Where Africa and Technology Collide!

The Subtle Condescension of “ICT4D”

I have cognitive dissonance over the term “ICT4D“. The term “ICT4D” is confusing, hypocritical and has a whiff of condescension that makes me cringe.

As I understand it, it’s what NGO’s do in places like Africa and Asia, but if the same things are done in poor communities in the US or Europe, it’s not called ICT4D, it’s called civil society innovation or a disruptive product.

I’ll be the first to say that I think more communications and technology tools in the hands of ordinary people is good, it’s what we need. For this reason I didn’t come down on the OLPC project, not because I agreed with it’s strategy or reason for existing, but because I simply think that getting more computers in kids hands is good idea.

So, let me be clear: I’m not against the practice of getting more ICT into Africa, I’m just don’t appreciate the condescension and hypocrisy that the term ICT4D comes with, and I’ll bring up the reasons that it actually constrains the technology innovation culture in Africa.

What do we really mean by “ICT4D”?

Ken Banks is doing a fun “ICT4D Postcards Project” where he’s asking people who work in that field to send him a picture with a note of why it matters to them. Though a fun project, I hesitated when asked to participate, because I’m particularly put off by the terminology. But, I did one, and here it is:

A few of the UN cars outside UNMIL in Liberia

“ICT4D” represents a mental roadblock. A term that brings as much baggage with it as a sea of white SUVs, representing the humanitarian industrial complex’s foray into the digital world. It means we’re trying to airlift in an infrastructure instead of investing in local technology solutions. Like the SUVs, it’s currently an import culture that will not last beyond the project’s funding and the personnel who parachuted in to do it.

If an ICT4D-type project is done in a poor part of America, is it still considered ICT4D?

That’s the question that sums up the hypocrisy of this term to me more than anything else. Here’s a an example of what I mean, on a project that I really like and am behind: PeaceTXT. It’s using mobile phones and SMS to help with violence interruption in Chicago.

Is that ICT4D? If it was deployed in Johannesburg or Mogadishu it sure would be labeled as such.

Is ICT4D basically branding for emerging market tech? It seems like it’s a way to name interesting and innovative products from Africa and Asia as something different than their counterparts doing the same thing in the West. In the West they’re called a disruptive initiative or civil society product.

If an African company creates a product that gets millions of Africans using technology to communicate better, which seems to be the very definition of ICT4D, are they automatically that? Mxit does that… What are they?

Let’s say you’re Kilimo Salama, run by my friend Rose Goslinga, which is a micro-insurance program designed for Kenyan farmers, and a partnership between Syngenta Foundation, UAP Insurance, and Safaricom. You charge, make money and yet are helping both small and large farmers alike. Is this ICT4D?

A roadblock to African tech

I was recently discussing this term with one of my Kenyan tech friends, where he stated, “I always picture a team from the UN putting up toilets in Uganda when I hear of ICT4D.”

Uganda: poster about UDD toilets

That’s one of the key problems that the ICT4D space, because to an African it comes with all the baggage of 60+ years of failed aid and development work on the continent. It triggers that begging bowl mentality, instantly stripping the dignity away from the initiative.

It also feels like this is how international NGOs are trying to stay relevant, by creating a new department and new initiatives that the big funders will buy into and support (themselves to stay relevant). Ask yourself, how many ICT4D projects in Africa are more than pilot projects? How many are just Westerner organizations parachuting in, which have no hope of staying alive beyond the time and funds put in by their organization? Sounds like the same old “aid story” to me.

That might be annoying, but the actual problem with this is twofold.

First, the African technology startup scene is young, but it’s ready to be treated as a real industry with real investors looking to make real returns. When the people who are doing business and making money in African tech get a sniff of an “ICT4D” project, they immediately dismiss it – labeling it as a special needs project where the regular rules don’t apply.

A startup company who is trying to create value and make money, but doing so with what outsiders view as poor or disadvantaged communities, is often pigeonholed internationally as ICT4D. For instance, is Esoko the money-making agricultural product from Ghana, which is now in a dozen countries, an ICT4D company? How about if a company started off by being used in Africa, but then their product went global – such as with Ushahidi?

