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Is a Post-ICT4D World Coming? What Will You Do About It?

By Wayan Vota on January 10, 2019

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I’m finding great unease in recent conversations with leading technology for development practitioners in Washington, DC and elsewhere. They are all nervous about where the international development industry is headed, if ICT4D has a long-term future within it, and what they should do next.

What to Worry About?

There were three general themes that I found people worrying about when it came to their ICT4D career as part of the international development community:

1. Reduced Government Funding

The current US President places little value on international development – just look at previous USAID budget requests or the current government shutdown drama. At the same time, a Brexit-focused UK is scaling back the quality and the quantity of its aid.

While we can celebrate donors like the World Bank and Gates Foundation for maintaining their funding commitments, and look to private donors for salvation, their combined funding is a rounding error at an organizational level when compared to government funding.

2. Shift to In-Country Expertise

What government funding we do get is moving to local partners. Just look at PEPFAR’s goal of 70% direct funding to indigenous organizations by 2020, and you can see the future coming up fast where Western governments source directly from local organizations.

This is an awesome development – and our goal for decades in every capacity development project. In fact, my first job in ICT4D was with Geekcorps, where our stated goal was to teach and turn over leadership to local experts. Of course, when its your job that shifts to an in-country techie, you may wish this transition wasn’t so personal.

3. Competing Private Sector Solutions

When many of us started in digital development, there were few, if any, private sector companies focused on emerging economies, and those that did, had ill-filling solutions that caused more problems than they solved. We had to develop BottleNet solutions just to get basic connectivity.

Fast-forward 20 years, and there is a Cambrian explosion of private sector companies who see the real opportunity in servicing governments, companies, and individuals across the developing world with world-class solutions delivered to playing clients. Of course, this too is an awesome development, and it makes our jobs easier, however it also means there is a lessening need for development-centric solutions.

What to Do About It?

If we are entering a musical chairs of shrinking jobs for international ICT4D practitioners (which I think is debatable), then what should a digital development practitioner do about it?

First, and foremost, if you are a competent host country national with quality technology skills, try to get a third-country national position now, while they still exist. This is your fastest route to greater pay and promotions in any country. Then enjoy the ride as you are head-hunted from one job to the next for another 20 years across multiple developing countries. I think your career in ICT4D and development will be long and prosperous.

For the international ICT4D expert, I have five options for you to consider if you’re worried about the future of international development writ large, and our sub-sector specifically.

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1. Go Into the Public Sector

You can always apply to work at the State Department, USAID, USDA, and the like – even the DoD if you’re that type – to have a direct impact on health, education, agriculture, economic development, etc.

I also include related organizations such as USIP, NDI/IRI, and VSO, the multilaterals, including World Bank, UN, and WHO, and foundations like Gates, Ford, and Rockefeller, in this group, though they are technically not the public sector. However, their roles and job security is similar.

You will not have the creativity and flexibility of an independent implementing organization, yet the job security is theoretically much higher.

2. Join a Social Impact Organization

You can mix doing well and doing good, by joining one of the many start-up and established social impact organizations that try to use the profit movie to deliver social services to the poor and emerging middle class in developing countries.

Many of these organizations even have a stated focus on using technology to deliver their results, so the work could be very similar to what you’re doing  now – and they are hiring! Subscribe now to see their job offers.

3. Work for the Private Sector

Of course, you can always walk away from the international development industry and join a full-on private company. It may even focus on developing countries and donor organizations as paying clients, which could help you feel that you’re doing good while doing well.

This also includes working for an indigenous organization that services aid contracts. We all know that they’ll need someone to interpret PEPFAR RFPs, write proposals, and ensure FAR compliance, regardless of their location or ownership nationality.

4. Start Your Own Business

I am apparently a serial entrepreneur – JadedAid and KinderPerfect anyone? One day, one of my ideas will hit it big and digital development will be something I do for fun. Will you beat me to this status, or have you already reached it?!

I know many of you are trying. I recently talked to someone who is starting a real estate business, because in their own words, they were looking for a fall-back career for when international development collapses.

5. Straight Up Retire

This many be a fantasy for many of us, but if you take a hard look at your finances, especially if you own your home in an expensive city, it may not be as distant as you assume.

You’ll need to adjust your situation, which could include moving to a lower-cost location, taking on a new lower-paying non-career job, and other particulars, but it is possible for many of us.

What Are Your Thoughts?

While I am happy in my job, and I see a solid career before me – at my company and in the digital development profession – I would love to hear about your concerns and fears.

