Did you know the sky is blue? Obvious and less-obvious in ICT4D conversations
I have a confession to make.
I’m not a development worker.
I work with ICTs in the developing world, but I am driven by profit. This is both a luxury and a burden. It’s cool that people think I have something to say about ICT4D. I don’t. I have a lot to say about ICTs in the developing world, but much less to say about ICTs in a development context. Because I don’t know a bloody thing about development. My world view is skewed towards profits and markets.
In my line of work, ROI is very clear. Either the project makes (or saves!) my client a lot of money, or it doesn’t. Either it increases exposure by X number of readers a month or it doesn’t. Either it brings in advertising revenue, or it doesn’t. Either it brings in new clients, or it doesn’t. Either it fills a market need or it doesn’t.
Our clients are not poor. Broke, sure, that’s normal for small businesses everywhere in the world. But not poor. Their clients are rarely poor either. We don’t work with the BoP.
We don’t have to worry about quality of life. We don’t have to worry about development indicators. We don’t even have to worry about government buy-in. While we do worry about ethics, we don’t have to worry about negative externalities that will make life worse for a large number of people. Our projects just don’t work that way (and thank goodness for that).
On the other hand, because our clients are paying for the tools we build, I don’t have the luxury of choosing an expensive tool that may or may not work. I can only choose tools that work. Otherwise, I lose clients. Not taking end-users needs and wants into consideration results in failed projects lessoned learned. “Lessons learned” = “very expensive mistake” for clients with limited cash flow.
It’s a luxury to be able to work exclusively locally. Even when we deal with the government, there’s flexibility that doesn’t exist in development and aid sectors, because we’re a private sector firm being paid for our services. As a businesswoman, I cannot imagine designing a tool for local businesses without ever having set foot on the ground and spoken to the end users.
Technology is a tool that allows users to do many many things, including becoming more informed about the world around them, improve rural heath care, encourage citizen journalism, clean water, and a million other things. Tools have to be appropriate to their context.
In some ways, it’s limiting to only do work for money. There are a lot of cool projects that pass us by, including projects that could improve quality of life for a lot of people. Our work is almost exclusively small and local, which means that we rarely work on country-wide implementations. We don’t do large-scale public health projects, for example. Even when we work with development organizations, we’re very focused. We’re hired to accomplish very specific goals: build X tool that accomplishes Y within Z budget, or train X number of people to be able to accomplish Y.
On the other hand, it’s liberating. My job is to look at the market and find new ways to fill market gaps, and that’s easy to measure. Either we’re profitable or we’re not.
ICT4D fills the space between “market demand” and “making lives better.” There are a million ways to improve quality of life that don’t have obvious revenue models. I like to use crisis mapping as an example of this, but there are many others (public health, education, etc). Projects like this are what government and development do best. Entrepreneurs aren’t moving into this space because we can’t figure out ways to make them profitable (yet).
It’s appalling to me that there are people who design projects without accounting for local needs. It’s appalling to me that we even need to discuss why this is important. Those who took part in yesterday’s Twitter chat are aware of this. But for me, it’s like being aware that the sky is blue. Of course it’s blue. There’s a reason it’s blue. Everybody knows it’s blue. Why are we running around talking about how blue the sky is?
The answer is, of course, that there are a large number of people involved in ICT4D who are not aware that context-appropriate solutions are the only solutions that work. Which is crazy. I actually don’t know anyone in #ict4d who isn’t having intelligent conversations about appropriate technology. I do, however, have evidence that such people exist, because Beninese ministries keep paying me to clean up their messes. Someday, I would like to meet these folks.
It’s odd to participate in conversations about development where everyone’s like, “Yeah! Local! Small! Low-tech! Sustainable!” For a businessperson, these things are so painfully obvious, they even don’t need to be said.