The Funding Conundrum: Why Funding for ICT for Development Needs to Change

On a recent post, I talked about how effective feedback loops are close to being realized in Dar es Salaam.

In this post, I discuss the challenges facing this type of work today – specifically, the serious problems with the current landscape of funding in technology for development, and how we hinder progress in getting from flash-in-the-pan pilots to meaningful change.

In Dar es Salaam, GroundTruth began as a consultant to a pilot initially conceptualized and supported by the World Bank. We’ve supported it to an extent now independently (and voluntarily) for three years. In spite of having very engaged community members, having met with prominent members of government who have a strong interest in the information, and getting some local notoriety, as well as a good amount of international attention, the ultimate work of creating a strong feedback loop has yet to be done.

What’s going on?

Well, here’s how funding tends to operate when it comes to technology for development or feedback projects:

Step One:

  • A tech pilot concept is developed and funded by a large organization or institution, lasting no more than a couple of months. The concept can be initiated by a smaller partner NGO or by the big organization or institution, or even by a funder.
  • OR: a project contest, hackathon or app contest is initiated, sponsored and publicized by a funder or large agency. The contest may come with some funding as a reward.

Step Two:

  • The winner of the contest or the implementer of the pilot works on the idea, and if there is enough funding, tries it out in the field. This involves – or should involve – real people, and real communities. It’s possible that they get some results, usually in the form of uptake by citizens – there are reports posted to their online reporting tool, SMS sent in, apps tried out, used and maybe even tinkered with based on feedback.

Step Three:

  • Blog posts are written about the nascent success, and a conversation is started about what this can potentially contribute to the feedback loop or target social issue. Publicity helps raise awareness of the pilot. Social media lights up, conferences are attended and lightening talks are made.

Step Four:

  • That’s it! The funding fades and the world moves on to the next new thing. (Here is a humorous take on this published today by ICT Works).

Of course, there are some attempts to provide sustained funding for important ideas – there’s the Grand Challenge model, for instance. But more commonly, ideas that are proven to be good languish in a post-hype slump, while backers search for the Next Big Thing (or, Next New Thing). In some ways this is a chronic issue in development funding. But when it comes to technology, it’s much worse, simply because the focus tends to be on the technology itself – not on the program design, context or thornier issues in the society which created the problem in the first place. And, as we all know from our own lives, technology is indeed a quick fix and changes almost daily. Suddenly we can communicate instantly with thousands of people or book plane tickets in a few seconds from our phone. Why should it be any different for efficiently solving a social problem? And, shouldn’t any project be almost immediately “scaleable” – taken to a huge number of people or places very quickly – just like an iPhone 5 or Pinterest?

But creating actual social impact with the help of a technology is, clearly, a completely different ballgame. While we should know that, many are blinded by the potential for continuous (and cheap) experimentation which continuously boosts the profile of the associated agencies – simply because the news cycle highlights the “new” and “buzzworthy”.

The temptation of quick and inexpensive (if superficial) impact and great PR is proving to be too much to resist.

Unfortunately, lost in the storm are not only the potentially transformative projects, but the people who took part in the pilot phase in the first place. Those people are the citizens, the residents, the community members, the real people who hoped they had something to gain from putting effort into association with a promising pilot. Is it really responsible – or ethical – to ditch such an effort before it has time to bear fruit? No – which is why many participants in this funding cycle keep trying to serve their public in spite of such immense resource challenges.

And the final blow is that the same funders continue to serve the cycle of the new, while tending to blame the initial developers and implementers for not creating something that’s going to operate on its own sans grant funding. That is, something marketable. Or, that proves its own worth in a matter of months and thereby becomes something the public will pay for, or requires no money because of extensive volunteerism. In my view, this fallacy is akin to saying that public libraries don’t deserve public funding because people should pay to access books and information if they truly value them (or they should manage and run their own free-braries). But that’s another post.

Many technology interventions can indeed create an attractive output that appears online quickly and relatively easily, whether or not the ground reality has changed at all. This is different from most development areas – health, education – whose challenges resist even the illusion of a quick impact.

Where we need to concentrate resources now is on those organizations and individuals who have gotten past the first three, four, five iterations of a technology intervention and that attractive output – the projects where a constituency of support has already been built up at the grassroots level.

This isn’t just us – I’ve met countless inspiring people often working in their own backyards on real feedback loops and real impact from collective citizen voices amplified by technology. Most of the time, what I hear is this same story – their potential is severely limited because after the initial buzz, there wasn’t any more funding. While one might think that a good project will somehow manage to attract the support it needs, that’s just not always the case. There are indeed resources out there which are being spent on technology and development, but they are not being directed toward those people already making a real difference, nor are they targeted at the post-pilot phase – which is not the same as the “scaling up” phase. I would call it the “impact phase” – putting in the hard work needed to create a tangible effect and close the loop of feedback, leaving a real mark on society. This might happen in year 2, 3, or 4 of a project, not year one.

