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Giving Thanks to 10 ICT4D Initiatives that Changed Development

By Wayan Vota on November 28, 2019

giving thanks ICT4D

Today in the USA it is Thanksgiving, which historically was a day we gave thanks for a bountiful summer harvest and successful preparations for winter. These days it’s associated with too much food, shopping, and (American) football.

Taking us back to the original tradition – of giving thanks – I’d like to continue last year’s thankfulness tradition by publicly thanking 10 initiatives in ICT4D that changed international development for the better.

1. Leland Initiative

Twenty years ago, USAID’s groundbreaking Leland Initiative helped accelerate the internet revolution in African countries. It was arguably the first major American investment in digital development and was the catalyst for everything from Internet Gateways to cybercafes.

Leland was followed by numerous other programs, like the Dot Com Alliance and Digital Freedom Initiative, to spread the use of information and communication technologies for social and economic development around the world.

2. IESC Geekcorps

Founded by Ethan Zuckerman to bring technology capacity to African countries, Geekcoprs was instrumental in developing multiple ICT4D technologies, from rugged computers to Bottlenet wifi, during its time in Ghana, Senegal, and Mali.

Geekcoprs was also the training ground for an entire cohort of digital development leaders, including Matt Berg, Olivier Alais, and humbly, myself.

3. T/ICT4D Lab

The T/ICT4D Laboratory provides reliable and sustainable wireless solutions to help foster science and research in developing countries. It’s trained more than 2,400 participants, from Africa, Asia, Oceania, Europe and Americas, on state-of-the-art wireless technologies.

T/ICT4D Lab was also instrumental in developing the authoritative book, Wireless Networking in the Developing World, about designing, implementing, and maintaining low-cost wireless networks.

4. Shuttleworth Foundation

The Shuttleworth Foundation, started by the Ubuntu founder, made a name for itself funding all sorts of open source software thinkers, from Steve Song, to Steve Vosloo, to many more.

Since then, they’ve branched out to focus on how the ideas of FOSS could be applied to areas outside of software. In fact, if you have ideas at the intersection between technology, knowledge and learning, you should apply now for a year’s salary to do what you want to change the world.


Including One Laptop Per Child in this list may shock some people, since its arguably the greatest failure in ICT4Edu but I think its also one of the greatest initiatives as it totally changed the narrative around technology for development.

OLPC shifted the world’s mindset from if we should use technology to how we can leverage it to increase social and economic outcomes, single-handedly changing the conversation around ICT4D.


While not specifically an ICT4D initiative, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) massively invests in health information systems across 50 countries to support HIV control. The net result of this investment are countless digital health initiatives that are changing lives around the world.

Thanks to PEPFAR, digital health is the most well-funded of all the ICT4D disciplines and as a result, is usually the leading sector in digital development innovations and measurement.

7. Global Development Lab

USAID’s U.S. Global Development Lab came from the earlier Mobile Solutions team, and serves as an innovation hub for the Agency with a strong focus on ICT4D innovations.

The Lab has supported multiple technology ideas and interventions across the USAID landscape, sharing their expertise at Digital Development Forums around the world, and in the draft USAID Digital Development Strategy.

8. Digital Principles

The nine Principles for Digital Development also came from the Lab and celebrate the ways in which we should be deploying digital solutions in international development programming.

I am particularly proud that DIAL, the current Principles steward, celebrated the 200th endorsement of the Principles recently, with a Bangladesh NGO joining the likes of DFID and others in embracing ICT4D best practices.

9. ICT4D Conference

Now in its 12th year, the ICT4D Conference is truly the central event on ICT4D and brings together 200+ speakers and 800+ attendees from 80+ countries across technology, development, and humanitarian professions.

Best of all, you can apply now to speak at the next ICT4D Conference on April 21 – 23 in Abuja, Nigeria. Though you better hurry, the presenter application deadline is December 14th.

10. _______.

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list. It skews to efforts that I’ve worked on – a tiny microcosm of the global digital development ecosystem that’s mainly centered around USAID-funded programs.

It doesn’t mention other donors, governments, and constituent-led initiatives that happen every day, at all levels, and are the true drivers of sustainable digital development around the world.

So I invite you to add your inspirations in the comments or just in your own thanks on this day of Thanksgiving. We are privileged to work on so many great initiatives. Thank you to all of them today, and every day.

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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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10 Comments to “Giving Thanks to 10 ICT4D Initiatives that Changed Development”

  1. I am very happy and thankful for ICT4D initiative that changed development. I am Begashaw meberate from Ethiopia. My profession is agriculture. I have masters degree in Rural development and I want bring solutions for the existing crop disease monitoring using UVA. This technology really helpful to control crop disease and pest with lower costs and timely.
    In general, have a burning desire to establish a Drone company for agriculture. I hope ICT4D initiative will help me to realize my dreams
    With best regards

  2. Darrell Owen says:

    Wayan…an odd twist for Thanksgiving Day, but I like it. I entered the international development arena at USAID in the early 1990s and in many ways my engagement parallels yours.