Second, the funds and work put into this space by the NGOs are creating a false floor in the economy. They’re undermining the community of tech entrepreneurs who could be building the same products and services and charging for it, just like we’d expect any company in the West to do if there was a valuable service worth paying for. If it’s a service that should be supplied by the government, then they’re short-circuiting those responsibilities and subsidizing actions that subvert the public offices away from their duty.

Let’s say, for arguments sake, that the only way to get a much needed project going is to get a Western team in-country to start it. Is there a reason why ICT4D projects are slow to get local ownership, management and team members? Is this technology tourism and fabricated externally run projects, created because doing work in Africa is an adventure?

In Closing

What I’m hoping to get across is that we’re doing ourselves a disservice with this terminology and that it has a negative perception in the tech startup culture in Africa. Technology is about overcoming inefficiencies in the system, and products succeed because they solve real needs within communities. In Africa, as in the West, some of these solutions are for-profit and some not-for-profit. It’s important to invest in the local startups involved in trying to solve these problems and come at it from a more objective view, instead of labeling innovative technology solutions from Africa automatically as ICT4D.

We have to thinking less of ICT as something that’s about development, and more of it as a commercial venture. We need more focus on ICT4$ than ICT4D.


  1. Thank you so much for writing this. As a student in “ICTD” I have been becoming increasingly cynical of the term ICTD. As you said in the beginning, I believe technology can be used as a way to foster development, but I feel as if it needs to be done at a local level. Western organizations can play a part in supporting these initiatives, they just shouldn’t play the ONLY part.

  2. I’m totally on board with what you’re saying (the “D” at the end makes people think “aid” which is not sustainable), but there is an importance to the “D” at the end, which is a focus for the enterprise on doing something for “D”.

    I’ve worked in the for-profit sector most of my life and worked with non-profits as a part of that. The reality is that capital, especially when MNCs are involved, chases the highest returns. The uber-poor and otherwise disadvantaged are not going to be the source of those returns, unless you’re charging enormous margins on the products you sell them (look at what Microsoft’s margins are in the developed world). Left to its own devices, “ICT4$” will mostly chase the same set of rich urban market users, just as the bulk of SV consumer startups chase the same demographics (largely the ones their founders come from).

    So, yeah, make these things follow commercial logic and thereby sustainable, but the answer is not to deprecate the “D” in favor of the “$”. Both need to be kept in mind because a rising tide raises all Gini coefficients.

    I’d also mention that there are valid reasons to parachute a Western team in, which mostly boil down to raw technical capacity, available today, where you need it. Name a university in sub-Saharan Africa that has a panel of world-class machine learning experts like any of the top US CS departments, the ones that spin off startups all the time. Going beyond basic programming, there’s still stuff that needs to be done to solve *some* real problems that requires people who are smart *and* have a world-class education (e.g., machine learning). Same could be said about having executed in a core CS problem area before (e.g., scaling). Best if you can use the experience to built local capacity, sure, but that isn’t always the cheapest/fastest way to do it (which is what commercial logic would dictate). Again, to care about advanced capacity building, you have to care about the “D”.

  3. Interesting perspective, but as often is the case, the truth lies somewhere in between. I don’t think the term is so much the problem as is the practices that people activate in its wake.

    I see the term “ICT4D” as using ICT to build sustainable solutions to problems hindering development, and this term is applicable worldwide. Another may see it, and use it, as a plea for development aid and grants centered around information & communications technology.

    Perhaps all ICT4D should be labeled a disruptive initiative or a civil society innovation. But most important is that ICT4D activists learn to design sustainable innovation.

    Also, from a slightly different angle, the world is divided into developed an undeveloped. Using ICT to help bridge that gap is taking a step towards development — thus ICT4D.

  4. Erik, for me it’s simple. I work for an international development agency, trying to integrate ICTs into our programming to help achieve our mission & program objectives: by (my) definition that’s ICT4D. I don’t care if the ICTs come from Africa or not, whether the organization that developed them is private or public, or whether I have to pay to use them or not. If the ICTs will help strengthen a health system and improve the chances that people’s lives will be saved–and do so in an effective, efficient and sustainable manner–that’s what’s important. But maybe I don’t understand the term correctly…

  5. It is a big mobile-tech implementation world out here and it is important to acknowledge that multiple communities exist where knowledge lives, more, or less, virtually around it: Places like #ICT4D, HackerNews, iLab, Chicago (see above), Washington DC, Silicon Valley each with different mindsets, realities and audiences.

