Monday, 10 December 2012

Failed ICT development projects: Sweeping it under the carpet and moving on?

by Inka Barnett

The use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) has become increasingly widespread. Even in remote villages in developing countries there are more and more people who have access to a mobile phone. ICTs have the potential to make development projects more efficient, lower costs and improve the quality of service delivery. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that the development community and national governments have enthusiastically embarked on ever more ICT projects in health, agriculture, e-governance, education and many more. There are certainly a number of very successful projects (see for example m-pesa). However, when I speak to development practitioners, I get the impression that there is an equal (or perhaps considerable higher?) number of failed projects. Unfortunately, only very few share their experiences of a failed ICT project publicly.

Last week I attended a talk by Ben Taylor from Daraja, a NGO in Tanzania, in which he bravely presented the lessons learned from his failed ICT project. Ben and his colleagues founded the Maji Matone (water drops) programme in rural Tanzania in 2010. The aim of their programme was to encourage citizens to put pressure on their local authorities to maintain and repair broken-down water pumps by using mobile phones. Using a simple SMS-message local communities were asked to report on the state of their water supply to the authorities. Local radio stations were simultaneously informed and followed-up the action the local water authorities would take in response to the text message.
The programme received a lot of attention nationally as well as internationally before it had even started. Unfortunately, the anticipated success did not come after the initial pilot phase of the project. The team had anticipated more than 3,000 text messages but received only 53! After Ben and his colleagues overcame their disappointment, they decided to actively investigate what went wrong.

They found the following reasons for failure:
  1. Political reasons: The relationship between local communities and authorities is sensitively balanced in Tanzania and citizens are reluctant to report on their government.
  2. Gender-specific reasons: Water collection is generally the responsibility of women and children who often do not have access to a mobile phone
  3. Lack of electricity and limited mobile network coverage
Ben and his team decided to openly share the reasons for the failure of their project in talks, on the web (including social media such as Facebook and Twitter) and in leaflets.
Openly admitting failure is a relative new but very important development in international development. The annual failure report by the Canadian NGO engineers without borders is another admirable example.

The application of ICTs in development projects is still novel and there are a large number of new and additional variables that need to be considered in comparison to traditional development projects (e.g. challenges of private/public partnerships, development of sustainable business models, negotiations of complex intersections between technology and development). Given the current often slightly uncritical excitement about the potential of ICTs for development, expectations of donors and limited funding, reporting failure is a challenging subject. However, without through investigation of why and how an ICT development project failed and without honestly sharing these experiences, we will continue to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.