Pop Quiz: What Is the Difference Between mHealth, mEducation, and mAgriculture?

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I do hate sectoritis – the innate desire of development actors to isolate into health, education, agriculture, civil society, and all the other sector silos and sub-silos of our industry; its stupid tribalism at its best, and downright corrosive on collaboration at its worst.
Of course digital development practitioners (another silo!) are no better. We follow the convention of others and silo ourselves into mHealth, mEducation, mAgriculture, and from there down into eHealth vs. mHealth, etc, etc, etc.
Please stop the madness. We’re all actually working the same problem set.
Which Sector Is This: Health, Education, or Agriculture?
Local development actors work at the community level to try and effect change. They most likely have a basic level of education and pre-service training. They occasionally get a few hours of in-service training. They may spend an inordinate amount of time on paperwork to record their activities, or more likely, do none at all. They are generally underpaid, if paid at all, and if they are paid, probably only get a fraction of their official pay.
And yet the government expects them to do frontline development work in the community, changing behaviors, practices, and experiences ingrained in every community member, while almost every international development organization tries work through them for their own project goals too, some of which may actually conflict with one another.
Answer: All of Them
The scenario described above could easily be a community health worker, a schoolteacher, or an agricultural extension worker. The work environment and work conditions for each of them are very similar. Whether it is a health facility, school, or farmer support center, particularly in a rural community, the staff will be underpaid but overburdened, they will have not have a high level of support and mentoring, and they will have limited supplies and materials.
Which Sector-Specific Technology Intervention is This?
Here are three examples of technology interventions. Can you guess which sectors they were in?

  • Project #1: Several locations in the district are to receive computer equipment and use it for a new online reporting system. The staff at the locations has never used computer technology, so the project brings staff together and explains the benefits, how to use basic features and support the staff in a one-off two-day training.
  • Project #2: Computers are already in place at the location, and have relevant content and reporting systems in place. However, due to staff turnover, the current staff does not incorporate the content or reporting systems in their work, and viruses, pirated software, and poor Internet connectivity now plague the machines.
  • Project #3: Staff are expected to use mobile technology to better engage with their constituents, and a set of district officers will follow up with the staff to support the new processes, so staff can incorporate the new methodologies in their work. The staff performance review and promotion procedures still need to updated with the new processes, which will hopefully happen in the next year or so.

Answer: All of Them
These examples are drawn from real programs in health, education, and agriculture, but it really doesn’t matter which ones or which country. These conditions are universal for frontline development workers, and we know the result of each one: failure.
Yet every single one of us is guilty of thinking about our interventions in silos. Sector silos, intervention silos, and technology silos. We need to stop designing interventions as if our ICT4D problems existed only in our sector silos, or as if people worked in silos and lived in them too.
We work in complex, interdependent systems and we need to start developing our solutions to reflect this reality. We need to have integrated programs that look holistically at the problems and the solutions, and we need to talk across sector silos to learn want our peers are doing.
Down With Silos, Up With Collaboration!
So the next time someone asks if you work in mHealth, mEducation, or mAgriculture, respond with the truth: you work in development, digital development if need be, but it is time we all were post-sector and pro-collaboration.