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Peter Kuthan / AZFA
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« on: June 19 2007 »

The 12 Habits of Highly Effective ICT-Enabled Development Initiatives are a set of best practice guidelines for project management, which aim to ensure the internal health of initiatives harnessing ICT for development. Like the Real Access criteria, the 12 Habits can be used proscriptively for planning, or retrospectively for evaluation.

The 12 Habits are:

Habit 1. Start by doing some homework. Look at what has worked and what has not worked, study good practices in the area, and build on what you have learned.

The basic assumption underpinning this Habit is that there are few completely original ideas. So just as entrepreneurs study business models and competitors before they start a company, ICT-enabled development initiatives should start by looking at other activities in their field. If the idea appears to be wholly unique, then it may be necessary to think more broadly to identify something similar, looking at different technologies, geographic areas, and sectors. For example, if the idea is to implement WiFi for healthcare in a rural community in South Africa and it has not been done before, then it would be useful to look at any implementation of WiFi in any African country, or any rural setting beyond Africa, and projects using a different technology for healthcare in rural South Africa.

Desktop research is an obvious starting point for homework. As development initiatives increasingly share information about what they do, it will be easier for others to study past experience. However, many initiatives that use cutting-edge ICT are ongoing and may not have disseminated their lessons learned; in such cases it is can be helpful to find out who is doing what in the field, and to contact researchers and project leaders to learn about their experiences. Even when other projects are very different, there may be elements and ideas that can be borrowed, so it is important to adapt as needed. The term "best practice" has come under fire recently in the ICT development community, where practitioners point out that no practice can be generically "best" where each project that uses technology must necessarily be different to accommodate the unique characteristics of each ICT use, the community where it is located, and the broader social and economic systems that impact on its use. Nonetheless, successes and failures should be studied and "good" practices identified, which may require adaptation to be applied in different settings. The main point is to learn from others and build on those lessons with new ideas.

Example questions for applying this Habit: What kind of homework can be done to gain a full understanding of the lessons learned by previous efforts of this kind? What kinds of homework have been done? What related work has been done in the field? What "good practices" are relevant to this particular initiative? Does the initiative draw on good practice in the field? What concrete steps have been taken to build on good practices?

Habit 2. Conduct a thorough needs assessment of the community to be served so you can plan to do what is actually required.

While Habit 1 deals with unearthing lessons from what has gone before as general background to inform the work at hand, Habit 2 calls for the collection of specific information on the environment and needs of the particular community or group to be served by the initiative. Like a business, an ICT-enabled development initiative must understand its "market": local conditions, the needs and desires of the people and organizations, and other factors that will affect technology uptake and sustainability in this setting. The needs assessment should fully investigate current technology use in the area to be served, including local capacity to use the technology; the availability of technical support; the kinds of services that people and organizations would be willing to pay for and what may need to be provided for free; the training needed to integrate technology use into daily routines of the target groups (training in technology use and business processes); the availability and reliability of electricity and phone lines; secure storage for technology; and many other factors. Depending on the initiative, it may be useful to include both a high-level review, to gain an understanding of the broader economic, social, and political landscape, as well as a detailed review of data collected directly from the individuals involved. The needs assessment must give a comprehensive picture of local needs and conditions so that technology solutions can be adapted to the particular circumstances. This is especially important in developing countries, where technology solutions that work in the United States, Europe and other "developed" environments cannot simply be transplanted to developing-country settings and expected to work.

Analyzing user needs may not be simple in many developing country settings. Often target groups and organizations have had little or no previous exposure to technology, so they lack even a basic understanding of what ICT can do for them and are unable to articulate their technology needs. In that context, the analysis of user needs must consist of one-part listening to potential users and one-part educating them about what is possible with ICT.

Example questions for applying this Habit: What kind of assessment will paint a picture of the needs of the community or target group? Did the initiative start by looking at the concrete needs of the people and community that it serves? Is this initiative built around real needs of an identified group? Where the community has little previous experience with ICT, did the initiative include an appropriate education aspect alongside the needs assessment?

Habit 3. Make it local: ensure local ownership, get local buy-in, work with a local champion, and be context specific.

There are generally two kinds of ICT-enabled development projects: those that are created from within the community by local actors who seek solutions to daily problems, and those that are devised by outsiders with new ideas and good intentions for solving community problems. The latter are often international development aid projects planned in European or North American capital cities and delivered in a developing country, or projects designed in national capitals for implementation in rural areas. For projects that emerge from within the local context, the advice of this Habit centers on the need for gaining solid support from neighbors, colleagues, and local leaders. ICT initiatives that are imposed from outside often struggle to get the buy-in from communities that is needed to ensure their success.

