results.

The Co-op model talks about encouraging local communities to take ownership, while the outsourced model emphasises saving money through efficiency, but there are fundamental questions over whether either are actually giving up power in any way, or just outsourcing to slightly differently constituted non-democratic institutions.  The rhetoric may be around participatory democracy but is the reality just handing power from elected to unelected ‘community leaders’, and in such a way that it can be reclaimed at any moment..?

Having said that, a local council’s commitment to supporting, establishing and working with co-operatives can only be a good thing, it should perhaps not be confused however with any genuine and fundamental change in power and local democracy, but seen for what it is – a potentially welcome and interesting way of delivering services under the inevitable slashing of local government funding.

Localizing Development – Does participation work? (20th March 2013)

The final event was the most interesting and surprisingly lively and fun.  The main speakers ( Ghazala Mansuri and Vijayendra Rao of the World Bank) were introduced by the Sussex celebrity-academic Robert Chambers, and were followed by a lively and challenging debate.

It appears that, while there is some evidence that participatory approaches are better at targeting funds, and better for key public service delivery (health and education), this is only true when they are also accompanied by additional resources.  There is little or no evidence that participation on its own accomplishes anything, and it seems especially ineffective in highly unequal societies or where there is a corrupt/ineffective state.  While the participatory process is said to have an intrinsic value, we still don’t understand how this might work, what the theory of change underlying it is, or have any real evidence of this truth.   Many of us still think participatory approaches are a clear improvement and a better way of working, but this is not nearly so clear cut as we might like!

Some of the more interesting key tensions and learnings discussed and my own thoughts on them are summarised below:

Organic vs. Induced Participation
This seems a critical and useful distinction.  Organic participation generally happens naturally (e.g. social movements and uprisings) whereas Induced participation is generally external and funded (e.g. World Bank participatory projects).  The confusion between these very different concepts is perhaps responsible for much of the mixed feelings around participation.  An interesting suggestion is the idea that the latter should learn from and mimic the former.  Or in my view perhaps a greater role for seeding, identifying, supporting and nurturing organic participation and less focus on seeking to create it from the outside.

Government & Market Failure / Citizen Failure
The concepts of market and government failure are well known, but there appears to be a common view that citizens, communities and civil society are immune to this.  In reality they can (and often do) also “fail”, they are volatile and unpredictable and should be recognised as such not assumed to be impervious to the same problems all institutions can fall victim to.

Some other key lessons that emerged that are worth highlighting were:

A need was identified to sandwich bottom-up participation with a top-down protection of the rights of the marginalised to combat corruption and elite capture.  Without this top-down state-protection, it is difficult for the local community to have any power to enforce its decisions or combat corruption and elite capture.

Long-term capacity building
Nothing new here, but yet again the idea of long-term flexible projects that seek to capacity build local people and institutions was identified as one of the critical factors behind participatory approaches being successful or not.  It remains clear that short-term pre-planned “projects” are clearly not suited for what is in effect a major transformative societal process

Participation not necessarily a route to social movements or civic capacity
Echoing the discussions in the previous event, the researchers found that in much induced participation, people did NOT increase their collective action afterwards in different areas, but actually just came together to get the project monies on offer.  This is a serious challenge to the idea that participatory projects seed new ways of communal working that might last in to the future.


As is often discovered, it appears that while participatory approaches may be a little better they yet again do not appear to live up to the transformative potential that is sometimes claimed for them.

Why could this still be the case?

Rather than re-hashing well-known arguments, there are a few core ideas that emerged from the events and are echoed in my own previous work, which include:

          • Local-level participation works as an addition to representative democracy and in the context of a genuinely developmental state.  In the absence of these it is not a viable alternative.  That is not to say it has no value but it is not the answer to failed states.  This raises difficult questions for the role of both participation and development in general, in such states and in both totalitarian and highly unequal regimes.
          • A key driver from the 3rd event, hinted at in the others and in previous work is the abiding importance of power and inequality.  These seem to have an enormous impact on both the transformative potential of participatory approaches, and their success as projects.  So perhaps the core goal of all participatory work should be the challenging of entrenched power structures and the reduction of inequality – not as a side-line but instead of goals around poverty, health, education etc.
          • The importance of the state and wider environment is becoming evident as critical.  Local approaches can only thrive with the support and protection of an external force from above (e.g. a mandate for inclusion of women and minorities, enforcement of anti-corruption).
          • Participation must seek to empower individuals and build capacity of communities as a core part of its purpose, otherwise they cannot take part effectively and are unlikely to continue to organise to tackle other issues beyond the limited and time-bound project.
          • Long-term, iterative and incremental development is key to ensure the flexibility to early and constantly changing needs and environments

Perhaps as a reminder we can boil this down to a not very snappy, but helpful, one-liner.  Any project that meets these needs has a much better chance of being effective than one that doesn’t, this could be a useful guideline for deciding what to support and where to direct funding:

We [project X] seek to combat inequality of power by empowering individuals, building capacity of communities with the support of government, through a long-term flexible and iterative participatory approach…

Any offers to re-word this into a snappy slogan, please get in touch!

