Reflections Emerging from the 2006 Technical Advisory Group Meeting
The Technical Advisory Group (TAG) of the DOT-COM Alliance advises Alliance partners on programmatic and technical issues concerning ICT for development. On March 13, 2006, the DOT-COM Secretariat convened the annual TAG meeting in Washington, D.C.
The agenda for this fourth and final TAG meeting was developed to address four questions:
Dr. Tony Meyer, who before retiring from USAID in 2004, played a key role in the planning of the DOT-COM Alliance and its first years of implementation, returned as facilitator for the critical discussion session. Dr. Meyer is also the author of the final report for the TAG meeting upon which most of this article is based.
- What have we learned?
- Which ICT interventions will be most beneficial to development objectives, continued sustainability and access for the underserved?
- How can the DOT-COM Alliance experience contribute to future efforts?
- Which relationships between USAID and its cooperators work best when looking ahead to future ICT programs?
Content: Policy, Technology and Opportunity
- Get the policy and legal framework in place for telecommunications and its commerce.
This issue ranked among the most important lessons learned. All good projects and applications rest on a sound policy environment. A sound policy environment is the key for growing IT commerce, generating widespread use of technology applications and consolidating user demand. Cautions: 1) getting the policy right takes time, though not always a lot of money; 2) its not center-stage in most USAID portfolios; 3) it requires a project champion within USAID to translate its importance to Missions. Romania and Macedonia were the success stories cited.
- Equipment dumps have minimum impact.
Technology tools are only as good as the teachers who use them and the systems that support them. Computers, kiosks and telecenters by themselves are not enough. Context is everything: consolidation of demand, establishing networks, user training, and institutional readiness can optimize technologys impact. Macedonia was cited as a program which transformed the gift of 5,300 computers by the Chinese Government into a successful school program with teacher training, institutional support and involvement of the private sector.
Rising waters dont lift all boats. There must be specific actions towards full incorporation of men and women in projects. We have seen the success of greater participation when deliberate action is taken.
- ICTs are a Trojan horse.
Enabling people from different sectors, different stakeholders, to come together, ICTs can be a catalyst for changing how business is done, how work is managed. Technology can be used to give permission to do things differently.
- Focus on high-impact, demand-driven applications.
Participants were divided: should technologies be selected for their use across sectors to consolidate demand and generate widespread access, or should technology selection be driven by high-impact sector applications? Put another way, should USAID promote technologies that increase access broadly, requiring cross-sectoral USAID teams to jointly fund a program, or should USAID seize the opportunity that a specific sector might offer to gain traction with available funding from within an enthusiastic Ministry? TAG participants had varying views. Perhaps a practical solution is to respond to opportunities as they emerge. In cases where budget, interests and host country demands foster a sectoral approach, take it and encourage a broader vision from that starting point. In cases where there is opportunity to change policy, increasing access and usage across sectors, take it and encourage high impact sector applications. Both technology and need can be drivers.
- Users are always smarter than the designers.
It is amazing how new users are seized with technologys possibilities and benefits. They quickly figure out how to adapt technology to their needs, often ones never anticipated by program planners.
- People dont live in sectors.
We need to work across sectors at the community level if IT is to have long-term viability.
- Tacked-on small applications of IT dont reflect the real power of IT.
If we cant serve all the users, the kinds of applications that emerge are limited. Pervasive connectivity is essential.
- Put the simplest technology in rural areas and more complex technology at central levels.
Help people make smart purchasing decisions. We need to understand both the technology side and the need side. ICTs dont help people generically; they need quick impact from their limited resources. It was pointed out that the ubiquity of radio is enduring and, along with the use of cell phones, is in a growth pattern. What is called for is creativity when using mixed technologies. Experiment with tech packages which include connectivity and power solutions.
- Openness is a key to understanding the potential of ICT.
Think of openness as a way to enable ICT. Having access to information, being able to affect and modify that information, in addition to increased transparency is a profoundly democratic concept. ICT makes it possible for more and more people to participate actively in society; this is not technology specific. It is a reason to champion projects which promote universal access.
- Interoperability can be an issue.
Architecture needs to be thought through from the ground up so that applications can talk to each other.
- USAID Missions have a strong appetite for ICT in their education programs.
