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The ICT4D Funding Conundrum And Why Pilotitis Needs to Change

By Guest Writer on October 25, 2013

pilotitis

I am Erica Hagen and in a recent post, I talked about how effective feedback loops are close to being realized in Dar es Salaam. In this post, I discuss the challenges facing this type of work today – specifically, the serious problems with the current landscape of funding in technology for development, and how we hinder progress in getting from flash-in-the-pan pilots to meaningful change.

In Dar es Salaam, GroundTruth began as a consultant to a pilot initially conceptualized and supported by the World Bank. We’ve supported it to an extent now independently (and voluntarily) for three years. In spite of having very engaged community members, having met with prominent members of government who have a strong interest in the information, and getting some local notoriety, as well as a good amount of international attention, the ultimate work of creating a strong feedback loop has yet to be done.

What’s going on?

Well, here’s how funding tends to operate when it comes to technology for development or feedback projects:

Step One:

  • A tech pilot concept is developed and funded by a large organization or institution, lasting no more than a couple of months. The concept can be initiated by a smaller partner NGO or by the big organization or institution, or even by a funder.
  • OR: a project contest, hackathon or app contest is initiated, sponsored and publicized by a funder or large agency. The contest may come with some funding as a reward.

Step Two:

  • The winner of the contest or the implementer of the pilot works on the idea, and if there is enough funding, tries it out in the field. This involves – or should involve – real people, and real communities. It’s possible that they get some results, usually in the form of uptake by citizens – there are reports posted to their online reporting tool, SMS sent in, apps tried out, used and maybe even tinkered with based on feedback.

Step Three:

  • Blog posts are written about the nascent success, and a conversation is started about what this can potentially contribute to the feedback loop or target social issue. Publicity helps raise awareness of the pilot. Social media lights up, conferences are attended and lightening talks are made.

Step Four:

  • That’s it! The funding fades and the world moves on to the next new thing. (Here is a humorous take on this written by Wayan).

Of course, there are some attempts to provide sustained funding for important ideas – there’s the Grand Challenge model, for instance. But more commonly, ideas that are proven to be good languish in a post-hype slump, while backers search for the Next Big Thing (or, Next New Thing). In some ways this is a chronic issue in development funding.

But when it comes to technology, it’s much worse, simply because the focus tends to be on the technology itself – not on the program design, context or thornier issues in the society which created the problem in the first place. And, as we all know from our own lives, technology is indeed a quick fix and changes almost daily.

Suddenly we can communicate instantly with thousands of people or book plane tickets in a few seconds from our phone. Why should it be any different for efficiently solving a social problem? And, shouldn’t any project be almost immediately “scaleable” – taken to a huge number of people or places very quickly – just like an iPhone 5 or Pinterest?

But creating actual social impact with the help of a technology is, clearly, a completely different ballgame. While we should know that, many are blinded by the potential for continuous (and cheap) experimentation which continuously boosts the profile of the associated agencies – simply because the news cycle highlights the “new” and “buzzworthy”.

The temptation of quick and inexpensive (if superficial) impact and great PR is proving to be too much to resist.

Unfortunately, lost in the storm are not only the potentially transformative projects, but the people who took part in the pilot phase in the first place. Those people are the citizens, the residents, the community members, the real people who hoped they had something to gain from putting effort into association with a promising pilot. Is it really responsible – or ethical – to ditch such an effort before it has time to bear fruit? No – which is why many participants in this funding cycle keep trying to serve their public in spite of such immense resource challenges.

And the final blow is that the same funders continue to serve the cycle of the new, while tending to blame the initial developers and implementers for not creating something that’s going to operate on its own sans grant funding. That is, something marketable. Or, that proves its own worth in a matter of months and thereby becomes something the public will pay for, or requires no money because of extensive volunteerism. In my view, this fallacy is akin to saying that public libraries don’t deserve public funding because people should pay to access books and information if they truly value them (or they should manage and run their own free-braries). But that’s another post.

Many technology interventions can indeed create an attractive output that appears online quickly and relatively easily, whether or not the ground reality has changed at all. This is different from most development areas – health, education – whose challenges resist even the illusion of a quick impact.

Where we need to concentrate resources now is on those organizations and individuals who have gotten past the first three, four, five iterations of a technology intervention and that attractive output – the projects where a constituency of support has already been built up at the grassroots level.

This isn’t just us – I’ve met countless inspiring people often working in their own backyards on real feedback loops and real impact from collective citizen voices amplified by technology. Most of the time, what I hear is this same story – their potential is severely limited because after the initial buzz, there wasn’t any more funding. While one might think that a good project will somehow manage to attract the support it needs, that’s just not always the case.

There are indeed resources out there which are being spent on technology and development, but they are not being directed toward those people already making a real difference, nor are they targeted at the post-pilot phase – which is not the same as the “scaling up” phase

I would call it the “impact phase” – putting in the hard work needed to create a tangible effect and close the loop of feedback, leaving a real mark on society. This might happen in year 2, 3, or 4 of a project, not year one.

We’ve had the surreal experience of watching a presentation in Washington which happened to show our Dar es Salaam pilot as an example of a great success, while we were chatting online with a project participant and learning that our entire stock of computer equipment had been destroyed in a flood, and therefore any chance of the pilot reaching its potential was nearly eliminated unless we could somehow get them new equipment.

We started asking around for donations, and thankfully friends at a small tech company contributed two laptops. The project has now been kept going on just those two laptops for over a year now. This is great – but clearly limited. I think it shows that the nitty gritty of getting any of these ideas to work is ALWAYS much more difficult than it might initially appear. It requires a stronger commitment than anyone anticipates when they first realize that technology could become a game-changer in development.

It’s complicated: in our case, there has indeed been interest to push forward from this pilot on the part of those we started out with at the World Bank. But there are often problems with having large institutions involved with small experimental pilots, which require strong adaptability and agility – within the organization as well as externally. For one reason or another and after various attempts, there hasn’t yet been a successful channel for taking it forward to the impact phase.

Unfortunately, it’s quite common for pilots that have great potential and international fanfare to stall and not go much further than that. I understand the real need for serious thinking and research on how to create that elusive impact – how to complete the loop – and for much, much better evidence and stronger theories of change. But that is the level at which we should be experimenting and piloting by now. And that is where funding needs to be directed.

This field is no longer new – there are many, many pilots which need to take the experimental mindset to the next level of closing the loop of impact. Let’s give them our support.

Erica originally published this post as The Funding Conundrum: Why Funding for ICT for Development Needs to Change

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