    If you filter the universe of projects properly, you gain some value by being able to talk about similar project and concerns. The success of the term may derive from this attempt to expose a distributed space. One successful somehow monolithic alternative is MobileActive. How else?

    This sort of tech is about mitigating inefficiencies and broadcasting/distributing useful, global-tech proximal-potential (even if it is distant in terms of local social knowhow) inventions in disruptive ways. Aid orgs can do that–they’re all across the continent and they’ve got donor money.

    In some countries there is a baggage and one certainly shouldn’t “helicopter in” and try to solve so there is an extra complexity for DC-based donor-driven outsiders (see filter-function). Regardless, the same as all their other activities: sometimes the funding pressures and perceived local capacity availability make them neglect their commitment to local aspects.

    Navigation of the space is a huge cost here too. Can someone make that marketplace more efficient for INGOs and startups? Who is to distinguish when a valuable public service might best be offered by a government and when that would never materialize? Why shouldn’t it be first to market?

    If a reassessment of values by #ICT4D folks is needed, you will want to bridge all these groups and set them straight. And you have started that process in this novel post, thanks!

    P.S. many areas in the US, for instance, benefit by creative redevelopment but those groups don’t name it like that, thus few distributed #ICT4D mentions there.

  6. Eric,

    ICT4D projects can be nonprofit, for profit, homegrown, imported, African, or American. I use the term to differentiate what is international use of ICT for what is domestic. Often the goal is the same, though rarely is the funder/funding.

    Let us take Ushahidi as an example. Does it matter that it was started in Africa? Or that it’s grant funded? No. It’s ICT4D.

    However if it was started in the USA for domestic consumption it would probably be called a nonproft or charity project. (Now “charity” is a word, I think we can both agree to dislike.) why? Mainly because we went through the phase of integrating ICT in everything that NGOs do in the USA in the late 1990s with “circuit riders” and 501 tech clubs, which still exists as part of NTEN. So there is no need to define the ict part of it as special. It’s now expected.

    This phase is mid-life cycle in the international space – we’re still selling the idea that ICT can make programs more effective. Hence the need to give a label to our efforts, to show we are not about internal IT systems, that we are not selling rack servers. That this is improving health, education, etc directly with technology.

    Then let’s take Inveneo. We were started in the USA. We get grants, we win contracts, we sell equipment. We are still ICT4D. But in the USA we are called a social enterprise now. Previously we may have been called a charity or go by the IRS designation of “nonprofit” ( a term ripe for a rant like yours on another day). Why? Because in the USA we are in the midst of an mix between for and nonprofit, between doing good and doing well, and “social enterprise” is the best term we have for that at the moment. But no one is surprised we sell technology services to improve health or education – it’s expected. The surprise is that we sell our services in Africa. This is why we need the ICT4D definition.

    But neither Ushaidi nor Inveneo do drive by development or technology tourism (great term!). We both do real ict4d. Our ICT efforts employ Africans – you hire software developers, we hire local ICT companies. In fact, I am working on a multimillion dollar project where our local partner is making 2-3 times more than we are, and that’s normal for us. several of our local partners have grown larger than us, a source of great pride (and recognition that we are but a small part of that growth).

    Now I would hope our respective efforts are the norm and it’s the rare but remembered parachutists who are in the minority. Yet I dare not look at the numbers as I am sure there is great wastage in ict4d like there is in any field. I even had a Fail Faire just to bring that point home.

    So I can see where some might feel “ICT4D” is a loaded term. I work every day to make sure the load it carries is a positive one that benefits those who need it the most, first.

  7. Thinking about this more, I feel there is a subtle missmatch going on

    . You refer to the tech start up space. I don’t think most NGOs or development organizations think of themselves as startups or in the business of helping startups (with the exception of those like VC4Africa). They are in the business of development. Ict4d refers to a methodology of using ICT to improve their delivery of developent services to (usually) under served populations.

