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If You’re Not Failing at ICT4D, You’re Not Trying Hard Enough

By Lindsay Poirier on October 19, 2011

The word failure has always held a negative connotation. It makes sense. Failure represents effort, time, and money that did not produce results: a largely negative return on investment. No individual or group ever wants to feel that work has been wasted.

But why do we have to view failure as a waste of effort, time, and money? Failure brings to light some glaring faults in project planning and implementation, and taking advantage of these lessons can greatly improve the way future projects are managed.

This was the viewpoint taken by ICT4D professionals attending Fail Faire DC at the World Bank on October 13. The event looked to celebrate the failures in ICT implementation by development organizations as an indication of leadership, innovation, and risk-taking in pushing the boundaries of what is possible in scaling ideas from pilots to global programs.

Sponsored by the World Bank, Development Gateway, Inveneo, Jhpiego, and Facilitating Change, the Fail Faire brought together individuals in ICT4D to openly and lightheartedly discuss their failures and collaborate about ways to avoid similar setbacks in the future.

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The night began with some networking in a World Bank lobby. With ICT4D being such a tight-knit community, this gave many a chance to catch up with old professional friends. Soon, everyone congregated in the conference room and Wayan Vota opened the celebration, reminding the audience that Steve Jobs, an ICT legend made the majority of his income at Pixar, a point in his life considered his greatest failure.


  • Kristin Peterson of Inveneo began the presentations, discussing problems they encountered by making assumptions on existing infrastructure and end user knowledge before project implementation. They told about lizards and killer bees nesting in their hardware, learning soon after that honey conducts electricity.
  • Allison Stone from MoTech then took the floor, talking about her organization’s failure in implementing a mobile phone powered data collection system for nurses in Northern Ghana. The nurses did not want, and in some cases, did not know how to enter data into the phones, and a solution that did not incorporate technology turned out to be the best one.
  • Following this, Erin Mote, a lively and animated presenter, told the audience about USAID’s Partnership for an HIV-Free Generation program. In this case, USAID spent $40 million on a gaming program to teach students in Sub-Saharan Africa about the prevention of HIV. With the game servicing 2500 players on 15 computers, the project cost about $16,000 per player. Since this, USAID has spent more time in researching the end users, determining stakeholders, and developing proofs of concept.
  • Tessie San Martin from Plan International told the audience about their CRM systems: “It looks like a CRM system, but inside there’s just some tired birds chipping away.” She then went on to talk about trying to implement FrontlineSMS. They didn’t realize that a certain type of phone was needed, and all of the phones they purchased were the wrong ones. Because that team was too embarrassed to talk about its failure, another team bought the wrong phones again for a different FronlineSMS project. San Martin ended her presentation reminding us that, “The only failure that will kill you is the failure to learn.”
  • Andrea Bosch from Creative Associates talked about implementing a radio project in Bolivia. After leaving the radio programming documentation with users for a few days, they soon after found their documentation appearing in local markets. Apparently international property rights may be needed in ICT4D projects.
  • Next up, Samia Wilhem from the World Bank talked about their recent admittance of a 70% failure rate in ICT projects. A lack consistent ICT expenditure tracking outside of the ICT department, along with departments working in silos, often led to project failures. She pointed out that according to Richard Heeks, all major ICT4D projects represent 35% total failure, 50% partial failure, and 15% success.
  • After admitting failure to remember his wedding anniversary, Sean Dewitt told the audience about an extremely successful village phone program implemented by the Grameen Foundation. Jokingly, Dewitt reported, “So what do you do when you have a program model that is working really well? You abandon it!” Grameen split their team in two, one dealing with innovation and the other dealing with ethnographic research and project replication. It turned out that failure resulted from not integrating the human network with the development team.
  • Dr. Harshad Sanghvi of Jhpiego discussed brain drain, where skilled professionals emigrate away from developing regions in search of better living conditions. He makes the point that, by viewing human resources as a commodity, there is no brain drain. “In Kenya we drink the best coffee in the world and then send it to you. I’ve never heard of a coffee drain.” He then warned against solving pre-determined problems instead of searching for the root cause of a problem.
  • Following this, Jacobo Quintanilla from Internews advised the audience to be realistic, do their homework, interact with end users, and assess when implementing ICT4D projects. He warned, “Brothers and sisters, emergencies are not the best time to test your new technology,” and suggested to invest in preparedness for emergencies. He pushed the point that technology is not always the best solution, and new technologies are not always appropriate.
  • Gerard Pohl from Development Gateway presented “100 Million IT Failures per Month,” telling how just last week an unrecognizable pop-up from an anti-virus scammer led to a blue screen of death. He pointed out how internal IT problems add up and cause setbacks in day-to-day functioning.
  • Finally, Brian Forde presented on how Llamadas Helada’s biggest perceived success was in fact its biggest commercial failure. Even though their project of expanding low-cost phone access across Nicaragua using bicycle-based phones generated a great deal of media attention, it did not anticipate all of the user wants and needs. He warned against replicating his pedal-powered failure by attempting to use “holy water to wash away business model sins”. Projects always need customer demand first.

