Posted to the Ethnos Project by on July 8th, 2011


The need to bridge the digital divide is no longer a point of discussion and therefore focus has shifted to the design and implementation of programs that have the potential to close the information and knowledge gap between the developing and developed nations. Unfortunately, the majority of these programs are small and mimic what has been successful in the developed world. It has become increasingly clear that these successes do not necessarily translate well in the context of developing nations. This paper develops the hypothesis that Information and Communication Technology (ICT) projects in developing countries will become successful only when they are adapted to local conditions. The general concept of Appropriate Technology (AT) will be explored for the field of ICT. AT has already been embraced by fields like architecture, building technology and agriculture, but has not yet been rooted in ICT.

The paper proposes a preliminary theory of Appropriate ICT along the lines of existing theories in AT and System development. The theory identifies Appropriate Technology principles at three levels: hardware, software and ICT change management. By means of real life mini cases in the ICT for Development context in Africa, the guiding principles for Appropriate ICT are illustrated. The paper will conclude with an agenda for further research in the three identified levels. The research agenda targets academia, governments, NGO’s and industry.

Keywords: ICT for Development, hardware design, software design, Africa, appropriate technology

1. Introduction

It sounds pretty normal: when you plan a mountain hike you ensure that you wear strong boots and a pullover against the cold at higher altitudes; in case you go to the tropics you choose a light, well ventilated tropical out-fit and a hat or cap against the merciless sun. You have been taught that you need to adapt to the local circumstances. In disciplines such as architecture, civil technique and industrial design, identifying, selecting and introducing appropriate and suitable technology is well recognized, but in the field of ICT (being a young discipline) this process is still in its infancy.

Not only computer hardware and software, but also methods and techniques for design and implementation of information technology, are almost without exception invented/developed in the developed countries (Europe and North America). The contextual and cultural elements of these countries are ingrained in the design. These elements limit the transferability of the technology to other, different, environments (Collins, 1992; Evans & Collins, 2007). Tacit assumptions become clear in case of breakdown of operations (Winograd & Flores, 1986) and will form the start of an explanatory of problem solving-discussion or discourse (Habermas, 1985). In the field of ICT for Development (ICT4D), this discussion on the limitations of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) ICT tools, softwares and methodologies in the context of developing countries has been initiated (Gurstein, 2003, Gairola et al., 2004, Dymond & Oestmann, 2004, Reijswoud & Topi, 2005) but is still young.

The field of ICT4D has grown dramatically in size and importance over the past decade (McNamara, 2003, Levey & Young 2002). ICT4D is based on the premise that ICT is able to bridge the digital divide between the developed and developing countries and thereby contribute to equal distribution of wealth. Two dimensions are identified to achieve this goal: increasing access to ICT and rationalization of work procedures to increase transparency and accountability (Krishna & Madon, 2003). ICT is considered to be vital for the improvement of governance and production resources (Sciadas, 2003).

The importance of ICT for poverty alleviation has been recognized at the highest international levels when the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) dedicated their Annual Human Development Report to the role of information and communication technologies (UNDP, 2001). At present, most of the large development organizations have programs with a substantial ICT component and a growing number of smaller development initiatives have started targeted projects in the field of ICT.

In spite of all the efforts, the digital divide has not been bridged and well-documented success stories of the application of ICT for poverty alleviation are hard to find (Krishna & Madon, 2003, Curtain, 2004, Osama, 2006, Walsham et al., 2007). Evaluation of ICT projects often reveals underutilization of the resources because the newly introduced ICT has not been well integrated within the local context (Kozma, 2005), in the worst case as a result of ‘dump-and-run’ approaches (Volsoo, 2006, Reijswoud et al., 2005), and lack of local ownership in the receiving communities (Vaughan, 2006). Also technical (hardware and software) problems resulting from the ‘hostile’ conditions in which the ICT was introduced put a strain on the actual impact (Gichoya, 2005). High rates of hardware breakdown combined with the low locally available technical problem-solving skills have lead to underutilized and even abandoned projects. Finally, high maintenance (recurring) costs for hardware, software and internet connectivity put a financial burden on the projects rendering them financially non-sustainable.

