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Giving Thanks to ICT4D Donors that Changed Digital Development

By Wayan Vota on November 24, 2022

ict4d donors

Today in the USA it is the Thanksgiving holiday, which historically was a day we gave thanks for a bountiful summer harvest and successful preparations for winter. These days it’s associated with too much food, shopping, and (American) football.

Taking us back to the original tradition – of giving thanks – I’d like to continue previous thankfulness lists (of ICT4D leaders and digital initiatives) by publicly thanking the many ICT4D donors that changed digital development for the better. This is my imperfect list – please improve it with your comments on who and what I missed.

The American People

The American people, through the US government, are the single greatest source of official development assistance, providing 24% of global funding valued at $42 billion in 2021. Hence, many USG programs are also the largest ICT4D donors and have the greatest impact on digital development, starting with USAID.

Alice Liu found that USAID was helping establish ICT in Taiwan in the 1960s. It’s worked at the forefront of ICT4D since then. For example, we had the Leland Initiative deploying Internet across Africa, and Dennis Bilodeau investing in Internet-enabled radio stations in Mali. Today, Christopher Burns is the first Chief Digital Development Officer, directing the Technology Division to implement the first USAID Digital Strategy with Digital Economy Country Assessments and Digital Development Advisors coming to multiple USAID-presence countries.

PEPFAR is another USG initiative with huge impact on our sector. While not specifically an ICT4D donor, its massive investments in health information systems across 50 countries means that digital health is the most well-funded of all the ICT4D disciplines and a leading sector in digital innovations and measurement.

DARPA isn’t specifically a development donor, but there is no question about its impact on digital everything. DARPA’s 50-plus year investment history can claim at least partial credit for weather satellites, global positioning satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), stealth technology, automated voice recognition, personal computers, and even the Internet itself.

The State Department has its own contributions to digital development with initiatives like TechCamps and TechGirls (apply now!) that create lasting personal relationships with mentors and technologies. Also, the Peace Corps has its own person-to-person activities that bring digital development directly to communities around the world.

United Nation Agencies

There are many United Nations agencies at the forefront of funding digital development initiatives, like there are many USG entities funding ICT4D. Two aspects of the UN stand out to me as key donors that push us to innovate in the ways digital solutions can help people globally.

UNCIEF has invested in cutting edge digital ideas for years. Chris Fabian, Erica Kochi, and Merrick Schaefer started the Innovation Unit in 2007, Sean Blaschke helped start RapidSMS in 2008, and countless others and other programs invested in digital solutions across the world to help children, youth, and their supporting stakeholders improve lives through technology.

The World Food Programme invested in agricultural technology solutions like chatbots and blockchain to increase climate change resilience among smallholder farmers and agriculture value chains. They continue to be one of the most innovative UN agency donors, though the whole UN system is moving forward with digital development leadership like the 10 ethical use principles for artificial intelligence.

Commonwealth Countries

While there are 56 Commonwealth countries, there are five countries that play a major donor role in digital development initiatives.

The UK Department for International Development was once a significant leader in ICT4D – I wanted to be a digital ninja too! In fact, it was a DFID leader who first told me that we’re doing development in a digital world. However, DFID is now FCDO and budget cuts past and future don’t bode well for its continued impact on ICT4D, though I like where the Frontier Technologies Hub is headed.

The Canadian International Development Agency started in the late 1960’s, and CIDA was instrumental in early technology for good investments. Over time, it became DFATD, and now Global Affairs Canada, with each iteration shifting its investments in digital solutions. IDRC is also Canadian, but as a Crown corporation, has more freedom to keep innovating its investments in technology interventions. For example, it recently predicted the future of artificial intelligence in the Global South.

Australian Aid had initial ICT4D investments, like OLPC PNG but may have lacked a digital strategy.  It is now the Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade and focuses on major efforts like undersea fiber optic cables to PNG, Telstra’s purchase of Digicel Pacific, a whole-of-government International Cyber and Critical Tech Engagement Strategy, and other investments that I hope you’ll add in the comments section of this post.

India is another Commonwealth country that invests heavily in community use of technology solutions. In fact, India has the largest digital government technology stack with Aadahaar. However, there is much worry that Aadhaar is reinforcing digital inequalities since South Asia leads the world in the digital gender gap and government-instituted Internet shutdowns. That could lead to technology (dis)empowerment on a national scale.