At the end of the night an XO laptop was presented to Erin Mote from USAID for best ICT4D failure. All in all, the night maintained a light-hearted atmosphere with a lot of laughs while creating an atmosphere of acceptance in failing.

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I am an undergraduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute studying Information Technology and Science, Technology, and Society. The focus of my studies is on International Development. I have a particular interest in incorporating ICTs in primary education in Sub-Saharan Africa.
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5 Comments to “If You’re Not Failing at ICT4D, You’re Not Trying Hard Enough”

  1. Simo says:


    This is so real and it has really ministered me! i wish i was there in person…any other event of this sort organized in the future please let some of us know. I think this is what makes so many people not raise up again after failure. The points raised are a “spot on”

  2. Dear Colleagues

    I am not against having fun … in fact it is an important part of quality of life … and I would not mind have fun in the context of learning from failure, but it makes me mad as hell that the aggregate end result of $trillions flowing through the official relief and development system (ORDA / ODA) , there is so very little success. I am an accountant who has spend a long time engaged with various aspects of ODA activities and appalled by what goes for accounting and accountability. A huge amount of private wealth has been accumulated … diverted from what should have been important development initiatives.

    I love fun … so do ordinary people in Somalia and thousands of chronically poor communities around the world. What should be done to change the way resources are used? Can the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements teach us something.

    Peter Burgess

  3. Wayan Vota says:

    Peter, let us be clear, there is much success to celebrate – everything from the Arab Spring to Africa’s rising to Latin America’s engine of growth – that we can link back to past relief and development investments. In no way should you extrapolate from Fail Faire that all development is a failure any more than saying one bad meal a restaurant should condemn the entire global food service industry.

    In fact, the whole point of Fail Faire is to show that innovation and success do not come without some level of experimentation (and therefore failure). We didn’t get Occupy spontaneously – it was built on decades of protest and civil disobedience thought and practice, and learned from the failure of approaches like Seattle in 1999.

  4. mbiti says:

    I thank you for the message that we do not be ashemed when we fail, and the only fail, is the fail to learn. I SPEND MONEY to bring cyber in my village, but there is not costommers and i have no computers because i don’t know how to repare them and no persons knows maintenance. I HAVE NOT BE TRAINED before i start it and send somebody to training. There is not school training in maitenances in my town, BANYO IN CAMEROON.

  5. Thanks for reporting back from this event – if only ICT failfaires were more widespread!

    I’d like to note that one of the ‘failures’ was actually a success, although apparently the presenter (and audience?) failed to recognize the fact:

    > Andrea Bosch from Creative Associates talked about implementing a radio
    > project in Bolivia. After leaving the radio programming documentation with
    > users for a few days, they soon after found their documentation appearing in
    > local markets. Apparently international property rights may be needed in
    > ICT4D projects.

    Apparently folks in the room may need to rethink their assumptions about the relationship between IPRs and ICT4D. IMHO, the fact that there was enough local demand for radio programming documentation to support locally controlled production and distribution of the texts is wonderful. Not only was the documentation circulated more widely, but the activity supported local jobs – the photocopier and the street vendor. Hard to believe this person thought it was a failure.