For those interested in Technology for Peacekeeping consider taking our online certificate course, Technology for Conflict Management and Prevention, starting July 23rd.

There has been a recent surge in literature that is cynical of ICT4D projects.  Spurred on by the randomized control trial results of ICT4D projects, such as those of the One Laptop Per Child initiative in Peru, more and more authors are concluding that ICT4D projects’ capacity to end poverty and promote transformative national or community development is often stifled by political hang-ups.  Even annual ICT4D Fail Faires have occurred the past three years, where practitioners willingly explain how their project failed and what they learned.

The change from a glorified rhetoric about ICTs’ strengths and utter invincibility to a cynical and even comical view of ICT4D, is reflective of a larger cynicism pervading international development.  Contemporary international efforts to alleviate poverty are criticized as short-term goals that do not ultimate end poverty, and in fact further inequality by embracing neoliberalism and capitalist globalization.

Cambridge economist Ha-joon Chang, for example, argues that only one of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) actually promotes “transformative development” in the classical sense, meaning industrial production and sustained economic growth.  The other goals, he contends, can be boiled down to improving education and healthcare, which without growth leave individuals and nations trapped in place, inmobile.  Focusing on poverty reduction via education and healthcare initiatives alone allows the neoliberal regime to continue forward unchallenged, allowing the rich to continue to benefit from the poor via lower tariffs and product subsidies.

In a special issue on the politics of ICT4D, the International Journal of E-Politics’ newest volume includes three articles that are indicative of the change toward cynical views of ICT4D projects.  Charlotte Scarf aggressively argues that ICT4D projects that encourage the creation of local content make the unfortunate assumption that ICT content creation alone empowers local people, but Scarf finds that unless content is directed at people with power to cause change, the local people remain poor.  Sam Takavarasha Jr. and John Makumbe document the five year legal battle between private IT company Econet and the Government of Zimbabwe.  Their study is but one example of how oppressive political regimes restrict the ability of citizens to utilize ICTs for political mobilization or development activities.  Finally, Einar Braathen, Heidi Attwood, and Julian May document the different political problems community telecenters operated by NGOs face in South Africa, even in similar environmental contexts.  The unpredictability of these political problems limits the possibility of rectifying these issues via policy solutions, and is evidence of the limits of ICT4D projects in promoting sustainable development.

The cynical studies on ICT4D projects suggest no overarching solution to correct projects’ flaws.  In fact, the cynical nature of the studies lead one to speculate that ICT4D projects, along with the MDGs, perhaps should be abandoned altogether.

Before jumping ship, however, there is another way of looking at the alleged failure of ICT4D projects to promote development.  First of all, while many projects may effectively “fail” in the short term, they may ultimately point recipient communities and nations toward joining the information society, which indirectly could promote transformative development.  Second, instead of abandoning ICT4D projects altogether, the projects can be modified to incorporate politics and power relations from the beginning of project conception and design.  For example, in the case of the production of local ICT content, only when the content can be directed as a particular organization that can mobilize resources to help the community, and the organization can be anxiously expecting the content, should local ICT content production be utilized as a means of achieving development goals.

ICT4D is at its next stage in maturity.  Its time that projects are prepared from the outset to meet the political challenges that inevitably appear during project implementation.  When these challenges can be overcome then ICT4D projects can be a catalyst for transformative development.


Jeffrey Swindle is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Michigan and has previous experience as an evaluator of ICT4D projects. 

For those interested in Technology for Peacekeeping consider taking our online certificate course, Technology for Conflict Management and Prevention, starting July 23rd.

**Disclaimer: These are Asch’s personal views and do not represent those of his employer.

You’ve heard of the 90/10 rule, right? I hadn’t heard the concept, at least, until recently. The meaning, though, I learned the hard way—an ICT-enabled project should be 90 percent planning and only 10 percent digital tool.  Not the other way around.

We initiated the Nigeria Security Tracker, an effort to catalog and map political violence based on a weekly survey of domestic and international press, at least two years ago. We wanted to answer the question “are things getting worse in Nigeria?”

The death of Nigeria’s president in office with upcoming elections, an increasingly divided electorate, and an apparent up tick in violence in the north and the middle of the country raised serious doubts about Nigeria’s stability.

And yet many disagreed. The optimists said things were getting better; the pessimists that Nigeria was becoming a “failed state”; and everyone else that Nigeria would continue to “muddle through,” as it had done since independence in the 1960’s.

Measuring levels of violence seemed like it could give us a more precise answer. While the Nigerian press has many shortcomings—lack of journalist training and professionalization, concentration of ownership and coverage in the south—it is relatively free, and there is a lot of it. Also, the presence of major outlets like Reuters, BBC, AP, AFP, and the Wall Street Journal added another layer of reliability. Indeed, some of the best Nigeria analysis I’ve seen comes from open sources. You just need to learn to read between the lines.

Mapping seemed like a useful and visually engaging way to organize our information. But without funding or any programming experience, our options were limited. We experimented with manually pinning incidents to Google maps and embedding on our blog. We tried to pitch Ushahidi to the web department hoping to get programming support, but without success.

Eventually, we abandoned the project–until Crowdmap was launched. Free, hosted on Ushahidi servers, preprogrammed, and simple to set up and use, it made the security tracker possible.

Our Mistake

We designed our research methodology around Crowdmap capabilities. We could include basic descriptions of events, and simple codings as well as details like causalities, but it was labor intensive.

Not until three months later, when we sat down to review our work, did we realize the shortcomings. Putting incidents on a map is useful if you want to see where violence is happening. But less so when you want to know when incidents occurred, or if you wanted to look at trends or correlations over time. (The automation feature of the map, while fun to watch, is not a terribly useful analytical tool.) We discovered it was impossible to look at, for example, the relationship of violence perpetuated by the security services and causalities.

Fundamentally, the project was supposed to be about the information captured. Not the technology. And we had it backwards.

We also discovered a major lost opportunity. Because we tailored our methodology to what could be included on the Crowdmap, we failed to capture other useful information, such as attacks on religious establishments, which only required marginal extra effort.

The Redesign

Given that our project was supposed to answer a particular question that a map alone couldn’t, we relegated the Crowdmap to a component of the project–no longer the driver. We thought more thoroughly about what kind of information we needed, and what we could glean from press reports of political violence.

Fortunately, we had documented all of our sources. So we could return to our original information and recode, albeit with a significant time commitment.

The Way Forward

Despite better planning the second time around, we continue to find shortcomings. We defined one variable, “sectarian violence,” inadequately, which means coding has been inconsistent throughout the project, making it less useful.

We are also vulnerable to technical problems on Crowdmap’s end. When there is a bug in the system, there is nothing we can do but wait for Ushahidi to fix it. (Recently, the site was down for about a week.)

Finally, we now have a year’s worth of information. It’s a huge dataset. And we still haven’t figured out what to do with it. Yes, we can make defensible, conservative estimates of causalities caused by actors like the police or Boko Haram. We can also show any escalation or decline in violence across the country.

But this only scrapes the surface of what our data can tell us. Admittedly, this is a good problem to have.  But given the time and resources we have already committed, and the wealth of date we have accumulated, we are constantly trying to balance benefits of the security tracker with the costs of maintaining it.

Asch Harwood is a specialist on Africa at a New York City-based think tank.