For outside projects, this Habit recognizes the tension between the desire for scaling and replicability (where there is pressure to build "generic" projects that can be replicated at a wide scale), and the practical need for localization (where the reality requires that projects be very specific to each unique local setting). Certainly replicating and scaling effective initiatives so they can extend their impact and reach many beneficiaries is a desired outcome -- but it is rarely a core component of initial success. The most effective initiatives focus on localization first, thinking small and context-specific in framing their approaches, and working with local people to build programs around the findings of a needs assessment. And later it can be determined whether elements of the approach can be replicated and scaled. This Habit follows from Habit 2, because ensuring local ownership starts with the needs assessment -- it must go beyond information collection to be a process of education, awareness-raising, and engagement with the people who will be served. This kind of broad process will lay a foundation for local buy-in and a sense of ownership among beneficiaries, and it will necessarily lead to a context-specific project.

Working with a local champion can help make a project that originates from outside become more locally-driven. A local champion is someone who understands and embraces the objectives and sees the big picture, supports technology-based solutions, is trusted by the community served, and shares a vision for the future. By working with a local ICT champion who embraces the potential benefits of technology, the initiative can engage an ally to support and promote ICT use among local groups. The champion should play a key role in communication with the community, be an advisor to the initiative, and act as a catalyst to help the initiative introduce innovation. This individual may not necessarily be on site in the community, but must have a concrete connection that can be leveraged. Working at the local level can also mean navigating local politics, so projects must be aware of the social, cultural and political dynamics they may encounter and involve a local champion who can help with this aspect too. Therefore, the best ICT champion may be someone in a position of authority, who is respected by local community members, and sets an example as a technology user. This kind of champion will help shore up local support, and they can be called upon to open doors and bring in resources as needed.

Example questions for applying this Habit: What can the initiative do to ensure local buy-in for the project or policy? What would the characteristics for an appropriate local champion be? How could a local champion be engaged to support this project or policy? Has a local champion been identified and engaged? Does the initiative connect effectively with the people in the community that it serves? What can be done to give local participants a sense of ownership over the project or policy? Do local participants feel a sense of ownership? Were local participants involved in project planning?

Habit 4. Engage a local problem-solver with some degree of responsibility, and involve them sufficiently so they can identify and address problems as they arise.

This Habit flows from Habit 3 by highlighting that initiatives work best when there is at least one local actor on site who takes some level of responsibility for the project and is resourceful enough to solve whatever problems invariably arise. It is ideal if this role is filled by a local project manager, if there is one. But if the project is run by an outside organization the problem-solver does not necessarily need to be a fulltime staff member; for example, the role could be filled by someone from a partner organization. The role of local problem-solver is not the same as that of local champion, although the two may be played by the same person. Where the champion may not need to be involved in the initiative in a hands-on way, the problem-solver necessarily plays a more practical role in the day-to-day, as someone who is present locally and takes personal responsibility to deal with things that come up. This is a person who can get things done, either by solving problems themselves or doing what is needed to find a solution. The problem-solver might provide services or make arrangements for services needed to keep the initiative running, or complete a local government form to ensure compliance with local administrative requirements. This would be the person who shows up to deal with a situation like a flood or a robbery. In an ICT-enabled initiative this person also needs to either provide technical support, or make some kind of arrangement with a service provider to keep computers working, including getting systems up and running after a power outage, upgrading software, doing backups, and so forth.

Example questions for applying this Habit: What kind of local problems will be faced in the project? What kind of skills must the local problem-solver bring to be able to address these problems? Is there a project manager who can fill this role? How can a local problem-solver be engaged?

Habit 5. Form sound partnerships and collaborations, and be good partners and collaborators.

The massive scale of modern problems requires holistic and systemic solutions. And the practical problems of integrating ICT into development initiatives are complex and manifest in different ways in different countries and communities. Often the issues at stake are beyond the scope of any single project. Therefore, partnerships and collaboration are essential for ICT-enabled initiatives to make a real impact and to improve their chances of achieving sustainability. If ICT-enabled initiatives are going to make a difference to socio-economic development over the long-term, civil society organizations, governments, and the business community must cooperate, pool resources and experience, and tackle problems collaboratively.