    I don’t think the majority of tech startups (in Africa or anywhere) are focused on the same under served populations with their solutions. They are focused on people with money who want better services. Now they are using ICT, but not for D.

    So the two groups both use technology but have very different target markets, and therefore approaches to technology use and terminology to describe it.

  8. One last comment.. To run through your list..

    OLPC – drive by development ict4d
    PeaceTXT – ict4d (but Americans generally don’t use the term “ICT”)
    Mxit – ICT4D and tech start up
    Kilimo – ICT4D
    Esoko – ICT4D
    Ushaidi – ICT4D

    And here are a few more…

    FrontlineSMS, TextforChange, ChildCount+, DataDyne, and even Intel’s Classmate PC are ICT4D.

    Let’s use an example:

    Apple doesn’t do ICT4D, but if I bought iPads as a business tool for my Kenyan coffee coop I could call it ICT4D even if it’s for a mainly business purpose as long as there is a social benefit for the coop members (educational lessons for them or their kids for example).

    But if I bought iPads, hired African developers to make a business app for the coop, and locked away the iPads after work, that would not be ict4d, that would be straight-up ICT (or in the USA, IT). Not better worse, mind you, just a different use of ICT.

  9. Erik, I agree wholeheartedly. I tweeted about it about a year ago. I really struggle with the term even though it is widely used and I’ve used it myself. And why I understand that we should consider context when we are designing a product or tool, that is simply good design. It seems that by adding the “D” we are creating a subset, limiting the power of the ICT. In my experience with those in the startup world, the term is one that is actively avoided.

  10. Something very similar applies to the Water&Sanitation sector, btw.

  11. Solid post, Erik. I’m glad taking part in the “postcards” project may have led you to write something more detailed – this is clearly something you feel strongly about.

    Most of the comments already demonstrate the range of opinion – supportive and counter. As you probably know, I tend to not worry too much about definition in our world. You do what you do, and it gets put into silos and buckets depending on agendas, perceptions and so on. As a result some people will call it one thing, some people another. While great debate goes on about whether something is ‘x’ or ‘y’ (academia exists for this) the people doing ‘x’ or ‘y’ (the practitioners) generally just get on with it. This is how I deal with the whole ICT4D, m4d, social entrepreneurship, scale, replication, crowdsourcing, etc. discussion.

    All I’d say on this is that the contention lies in the “D”. All countries are ‘developing’ – none are static – so even this is hugely debatable before you even start to think about throwing technology into the mix.

  12. It’s a very appropriate debate right now since ICT developed in Africa is rolled out globally and becoming killer apps. As a person who’s regularly “parachuted in” for a “D” purpose I definitely agree with @Erik and @Paul.
    When it’s an (expectedly a ever) unsustainable pilot, aid workers with more than two brain cells (or half witted academics) are of course aware they’re doing #ICT4DR(esearch) which mostly leads to hefty reports and inaccessible journal articles. Those Aware’s should turn this into a trending topic and others will start using it.
    When it’s a brilliant spin-off that gains momentum and becomes a Killer app like M-Pesa, of course it’s ICT4$ (that’s probably they put 4 and $ on the same keystroke).
    What starts as ICT4D will become ICT4$ (even a small $) if it reaches sustainability. I like texttochange.org as an example of this.
    But there is still a large number of ‘sincere parachutes 4D’ that aim for sustainability (and might never reach it) that leads to actual development. However I’ve encountered enough ‘old world’ development workers that still feel it’s necessary to “educate those people”, to understand the condescending nature of the term.
    Trouble is, under your tweeting thumbs tagging #ICT4D feels good if your involved in a D project, and (you’ve made me seriously think about it) I would use this tag anywhere in the world, starting from the crappy neighbourhoods in my own town.
    So back to the above: make those using the tag more aware; push this debate and “Educate those people”.

  13. Erik, nice post, and it highlights the different ways people have of defining the term “ICT4D” (http://www.datadyne.org/blog/whyisntgmailict4d), and it seems even in the comments here that there is not general agreement about the term. Personally, I’m with James BonTempo on this one: if it’s technology and it’s being used for development then in that context it counts as ICT4D – the mobile phone being the most important example of the last 100 years, and GMail being another good one (I wrote about “Why doesn’t Gmail count as ICT4D” last year: http://www.datadyne.org/blog/whyisntgmailict4d).