Some participants projected funding for the education sector would remain strong in some cases because of the underlying need to reduce poverty and in doing so strengthen civil society and prevent terrorism. The Presidents funding for the African Education Initiative points to opportunities that may emerge at a regional level as well as a country-by-country basis. UNESCOs Education for All program presents further near-term opportunities, and it was suggested that dot-EDU connect more fully with this initiative. Corporate interest in collaboration in the education sector is also high. Caution: When corporations generate ICT education projects, theyre indirectly contributing to education policy. USAID can assist in thinking through this prospective impact.
- E-government programs seem to garner increased interest.
This is due to their potential to increase the efficiency of government, decrease its corruption and improve the climate for business. E-government was strongly recommended as a growth opportunity. The role of ICTs in fragile states and post-conflict societies (e.g., national reconciliation), represents opportunities. Within USAID, interest remains high in democracy and governance programs.
- E-business, the challenge of reliable energy, and the widespread availability of cell phones.
These were cited as opportunities. IT can enable economic growth, competitiveness programs and WTO accession. For example, the use of ICTs can make quick yet significant improvements in small to medium size enterprise-competitiveness for entire industries.
- The health sector.
The health sector holds opportunity for ICT application, whether in battling an on-going crisis such as HIV/AIDS in Africa or in addressing the spread of Avian Flu.
Organizations and Their Relations
- USAID and partners can assume the role of innovator.
USAID can be thought of as an R&D donor, able to put up risk capital to enable countries and partners to try out new technologies and take risks. DOT-COM shows this side of USAID, taking chances and making experience available to replicate and go to scale. Examples cited include the Uganda thin-client program (using networks of low voltage computers where energy is scarce); the use of cell phones for teacher training in Zambia; the development of a CD-ROM on animal discovery in a local language in India.
- The stars aligned in Macedonia.
The cooperation of these organizations enabled this countrywide success story: the USAID Mission, USAID staff in Washington, all three DOT-COM awards and local institutions. Policy reform, access (every school connected to the Internet) and the successful use of technology (computers in the schools) required the expertise from and coordination of each DOT. Caution: At any moment, any number of things could have gone wrong, and instead wed be talking about a failure. Thats development reality- it is difficult to consistently get all the stars in alignment.
- Governments, regulators, ministries and businesses may not get telecommunications policy right on their own.
Governments are eager to enter the IT market, but they need to adapt national policy to a common body of knowledge. Regulators need help avoiding marketplace conflict and integrating in regional associations. Ministries want to get policy analysis right, but typically dont have the tools to do so. Businesses dont have the resources to generate policy reform on their own. Most regional regulatory associations are weak and need help. The potential for USAID technical assistance is great and crucial in these areas.
- Public-private partnerships have worked well in the ICT sector.
DOT-COM experienced more than its expected level of cost-share. This included partnerships with host country businesses and governments, as well as outside the contract contributions to programs such as the Chinese governments gift of 5,300 computers to the government of Macedonia. It was widely thought by TAG participants that public-private partnerships remain a growing work opportunity in ICT for development.
Caution: Businesses can take advantage of the enthusiasm for public-private partnerships to stake out their own commercial claims and/or crowd out public sector alternatives. Potentially increasing trust and transparency, multi-stakeholder partnerships are an alternative since they can include whoever has a stake in a given process.
- Potential private sector partners are increasing.
eBay is going to India; Google is going to Nigeria. Its not just Microsoft and Intel anymore. In Mongolia, a local bank made a $10 million commitment to invest in a rural network. Key is figuring out each others systems to make collaborations happen.
- Collaboration with other US Agencies and donors.
This type of collaboration is seen as an important support avenue for future work in ICT for development. Some collaboration took place under DOT-COM, particularly with the State Department and the World Bank. Yet now is a time when a joint State-USAID strategy has emerged and when discussion of transformational democracy implies a redefinition of how foreign affairs are set up. Expect closer engagement with State and the Department of Defense. The Department of Defense can be expected to turn to USAID expertise on development issues. Take advantage of multi-laterals, as in the UNESCO Education for All program, who have acknowledged that alternative mechanisms are necessary to achieve their objectives. Promote and participate in collaborations among donors within developing countries, not only in Washington or Paris.
- The DOT-COM Leader-with-Associate (LWA) cooperative agreements worked well and good work was done.
