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6 Reasons Why We Keep Failing at Digital Development Interventions

By Guest Writer on February 3, 2022

ict4d failure

Clearing out boxes of old books and reports recently, I was struck by how many ICT4D initiatives there have been over the last 20 years, many of which have simply repeated the mistakes of their predecessors. Most have failed to make real and significant improvements in the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people.

Quick looks at Weigel and Waldburger’s (2004) seminal book, and the ICT4 all Exhibition catalogue for the 2005 WSIS Summit in Tunis, remind us that most of the problems we are addressing in 2021 are broadly similar to those that were being addressed 20 years ago:

  • how to enable the most marginalised to benefit from digital tech;
  • moving from rhetoric to action;
  • how to deliver effective partnerships;
  • the importance of local languages;
  • financing challenges;
  • or how to ensure access…

An invitation to give a lecture at the Aga Khan University in Pakistan as part of a Master’s course on Learning and Teaching with Technology later this week provided me with the opportunity to reflect at some length on this thorny issue, and to come up with some suggestions as to why we continue to reinvent the wheel, and what we need to change if we really want to work with the poorest and most marginalised in delivering effective ICT4D initiatives that will help to empower them.

It also reminded me that even when I first started teaching in universities in the mid-1970s I used multimedia technologies such as slides (diapositives), aerial photos, film clips, overhead transparencies – as well as books. There is very little fundamentally new in the use of ICTs in education; it’s just the detail of the tech that has changed.

As long ago as the early 1990s I thus enjoyed delivering lectures to students across London through the University Live-Net TV network, and in the middle of that decade enjoyed participated in the work of the Computers in Teaching Initiative in the UK. Hopefully we had learnt by then many of the challenges and success factors that previous colleagues involved in delivering education at a distance had shared with us.

Why are we failing so badly to learn the lessons of the past?

Reflecting on this simple question, I came up with six main suggestions as to why valuable lessons from previous ICT initiatives, especially in the education sector, do not seem to have been sufficiently learnt:

  • Lack of background research
  • Increased emphasis on innovation
  • The problem with “self”
  • Short-termism
  • Commercialisation and marketisation of education
  • Insufficient intergenerational dialogue

I am sure there are many more, and I look forward to exploring these ideas further with interested colleagues. Each needs to be fleshed out in much more detail, but the following brief notes cover some of the aspects that may be of particular importance.

1. Lack of background research

  • The Google (or DuckDuckGo) first page syndrome
    • only following up links on the first page (or two)
    • only reading the most recently published material
  • Too many people failing to explore and learn from what has been done before
  • Too much of a hurry?
  • Believing only the latest is best?
  • Nothing old is worthwhile?
  • A strong sense of self-belief, and that there is no need to read (see further below)
  • Past research and practice are inaccessible or unavailable
    • but this isn’t really true – many of us have written at length about our previous experiences

2. Problems with innovation

  • It is well known that most innovations fail
  • Overcoming failure often seen as being essential for subsequent success
    • But surely it’s best not to make the well known mistakes that others have made before?
  • So why is innovation (scientific and business) usually seen as being such a good thing?
  • Many governments (and donors) are increasingly focusing on funding innovation to drive economic growth – should they use taxpayers’ money to fund failure?
  • Might it not be wiser for donors and governments to spread what we know works, say for 60% of the population, to everyone?
    • Reducing inequalities rather than maximising growth

3. The problem with “self”

  • Self(ish) individualism
  • The need to be first
  • Overconfidence in own excellence
  • Having great qualifications so must know the truth
    • But perhaps the qualifications are not so great after all!
  • Unwilling to be self-critical
  • Brought up within the power and culture of non-self-critical scientism
  • A self-congratulatory culture (illustrated by awards processes)
  • Competitive rather than communal culture
  • Enjoys making mistakes in the belief that they will learn
    • Very expensive for others, especially in the international development context

4. Short-termism

  • Short-term job delivery and then move on
    • It’s always good to be seen to be bringing in new ideas
    • You don’t have to pick up the bits because you’ve left by then
  • The world of 140 characters
  • Project cycles often very short
  • It’s important to show success even when you’ve done nothing
  • Those who shout loudest tend to get heard
    • Even when there is little substance behind the claims
  • Short term is much easier than doing something long term
  • Perhaps “Agile” also has something to do with this?

5. The commercialisation and marketisation of education

  • EdTech is about the technology not the education
  • Everything is about expanding the market
  • Sales driven, with short term targets
  • Pitching to donors
    • A different skill set to delivery
  • Donors have large budgets and also have to show quick gains
  • Unrealistic target setting
  • Pilots where it is easiest
    • Instead they should be done where it is most difficult
  • We are measuring different success factors
    • Connecting a million children
    • But are they the most marginalised, and do they learn anything?

6. Insufficient intergenerational dialogue

  • “Youth have all the answers”
    • Older people have wrecked the world and so should now listen to young people who have all the good ideas
    • Much political posturing
  • The old have no idea how to use digital tech
    • Really?
  • Little priority given to mentoring
    • Especially 360o
  • Even fewer initiatives specifically designed to be inter-generational
    • Youth political institutions often replicate existing flawed global institutions
    • Especially within the UN system

Moving beyond a sketch

I have frequently been frustrated when I hear exciting new ideas being advocated about ways through which the latest generation of technologies (be it AI, AR, blockchain, or the Metaverse) can transform global education for the better. More often than not, the technology is the easy bit. It’s everything else that’s difficult.