    I guess the problem is that if a term means something different to everyone it’s not very useful for discussion! Maybe we just need to say “ICT” (I’m guessing from your post that you might go along with that. Am I right?).

    Two other terms that I find people use in many different and confusing ways are “innovation” and “disruptive”.

    Re innovation, for example, above someone comments that “sustainable innovation” is important, but for me that is redundant: the sustainability is exactly what differentiates innovation from mere invention. Invention just means coming up with a new idea, but innovation means actually putting it into practice in a sustainable way (what the Silicon Valley guys would call “bringing it to market”). Xerox PARC famously invented the mouse, Apple innovated it by making it usable and affordable and actually putting it in people’s hands. ICT4D does a lot of invention, and very little in the way of innovation. There’s a great article in MIT TechReview about the distinction between invention and innovation here (which aren’t even from the same Latin root words, though they sound similar): http://www.technologyreview.com/business/13595/

    As for “disruptive”, that’s another one people often seem to use just as a synonym for “new”. I’ve just finished re-reading Clay Christiansen’s landmark “Innovator’s Dilemma”, the book in which he coined the term “disruptive technology” (which he later broadened to “disruptive innovation”): new technology that creates new markets and then eventually disrupts (often actually kills) old markets. Nice summary of the concept at Wikipedia (of course): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disruptive_technology

  14. great read Hash. Add to that the fact that the standards that are set for such projects are so low thereby lowering the added-value of ICT in terms of bringing a solution. My view is that such initiatives usually lack the proactivity/reactivity in this ever-changing ICT environment – meaning that by the time a program/project is funded/ready to run, the initial solution that was meant to be implemented is already obsolete (or need serious redesigning)

  15. Hi Erik. Thanks for the post. A couple of books I’d recommend reading which touch on aspects of what you’ve said: ‘How Rich Countries Got Rich… And Why Poor Countries Stay Poor’ by Erik S. Reinert, and ’23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism’ by Ha-Joon Chang. Very interesting with respect to ‘developing’ countries versus ‘developed’ countries.

  16. (My four previous comments seem to be missing, this is a recap until they appear)

    Let us not confuse two whole different uses of ICT. In the tech start up world, ICT is a means to make money. Software developers code products like Mxit or M-PESA and hope to sell them at a profit to those that are currently under served by the market place. This is ICT4$ and they should be proud of their efforts.

    In the international development world, ICT is used to deliver education, healthcare, etc more efficiently. We have great ideas like FrontlineSMS, ChildCount+, and Ushahidi, and the focus is on impact versus $. This is ICT4D, and I am proud to use the term.

    Now I could use Mxit or M-PESA in a project, and that would be an ICT4D use, but they’re not designed explicitly for that role. By the same token, one could use Ushahidi in a purely commercial format and its not ICT4D. Both should be celebrated without confusion.

  17. Erik,

    Well articulated. I suspect that most people involved in this ICT4D business may not be aware of how we the “locals” perceive it. I will share this post with my friends at the African Virtual School.

  18. Erik, I totally disagree why ICT4D is such a terrible term. It takes (some) exciting and meaningful work, and gives it the linguistic poetry and appeal of a chunk of stale bread made from rotten WFP rations.

  19. This is a good post Eric. I think it is evidence of all the fine lines and grey areas from the multiple activities going on in this space. I believe a difference exists in these activities however, albeit hidden away in the true motivations of the initiators…which is the $ or the D.

    Given that there are varying commitments as to the social responsibility of businesses, the D will always be with us since, as we have seen, the $ will not always factor in this responsibility.

    For those looking at the D, the ICT is a just means to an end where the real focus lies – be it education, health, finances, etc. And its true, it may well be something else tomorrow in the ever ongoing “___4D” search for real solutions.

    It is clear though that there are these misconceptions which need to be painted and understood as I believe the African tech community has much to contribute in its own right.

