The Challenge of Defining ICT4D Or Why Erik Hersman is ICT4$


Yesterday, Erik Hersman (aka. White African) dropped a blog bomb into the sometimes contentious debate around the term ICT4D – information and communication technologies for development. In his The Subtle Condescension of “ICT4D” post he says:

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.

To be honest, at first I felt Erik was being confusing, hypocritical and condescending himself, as he is the co-founder of a very successful project, Ushahidi, which is an amazing free-to-the-user grant-supported tool for crowdsourcing information and visualizing data that was sometimes thrown into an emergency as an instant cure-all to those under served and misrepresented – the best and worst of ICT4D all in one.

But then I calmed down, thought about how ICT4D might look like to the average African. They might be seeing it as OLPC, the poster child for all the wrong ways to go about ICT4D. I spent six years of my life kicking OLPC in the shins to try and change their approach as I believed that they we sullying a good idea with their foolishness.
Now I will take six minutes of my life to change the ICT4D debate to make sure good ideas are better understood.

ICT4D and ICT4$ are two whole different industries

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 to venture capital funders and people that are currently under served by the market place. The focus is on $. This is ICT4$ 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 products like FrontlineSMS, ChildCount+, and Ushahidi, and sell them to donor funders so we can deliver them free or subsidized to those under served by government or in market failure situations. The focus is on impact versus $. This is ICT4D, and I am proud to use the term.

Notice the different focus. In no way should a tech startup and its funders seeking to maximize profit seek to work in ICT4D, just like it would be laughable for a development organization (funder or implementer) to run a tech startup to be the next Facebook.

Projects can be ICT4D and ICT4$


Having said that, there is overlap. A product can be both ICT4$ and ICT4D. Let us take Mxit and Ushahidi as examples. MXit is certainly ICT4$ – its sole aim it to create wealth for its developers. At the same time, MXit can help promote literacy, expand needed communications, and be a foundation on which development organizations do their efforts more efficiently. That would be an ICT4D use of an ICT4$ product.

Ushahidi certainly started as ICT4D – its sole aim was to help those without a voice be heard. At the same time, it can be sold as ICT4$ as a tool for business to increase their profitability. Say Coke uses it to track stockouts or customer satisfaction – in Africa or Arkansas. I would cheer on that usage of Ushahidi just as much as Haitians did after their earthquake.

Neither ICT4D nor ICT4$ is perfect

Now Erik does point out that there are many development workers who parachute in, talk too much, then leave too quickly to have their projects make any real difference. The same can be said of a number of software developers too. We’ve all met arrogance in every field.

Erik also points out that many ICT4D projects are not financially sustainable – they exist as long as the grant funding does. The same can be said about startup companies. The current Silicon Valley metric is that only 20% of startups succeed. The World Bank says 30%-60% of theirs succeed.

Now we can argue what “success” means, but the greater point is that failure happens everywhere. We should not be ashamed of it – in fact we should celebrate failure. At least we’re doing something.

ICT4D and ICT4$ should be symbiotic

I am firm believer that ICT4D has the same overall goals as ICT4$ – to do well by doing good. We are all here to make money, even if we do it different ways. And we want to feel good about our work, regardless of the end client.

So I wish Erik all the best in keeping his distance from ICT4D while a co-founder of a great ICT4D project. I remember a conversation we had once where he reminded me he is a web technology professional first, and made more from that than Ushahidi. I’ll be the first to tell a venture capitalist that they should invest in his next startup, or in any African software developer’s big dream. There is real money to be made in Africa. I support efforts like VC4Africa and Coded In Country every way I can. And I have certainly pitched the idea of investing in African companies to VC’s before – often to jeers and laughter.

But VC’s dismissal of African opportunities hasn’t stopped me from investing my time and efforts into a nonprofit tech startup, Inveneo, which is combining the best of ICT4D and ICT4$ the best we can. We sell our consulting services, we sell hardware, and gladly take grants and donations. We are certainly mercenary in our business approach – there are no “charity” projects. Yet our services are all designed to do good while we do well.

We work through local ICT companies, who often make much more than us on projects, and a few have even grown larger and more profitable than Inveneo itself. We do not “parachute” anywhere – if a project is not designed sustainably, we don’t do it (yes, we have walked away from projects and left cash on the table). And we tirelessly promote good ICT4D practices, because Erik is right, “ICT4D” can be a loaded term to some.

I work every day to make sure the load “ICT4D” carries is a positive one that benefits those who need it the most, first. I ask you and he to do the same.

2 Comments on “The Challenge of Defining ICT4D Or Why Erik Hersman is ICT4$

  1. Thank you for this post! After reading it, I have a much better grasp on the points you started to make in the comments on Erik’s post and (to add to the discussion we were having there) I think that we’re actually (mostly) in agreement.
    For one, I agree that ICT4D and ICT4$ are two different industries. Framing a project as one or the other has a significant impact on funding and reception, so this decision shouldn’t be taken lightly and it’s important to clearly to publicly pitch to *one* audience.
    What I was really trying to get at at in saying that practitioners (in both ICT4D and international development more broadly) shouldn’t draw such a hard line between development and for-profit initiatives is essentially what you outline above:
    1) projects can (and should) be both ICT4D and ICT4$ and
    2) ICT4D and ICT4$ should be symbotic.
    I think that it’s possible (but very challenging, yes) to walk that blurry line and merge development goals with business goals because–particularly in a capitalist system–the essence of those goals can actually be quite similar. I’d also argue that in many cases, the goals of both approaches could be better realized with a combination of the two.
    Maybe it’s because that ICT4D-ICT4$ balance is so difficult to achieve (and the donor-based international development system doesn’t really facilitate it) that it seems easier just to separate them. But I don’t think that’s reason enough to do insist on drawing a hard line between ICT4D and ICT4$ and, judging from what you’ve written here, I get the feeling that you might agree.