Category Archives: Technology

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

Participatory Technology – Meeting Up on the South Coast (#tech4socialchange)

The Scene…

Friday September 27th 2013, a dark room above The Quadrant in Brighton, having lost my guest speaker and my MC, and experiencing the obligatory technical problems with the projector, beginning to panic a little…

(One day I plan to attend a conference of the Institute of Projector Technicians, see if *they* have the same problems as the rest of us!)

Turn my back to stare at a broken cable, and 2mins later, Robert Chambers and a supporting cast from the Institute of Development Studies are there, and about a dozen people have trickled upstairs without me noticing – considering it’s still 15mins before the posted arrival time and the last event had a total of 4 turn up, things are looking up!

IMG_2281Cut to 30mins in the future…  A crowded room, barely a spare seat, slightly too busy if anything, and definitely too dark . . .and me at the front getting smacked on the head by a roll of flipchart paper by Chambers for inadvertently introducing him as “esteemed” – rookie mistake, and odd considering it’s a word I have never used before in my life – ah the joys of my hatred of public speaking!

All-in-all I think I can safely say that the 3rd attempt at a Brighton “ICT4D Meetup” was an undoubted success.  It’s (now broadened out slightly to Technology for Social Change, to ensure people doing interesting social/tech work locally can participate and share experiences with those doing similar work overseas.  I think there was also a healthy mix of academics vs. practitioners vs. technologists – and the fact that about 20 people were still nattering away an hour after the ‘official’ end – well that’s gotta be a good thing right?

So, for those of you who couldn’t make it… What did you miss..?

  1. Introduction by Robert ChambersRobert Chambers‘ElePhants in the Room’ – always good to see Robert’s engaging style of talking, and I think this session set the tone really well for the speakers who followed – helping make sure they focused on the key topics of participation and power and not just the technology or development angles.  Nice set of Who Whose Questions to help get people thinking too…
  2. Series of Lighting Talks
    Great speakers, academics, practitioners, technology-focused projects, developmental work, local stuff.  Great mix and really inspiring stuff…Thanks to all the speakers (some of the presentations are linked below too)…

    • Mark Robinson, DfID (Making All Voices Count: Using technology to promote engagement and feedback on government service
    • Oliver Bettany, On Our Radar (Using mobile to train / support reporters from isolated and excluded communities to share news and influence policy)
    • Rachel Masika, University of Brighton (Barriers to women’s participation in mobile-phone mediated services)
    • Olivia Comberti, Anansi Digital (Mobile App and Participatory Research – helping people share their life goals and support each other in realising these)
    • Alan Jackson, Aptivate (Agile, Development, Integrity?)
    • Katharina Welle, STEPS Centre, University of Sussex (Can ICTs help to make water supply schemes in Sub-Saharan Africa more sustainable?  A proof of concept is still needed.)
    • Purna Shrestha, VSO (Using ICT for social change, increasing accountability & transparency)
    • Joe Press, Royal Holloway University (Community engagement & appraisal of participatory video in Sri Lanka)

    Particular highlights for me were Rachel, Katharina and Joe for pointing out the potential pitfalls, failures and potential negative effects of technology – something the ICT4D community often seems blind to; my colleague Alan from Aptivate for bringing together the work we do abroad and the way we live/work at home – integrity and ‘walking the walk’ being critical, and Olivia for just being so passionate, open and honest about her plans and goals – refreshing and I really hope it comes together!

  3. ‘worldPub discussions’
    Slightly less effective I have to confess was my attempt to create an informal version of World Cafe and Knowledge Cafe learning groups – slightly glibly called worldPub discussions, that focuses on networking and collaboration and not just learning.  I’d love any feedback on this, as I still think the idea works, but the venue wasn’t great for it, I didn’t introduce it that well, and didn’t have time to explain the process to the table ‘hosts’.  Ah well maybe next time!

All in all though – over 50 people, everyone seemed to enjoy it, have fun and get a lot out of it, will try to arrange another theme for November/December.  Any offers to help arrange would be much appreciated!!

Particular thanks must go to Aptivate for giving me the latitude to run with this idea, for supporting (I’d say “sponsoring” but that’s a bit too freemarket-capitalist) the event, and in particularly for offering all the attendees a free ‘Loband’ Report (to see how to make sure their websites can be seen by most people in developing countries, it probably can’t right now!)

If you didn’t make it, watch this space, join the Meetup Group, or keep tabs on the Twitter hashtag #tech4socialchange to make sure you don’t miss the next one!

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. 🙂

A little bit of RAD…

Just a quick post today – I recently was flicking through some of my Uni essays and decided there’s a few that might be worth re-purposing.  One in particular takes a brief and high-level look at RAD (Rapid Application Development) as a socio-technical substitute for traditional approaches to ICT4D.  It’s more of an introduction to the topic than a thorough analysis, but I am starting to look into IS methodologies in development, so it seems suitable to start with this and then move on.

Read the full article here  Any suggestions for future work are welcome!

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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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Negroponte’s latest ‘experiment’?

So Nicholas Negroponte has gone from giving XO Laptops to children, with some teacher-training… to giving Tablets to children with NO training

The experiment is really interesting, and the idea of seeing how much kids can learn unsupervised is of course interesting, BUT…

Haven’t we been here before..?  With OLPC?  With hole-in-the-wall computers..?  YES kids can learn alone…  NO it’s no substitute for a supportive learning environment with good teaching… MAYBE it will provide an alternative where good teaching isn’t available… PROBABLY the kids will just learn to play games and/or lose interest…

I’m not suggesting there is no value to the experiment, but that we have enough background knowledge now to create something far better, which targets specific gaps in our understanding, which leanrs from the MANY failures and lessons that came out of the OLPC rollouts (for more on this, see my article on the Peru OLPC Rollout, published on Hii Dunia), and could add something significant to our knowledge of learning and technology in poor environments.

Instead, unfortunately, we will probably learn – AGAIN – that just giving technology out on its own is insufficient and has some, modest, impact, but needs infrastructure, support and above all, good quality teaching, to have a significant effect.

I look forward to reading these results at the end of the multi-million-$ experiment! 🙂

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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