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Why ICT4D Projects Fail Even With Community Engagement

By Guest Writer on September 24, 2020

community engagement failure

Successes in development projects are often reported but failures, however minor, are typically omitted from many types of reports. This is not a helpful practice because we often can learn more from analyzing mistakes than successful interventions.

Two trillion dollars have been spent on developmental aid since World War 2. This aid has had some success but has also had too many failures. The bottom line is that the number of people in absolute poverty has remained constant.

Community Engagement in ICT4D

Researchers seek to understand what causes failure. One theory is that the inclusion of affected communities, so called community participation, in the development of interventions is important. This allows for the project to be tailored to the needs of the community, directing the intervention better.

However, a study by Brown and Mickelson, Why Some Well-Planned and Community-Based ICTD Interventions Fail, elaborates further by examining how simply involving the community in the design of an intervention is insufficient at producing a success.

It reports on three different failures in which we learn that communities are inherently heterogeneous and complex, so simple community engagement does not necessarily allow us to understand the needs of the entire community. These complexities can lead to failure, even when the community is actively involved in the design of the intervention.

The study examined three interventions, one in Nepal, one in Rwanda, and one in Peru. Each of these interventions was designed with involvement from the community, yet still produced anomalous results.

The projects failed to recognize differences between different parts of communities, account for all relevant cultural norms, and work within the confines of the social and political situation they were applied in. So, despite their engagement with the community, none produced the results they were anticipating.

Why Did ICT4D Projects Fail?

In each of these projects, communities were consulted in the intervention. The project leaders worked with local governments and community groups. But this was insufficient for creating a good intervention. Failures occurred because:

  • They only consulted parts of the community and failed to get everyone who would be affected involved in the design. They assumed that the needs and interests of segments of the population were the same as those of the whole of the population. As a result, there was a lot of confusion and projects failed to bring value to the intended community.
  • They failed to account for the power structures involved as well. A town council might be willing to have a free internet connection but that does not mean that the rest of the community knows how to use it. By consulting those in power, the interventions fail to account for the actual needs of the community and achieve all of their goals.
  • Finally, by not talking to all of the community, it was easy to miss local social and cultural norms that would impact the results.

How Can We Improve Interventions?

All of these engaged in the “first loop of learning” only. That is, the researchers collected data within existing understandings. Because they restricted themselves to existing understandings, they missed other information that would help with the successful design.

Their vision was narrowed, and this resulted in parts of the communities being left out. However, broadening your vision and engaging in higher loops of learning requires a longer period of design and talking to more stakeholders.

Communities are heterogeneous and are hard to understand. It is not enough to consult those who hold power and who frequently lack the same interests as those on the ground. You cannot assume that consulting a part of a community is sufficient to understanding the whole community. A deeper understanding of the community requires more intensive engagement, but it is the key to successful interventions.

By consulting all parts of a community, you can design better interventions and go beyond the first loop of learning. In the process, you can improve community buy in and get everyone in the community to understand the goals of the intervention.

Community participation is important for success if it is the whole of the community the developmental project is intended for.

By Suzana Brown, Assistant Professor, Department of Technology and Society at SUNY Korea

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One Comment to “Why ICT4D Projects Fail Even With Community Engagement”

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