But the word "partnership" means different things to different people. In some cases, partnership means a committed relationship between two organizations that agree to work together over the long term, targeting common goals, sharing funds, exchanging staff, and building joint outputs. In other cases, the word "partnership" is used more loosely, where organizations may just agree to publicly endorse each other's work to help build mutual credibility in the field, whether or not the partners are actually involved in each other's work in a concrete way. In between these extremes, there are many gradations on the interpretation of "partnership". No matter what level of partnership is sought, forming sound partnerships is about initiatives making good choices in who they partner with, and making sure that they are clear about what they expect to get out of it. And being a good partner means initiatives do what they say they will do, communicate regularly, and share information in a transparent way. If partners do not have the same expectations, it can be discouraging and frustrating; however, expectations can be managed by setting down clear parameters for the relationship in a Memorandum of Understanding at the outset. Partnerships are fragile; they should be based on trust, but trust has to be earned. Initiatives can earn the trust of those they work with by being good partners themselves.

Example questions for applying this Habit: What kinds of partners are available and relevant? What level of partnership or collaboration is appropriate? Should a partnership agreement be drafted to confirm specifics of the partnership? What can the project do to be a good partner and collaborator itself?

Habit 6. Set concrete goals and take small achievable steps. Be realistic about outputs and timelines.

At some level, almost everyone involved in socio-economic development work is inspired by big ideas and a desire to improve the world. Faced with large-scale problems, the development community hopes that grand visions, ground-breaking innovations, and tireless hard work will make the difference. This brand of enthusiasm may well form the engine driving efforts in this field. However, many ICT initiatives suffer from goals that are too lofty, and project plans that try to do too much in too little time. Just as Habit 5 points out the reality that systemic problems require coordinated approaches, this Habit underlines the importance of breaking down solutions to big problems into concrete, achievable pieces with realistic deliverables.

This is important for a number of reasons. At a basic level, this is simply about setting out a solid plan and sticking to it. Identifying concrete and realistic objectives from the outset will give the initiative targets to aim for. And when the project gets bogged down or sidetracked -- as often happens even with the best plans in place -- these clear targets will provide a focus point to get things back on track. Equally important is the need for a structured methodology that is based on small achievable steps, which can keep project implementation moving forward, even when the objectives seem distant and unobtainable. Additionally, in a field where burn-out is rampant, setting goals too high can put untenable pressures on project staff, which can turn optimism to cynicism. Setting unrealistic goals can also lead to problems when initiatives do not deliver what they said they would, leaving communities feeling discouraged and distrustful. And while funders usually require well-considered objectives and deliverables, they often put pressure on projects to deliver results that fit within timeframes set to their funding cycles, which may not always line up with what makes sense for the project. So ICT-enabled development initiatives should chart an effective course that taps the energy of optimism, but is realistic and achievable within the constraints faced.

Example questions for applying this Habit: What are concrete and realistic ICT goals for the project/policy? Does the initiative set concrete and realistic goals for ICT use? Does the initiative have a structured methodology based on small, achievable steps? What are the appropriate small achievable steps that will help the initiative move toward its goals? How can the initiative be designed to avoid the burn-out of project staff and make the most of their optimism?

cont: see reply

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Peter Kuthan / AZFA
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« Reply #1 on: June 19 2007 »


Habit 7. Found your initiative on technology-neutral concepts so it can be adapted as needed to accommodate technology change over time.

The previous Habit calls for realistic timeframes to accomplish project goals, and Habit 7 flows from that by further highlighting the impact of time on technology-based projects. Modern information and communication technologies change more quickly than many ICT-enabled development projects can be moved from an idea, through the needs assessment, proposal-writing and funding stages, and on to full implementation. New technology standards are constantly being developed, and new products introduced to the market. To stand the test of time, development initiatives should avoid getting locked into a specific technology, and use technologies based on open standards whenever possible.

This Habit emerged from the frustrated request of a researcher who had submitted a proposal for a project based on very particular technology, and by the time it was funded the technology was out-of-date. While it may not be possible to speed up the funding process, using a broader, technology-neutral concept when articulating the project idea leaves room for adapting to the most current technologies once the project is ready to get underway. For example, instead of basing a project on WiFi standard 802.11b, building it using the more general concept of an "appropriate wireless solution" would give the same results as well as flexibility to move to a more current WiFi standard or another wireless technology if needed.

