Surprise! We Sell Sexy ICT4D Success Stories to Survive

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Recently, the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) commissioned a Baseline ICT4D Ecosystem Study to understand the current aspects and experiences of the digital development ecosystem from multiple stakeholder perspectives.
Reading the study, I found that its conclusions speak to three larger themes in the ICT4D ecosystem that combine to form one overriding narrative: We sell sexy ICT4D stories, not reality, for our own survival.

We Talk About Serving Constituents, Yet…
The DIAL study found that the global narrative around ICT4D is focused on how we serve our program constituents – the men, women, and children our organizations serve – and yet, the majority of ICT4D projects actually focus on supporting internal stakeholders, such as program teams and monitoring and evaluation needs.
This is entirely logical when you realize that most donors (big and small) want to feel like their money is going directly to constituents. They do not want to fund the program staff needed to convey the very benefits donors want to see.
This demand is why we talk as if we only support constituents, when in fact, we mainly support staff. It is the only way to get any funding at all. It is also why we have the caustic focus on overhead percentages across international development.
We Claim to be Post-Pilotitis, Yet…
DIAL’s survey and key informant interviews also found that everyone decries pilotitis and donors are adamant that they want to see ICT4D solutions reach significant scale.
However, many funding streams focus solely on new innovations, or project-specific needs, which creates multiple small pilots. In addition, there is very little funding available for the maintenance, support, and iteration needed to move digital development solutions beyond the pilot stage.
There is even less long-term funding for the platform development and adoption strategies required to reach significant scale. This dishonesty about the real long-term support required to reach scale, means we’ll be stuck in pilotitis for many years to come.
We Say Our Solutions Can Solve Problems, Yet…
DAIL’s study found that tech is usually added to a proposal as an after-thought – innovation pixie dust to make a project look sexy to a donor. Worse, this late addition includes unrealistic resources and timeframes for development.
I know we’ve all been in that meeting where we realize that there is no way we can deliver the expected functionality with the tiny money and short timeframes our program colleagues demand, yet we also know that unless we accept this fantasy as reality, we’ll get cut out of the project completely.
The result is doubly damaging for digital development. First, we deploy sub-standard solutions with insufficient resources for adoption and scale-up. Second, as our solutions fail, critics have yet another reason to say that ICT4D as a whole is a waste of time and money, which serves to starve the next project of needed funding, perpetuating a cycle of failure.
We Do All Three to Survive
The overriding feeling I get from this study, and the study highlights, is that ICT4D professionals are doing our best to survive in an ecosystem that greatly undervalues our contribution. As a result, we oversell sexy solutions, undersell the resources required, and create unrealistic expectations of impact that often lead to disappointment in our work and in ourselves.
We can and should do better, but how?
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