We all know that developing countries have seen rapid growth in information and communication technology (ICT) access and use – from basic Internet access to the explosive growth of mobile phone ownership – and this growth is uneven. While the hype points to mobile phone saturation, high-speed Internet access and broadband connectivity is still limited and poorly used by business and government to create and deliver key services.
The World Bank Group had the strategy to promote ICT access and adoption across all sectors of the developing world through:
- ICT sector reform,
- access to information infrastructure,
- ICT skills development, and
- ICT applications.
Recently, it’s internal Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) completed an Evaluation of World Bank Group Activities in Information and Communication Technologies, a review of the $4.2 billion in World Bank support to the ICT section during fiscal 2003–10. During that time, the Bank Group was the largest multilateral financier in telecommunications in Africa. (Yet that was about 1 percent of private investment in telecommunications of $400 billion between 2003 and 2009.)
The IEG’s findings are quite impressive – in it’s transparency and its recommendations – on the Bank’s ICT expansion activities:
Among these areas, the Bank Group’s most notable contributions have been in sector reforms and support to private investments for mobile telephony in difficult environments and in the poorest countries, where most of its activities have taken place. Countries with Bank Group support for policy reform and investments have increased competition and access faster than countries without such support. In other priority areas, the World Bank Group’s contribution has been limited. Targeted efforts to increase access beyond what was commercially viable have been largely unsuccessful.
In general, the Bank has a 60% success rate across the four strategies, with one major exception:
Regarding efforts to promote universal access, targeted World Bank ICT projects with the objective to directly promote target access for the underserved and the poor had limited success; only 30 percent have achieved their objectives of implementing universal access policies or increasing ICT access for the poor or underserved areas. Bank operations to promote universal access often were slow to get off the ground and were superseded by the rollout of mobile phone networks by the private sector, in some cases supported by Bank sector reform
Congratulations to the World Bank!
I am sure there will be many people who see that 40-70% failure rate in ICT projects and ask why the Bank is doing such a bad job. Expect the calls for reduction in ICT investments to start soon after. Both are misguided. Rather than bemoaning the failure rate, let us congratulate the World Bank on such transparency and risk taking.
First, it takes great bravery to critically examine any project, and even more so when donor country funds are at stake. It is even harder to be honest that many projects fail, and harder still to make those failures public. On Monday, we asked, “How Do We Break Oscar Night Syndrome in ICT4D M&E?,” and I am quite impressed that the Bank did just that even when the results were seemingly so unflattering.
Next, let us be realistic about where the World Bank is often working. It is supporting programs in relatively challenging environments, even market failure situations, where there is minimal private sector investment and considerable resistance to reform. What do you expect the success rate to be in situations like that? I would consider 30% to be a remarkable success rate. It’s better than the 20% success rate of Silicon Valley start-ups who are coddled by the most business-conducive environment in the world.
So let us not be critical, let us actually be ecstatic that the World Bank is brave enough to invest where others fear to tread and is honest about it’s success in doing so. In this case, may we all be more like the Bank.