Once a project is underway, a technology-neutral approach leaves room for the project to change and adapt technologies as needed. Technology use built on open standards makes it easier for initiatives to shift between technology solutions. That said, replacing technologies and systems once a project is underway can be a significant burden, so choosing technologies that can withstand the fast pace of change in the technology sector is also a good way to help ensure sustainability for an ICT-enabled development project. Yet many experts in the field would argue that no technology choices can ever be "neutral": by choosing one technology over another an initiative or policy is directing community ICT use -- and the wider market -- in a certain direction. So development efforts should make careful decisions, and to the greatest extent possible make choices that will stand the test of time.

Example questions for applying this Habit: What does "technology neutrality" mean in the context of this project? How can the project be built around technology-neutral concepts? Are open standards available that could be used in the implementation of this technology? Can more general or generic technology choices be made? Will the technology used stand the test of time?

Habit 8. Involve groups that are traditionally excluded on the basis of age, gender, race or religion.

The likelihood of living in poverty is far greater for groups who suffer discrimination, so the issue of social exclusion necessarily lies at the heart of much ICT-enabled development work. The infusion of ICT into a country or community paints the existing landscape of poverty, discrimination, and division onto the new canvas of technology use. Because ICT can reward those who know how to use it with increased income and cultural and political advantages, the resulting digital divide shows up in increasingly stark contrast. The trend is that privileged groups acquire and use technology more effectively, and because the technology benefits them in an exponential way, they become even more privileged. And it is a difficult circle: social exclusion leads to unequal participation in economic, political, educational, and digital arenas, and it follows that discrimination limits ICT uptake.

So, socio-economic development initiatives that fail to involve traditionally excluded groups fall short on the universal mission to serve humanity and promote equity. When groups are alienated for social or cultural reasons it not only hinders ICT penetration to the detriment of those excluded, but also limits the benefits of diversity in the information society more broadly. ICT use and the information exchange it engenders can be a powerful driver for social change. This potential must be harnessed by ICT initiatives, to promote understanding of the politics around discrimination and division in society and the economy. ICT enabled-development initiatives must be aware of the socio-cultural factors that have an effect on the use of ICT they target, and take steps to mitigate discrimination. They must strive to include all groups of society in their projects, and specifically those that suffer discrimination for social or cultural reasons.

Example questions for applying this Habit: What are the dynamics around social exclusion and the use of ICT in the communities targeted? Which groups are excluded in the communities targeted by the project/policy? How can the project/policy be implemented to actively involve them? Does the initiative take steps to involve groups that are traditionally excluded because of social, cultural, economic, political, or other reasons?

Habit 9. Identify and understand the external challenges you face, and take practical steps to address them.

External challenges are obstacles to the success of an initiative that are beyond the direct control of those implementing the project. They may be something that can be planned for (like electricity outages that require power backup for projects to carry on) or not (such as changes in the political landscape or natural disasters). For example, each of the Real Access criteria -- such as illiteracy, the lack of training for technology use, or a lack of public trust in technology use -- can become an external challenge for ICT-enabled projects in one way or another. There will always be external challenges that will affect ICT initiatives, including many that will not be anticipated in planning processes. These kinds of factors cannot always be controlled, but what is essential in effective project management is that these challenges are identified, understood, and tackled head on.

In some cases, these challenges may seem beyond the scope of the project and too big to address -- such as laws and regulations, or shifts in political power -- but they are ignored at the peril of the initiative. If those managing a development initiative look at an external challenge and decide that it is beyond their ability to address at its root, it is still critical that they determine what steps can be taken to mitigate its affect on their work. For example, changes in the local government structures where a community-based project is located are likely to impact on the project. While it may be beyond the scope of the work to get involved in local politics, it remains crucial to understand the political environment and adapt the approach as needed. To illustrate the point, in such a case, building in time to introduce newly-elected government officials to the project could help mitigate problems down the road.

Example questions for applying this Habit: What are the key external challenges that could affect the ICT initiative? Have each of the Real Access criteria been reviewed and understood as potential external challenges that could have an effect on the project? Does the ICT initiative/policy identify and understand the external challenges it faces? Does the ICT initiative take practical, proactive steps to overcome the obstacles? What are the practical steps that could be taken? If it is not appropriate for the initiative itself to get involved in tackling the external challenges, what other options are there for seeing that they are addressed?

Habit 10. Monitor and critically evaluate your efforts with effective tools, report back to your clients and supporters, and adapt your approach as needed.

Significant amounts of money have been spent on ICT initiatives during recent years, and too frequently there is little to show for it. ICT initiatives should treat the funding that supports their efforts more like an investment than a gift. They should regard funders as investors or clients, and report back to them regularly on progress and impact. Equally important is the need to report back to users, as they are the most important stakeholders of any development initiative. Their input ensures that an initiative’s efforts are focused on real needs.

