Observations from the ICT4D Conference 2019, Kampala, Uganda

As I made my way to Kampala, Uganda for the 2019 ICT4D Conference, a large billboard exhorted me: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” – a fitting premonition considering the experience that the next few days would afford me.

I was headed to Kampala to share my ICT4D experience, and learn from colleagues across the world, to engage in a cross-sector discussion regarding implementation challenges and best practices. It would be a gathering of professionals committed to making a social impact – together. This article presents a reflection of those conversations.

Reflecting on ICT4D 2019

ICT4D 2019 was to be a hands-on opportunity to explore how people around the world are using ICT4D to enhance program quality, improve decision-making and increase impact, accelerating our progress toward the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Setting the scene: Devex/CSR’s 2019 ICT4D Survey

Jennifer Poidatz, VP, Humanitarian Response, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), and keynote speaker at the first day’s plenary, set the tone for the week, as she presented a summary of findings from Devex/CRS’s 2019 ICT4D Survey, which assesses current use of ICT among development professionals year-on-year. Major highlights from the survey include:

  • 47% of respondents identified Asia as having the most rapid growth in ICT4D compared to 33% who identified Africa.
  • ICT4D tools provide a whole range of benefits to aid/development programs, from timely and higher quality data, to accountability. Those results were similar to last year’s poll. Although comparatively lower, two-thirds of respondents ranked cost savings as a major benefit of using digital tools.
  • Respondents have notably fewer concerns with ICT4D than they did in the past, with a marked drop in concerns even from last year to this. Respondents said they were dramatically less concerned this year about return on investment on ICT4D tools.
  • Looking forward, data analytics and connectivity hold the most potential for positively impacting the aid/development sectors. This year respondents valued analytics even more, and connectivity a little less, than in last year’s survey.
Figure 1: ICT4D Survey Respondents (CSR, 2019)

Poidatz expressed concern that the survey showed a relatively low use of ICT4D among program participants given that three years ago the international community vowed to increase the capacity, voice, and leadership of “those on the front lines of response and recovery” as part of the “Grand Bargain.”  “In all of my years in humanitarian response I have witnessed astonishing technological advancements,” said Poidatz. “But it’s not enough that we have technological capability at our fingertips. We must get technology into the hands of local partners and program participants. We simply must nurture the grass roots of preparedness and recovery,” she said.

Figure 2: Jennifer Poidatz, VP of Humanitarian Response at Catholic Relief Services (CRS). (Photo credit: ICT4D)

She went on to describe several programs aimed at addressing this problem by increasing local ICT4D use. “We don’t have all the answers,” she said, “we are stretching to fulfil our promises to build capacity of local leadership. Let’s ensure that technology helps us hear and respond to those whose voices are not being heard, to empower local responders and affected communities.”

The digitisation journey: benefits, enablers and tools

Despite the challenges to adoption and access, the survey results gave credence to a slowly emerging maturity amongst organisations using ICT4D to improve their development programs with real-time reporting; quality data collection; improved impact measurement and accountability; better two-way communication; and overall, an improved strategic and tactical decision-making. All also acknowledged benefits associated with more robust digital policies.

Figure 3: Benefits of ICT4D tools (CSR, 2019)

It is clear too, that social impact professionals believe that better data collection, analytics and reporting tools; an improved digital culture and awareness within their organisations; better strategic use of data; and a certain pressure from institutional donors to better measure social impact, are all key enablers of improved data use with their organisations.

Figure 4: Enablers of data use in aid/development organisations (CSR, 2019)

That said, the digitisation journey of each organisation is uniquely their own and as a result there is a huge variation in how organisations utilise software tools, and the degree of autonomy regions and subsidiaries might enjoy in choosing the tools they would like to work with.

Figure 5: Categories of ICT4D tools within organisations (CSR, 2019)

Selecting the right tool (and provider)

How are development professionals going about selecting their ICT4D tool? In a conversation with Karl Lowe, CIO of Catholic Relief Services, it came down to understanding the culture of change, something he rightly noted as being difficult to do. “As Peter Drucker said, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ It is so important to focus on people as part of our digital initiatives. We have to engage their minds but most importantly we need to engage their hearts,” he said. “Don’t think about change as one and done.”

I asked him how large organisations such as his make technology decisions? Is it the CIO, program managers, data specialists?

“I don’t want to sound like a lawyer,” he smiled, “but, well, it depends!”

“It is important for us to have standards and digital principles in place to ensure regional guidelines are meaningful. We don’t like to go hyperlocal because, for example, the lack of engineering resources, scalability and security in the DNA of ‘smaller’ solutions can potentially introduce an element of risk. We try to mitigate that.”

Figure 6: Selecting ICT4D tools within organisations

Digitisation vs Digital

Following Poidatz’s keynote, Lauren Woodman, CEO of NetHope, took to the stage, and with a provocative “Nonprofits are missing the boat” started to outline some of the issues at the heart of Poidatz’s message. In Woodman’s view, understanding that ‘digitisation’ is not the same thing as ‘digital’ is key to making progress on the digitisation journey.