    Thankful for having an engagement early on with Lane Smith in the Leland Initiative (LI). Thankful that Jeff Cochran picked up on a research paper I wrote when getting a telecom grad degree at GWU and turned it into the Last mike Initiative (LMI). Thankful that I was able to work on a number of LMI projects through the 2000s. Thankful Joe Duncan called me back into USAID as a consultant to design, present to the USAIF Administrator to get approval, and launch the Global Broadband and Innovations (GBI). Thankful for the field work and thankful for being able to speak at an ICT4D Conference In Nairobi, Kenya, and at four of UNCTADs annual Commission for Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) meetings in Geneva to share experienceS to others.

  3. Kurt says:

    Nicely done Wayan. A good tribute to a lot of effort

  4. Steven says:

    This is awesome – am bookmarking this post. Fascinating to see you include OLPC – I would argue that it only carved a deeper messianic groove in the ICT4D development story, making it harder for development workers to use tech.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      I did go back and forth on including OLPC in this list. On the one hand, yes, the message it delivered has taken us years of effort to correct (and its still biasing ICT4Edu activities!), but on the other hand, it galvanized the hardware sector to develop low-end computing like netbooks and to an extent, tablets, and is surely put developing countries on the sales map of technology companies, which had pretty much ignored anything outside of OECD countries previously.

    • Cavin Mugarura says:

      Steven, am curios as to why you think OLPC makes it harder for development workers to use tech. I agree with Wayan, while OLPC and many edtech solutions fail mainly due to poor design and a not well thought strategy, the law of unintended consequences kicks in. While Wayan correctly points out the lower priced tablets as a success, I prefer to look at more meaningful consequences, because the price would have dropped anyway. I think Negroponte truly believed he could throw tech at education and it would be easy. The harsh reality Education is much more complex than that. Am sure everyone would think of game based learning as a good thing, the evidence though points elsewhere, it doesn’t improve learning outcomes. In brief not every strategy is a strategy.

      • Steven says:

        Hi both,

        Negroponte himself certainly did not learn from OLPC — Wayan documented his subsequent work (in Ethiopia, for instance) where he stuck to his ideology that airdropped tech will cause outbreaks of learning. Negroponte’s messianism and Silicon Valley’s solutionism continue to be dominant strains in the ICT4D discourse, and it’s toxic because it produces not just adherents but skeptics. Donors and practitioners who’ve been burnt are less willing to consider pragmatic uses of tech than they would otherwise, I think.

        And Wayan, you argue that OLPC drove down the price of hardware, which is true, but then I think of your Myanmar realization (that they leapfrogged to smartphones). Huawei certainly would’ve made a <$20 smartphone whether or not the Aakash or whatever existed. The market's there now, and it's not because of ICT4D that it's arrived.

        Want to expand your thinking on this to a full post, Wayan? Genuinely interested in your thinking on this, you've always got your finger on the pulse more than I do.

        • Wayan Vota says:

          I think I said this somewhere on OLPC News or in a previous ICTworks post. We all seem to forget that back in 2005, the smaller the computer the more expensive it was. Remember the Sony VIAO laptops that were 2x the cost of IBM laptops? I can remember being laughed at when I asked HP about developing computers for poor countries. They best they could do was octopus-looking things with 1 CPU and a spiral of screens and keyboards.

          Then along came Negroponte with a commitment of 1 million units from Nigeria and a new open hardware (mostly) design using AMD and at $200 price point. The tech world was shocked. Intel launched a kill-it campaign to stop its launch, then went on to make netbooks as a defense play once Asus went with AMD. Microsoft freaked out and made an almost-free Windows to use on netbooks, less Linux, Ubuntu, or OLPC’s OS took off.

          In hardware, the result of all that was $400 netbooks that could run Windows or Linux distros. It gave rise to the early tablets, pre-iPad, and to Chromebooks, which still live on. In developing world, we went from laughter to deployments. Sub-$100 smartphones, Akash tablets, even Worldreader, et all are direct decedents.

        • Cavin Mugarura says:

          Steven, my main concern is this statement you make “making it harder for development workers to use tech” – It’s not grounded in reality and Negroponte has none to do with it. ICT4D for projects fail mainly due to poor design, you can add other complexities but at the end of the day, we know the plain old truth.

          Recently Wayan, shared a health project to improve attendance of health workers using time and attendance machines. This is a prime example of how never to use tech for common sense problems, what happened to good old supervision. If you know how these machines work, they operate on a clock in and clock out basis. What if someone clocks in very early and vanishes in thin air only to reappear at the end of the shift to clock out.

          One clever approach is to link them to the payroll. Obviously it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the additional layers of complexities involved in achieving this. The reconciliation process alone will require thousands of man hours, so you are essentially soliciting trouble.

          While Negroponte s approach might have not worked, I doubt anyone thinks of him when designing a solution. I think he did well to highlight how Tech can be used to improve education which is a complex arena, much more complex than meets the eye.

          The price could have been fast tracked but it was going to down anyway. We know tech can improve education, throwing tablets won’t especially if the learning materials are of low quality, and there is no way to measure. A good edtech solution has to have analytics, interactive content and engaging, simply having animated games will not yield much, at least from the data gathered thus far.