Part of the reporting should be based on a critical evaluation of the ICT project or policy. If traditional monitoring and evaluation frameworks are not effective gauges of progress, then new tools should be developed that are more suitable. For example, emerging ideas around "social return on investment" offer promise for use in the ICT-based development field to illustrate ground-level impact (see more below). An initiative should demonstrate progress and impact. But where results are not as successful as expected, the evaluation should be used as a learning process, to identify and understand mistakes and shortcomings so methodologies can be adapted as needed to improve the work. Monitoring a project at regular stages and collecting data can also give evaluation results statistical relevance, and create a yardstick for managers and funders to measure the impact of their work over time.

Example questions for applying this Habit: Does the initiative evaluate its efforts, glean what is working and what is not, and learn from its mistakes? How could its work be measured in different and innovative ways? Does it adapt its methodologies as appropriate? Does it report back to the community it serves as well as funders and supporters, to explain what it is doing and why, and how it is helping the community?

Habit 11. Make your initiative sustainable over the long term -- either by bringing in sufficient income to be self-sustaining, or by delivering on a social mission so effectively that it is worthy of continued donor funding.

While the usefulness of technology for socio-economic development has been demonstrated, the sustainability of such efforts in developing countries has proven challenging. Many well-intentioned ICT initiatives start off strong but fail in the long-term because they do not become sustainable. ICT-enabled development initiatives should be built upon sound "business" plans (whether for-profit or non-profit) that include provisions for overall sustainability. At the end of the day, the local economic environment determines the extent and frequency of technology use in the long-term. So ICT projects and policies should also be designed with local economic conditions in mind. If people and organizations cannot afford to use technology now, subsidized ICT projects will not succeed in the long-term if steps are not taken to improve the economic environment. It is also important that ICT initiatives consider the "soft" issues that can impact on their sustainability, such as their ability to retain human resources, in-house skills, and the intangible support of project participants.

If an initiative simply will never achieve economic sustainability by generating income, then it must make other plans for its long-term sustainability. One way is to deliver very well on its social mission and report back effectively on the positive impact it is making, so that its funders will continue to support the work. An initiative may need to develop indicators for quantifying its "social return on investment", or the non-financial benefits to society and the community that the initiative brings. If such indicators cannot be captured, descriptions of qualitative measures can also be used to paint the picture of how ICT-enabled development initiatives deliver a social benefit worthy of continued support.

Example questions for applying this Habit: What is needed to make the ICT initiative sustainable? Can it bring in sufficient revenue to support itself over the long term? If not, what are the options for achieving sustainability based on the social benefits it brings to the community and society at large? Does the initiative work to make its efforts economically and socially sustainable, over the short and long term? What kinds of "soft" issues relate to the sustainability of the ICT initiative and how are they being addressed?

Habit 12. Widely disseminate information on what you are doing and what you have learned so others can avoid your mistakes and build on your efforts.

Underpinning this Habit is the strong, ethical argument that work done in the name of social good should be shared in the public domain. Actors within the development aid community have a responsibility to share their knowledge and disseminate their findings as widely as possible, especially when projects are supported by donor money (often provided by tax-payers). Many organizations working in the ICT-enabled development field are known to keep information about their initiatives to themselves, sometimes because they seek to make income from production of proprietary work, and often due to internal politics, bureaucracy, and disorganized processes. However, sometimes information is kept quiet in order to play down the shortcomings of projects. But how can the field move forward if no one is willing to speak frankly about mistakes so they can be studied and understood? Mistakes themselves are not the problem: repeating the same mistakes is.

This Habit brings us full circle from where we started at Habit 1. ICT initiatives should build their efforts on what is already known in the field based on findings from the homework exercise. But in order for this to work each initiative must share information; if they do not disseminate knowledge and lessons learned it makes it difficult (if not impossible) for others to learn from past experiences, and this can lead to mistakes being needlessly repeated. As they implement good practices in their projects, ICT initiatives should carefully examine their efforts and determine what works best for them, and then share their experiences with others. Disseminating strategies for overcoming obstacles and other lessons learned can greatly contribute to the community of knowledge and help move the whole field forward.

Example questions for applying this Habit: What can this initiative do to contribute knowledge on good practices to the field? Does this initiative do its part to contribute to the body of knowledge in the field by sharing experiences and lessons learned? Does the project/policy openly discuss both its successes and failures? Is information held as proprietary and sold for a fee, or is it made publicly available and widely disseminated through open channels?

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