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A Cautionary Tale of ICT4D Failure at Scale

By Wayan Vota on May 18, 2012


Back in 2009, a few MIT students started “Fab Labs” in Afghanistan to teach Afghans how to fabricate small-scale projects, one of which was wireless WiFi antennas. From this humble beginnings, grew JLink, a DIY Wi-Fi network, free for Afghans to use, covering the city of Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

JLink had good press for a while, and rightly so. Rolling out a city-wide WiFI network is no easy task, and in Afghanistan a doubly hard challenge. Wired has now published an update on JLink and the news isn’t good:

JLink is not something the Taliban destroyed. Its impending collapse illustrates what happens when grand ambitions lead to grand achievements that ultimately prove unsustainable — perhaps because they proceeded from unstable, utopian premises. And like the war itself, the group that created JLink is out of time to salvage its project.

“The demise of the JLink is going to be a huge blow to Jalalabad’s nascent community of tech entrepreneurs — creative, dedicated young people who are pushing innovation in their own communities and creating well-paying, skilled jobs for their peers,” says Una Vera Moore, a development worker in Afghanistan who’s part of a last-ditch effort to save JLink. “What kind of message will we, de-facto representatives of the international community in Afghanistan, send when the network finally goes down? A message of fatigue and abandonment.”

I really admire the JLink team for deploying a municipal network in Afghanistan, its certainly a technical challenge to get multiple nodes up and running even with professional equipment, much less homebrew electronics. Yet in reading the article and reflecting on Inveneo’s work deploying WiFi in Haiti, there are two aspects of JLink which may be key factors in its impending downfall – neither of them technical.

Financial Sustainability

First and foremost, it seems that there wasn’t a reliable income stream to pay for the Internet backhaul. And satellite bandwidth in Afghanistan isn’t cheap – between $5,000 and $15,000 per month per the article. The JLink founders were paying that bandwidth bill themselves, which isn’t a long term solution.

Now its always hard to get individuals to pay the real cost of connectivity, especially expensive satellite bandwidth. Another option may have been charging local organizations, though any practical level of bandwidth may have also been too expensive for them. It sounds like the JLink team did look for donor support to keep the link up, but it may have been too late in both the JLink project lifecycle and in donor support of Afghan projects.

A lesson to learn from this is to think about financial sustainability from the start. Here’s a helpful primer on financial sustainability.

Stakeholder Buyin

I am sure that the users of JLink appreciated the free Internet access – connectivity in Afghanistan is rare and expensive – so there was certainly grassroots buyin with JLink. But what about the decision makers who may have been a step or two away from direct usage?

The hospital and university administrators who could allocate staff and resources to JLink? Or the government functionaries who support both types of institutions with annual budget allocations that could be increased for Internet bandwidth provision? Did these people have personal buyin to the network? Were they also reliant on JLink for Internet access?

One way to ensure long-term survival of a project is to make sure that everyone has a vested interest in making sure the project continues, especially traditional power centers who may not be apparent at first glance. Its these influencers who can support or sabotage a good idea purely on how it may benefit them.

An Open Invitation

Looking from afar, and with only press accounts to go by, its very hard to know what may have gone wrong (or right) with JLink. My thoughts above are rudimentary at best. Better would be a deep dive into the JLink experience with one of their founders or operators. So I hereby issue an open invitation to Todd Huffman, Peretz Partensky, Una Vera Moore, or any other member of the JLink team to present at Fail Faire DC 2012 (sign up to get invited).

Fail Faire DC is a celebration of risk taking and innovation – attributes that JLink certainly earned – and I invite them to share their experience so we can all learn from failure. Failure is no reason to be ashamed. Failure shows leadership in pushing the boundaries of what is possible in scaling ideas from pilots to global programs. There is great value in examining our mistakes as we go beyond the easy and the simple.

And I dare anyone to say that JLink was either simple or easy.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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2 Comments to “A Cautionary Tale of ICT4D Failure at Scale”

  1. Mike Dawson says:

    Afghanistan is crawling with journalists, managers, international development people left right and center, but hardly any technical folks by comparison. Jalalabad is a real functioning city and trading hub, but by no means the easiest place for any expat to work and not without significant risk. Often without significant electrical supplies.

    If worse comes to worse, leaving behind a lot of staff/students with greatly enhanced skills and ability to make technology work for their environment is a much greater legacy than many far more expensive projects that have been run.

    Real thinking about sustainability can only happen once you find a model that works. How you are supposed to know that in advance of going in, what costs are going to be, what local talent can/cannot accomplish, staff turnover rates, training requirements, etc I don’t understand.

    To get something like that up and running was no small feat. The injection will massively push down the cost to local businesses of getting technical talent and massively improve the quality. Congratulations to those who made it happen.

  2. Wayan Vota says:

    Some folks have written me thinking I was somehow putting the JLink team down by inviting them to Fail Faire. It sure wasn’t meant as an insult – their work was a real feat, and they will be leaving behind greatly expanded skills to which they can rightly claim credit. We should also recognize that there were issues, outright failures even, in their approach. And all of us should be proud to be pushing the envelope hard enough to have failures to share. To wit, I expect Inveneo will lead off the 2012 session like we did the 2011 event, with a round up of our own failures over the year.