We’ve had the surreal experience of watching a presentation in Washington which happened to show our Dar es Salaam pilot as an example of a great success, while we were chatting online with a project participant and learning that our entire stock of computer equipment had been destroyed in a flood, and therefore any chance of the pilot reaching its potential was nearly eliminated unless we could somehow get them new equipment. We started asking around for donations, and thankfully friends at a small tech company contributed two laptops. The project has now been kept going on just those two laptops for over a year now. This is great – but clearly limited. I think it shows that the nitty gritty of getting any of these ideas to work is ALWAYS much more difficult than it might initially appear. It requires a stronger commitment than anyone anticipates when they first realize that technology could become a game-changer in development.

It’s complicated: in our case, there has indeed been interest to push forward from this pilot on the part of those we started out with at the World Bank. But there are often problems with having large institutions involved with small experimental pilots, which require strong adaptability and agility – within the organization as well as externally. For one reason or another and after various attempts, there hasn’t yet been a successful channel for taking it forward to the impact phase.

Unfortunately, it’s quite common for pilots that have great potential and international fanfare to stall and not go much further than that. I understand the real need for serious thinking and research on how to create that elusive impact – how to complete the loop – and for much, much better evidence and stronger theories of change. But that is the level at which we should be experimenting and piloting by now. And that is where funding needs to be directed. This field is no longer new – there are many, many pilots which need to take the experimental mindset to the next level of closing the loop of impact. Let’s give them our support.

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8 Comments on “The Funding Conundrum: Why Funding for ICT for Development Needs to Change”

  1. At DataDyne, we made a conscious decision 3 years ago to move beyond grant funding, which had sustained us for most of our first five years as an organization. To do this, we decided to adopt the “freemium” model of Skype: a minority of users pays a very low price, and this subsidizes free provision of service to the majority. Everyone is happy, because (like with Skype) even those who pay are paying less than they would by other methods.

    What this has meant is that for the past two years, our Magpi mobile data collection system has been entirely supported by user revenue — generated from less than 1% of our 23,000 users worldwide.

    I am not aware of anything else like this in ICT4D. Magpi is not a pilot or a project: it is a self-sustaining, widely-scaled commercial system, focused on international development, operating for 8 years now (a lifetime in ICT4D), and that gives away 99% of its services for free.

    The conundrum is not how to sustainably support scaled ICT4D. The conundrum is why more ICT4D organizations are not emulating our approach.

    • erica says:

      Many software companies are in fact emulating this approach (Frontline SMS for instance). But ICT4D does not consist entirely of technology companies with products. There are many, many others that work on the use of technology in development – to encourage hardware and software development and knowledge in developing countries, to engage with communities and support their use of open data and information, to look at the social and cultural aspects of technology and its use in promoting citizen empowerment, to support activists in harnessing technology for political and social causes, in fact – to work directly in the field with the software products others create …the list goes on.

      • Frontline is indeed moving towards a freemium approach, and I hope that this is at least in part because of my influence as a board member. But I don’t think it’s true that “many” software providers in ICT4D are emulating this approach, not at all. I would guess that 99.9% of ICT4D is still done with grant funding — which produces all the problems you describe. So it is not, as you suggest, that “many” are moving to this successful model. In fact, hardly anyone is. And that is, as I suggested, a conundrum.

    • Joel, great point about the importance of a business model in any sustainable ICT4D initiative. It will be interesting to see if “softer” information services like agricultural advisory content can successfully adapt a freemium model. It was great learning about your work and Magpi in #TC105.

  2. Erica, I agree 100% with the landscape as you described it, and we at InSTEDD are often having similar conversations. Joel describes one scenario that works for his company’s offering, but that one size fits all will not work with many other organizations that are currently operating in this space. There needs to be a paradigm shift in how development funding for ICT is viewed by those that have the funding. Without the shift, lasting impact will be limited. There will be few that can manage the current “economic” environment. Thanks for sharing your thinking on this – well said!

    • Wendy, I don’t believe that anything in my post suggested that our approach could be applied as “one size fits all.” It is not surprising that “all” don’t apply our approach. It is surprising that hardly ANY apply our approach — particularly when it is just about the only widely-scaled and not-grant-supported example in the sector.

  3. I am a fan of Magpi’s freemium model, and especially for organizations that don’t have the capacity to manage their own data and back end, it is an excellent solution and an excellent product. First, it makes it obvious that for anything to survive long term, it has to be supported unless it is a limited scale experiment. It also allows experimenters to benefit from all the hard work that has come before them. To bring anything to scale, though, someone has to pay the bills on the technology and the capacity building and the M&E. I would argue that any feedback loop project needs to have an invested party, whether it be government, citizens themselves, long-term donor support (when the first two are not willing to pay but there is a compelling interest in the project, read to support disasters, refugees, the bottom of the bottom of the pyramid), and this should be identified up front, even before the hackathon or the requirements development process that shows that the already proven software will meet most of the needs. At the IFC, we are partnering with ministries that are interested in what citizens think about G2B services as they move from manual to automated delivery of these services. We are piloting feedback systems with an eye to linking them up to the larger IT systems eventually. The jury is still out on whether this approach will work, but I’ll keep you posted.


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