As a contribution at least to what governments need to get right, we collectively crafted a report on Education for the most marginalised post-COVID-19  which I hope goes some way to sharing global good practices at least in this area. Perhaps we should do similar reports for the private sector and for civil society, although those in these sectors could still learn much from our report for governments.

The above six sets of suggestions are just a beginning, but I wanted to share them here to provoke discussion. Everyone will have their own list of suggestions. What’s missing from the above? I’d be interested to hear from anyone who might like to explore this theme further! I need to learn more! At the very least, I hope that future colleagues will address these suggestions head on and thereby no longer repeat the same mistakes that so many of us have made in the past.

Originally published by Tim Unwin as “We’ve seen it all before”: sketches about why so many digital tech for development initiatives fail

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10 Comments to “6 Reasons Why We Keep Failing at Digital Development Interventions”

  1. Benita Rowe says:

    Great post! I’ve seen instances in the past when – and I’m putting this as diplomatically as possible – all of the above is combined with access to sizeable amounts of unrestricted regular funding to an actor where there are no (serious) internal accountability mechanisms in place. Example: program X fails to reach a single person for several years running – but there are no internal accountability mechanisms. Or external, for that matter. Solution: let’s generate podcasts, conference presentations, reports and media releases saying that the program is a raging success. Trail-blazing, even. Everyone applauds. The invites to expert panels for all staff involved roll in. The applause continues. Meanwhile, the people that have not been reached are in crisis contexts, in many cases completely – or frequently – offline, and cannot flag the fact that they have not received any of these services. Indeed, by all official accounts, they have. The next round of unrestricted funding rolls in. And so on. I really miss Fail Fair. But even if we still had it, I’m afraid that some of the actors that really need to participate wouldn’t.

    • Benita Rowe says:

      **Another example that I can think of is where all of the above mentioned was in play, but nevertheless, the software did get off the ground and reach some users. Just not the majority of the intended ones (for various known-known reasons). That was named one of Time’s best inventions for 2021! So I would add another point on accountability, i.e. no actors should receive immunity in regards to accountability. Access to unrestricted regular funding should be used mindfully and wisely, and not be seen as a carte blanche for shenanigans that, in many cases, fail to provide services entirely.

  2. Tim Unwin says:

    Thanks for adding lack of “Accountability” – very important. Am thnking of bringing together a groupin of people to work on fleshing out these and other related ideas – do get in touch if you woiuld like to follow up.

  3. Clayton Sims says:

    From over on the tech side, I think we are still missing the mark when we talk about digital development interventions failing, which is something I gave a talk about at the Digital Health forum this year https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzNXPsIlVaQ .

    The elephant in the room here is the overwhelming lack of appropriate scrutiny we apply when evaluating the odds of digital success. We should be filtering impact programs with a baseline of clear evidence that systems have proven models, and proven ability to scale those models, but the standard of evidence we are willing to accept is embarrassingly low and heavily biased towards aspiration outcomes rather than demonstrated ones.

    • Tim Unwin says:

      I think it also very much depends on how we define success – success for the companies implementing digital intevrventions is often something very different from success in terms of the needs and asporations of the world’s poorest and most marginalised peoples and communities.

      The main point of my original post was more to do with not learning the lessons of the past rather than why projects fail.

  4. Joe Pakenham says:

    It’s all about building on what’s gone before – what we were trying to do with the Digital Grid at DFID. Learning lessons and not making the same mistakes. Agree on the what success means points – especially if a fixed value contract. Difficult to encourage innovation too.

  5. I just came here to saw that I really liked the line in the post that reads “Perhaps “Agile” also has something to do with this?.” Both it’s being posed as a question and the stream of consciousness element are wonderful.

    Separately, (in the spirit of this posts’ call for intergenerational dialogue) I’d love to hear from Tim and others about the proven interventions that you think should get greater funding/scale (esp. in the EdTech space) rather than reinventing the wheel. What should we be doing more of in your opinion?

  6. Tim Unwin says:

    Thanks Eric
    On funding and scale – this raises another very important issue which is that if something is not fundamentally designed to go to scale, it is almost certain never to go to scale. By this I mean that giving every “poor/marginalised” child a laptop will never be affordable to most countries (even if it were to be good for learning), whereas ensuring access and afforability can help to achieve this.
    The EdTech Hub https://edtechhub.org/ is now building quite a good collection of material about some of the things that are working. You may also have seen our report at https://ict4d.org.uk/technology-and-education-post-covid-19/ (also at https://edtechhub.org/education-for-the-most-marginalised-post-covid-19/) which is as near as I have come to being normative!
    Another answer to your question is that it is rarely the technology that is the difficult bit – it’s everything esle gthat we need to get right to ensure that the poirest and most marginalised can benefit from the tech.
    And, for the last 20 years, I have kept saying that we need to begin with the teachers – since thuis rarely happens, I keep saying it!!! 😉

  7. Tim: Congratulations for thoughtful article.as in other fields of endeavor one gets to how come we are reinventing the wheel of technology. Little dash of revenue focus, who remembers what was done in the past, new actors and actresses and window dressing. It will, be interesting why more comments haven’t been made? It illustrates that were all short time minded. Covid now what’s the new flavor of the month. Look forward to what impact or result of youre article comes about. Regards, Lawrence Wasserman PhD Washington DC