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The Top 10 ICT4D Project Failures Will Surprise You

By Guest Writer on November 15, 2017

What day-to-day failures do you expect to happen most in your ICT4D projects? Laptop theft? Viruses? Outright malfeasance? I worry every day about the risks to my ICT4D projects and I recently developed a formal Risk Assessment and Mitigation Strategy.

As part of the risk assessment, I conducted formal structured interviews with a variety of our program managers in key geographies to understand the ICT failures which interfere with successful project completion.

Get your tickets now for Fail Festival 2017!

In true Letterman fashion, I made list of the top ten ICT4D failures for development projects from those interviews and my personal experience leading digital development projects:

Top 10 Digital Development Project Failures

10)  Lack of 3G Internet voucher credit – Oh, you wanted me to use that 100₦ voucher for bandwidth to email my quarterly project status report, instead of Facebooking? Well, you should’ve known that many carriers have a program to allow centralized management of credit for multiple SIMs.

9)  Non-project uses of tools – We don’t lock down equipment to encourage local ownership.  There can be a strong cultural push to use that laptop or phone for other things.  It’s a risk we’re willing to accept in order to respect our partners, yet it can result in all kinds of excess usage and minor failures.

8)  Bad technical support – Our project laptops have a custom image with tons of troubleshooting tools and a complete reinstall partition for self-serve support. Yet project staff can still be overwhelmed with technology and ask for support from the local village computer guy, who sometimes just wipes everything and puts on a fresh install of Windows without any of our safeguards.

7)  Travel damage – Physical damage caused by simple user error and forgetfulness, rain, or abuse at checkpoints is all too common. So does damage by baggage handlers. I once watched baggage handlers in a West African airport play a game of soccer/basketball with checked luggage.  A score happened when someone caused visible damage.  Paying extra for the plastic-wrap treatment often avoids this, earning your luggage safe handling.

6)  Hard drive failure – Hard drives are more reliable than ever, but still fail just when least opportune and require specialized skills to replace. Online backups and automated backup to thumb drives are both good mitigation strategies we use to mitigate this risk.

5)  Damage from bad power – Too little, too much, too intermittent.  We encourage staff to use TVGuards to “clean” electrical power, but the TVGuards we find in local markets are often counterfeit. NotebookGuards often have to be imported, but they generally do a much better job of protecting equipment.  They also fit inline, appearing to just be part of the “kit”, so they are less likely to be repurposed to protect personal property instead of company equipment. .

4)  Malware – The first step in many of our workshops is to hand around a USB thumb drive with the workshop materials on it.  The second step in many of our workshops is to spend the rest of the day cleaning up infected computers. Yes, health practitioners, there is an easy parallel between sharing random USB thumb drives and unprotected sex.

3)  Stolen hardware – We lose about three laptops and one BGAN per year. This loss rate has been steady for most of a decade. Usually the thief is going to wipe the contents and sell it in the local market.   It is incredibly frustrating to be shopping for food and find equipment for sale that you hand-carried into the country six months ago.

2)  Seized hardware – The difference between seized hardware and stolen hardware is in the apparent intent of the thief (I mean, “official”), who is going to actually study the contents.  For mitigation purposes, we don’t distinguish between hardware seized by government officials at customs or checkpoints and hardware seized by militants in a village raid.

Before the incident that sparked my study, we weren’t really doing much to protect against seizure and hostile analysis.  Afterwards, we determined that in our risk environment, casual examination of the email inbox was more of a concern that detailed forensics.  Hard drive BIOS passwords went a long way towards easy mitigation of this issue and were well-received on the field.

{Drum roll please…}

1)  Computer illiteracy – Our program managers felt that the number one ICT4D failure impacting our projects is computer illiteracy, because it is so ubiquitous.  It impacts nearly every project and slows them down significantly.

Just using a computer to read email and communicate was a painful struggle for too many of our project personnel.  Some projects were doing all their work on paper, and then paying someone in the marketplace to key it into the computer.

Another project which found itself behind insurgent lines during a coup attempt buried their hardware and sent a courier with a thumbdrive of their data on a harrowing nighttime trip by foot and canoe downriver through the fighting lines to the capital city.

This makes an awesome story, and awesome fundraising, but it turns out that there was no need for this sacrifice.  The team had a BGAN satellite modem, but they had never turned it on because they had never been trained about it.

Investing in training in basic computer skills is the best ICT risk reduction for development projects. 

Yes, you should take action to mitigate the other risks listed above, and we all need to accept some tactical risks for strategic reasons, but if you want the best results for dollar spent on risk reduction, pour most of your discretionary time and energy into computer literacy training.

Stephen Fierbaugh is the Senior Solutions Coordinator for The Seed Company 

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3 Comments to “The Top 10 ICT4D Project Failures Will Surprise You”

  1. These are quite hardware-specific failures, although it’s an excellent list! In our context analysis framework we identify five potential areas of risk (framed as areas to be aware of but they come from our knowledge that project fail because of things that get missed in these areas). They are the people directly and indirectly targeted by the project; the community and culture in which they live; the market and technology environment; the political economy; and the implementing organization. This last one is where a lot of the failures above live, but I’m suggesting that there is a broader lens to consider.
    We’re finalizing the Framework now and would love for interested folks to take a look at it: http://www.simlab.org/resources/contextanalysis – a lot of the things above aren’t spelled out although some are included in that fifth area.
    Thanks for doing the research though – very helpful!

  2. I am flabbergasted after reading this article and very surprised that ICTworks would publish this piece. The findings and lessons learnt are outdated and highlight that the author did not spend time to research the challenges of ICT projects that were published some years ago. The condescending and patronising attitude of the article highlights one of the key challenges of ICT projects – technocrats who feel very proud that they survived Africa and are now mansplaining to the rest of the world how well they did.