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Pop Quiz: What Is the Difference Between mHealth, mEducation, and mAgriculture?

By Wayan Vota on November 10, 2016


I do hate sectoritis – the innate desire of development actors to isolate into health, education, agriculture, civil society, and all the other sector silos and sub-silos of our industry; its stupid tribalism at its best, and downright corrosive on collaboration at its worst.

Of course digital development practitioners (another silo!) are no better. We follow the convention of others and silo ourselves into mHealth, mEducation, mAgriculture, and from there down into eHealth vs. mHealth, etc, etc, etc.

Please stop the madness. We’re all actually working the same problem set.

Which Sector Is This: Health, Education, or Agriculture?

Local development actors work at the community level to try and effect change. They most likely have a basic level of education and pre-service training. They occasionally get a few hours of in-service training. They may spend an inordinate amount of time on paperwork to record their activities, or more likely, do none at all. They are generally underpaid, if paid at all, and if they are paid, probably only get a fraction of their official pay.

And yet the government expects them to do front line development work in the community, changing behaviors, practices, and experiences ingrained in every community member, while almost every international development organization tries work through them for their own project goals too, some of which may actually conflict with one another.

Answer: All of Them

The scenario described above could easily be a community health worker, a schoolteacher, or an agricultural extension worker. The work environment and work conditions for each of them are very similar. Whether it is a health facility, school, or farmer support center, particularly in a rural community, the staff will be underpaid but overburdened, they will have not have a high level of support and mentoring, and they will have limited supplies and materials.

Which Sector-Specific Technology Intervention is This?

Here are three examples of technology interventions. Can you guess which sectors they were in?

  • Project #1: Several locations in the district are to receive computer equipment and use it for a new online reporting system. The staff at the locations has never used computer technology, so the project brings staff together and explains the benefits, how to use basic features and support the staff in a one-off two-day training.
  • Project #2: Computers are already in place at the location, and have relevant content and reporting systems in place. However, due to staff turnover, the current staff does not incorporate the content or reporting systems in their work, and viruses, pirated software, and poor Internet connectivity now plague the machines.
  • Project #3: Staff are expected to use mobile technology to better engage with their constituents, and a set of district officers will follow up with the staff to support the new processes, so staff can incorporate the new methodologies in their work. The staff performance review and promotion procedures still need to updated with the new processes, which will hopefully happen in the next year or so.

Answer: All of Them

These examples are drawn from real programs in health, education, and agriculture, but it really doesn’t matter which ones or which country. These conditions are universal for front line development workers, and we know the result of each one: failure.

Yet every single one of us is guilty of thinking about our interventions in silos. Sector silos, intervention silos, and technology silos. We need to stop designing interventions as if our ICT4D problems existed only in our sector silos, or as if people worked in silos and lived in them too.

We work in complex, interdependent systems and we need to start developing our solutions to reflect this reality. We need to have integrated programs that look holistically at the problems and the solutions, and we need to talk across sector silos to learn want our peers are doing.

Down With Silos, Up With Collaboration!

So the next time someone asks if you work in mHealth, mEducation, or mAgriculture, respond with the truth: you work in development, digital development if need be, but it is time we all were post-sector and pro-collaboration.

Filed Under: Agriculture, Education, Healthcare
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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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6 Comments to “Pop Quiz: What Is the Difference Between mHealth, mEducation, and mAgriculture?”

  1. Ed says:

    Unfortunately it’s a vicious circle – for the purposes of marketing, the half who don’t understand that it’s meaningless unfortunately get turned on by catchphrases and keywords… so you’re forced to use these terms in your marketing blurb. I agree, you don’t have to be a specialist to do a good job, in fact it probably helps not to be a specialist.

  2. Grace says:

    I have worked on the government side of ICT for Dev. Those silos are inevitable due to the inherent nature of governance structures. So sector specific programs strategies they are needed because they turn around similar stakeholders, issues, and likely single point of project champion. As for interventions, this is the true weak link. Efforts in the government to bring in a high level (government official) change champion steering committee have never quite worked. The reasons including busy govt officials, ICT is always never a priority in government programs.. its usually seen as ‘those techies/ICT people project”. As for technology silos, this is the most promising area because tech is tech. How to upscale it to the right change champion (usually a non techie) is the issue. Last week some colleagues went to present a government enterprise architecture strategy to 4 ministers, including the one of ICT, health, justice. At the end of the 20 minute presentation and I assume awkward one, the justice minister turned around and said.. Now kindly do the presentation in layman language. We the techies automatically assume everyone else understands tech language and one has to cultivate a deliberate effort to learn before hand what is your audience like in order to communicate effectively.

    • Ed says:

      Good points, Grace. A major challenge is getting the different gvt departments to sit in the same room and sharing budgets.

  3. Lee says:

    Wayan….many thanks for this great piece about the need to knock down silos. I had the same thought after the ICT4Ag conference you helped organize last year http://nextbillion.net/a-mobile-hub-is-within-reach/ . The potential for breaking down the inertia of such type of silo approach is not limited by the technology…… but only by our imagination and commitment.

    In fact, the technology presents the potential to maximize a multi-disciplinary approach.

  4. John says:

    I definitely like the sentiment – “next time someone asks if you work in [insert sector here], respond with the truth: you work in development.”

    I did find while working on a digital development paper, though, that the distinctions do help the discussion, even while they tend to impede results (or more accurately, tend to cause organizations to repeat results, mistakes and all, forever and ever amen). Paper here for more info: http://bit.ly/2eVVvCS

  5. The approach we have used is to empower the project managers, civic leadership, sponsor and project service providers to destroy the silos that are most immediate to the project. Scaling horizontally and vertically is then built into the beneficiaries through a series of approaches which, inter alia, includes building community based knowledge workers, guides on engaging the next project (what-ever its silo) and issuing relevant stakeholder participation certificates to draw the attention of the next project funder/sponsor/local government agency to the fact that suggestions on knocking down silos come from stakeholders who know what they are talking about.