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Confessions of an ICT4D Advisor: I Hate Technology.

By Guest Writer on January 28, 2015


The jig is up: I hate technology.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cursed at an airline check-in kiosk because my battered passport won’t scan properly or the new “e-visa” system has frozen in the midst of processing my payment. I always cringe at new public-sector technology releases because they rarely meet stated aims. Which is a nice way of saying “they don’t work.” Case in point: Healthcare.gov.

Despite my job title, I don’t consider technology a close friend; rather, it’s a necessary acquaintance. I deleted Facebook in 2007, haven’t updated my Mac OS in at least a year and still mourn the loss of my Motorola Razr. Simply put, I’m much more Luddite than digital native.

So – why have I made a career promoting the use of technology within NGOs?

Because it’s not about the tech.

I’m just coming off a month of visiting field teams in northern Iraq and Syria, attending the Mobile Money Conference in Istanbul, meeting some of our most seasoned livelihoods staff based in Pakistan and bookending it all with an “Innovation Brief” at the UNOCHA Global Policy Forum. What was I doing the past 30 days? Watching and listening. No building, no solutioning, no piloting. Why? I have to build trust in people first to get to a point of even floating the idea of piloting something new.

Outside of supporting some basic mobile data-collection work, I’ve spent the majority of my short tenure at the IRC visiting country teams to build internal trust around programmatic concepts and pilots, for example, that may (or may not) heavily leverage technology. Time well spent? We’ll soon see. But at very least, I’ve been able to message to field teams that “the future is certain, give us time to work it out.”

Any role that attempts to evangelize information and communications technology (ICT) use within an NGO is about building trust with “users” (field staff, beneficiaries, etc.) first and foremost. Then, it becomes a game of filtering through the noise: deciphering software developer jargon, explaining technical design best practices, weeding through “social enterprise” salesmen and, ultimately, bridging stated wants with obvious needs. Then, we distill all of that insight into meaningful deliverables to experts (public or private) who can “build” solutions in the least operationally disruptive ways possible.

The blessed curse of pilots

At the moment, humanitarian response organizations are dabbling in a spectrum of ICT solutions that range from custom software-development projects to a swathe of deployments that leverage existing ICT products out of the box. Most of this work is still considered piloting — not scaling. Reading between the lines, it seems many organizations are still very much trying to understand what sustained user adoption for technological solutions actually entails. (Here’s a hint — it’s not about the tech.)

The blessing and curse of working in a sector where ICT work is still relatively new (when compared to say mobile health in the development sphere) is that while some program teams are keen to explore ways to leverage ICT, they struggle to figure out how to kickstart the ICT design process.

For example, who should they engage and what will it all entail? And perhaps most importantly, how can a non-technical person lead a conversation with seemingly technical experts in a way that results in the most relevant solutions for all? Thus, people get frustrated, can’t figure out how to operationalize ideas, or worse — get irrelevant, unsustainable solutions handed to them… which ultimately pushes people back into the “I hate technology” camp.

Solutions are everywhere

But maybe we’re looking for guidance on ICT adoption in the wrong places. I recently had a conversation with a team member from Jordan regarding a cash distribution program run by UNHCR. They chose to partner with a bank that already used ATM machines to take retinal eye scans to identify “clients” (instead of the traditional card + PIN system).

While I’m still getting warm to the idea of using retinal scans with traumatized displaced populations (it seems too Children of Men for me), I was fascinated by one comment she made: that throughout the Zaatari camp, the Arabic word for “iris scan” [basmat al-ain] has now become synonymous with “cash assistance.” How wild is that? UNHCR’s programmatic design choice to use a bank with fancy ATMs inadvertently forced a rapid adoption of new technology to the point that it changed local vocabulary. It’s the same way that we say we’re going to “Google” something rather than “search the interwebs.”

When I hear anecdotes like that, of affected populations rapidly integrating new technologies into their lives, and when I think back to field teams who are still skeptical of collecting data digitally, I realize there’s still hope… even for the haters.

Rosa Akbari is an advisor for information and communications technology for the International Rescue Committee and this post was originally published on the IRC’s Acting, Fast & Slow blog.

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6 Comments to “Confessions of an ICT4D Advisor: I Hate Technology.”

  1. Wamabir Allad says:

    I don’t understand this post please. Saying “it’s not about the tech” is useless, everyone knows already that technology is just one way that humans interface with their world. So is it really true that you “hate” technology? I don’t think so. Is the writer of this post just looking for a suggestion of a career change or what? I would not suggest a career as a poet.

  2. Markus says:

    Saying it’s “not about the technology” is rather pointless, because technology and context influence each other along the way. A certain need triggers the use of technology, and the use of that technology will have impacts on the context. So it’s an ongoing interaction. Good example is given by the author herself with the iris scan technology that changd local language.

    Therefore it is a bit problematic to make the simplification: “it’s not about the technology”.

    The choice about technology and about the process of introducing that technology is of course highly relevant for a satisfactory outcome. (Sometimes it might not even be necessary to introduce new technology but change the approach to satisfy the perceived need.)

  3. Eric Couper says:

    Thanks for the insightful post, Rosa! I’m curious what you mean by “weeding through ‘social enterprise’ salesmen.” Thanks.

  4. Sonia says:

    Technology appears to be the scapegoat. In the typical scenario a NGO receives a grant from a donor to “innovate”, but the agency doesn’t have full control of the project. The donor’s agenda is pushed even though the technology won’t work with the NGO’s beneficiaries. Also, the NGO didn’t hire the right ICT coordinator. The process is the blame not technology. Humans innovate and create to help people live healthier and productive lives.

  5. Josh says:

    To be wary of technology solving a human issue is wise. To not recognize that it’s not tech, but rather inadequate problem solving applied by those that either don’t a) understand how to develop and apply tech or b) those that don’t understand the context of the human problem being tackled is to not be well suited for even identifying what success means to the problem the tech in question will solve.

  6. unkown says:

    I am 31yrs old. This my first post in my life. I never had a facebook or a cellphone. Technology has benefits, I know, but I never liked the way it gets used. I even can’t believe myself by posting an opinion publicly. However, I just wanted you to know you can exist without being in its grips. Use it lightly and wisely. The problem is how perverse the world has gotten and technology amplifies it. You need to stop desiring. The material things in this world are only an illusion. I try live simple with love in my heart. The world in some way will recognize it. We live in a world distorted.