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On Financial and Other Types of Sustainability in ICT4D Initiatives

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I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the sustainability of ICT4D initiatives over the past couple months in preparation for a panel I participated in at ICTD 2012 and due to a good discussion on the topic while at a workshop in Cairo hosted by NetHope and Plan International in late February.
At the Cairo workshop a group of INGOs, ICT corporations and a representative from the Ministry of Education’s ICT section discussed replicability, scale and sustainability in ICT and Education programs at length. At yesterday’s panel, we tackled the more specific topic of financial sustainability with folks from NGOs, contractors, corporations, ICT associations and researchers.
The themes and challenges that came up in both of these discussions were similar, whether looking at more ICT-driven projects (eg., providing computer equipment) or smaller social enterprises or very large government or aid-funded programs that seek to integrate ICTs into other areas like health, education, agriculture, or economic empowerment.
Sustainability is a real challenge for all these kinds of programs. Individuals and organizations are trying to build in sustainability in various ways, from supplementing ICT platforms with advertising to charging end users small fees to seeking funds from corporations and institutional donors to conceiving of ICT initiatives as small enterprises.
Some key points I presented combined with some points brought up in our discussion group include that:
Financial sustainability should stem from the identification of a real need
The need should be identified by the community. The initiative should be owned by the community and co-created with end users, not designed and parachuted in from the outside. When the benefits of a program (ICT related or not) are not tangible, it may be necessary to do some buy-in work and awareness raising with people to help make the benefits of an initiative more clear to the broader population. It’s important to do a baseline and some monitoring and evaluation to know whether or not the initiative is indeed having an impact. If you have to pay people to participate, you’ve got issues.
Where the market doesn’t work…
The market by nature excludes large swaths of people. At the same time, giving away free stuff usually hurts development efforts because people often do not value that which is ‘free’. (On the other hand, if people are not willing to pay for something, some would say you haven’t identified a real need). Even ‘poor’ people do have some resources, so their contributions to this or that project need to be carefully analyzed and weighed as part of the process.
There are differing opinions around the privatization of services like water, education and healthcare and whether people should be paying for these or whether they are rights that governments need to be held responsible for as duty bearers. Some kind of balance needs to be found here.
Financial sustainability cannot be divorced from other aspects of sustainability, such as

  • political – consider election cycles and government budget cycles and support
  • legal –work within local legal frameworks or the project may fail once it gets going
  • managerial – have the right people managing a program, especially if it’s meant to grow and scale.
  • social sustainability – as mentioned above, ensure local community ownership, interest, buy-in
  • transparency, accountability, good governance are key in all the above

Financial (and other kinds of) sustainability requires creativity and a good understanding of:

  • client (end user)
  • context
  • capacity
  • culture
  • connectivity
  • cost

ICT solutions that save people money and time can be sustainable from within. If the problem can be resolved in a cheaper, simpler way without them, then don’t suggest using ICTs. Start small with scale and sustainability in mind from the very start.
Local, local, local and local… and more local…
For both financial and technological sustainability, it’s important that the technology tools and devices as well as the technical support is local. Local partners should be involved in implementation. Research on impact should also not be exclusively done by those from the outside, but rather should involve local researchers. Local feedback loops can assist with more real-time understanding of how the initiative is faring.
Tension between public, private and non-profit institutions is common
Telecoms and IT companies are looking out for their bottom line. Development agencies and civil society organizations by nature are supposed to be looking out for the most marginalized and excluded. NGOs and civil society will likely resist privatization of areas like education and health. Governments will have their own agendas and self-interests. NGOs will have their own funding interests as well. There are vastly different approaches, paces, deliverables, timelines and methodologies among these three types of institutions who are all involved in the ICT4D space. Trying to harmonize these interests alongside what communities want can be a huge management challenge and can have a strong impact on sustainability concepts and approaches.
In aid-funded and government projects
Often the sustainability plan for projects by INGOs or local NGOs is “the government will assume responsibility” or “the community will assume the costs and management.” This can be a big issue if not properly planned from the start. If every development program plans for the government to take on the costs for the program, but this has not been discussed fully, agreed on or budgeted by the government, there will be real issues with sustainability as there won’t be enough budget to cover the continuation of all these projects and programs. There is a role for greater aid coordination here, for example via the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and for open publication of government budgets and spending plans. Localization of costs is important. If an INGO is paying high salaries during the initial funding stage and then wishes the government to take on the program costs, the project may collapse.
A few models to look at:

Additional good resources on ICTs and sustainability:

Also check out last November’s huge debate on ICT4D vs ICT4$. It’s worth reading as it highlights elements of the sustainability discussion from a broader perspective and pulls in opinions from several well-known authorities on the topic.
This was first published as ICT4D and Sustainability

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