Reflecting on Agile approaches to Development/ICT4D

English: This poster provides a good visual of...

English: This poster provides a good visual of the standard Agile Software Development methodology. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Read full ‘blarticle’ here

Recently I have been reading up on Agile project management methodologies (Extreme Programming, Scrum and a little on Rapid Application Development, EVO and Rational Unified Process).  Despite this material being focused on traditional, commercial software development and management, it struck many, quite noisy chords regarding technology development in developing countries.  In particular, the focus on starting small, not pre-planning everything from the start, and evolving software slowly through engagement with the ‘customer’, is strikingly similar to the practices recommended in various participatory approaches to development, and in socio-technical discussions around ICT4D projects.

With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to explore these similarities and see what Agile software-development methodologies might have to offer the ICT4D community – not just in terms of developing software but in the wider development context too.

This piece is not intended to be a robust analysis of the available evidence but more a think-piece that may provide some food for thought to investigate further at a later date.  It’s too long and structured to be a simple blog but not rigorous enough to be an academic article, but falls somewhere between the two media.  So I have called it a blarticle…  Tacky I know but if it works 😉

Also it’s a bit long for a blog so have uploaded it as a PDF, so download some of my thoughts and reflections on Agile approaches to ICT4D and please do add any comments below (or email me) as it is an area I am interested in pursuing further. 🙂

On two -ism’s… Journalism shedding light on Capitalism

Terrible blog title aside…  An article in this week’s New Statesman reminded me why journalism – when it’s good – can be so valuable.  In this instance by shedding light on an aspect of capitalism that seems to be both obvious and yet mostly neglected.

The world seems to have become more and more polarised between the “pro capitalists” (neo-liberals) who see the market as the solution to everything, and the invisble anti-capitalists (such as the Occupy movement) who want to see such a radical change in the global system that – in all honesty – is simply not going to happen.

The middle-ground of “making capitalism more humane” which was always a mainstay of left-wing British politics, appears to have transformed into a motley collection of One Nation Labour spin (“Predatory Capitalism” is all well and good, but where are the policies) and more sinister attempts to clothe traditional capitlist economic in social language to pretend it is not the same morality-blind force that it has always been (a large amount of what passes for social enterprise and Corporate Social Responsibility falls clearly into this camp).

What the article by John Gray (in his review of The Locust and the Bee, by Geoff Mulgan) achieves, for me at least, is a distillation of something I already knew – in clear, open and unambiguous terms:

“the prospect of a kindler, gentler, more co-operative capitalism . . . is just a mirage . . instead . there is a clear need to decide where markets should operate and to build countervailing institutions where they should not.  Recent governments have done the opposite, dismantling non-market institutions while babbling on about society and community . . . Capitalism needs to be complemented by strong institutions with a different ethos.  This will not come about in some benign process of social evolution but only when governments have shaken off the idea that every institution has to be turned into a business.  Capitalism may be the only game in town but it doesn’t have to be the whole of life.”

This simple yet powerful approach is nothing new, but highlights the key issue in such a way that it could form the backbone of almost any policy approach.  Policy approaches that, over a 5-10 year time-frame at least – could appeal to the broadest group of left of centre leaning people – the more revolutionary left as well as the traditional left and the centrist social democrats.

So why on earth are we still arguing about differences in opinion over implausible and impractical solutions that neither the public mood nor international powers make possible, when a shared short-term vision might actually improve the world today and increase the chances of more radical longer-term changes?

And that’s not a rhetorical question – I genuinely would love to know why!  The right-wing seems to manage to bring together diverse values and opinions to further neo-liberalism, but the left-wing can’t seem to get over its factional nature to fight them!

From BRICS to BRAICS..? ALBA as a ‘Rising Power’ in Development.

Last week, I attended a seminar at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Sussex – “How are the BRICS changing development“?

Some interesting points were raised (though typically of a lot of academic sessions, it started late, spent the first half discussing the methodology, scope, people etc. and then ran out of time actually talking about the interesting stuff – the findings!), but it got me mulling over something I hadn’t considered before…

Rising Powers?
On the surface the identification of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) is based entirely on their recent increases in economic growth, and therefore their newfound ability to give aid and/or invest in developing countries…  However, the less immediate but more interesting reason for focusing on this group is that they are new powers, rising powers, and powers which don’t necessarily play by the same rules as the existing hegemony of US/EC donors.