South Africa, another Commonwealth country, was an early investor in open source software and still pays for quality govtech tools. It also leads Africa in software developer salaries.  This positive digital ecosystem spawned global COVID-19 response applications, mobile test-prep solutions, and the realization that public Internet access matters even in the age of ubiquitous mobile phones.

The Europeans

GIZ, Germany’s development initiative, has an entire digitation for sustainable development work stream that includes digital transformation, innovation factories, data labs, and blockchain experimentation – as you would expect from the second largest ODA donor. Last year, they even proposed the future of international development programmes in the digital age. Sadly, I don’t know much more about GIZ. I’m hoping you’ll tell me what they’ve funded in the comments.

NORAD, the Norwegian aid agency, funds digital global goods directly, like DHIS2, and indirectly through many open source initiatives. Swedish SIDA supports SPIDER that’s looked at ICT4D impacts since 2004, and Swiss SDC did tell us what they learned from 10 years of ICT4D.

Private Foundations

Private foundations are also investing in ICT4D programs, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supporting multiple different initiatives to expand libraries, improve education, and bring better health outcomes to all. Rockefeller Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and may other foundations invest in digital solutions to international development problems. Please list the efforts that you know of in the comments section of this post.

The Shuttleworth Foundation gets special mention for its interesting focus on individual contributors. Smart people like Steve Song and Steve Vosloo were funded to dive deep into Internet connectivity and mobile learning, respectively, and we are all better off for it.

Technology Companies

Back at the start of my ICT4D career, it was Intel, Microsoft, and Cisco that were the three kings of digital solution investment. Where are they now? Technology company leadership in ICT4D investment is currently with Facebook, Google and an emerging IBM, WhastApp, Okta, Mozilla, and Twillo. Sadly, the new Twitter fired most of its African staff.

GSMA deserves as special mention. While it often uses DFID and USAID funds to invest in technology initiatives, GSMA Mobile for Development is on the cutting edge of exploring how mobile devices can have positive impact on climate change, gender divides, and people living with disabilities through multiple grant awards.

Individuals and Other Donors

No list of ICT4D funders would be complete without mentioning the thousands (millions?) of individual donors that give to organizations, collection plates, or fundraisers to support technology for good around the world. Then you can add all the volunteer hours for everything from requirements gathering, to design sprints, to software and hardware development that’s brought us everything from LibreOffice to Wikipedia. Individual donations of money, time, and passion are the real core of digital development.

I wonder if we would consider the “Jeff Bezos problem” in this category? He is giving climate change charities $100 million to invest in digital platforms to improve their impact. While he could be considered a “foundation donor“, these gifts come from his personal Amazon fortune and don’t have the typical constraints that foundations impose. Same for Mackenzie Scott, who is also donating billions, some of which is ICT4D focused (Digital Empowerment Foundation, Praekelt), and with no strings attached.

Then, many small organizational donors – APNIC comes to mind – have targeted investments into digital development solutions. We profile many of them each Monday. While these donors usually have less than $500,000 to invest at a time, the sheer number of small donors adds up to serious investments in technology for good efforts.

Who Else?

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list. It skews to the investors that I’ve worked with – a tiny microcosm of the global digital development ecosystem. It doesn’t mention the many other donors, governments, and organizations that fund efforts every day, at all levels, and are the true drivers of sustainable digital development around the world.

So I invite you to add your ideas in the comments or just to give thanks in your own way on this day of Thanksgiving. We are privileged to work with so many great funders. Thank you to all of them today, and every day.

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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 “Giving Thanks to ICT4D Donors that Changed Digital Development”

  1. Wayan Vota says:

    Oui! I was just reminded of the HP e-Inclusion Initiative that started before my time and continues today. Also the many mobile network operators, like Safaricom, that invested early in solutions like digital financial services, that underpin digital development.

  2. Darrell Owen says:

    USAID also had two Connectivity-related programs in 2000s that built off of the Leland Initiative, but were global in reach and focused on expanding voice and Internet connectivity.

    These were the Last Mile Initiative (LMI) than ran from 2000-2010 and the Global Broadband and Innovations (GBI) Program that ran from 2010-2020. Both of these Initiatives had country-level engagements in approximately 20 countries over these two decades.

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