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Who Is Really Leading Your ICT4D Intervention?

By Wayan Vota on November 29, 2017

Support National Staff

At a previous employer, I was always shocked at the role of the national staff in the organization. Here were some of the smartest, most dedicated professionals I’ve met in international development, and yet the organization actively discriminated against them.

There was a pervasive sense throughout the organization that national staff could not make decisions. That only an expatriate employee could make a decision.

It didn’t matter if that expatriate was an American, Indian, or some other nationality, including national-Americans, as long as they were considered international staff. Yes, there were a handful of high-ranking national staff that were in positions of authority, but their uniqueness underlined the status-quo.

In my short time there, I did my best to level this inequality. I constantly asked national staff to make decisions themselves, and then supported whatever they decided. When they were reluctant to make a decision, citing the company culture, I asked their opinions on what decision I should take, and then did what they said was best.

Learn why Wayan was kicked out of the Philippines

I didn’t work their long enough to have a major impact on the organizational culture, and the experience still haunts me.

How Can We Support National Staff?

I know I’ve often become impatient with the decision making speed of national staff I’ve worked with in the past. I’ve made decisions for them, or in spite of them, in my rush to implement. Looking back now, I’m not proud of those moments, though I usually justified them at the time in one way or another.

I also know that I am not alone. We all do it, especially when it comes to technology and our need to implement at the same time as we try to teach.

Implementation should be fast, precise, and efficient, and usually is lead by technically skilled staff in a rush to complete the work. While capacity building is a slow, iterative process that requires patience and support of empathetic staff. We live in conflict between these two opposing roles and inflated donor expectations.

How can we elevate national staff into decision making roles, and then support them as they experiment, fail, and learn?

This question is larger that just ICT4D, and speaks to our industry as a whole. Its nuanced and will be different for every context. Yet we should start the conversation where we can, when we can.

So how about now?

I’ve shared my thoughts here, and I’d love to read your ideas in the comments.

Filed Under: Thought Leadership
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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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4 Comments to “Who Is Really Leading Your ICT4D Intervention?”

  1. Jaume Fortuny says:

    I would like to introduce two ideas to the debate from my personal experiences:

    1.- The higher the budgets, the lower the decision-making capacities of local actors. So a way to empowering (and building capacities around decision making) could come from managing small budgets locally.

    2.- There is also a problem in the way organizations are organized and their hierarchical structure (the problem is greater if they are public, large or government-owned organizations). Those organizations with a traditional role, where innovation has not soaked their leadership and management, are reluctant to leave decision-making at lower levels. So the only solution I see is to transform these organizations through innovation in management, as a way to understand why things must change to improve the results of actions.

  2. Ashley Bishop says:

    Dear Wayan,
    Thanks for sharing this post. This really resonated with me as similar to some of my experiences. A common reason cited for this behavior is “lack of capacity” – which is much easier to say in “techy” areas like ICT4D, evaluation, and research – but it’s usually without much deeper analysis (what capacity is missing?). Even sometimes the “capacity” we say is missing in national staff isn’t even fully present in home office staff. In this work, I have found that the best way to help build this is to make it very clear for everyone (especially home office staff) where different decision making powers are held (in an national office) and helping to reinforce and empower those systems. Such an important topic – thanks!

  3. Thanks for your candor in this post. I have seen so much of this culture in my work as well. Nationals have a wisdom that outsiders cannot gain easily which can make or break a project. How do people communicate within their local organizations? Is there a hierarchy that will limit the flow of instruction up or downstream? What are their behaviors…their insights based on what can lead change? It’s human to think that one person knows best because of degree, field of study, position, etc., but real change can never come if we only live out of human constructs. Collaboration, shared knowledge, equality and respect are essential –

  4. These articles that include reflection and humility by “international” staff is an important first step. Here’s 4 ways I think we can tackle structural racism in our sector: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/aug/04/grassroots-means-no-brains-how-to-tackle-racism-in-the-aid-sector

    We can also start to question the “binary illusion” between “expat” and “local” that Tom Arcaro’s research is beginning to show: http://blogs.elon.edu/aidworkervoices/?p=852

    Then we start adjusting our grantmaking, policies, and practices to place the capacities of contextual knowledge, knowledge, language skills, and cultural competency at the same level as technical or management skills.

    It’s a long game. Glad you’re in it Wayan.