A missing player – ALBA?
Seen through this prism – as a potentially new paradigm of aid… Then there is one very apparent “rising power” missing from the analysis – ALBA (the “Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas”, led primarily by Venezuela, and including Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and many Caribbean island-countries).

Of course ALBA is a regional-grouping, not a country.  And the amount of “aid” provided through Venezuelan Oil is probably a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of money being invested by China, but in terms of rising powers and new paradigms, ALBA is far more interesting than the BRICS countries.

The most interesting point raised in the Rising Powers seminar was that, while the aid-giving approach of the BRICS countries appears at first to be based on a new paradigm; in fact it is a return to a very traditional Western approach to aid – aid tried to trade and investment, a focus on the national interest od the donor-country, a reliance on the power of the market and so on.

Genuinely new paradigms
Compared to this, aid/investment through ALBA is based around a genuinely new paradigm of mutual co-operation, bi-directional transfer of products, a recognition of the value of skills/knowledge (for example in a well-known ALBA deal, Cuba provide medical expertise in exchange for subsidised oil).

Despite this, research and writings on BRICS countries are abundant; research into ALBA is sparse to say the least.  Is this because the information is harder to find?  Is it less interesting?  Or does it pose a gehuine challenge to the status-quo and dominance of Western powers that means nobody will provide the funding for the research..?

I for one would like to see a lot more of it!  BRAICS could be the acronym for the new set of rising powers… 🙂

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Participatory technology… opportunities to experiment..?

So this may not be exactly what a blog is intended for I know, but…

For my recent dissertation I wrote about a possible guiding framework to help ensure people obtain technological empowerment and control out of ICT4D programs, through the use of participatory methods, combined with a nuanced understanding of power, technology, and how the two interact [Read full dissertation here].

I am particularly keen to find opportunities to explore this approach in practice – whether this is by obtaining funding to set up my own projects, bringing this approach into an existing organisation/program, or simply by working alongside people implementing ICT4D work in a way that lends itself to this kind of participatory approach.

Any offers? Suggestions? Recommendations? Invitations? Grants? Jobs? Ideas? I’m all ears! 🙂

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Facebook Zero… Universal access or corporate takeover..?

29870_10150198037500484_591250483_12629673_5255818_aSo Facebook are launching Facebook Zero offering fast mobile access to Facebook (i.e. an ultra-low bandwidth version), free (no data charges) in various countries…

On the surface, clearly a great move – especially in countries where data-speeds and data-costs mean this would be prohibitive to much of the population.


  • It is limited to certain networks…  So – given Facebook’s global monopoly on social networking – this potentially becomes a massive anti-competitive move to push people to one specific provider in a country…
  • It increases Facebook’s presence and role as the “sole gateway to the web” ever further, potentially further eroding the role of the Web as the source of multiple, alternative, views on the world.
  • The people who can’t already afford to pay data charges and use a fast network now can access Facebook but… Nothing Else..!?  That’s not quite the free and open digital world being presented…

So the question becomes, while of course free and fair universal access to all information is the real objective, in the meantime . . . is it better to have free and fast access to Facebook – and ONLY Facebook – or not…

Tough one!  Comments and opinions welcomed! 🙂

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Software as Power..?

I went to the launch of the UNCTAD Report on the Information Economy last week, which focuses on software development capabilities in developing countries.
(Full report here).

Was an interesting discussion, with some good points raised by Richard Heeks and Tim Unwin amongst others; although the venue (the Commonwealth Foundation) and setting was just a tad more formal than I had anticipated (mental note – next time wear a suit!):

One issue occured to me though, both from skimming the report and listening to the discussions… The idea of software as ‘capability’ is interesting and ties the economic-aspects back to wider development-issues.  But taking this a step further, Software Development also has a power and dependency aspect – the more a country can define, control and produce its own software, the less it relies on external (usually Western) governments and companies to control how it uses ICT to meet its own development needs.

Even within this power-focused approach however, this is all focused on the country level, and suffers from the same issue of lack of detail as discussions around GDP. India is a prime example where, although at a country-level it is extremely independent and has vast software development resources, these are mostly focused in a few ghettos, are highly export-driven, and devolve little if any power to “the people” themselves.

An alternative, more participatory approach, could recognise that it is important for every region, every community, under-represented groups and so on, all to be able to influence their own ICT4D-related development through exerting control over how ICT and software influences their lives…

Food for thougt… And the seed of an idea that, combined with some of the things that the report highlights . . .

. . . could be the start of something transformational perhaps..?

Further ideas, critique and comments welcomed! 🙂

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