  20. You sure struck a chord Erik. And yes, the term has some of that same frustrating resonance for me too, however, I think there is a perfectly legitimate case for for-profit and not-for-profit initiatives in the world of ICT4D. Some things, especially access technologies, just work better as for-profit entities. However, more complex public good issues like openly-licensed textbooks may require public/philanthropic funding to deliver a good which will benefit everyone. I think the reason not-for-profit ICT and development initiatives come out the worse for wear is that there are fewer checks and balances on philanthropy whereas the market is the ultimate check for a for-profit. It think it is actually harder to build a good non-profit initiative than a good business. It would be great to have better metrics to gage the success of non-profit initiatives but I know very well how hard that is to do.

  21. Echoing @Tribe Of Lions and @Mikel. The problem with the term ‘ICT4D’ is its close proximity to other acronyms coupled to monumental failures in Africa. @Wayanvota, yes all those projects can be described as ICT4D but its such an ambiguous term that practically any type of technology including Facebook and Twitter can be thrown into the same pool depending on the use and circumstance.

    That said, its more a matter of self esteem for most progressive Africans that thumb their noses up to anything that has a whiff of ‘welfare’ or ‘food stamps’. Many African governments will happily add a new acronym to the dictionary because it usually brings with it new fortunes. In truth I rarely ever hear the term ICT used in the West save for conferences related to developing countries — see for yourself

  22. Thanks for the comments everyone, it appears that I’m not the only one who finds confusion in the term. I also find it interesting that the people who are self-labeled as being in the ICT4D industry tend to come from the West and have such varying views to the Africans commenting (and tweeting).

    I’m sure there’s an ICT4D (R)esearch project in here somewhere. 🙂

    Also, I like how @Digifile defines a key difference here as being “Civic Tech”.

  23. @Hash and @David: You are right to sense that the term “ICT4D” is specialized. Like I said before, its mainly used in the international development field to show that ICT can and should be used to improve service delivery. This can be confusing to the software development field that lives and breathes IT, ICT, etc.

    Or as I just posted, The Challenge of Defining ICT4D Or Why Erik Hersman is ICT4$.

  24. @Wayan, with all due respect, I think the “ICT4D” definition you have provided is a prime candidate for a paralysis diagnosis. It’s basically the same as saying that Microsoft Word is ICT4D if it’s used to deliver education more effectively but if you use it to type a proposal that will yield VC funding, it’s ICT4$. Circular reasoning. Case in point, if it walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.

  25. Erik – thank you for this incredibly articulate and thought-provoking post.

    I have to say that I disagree with this statement from @wayan: “Let us not confuse two whole different uses of ICT. In the tech start up world, ICT is a means to make money… In the international development world, ICT is used to deliver education, healthcare, etc more efficiently.”

    I think that drawing these hard lines and divisions between ‘development’ projects and ‘money making’ projects is actually part of the problem, not the solution.

    When we’re talking about sustainable development, why can’t helping people make money be part of that? In fact, shouldn’t it? And isn’t a lack of focus on enterprise sometimes what makes a development initiative unsustainable by the local community in the long term?

    This isn’t an issue or debate unique to ICT4D – it’s something that plagues the entire aid/development sector.

    I think what brings it more sharply into focus with ICT4D is that, compared to other sectors of international development, there are significantly more locally-driven IT-based ‘development’ and ‘making money’ initiatives happening in regions where international ICT4D projects are focused.

    This makes it practically impossible for those of us working in the field to avoid acknowledging the “subtle condescension of ‘ICT4D'” and the tension caused by the (in my opinion, false) division between ‘development’ and ‘money-making’ ventures.

    I don’t think that these problems of subtle condescension or definition are limited to the term ICT4D – in fact, I think that issues that Erik and the respondents to his post raise about term ICT4D are symptomatic of larger issues within international development as a whole.

    I don’t have an answer.
    I think that this debate is important, and I intend to continuing to engage with it.
    But I also agree with @kiwanja when he says that “While great debate goes on about whether something is ‘x’ or ‘y’ (academia exists for this) the people doing ‘x’ or ‘y’ (the practitioners) generally just get on with it.”

    So, let’s keep talking.
    But let’s get on with it as well.