While there is some shift within USAID to experiment with performance-based contracting and to use ordering-agreement contracts for services, for many, LWAs remain the instrument of choice. For example, in addition to the DOT-COM EDU agreement which it funds, the Education Office in EGAT uses LWAs as the primary award type for both for its higher education and basic education work. Participants generally thought that the LWA cooperative agreement context best served innovation. For example, the DOT-COM Alliance forged creative public-private partnerships and piloted technical innovations which may not have emerged under a traditional contract agreement. Many stated that, like most contractual agreements with USAID, LWAs work best when there is mutual commitment to technical cooperation in an overall program and when there is a project champion within USAID to interpret their potential for Missions. Caution: Where USAID requires an instrument that provides direct control over the specification of services, a contract model, rather than a cooperation model, may be more appropriate. Even when this is not an issue, there can be blurred lines of responsibility if several USAID units (contributing to the funding of the same LWA agreement) assume direct control over their contributed funds.
- Rewards often dont emerge for several years.
Stay with a project and use its progress and small successes to maintain organizational investment. Invest in long-term evaluation, because some impacts wont show up until later. For example, we need tracer studies with students and follow- up studies with policy makers who have received assistance. Benefits need to be documented. What difference have we made over the long-term?
- Begin projects with a long-term vision, with how to scale-up and sustain them beyond the initial critical time.
Think of moving programs beyond the community level to countries and regions.
- Inhibiting conditions, often externalities such as the lack of energy, can prevent long-term success.
Are there ICT-enabled insights to help deal with externalities? What we learned from dealing with externalities can benefit future programs.
- Work with local partners and businesses which have a stake in continuing programs.
Move beyond donor projects by gaining traction with local stakeholders that have significant self- interest. Its good when technology gives people high self-interest to work together.
- Communities of interest have developed around the DOT-COM projects.
A better job could have been done to connect these communities of interest who will play a key role in sustaining programs and in bringing pilots to scale. Find locals who want the project to be successful more than the donors want the project to be successful. These are the people who can take the project through critical times.
- Can the DOT-COM Alliance be better than the sum of its parts?
Possible, but only if knowledge is captured and shared.
- Capitalize on the good work that has been done.
Develop case studies of what can make a difference. If the experience isnt documented, half the potential impact could be lost. Evaluation is essential; however it is not often funded. The effort to evaluate interventions under the USAID Last Mile Initiative is excellent (LMI Impact Assessment). More investment in long-term impact assessment is needed.
- There should be a strong focus on knowledge products.
The DOT-COM website and e- newsletter are good starts. User-friendly toolkits would go a long way with very little money. ICTs are not automatically integrated into all sectoral programs; technologys potential needs to be translated for USAID officers worldwide and in their terms.
- How to work with private sector partners.
Because this opportunity is so important, it should be featured in lessons learned.
- Define a strategy to market the lessons learned to various sectors.
ICT is a field still in the making. There is an explosive growth of technologies and new adaptations are continually evolving. Sector specialists need and appreciate guidance in what is relevant to their needs.
- Compile and disseminate the results of pilot projects for different stakeholders.
Poor communities will not adopt new ways of using technology on their own; they need assistance. Provide concise how to guides. For example, it would be helpful to develop checklists, probably by sector: 1) how to assess the possibility of an ICT project, 2) things to account for in when designing a project, 3) how to get started.
- Dont just look cool.
There is a tendency to promote things that may look cool but dont really build on lessons learned. It takes a deep understanding of a sector to figure out which applications would be best. So, ICT potential and lessons learned need to be translated for sector specialists, and sector specialists need to be integrated within ICT programs.
- Developing countries cant afford to make mistakes.
People are aware that the introduction of ICT changes everything and yet lessons learned often take a project perspective. In promoting lessons learned, consideration needs to be given to how ICT impacts users.
- Marketing to whom?
In the long term, the donors and experts will not be the ones making a difference in terms of adoption and sustainability. We need to be very directed about to whom we push the message out.
- Seek cross-fertilization and sharing of lessons learned with other agencies and donors.
IDRC (their telecenter booklet), the World Bank (their toolkit approach), UNESCO (the Education for All program), and UNDP (energy issues) were cited as potential collaborators, with the acknowledgement that USAID and DOT-COM have initiated some shared activities with these organizations already.
Lessons learned have no benefits unless you learn to change your behavior.
Numerous knowledge products were disseminated at the TAG meeting with more expecting to be developed in the coming months. For example, DOT-ORG is now working on a series of Lessons Learned that will complement the project-specific briefs developed for the TAG meeting.