“Digital is not the same as being digitised … digitizing is about instilling discipline within an organisation. Whilst many organisations have invested heavily in digitising systems and processes, the evolution to a fully digital organisation remains a challenge for many. From assessing current readiness to evaluating processes and data flows to enhancing staff capacity at every level, the process is a complex one, but one with tremendous potential benefits for communities around the world,” she said.

Figure 7: “Digital is not the same as being digitised … digitising is about instilling discipline within an organization.” – Lauren Woodman, CEO NetHope (Photo credit: ICT4D)

Woodman highlighted that most non-profits have digitised their back-office processes but haven’t necessarily gone digital yet to empower people to experiment, refine and constantly enhance digital offerings. She recommended that digital nonprofits start with changing the way people work, through redesigned processes, made possible by technology.

Of course, this is nothing new in the world of ICT, it simply highlights that the development sector is still grappling with these complex issues.

Digital Strategy

To put this complexity into perspective it is worth having a look at another major theme of ICT4D 2019, that of an evolving “digital strategy”.

Christopher Burns, Director for the Center for Digital Development at USAID, put it succinctly: “To be clear … we are digital believers! But there is a need to get a degree of structure to our thinking, and so we’re launching USAID’s Digital Strategy – a roadmap for the digitisation journey.”

Launched to strengthen the people, processes and tools necessary for missions, bureaus and implementing partners to support each other and to better harness digital for development, Burns said “we want to advance development and humanitarian assistance with more effective and appropriate use of digital technology, which in turn will strengthen countries’ digital ecosystems to foster more self-reliant and resilient societies.”

USAID is asking itself hard the questions that need to be asked – How does USAID upskill and build capacity of USAID staff? What are best practices in digital development strategic planning and design? How does USAID continue to build a culture of collaboration, learning, and adaptation on digital development?

A proponent of the Principles for Digital Development it endorses, USAID’s digitisation journey is premised on integrating these principles into its ICT policies, procurement practices and more.

The bottom line? It’s hard. There is no shortcut, and USAID recognises that tough conversations need to be had to wholly understand the implications of technology and innovation on its organisational culture.

A challenge to practitioners and providers

It didn’t take long for the social media conversation to heat up, a tweet by Ken Banks (@kiwanja) summarising what was on the minds of many in the audience:

“Things said at every #ICT4D conference ever.

1. We must stop working in silos.

2. We should collaborate more.

3. We should stop reinventing wheels.

4. We should empower local people.

5. We should stop chasing new shiny things.

Making reference to a blog post of 4 years earlier, Banks lamented the fact that there was too much talk, and not enough action.

2015: “There are far too many pilots in ICT4D, and too many fail or fail to go to scale.”

Okay, so no more pilots. Let’s put an end to ‘pilotitus’. Other than talking, what are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

2015: “initiatives that work need to be replicated and scaled.”

Okay, after decades of trying we have done some stuff right. So how do we identify the stuff that works and genuinely support that? Other than talking, what are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

2015: “We need to stop the constant reinventing of wheels.”

Yup. The world doesn’t need any more data collection tools or SMS gateways. So how do we put an end to this constant replication and reinvention? Other than talking, what are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

2015: “How do we understand and measure our impact?”

In many cases it’s still unclear who should pay to do monitoring and evaluation. Donors seem to think grantees should do it, and grantees only seem prepared to do it if the donor has given money for it. Other than talking, how are we going to fix this, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

2015: “We need to involve more local people in the design of our tools and services.”

Hallelujah. After years of ignoring the end user we’re now entering an age (in ICT4D and global conservation and development, more broadly) where we think it’s a good idea to be consulting our end user. But it still doesn’t happen as much as it should. What are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

2015: “We need to end our obsession with the latest innovation and embrace appropriate technologies.”

Everyone loves talking about appropriate technologies, but then they go off and build iPad apps for African farmers. We need to lead with the problem and the people, not the technology. But other than saying this, what are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

The digitisation journey

It’s 15:20 and the aircraft starts its engines, begins to taxi down the airstrip. Right on time. I haul out the book I’m reading, “The 8th Summit”, and as the aircraft powers into the sky I read about the importance of routine, a ‘just do it’ attitude the author deems so critical to success. Regardless of the current circumstances. He maintains that it is this discipline that allows daily activities to become second nature and help banish negative thoughts when facing a seeming insurmountable challenge.

In many ways this is what faces us in the world of social impact and development. And I am reminded that “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”


CSR (2019). 2nd Annual ICT4D survey

Principles for Digital Development

Digital Technology for Resilience Planning and Due Diligence Tool

Considerations for using data responsibly at USAID

Leaving No One Behind in a Digital World