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What the Evidence Shows: Challenges and Opportunities for ICT4D in 2019

Earlier this month, DIAL published the final report of our Global Digital Ecosystem Study. In talking with tech specialists and representatives of NGOs, donor organizations, mobile network operators, and governments, we gained some great insights into the current state of the ICT4D sector. In an upcoming blog, I will discuss the experience and lessons of this study from an evaluator’s point of view, but for now let’s focus on the study’s key findings: 

If you have been involved in the ICT4D sphere for any length of time, many of these findings should not surprise you.  When DIAL and Genesis Analytics, our partner for this study, shared early findings at MERLTech Jozi in August 2018, many participants noted that it was a comfort to see evidence that they were not the only ones still struggling with these obstacles and shared challenges that have persisted in the ICT4D sector for decades: 

  • Funding does not support proven tech: Most respondents were aware of ample seed or pilot funding but not of funding opportunities to scale, maintain, or adapt existing ICT4D solutions.
  • Open Source Software is valued, but not consistently used: The lack of collective product ownership of OSS has led to lagging quality, nudging people towards choosing proprietary options.
  • Capacity to use digital data and solutions is still low across all stakeholder groups: A participant noted, “Even if we could access that type of data, I’m not sure we have the skills necessary to analyze it.”

Wayan Vota brings up a critical question in his blog about these findings that we as a sector should explore more deeply with this evidence: “We can and should do better, but how?” I would argue that we are already doing better. While this study showed that ICT4D practitioners still encounter barriers in terms of funding, design, and capacity in their work, in the past year alone, we have seen huge momentum to address them in creative and collaborative ways, both through this study and in our daily work in the digital ecosystem

  • Multiple initiatives are underway to aggregate and demonstrate demand of mobile services for good to spur more collective investments through pooled procurement. USAID’s Center for Digital Development has launched a program to aggregate demand for broadband internet, while DIAL is working on aggregating and demonstrating demand for core mobile services in five countries in sub-Saharan Africa, complementing other work to drive that demand by informing implementers of the capabilities of mobile services for development.  
  • Collaboration among private and public sectors to share mobile data. Through the Big Data for Social Good Advisory initiative, GSMA has catalyzed 20 mobile network operators (MNOs) accounting for over two billion connections in over 100 countries to share data insights with public agencies and NGOs. In Malawi and Uganda, DIAL has facilitated Data Sharing Agreements between MNOs and development actors to allow for real-time, data-driven decision-making.  
  • Donors are getting together to tackle pilotisis and pool procurement. Representatives from ten funding organizations came together in 2018 to create the Principles of Donor alignment for Digital Health to reduce fragmentation and duplication and increase interoperability within and across developing countries. Digital Square is already providing a new forum for donors and implementers in the digital health space to invest together in tech approaches.  
  • Greater recognition of the need for building digital skills and literacy. The World Bank’s Digital Economy for Africa (DE4A) initiative is working with African finance and information and communications technology (ICT) ministers, central bank governors, global tech and telecom giants, local and regional internet platform providers, think tank and thought leaders, digital entrepreneurs, and development actors to build a foundation for new digital entrepreneurship and raise the level of digital literacy and skills across Africa. And the Principles for Digital Development remain well known among ICT4D practitioners and over 150 endorsers and will soon serve as the business standard for integrating best practices for designing, implementing, and evaluating ICT4D interventions. 

As we continue to evaluate how our work supports creating a more inclusive digital society, we value the ongoing conversations from a variety of voices from across the ecosystem. Do any of our findings surprise you, or do you feel they accurately represent your reality? How are you, as a participant in the global digital ecosystem, addressing these barriers? Are we doing enough? What more needs to be done? And how can we can an ecosystem be better and do better at improving digital inclusivity together?  Let us know what you think about these questions and other insights or reactions you have about the findings here:

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