  • Where do you think this profession is going?
  • Which directions keep you up at night?
  • Why might you be concerned about ICT4D’s future?
  • What are you going to do about it?
  • Who is making changes that you admire?

Please jump into the comments and let me know!

If you’ve read this far, you really should Subscribe to ICT4D Jobs Now to grow your digital development career.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. 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 IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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6 Comments to “Is a Post-ICT4D World Coming? What Will You Do About It?”

  1. Steve Hellen says:

    Just as the late Hans Rosling called terms like “developing” and “developed” world outdated, the terms “national” and “international” ICT4D experts used here, and differing advice to the two groups, perpetuates what should now be a long-dead distinction. The 5 options suggested above can apply to all ICT4D experts regardless of country of origin.

    To ICT4D practitioners working at NGOs, I would add a 6th option to the list: “Help your current employer become a digital organization”. The private sector and open source communities now have mature tech products that work well across many unique operating environments, diminishing the need for in-house programming or custom tools. The ICT4D jobs of the future that will help NGOs effectively adopt digital will focus on business analysis, aligning tech capability with program delivery, and data use to improve program efficacy.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      While I agree that the terms we use are archaic, there is still a major pay & benefits difference between an “international” and “national” ICT4D expert, and until we achieve parity, there will be a distinction between the two in theory and practice. This isn’t to say I agree with it, but we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist, or that the two types are not treated differently.

      I do like your 6th option. I think we all are already helping our current organizations become more digitally efficient and effective. This is where we can maintain our roles (and even have more roles) within existing organizations.

      Question though: in the face of the three challenges listed above, will the very nature of the organizations we work for change to the point of them being wholly different structures? CRS has enough long-term individual donors that it may be able to keep its current model for years to come, but will organizations that rely mainly on bilateral funding even survive? And will CRS have to radically change if bilateral funded drastically reduced?

      Yes, I believe they will need to invest even more in technology to make the transition, but will there be less orgs on the other side?

  2. As somebody who thought that the old model was badly broken, I have to admit that it was gratifying to see this post. Apologies if that seems petty, but those of us pushing a different approach have also had a pretty rough time of this whole process. We’ve been condescended to, demonized, and told we’re trying to get rich (the kinder version: “do well”) when all of us do far less well than we would with cushy ICT4D jobs, for example. Change is really hard for everybody.

    And I also understand that, as much as those wedded to the old model have tried to understand, appreciate, and even accommodate different approaches, it’s a difficult, personal, and painful thing. Deep ambivalence (or something stronger) is apparent, for example, in how you talk about private companies serving social or development technology needs: “Of course, you can always walk away from the international development industry and join a full-on private company. It may even focus on developing countries and donor organizations as paying clients, which could help you feel that you’re doing good while doing well.”

    Despite mortal challenges like a persistent structural unwillingness of development-sector actors to pay a reasonable price for professionally-built and -supported technology, the tide is turning. And yes, we are hiring. 🙂

    https://dobility-surveycto.workable.com/

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Interesting. I’ve always thought of Dobility as a social enterprise since you all focus on the development sector. For private sector companies, I was thinking of Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, Oracle, and the like.

      • Thanks, and me too! I just couldn’t find a place for orgs like Dobility, DevResults, TechChange, etc. in your list of options for the post-ICT4D world, except this private-sector bucket where orgs “help us feel like we’re doing good” (which sounds a lot like maybe we’re not really doing good). I also don’t think that a new structure that embraces reusable, professional tech (and the private sector) is “post” ICT4D, but rather “new” ICT4D.

        Apologies for the tone and content of my original comment, BTW. I was just back from a visit to DC, where I was powerfully reminded that there is still 100x (1,000x?) money available for tech services vs. tech fees. Those of us trying to directly serve users vs. donors are still making a go of it, and we’re growing, but it’s still a steep uphill battle. After six long years of working up the hill, I sometimes get a bit exhausted, and your post caught me at a weak point.

        That said, I also know that you like to provoke reactions, so would be happy that you’d succeeded!

        • Wayan Vota says:

          Yes, I want people to think, but I didn’t write that post to disparage the work that Dobility, DevResults, TechChange, Ona, etc are doing. And I’d didn’t take it personally. You made me think about how casually I defined each group.

          Its sad how much easier it is for me to program in tech services (stated as consultative time for internal staff or external consultants) vs. service fees paid to a technology vendor – who can usually perform the task faster and cheaper! I’ll put that rant on the list of topics to cover this year (and happy if you beat me to it!).