In spite of the enormous challenges in the context of the development of especially the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), the academic literature to date on ICT for Development is relatively sparse (Walsham et al., 2007). Most of the literature is produced in the public domain by development agencies. Furthermore, little attention is paid to general frameworks to improve the success of ICT implementations in LDCs.

There are many reasons that ICT projects in LDCs fail (Heeks, 2003) and they have been reported from the start (Moussa & Schware, 1992, World Bank, 1993). Failure may be caused by selection of inappropriate hardware, software and/or design and implementation approaches. This article starts from the premise that many ICT projects in LDCs fail to properly take into account the local context in LDCs. Building on this premise we will develop a theory for the design and implementation of ICT projects in LDCs that takes into account local conditions. We develop this approach along the lines of existing theories in AT in other fields of science and general theories in information systems design.

It is apparent that ICT projects cannot be adequately understood and addressed as technical/rational initiatives (Avgerou, 2003) and therefore, like other technical solutions, the design and implementation of ICT solutions must be carried out in relation to the culture (Westrup et al., 2003), the environment, the organization, the available resources, the economic and political circumstances, and the desired impact (Avgerou, 2003). As Avegrou states (2003: 57-58) there is need for a situated approach where IT innovation is understood in ‘their’ complex context. We propagate an integration of the discipline ‘Appropriate Technology’ that aims at devising ‘suitable’ technological solutions. Our theory identifies principles to do so at three levels: hardware, software and ICT change management. The theory is described in section 2 and 3. By means of real life mini cases in the ICT for Development context in Africa, the guiding principles for Appropriate ICT are illustrated in section 4. In section 5 we will conclude with an agenda for further research.

2. Appropriate Technology

In order to understand better how we can improve the effectiveness of design and implementation of ICT projects in the LDCs we will explore the field of appropriate technology (AT). Since the concepts of AT has not yet gained much ground in the area of ICT, we will start our exploration with a short discussion of AT.

As a general definition we adopt the idea that AT is technology that is suitable for the environmental, cultural and economic conditions in which the technology is intended to be used. The opposite of AT is the ‘one-size-fits-all’ concept that builds on the premise that well designed technology can be used under all circumstances – the universal model. The best example of this line of thinking is the Swiss Army Knife. The Swiss Army Knife is designed with the idea that it will help you out in whatever environmental, cultural and economic condition you are in. Avgerou and Walsham (2000) characterize these two attitudes as paralyzing anti-technology and techno-enthusiasm.

Darrow and Saxenian (1986) provide 10 criteria in the Source Book for Appropriate Technology that we take as starting point. These criteria have been formulated to act as a basic set of guidelines for a broad spectrum of several technologies in developing countries. ICT is not considered explicitly by the authors. The following criteria are proposed in Darrow and Saxenian (1986):

  1. It should be possible to implement/realize technological solutions with limited financial resources.
  2. The use of available resources must be emphasized to reduce the costs and to guarantee the supply of resources e.g., for maintenance
  3. Technologies may be relatively labor-intensive, but must have a higher output than the traditional technologies.
  4. The technology must be understandable for people without specific or academic training
  5. Small rural communities should be able to produce and maintain the technology
  6. The technology must result into economic and/or social progress.
  7. The technology must be fully understandable for the local population, the end-users resulting into possibilities for them to become involved in the possible innovation and extension of the use of the technology
  8. The technological solutions must be flexible and easily to be adapted to changing
  9. The technology must contribute to the increase of productivity
  10. The technology should not have a negative impact on the environment.

The guiding idea for these criteria is that technologies have a good chance to be effective if they are appropriate to the needs, expectations and limitations of the surroundings in which they will be applied. In other words, the selected solution should be in harmony with local standards and values and build on existing skills and techniques. A new technology will not be embedded in a sustainable manner into an organization or community if the dependence on the developers of the solution is high and the available resources (financial as well as human) for maintenance are expensive and scarcely available.

Development needs that are met through community education and development tend to be sustainable. New technology needs to address the local community as the main stakeholder. Only then we observe self-sustainability and expanding reservoirs of skills in the communities (Tharakan, 2006).

Although the criteria proposed by Darrow and Saxenian (1986) will result in an appropriate design of the technology, they fail to highlight the implementation process. Even appropriate technology can be rejected by the potential end-users if the implementation process does not address the needs, expectations and limitations of the community and/or when the invoked changes are not guided in an appropriate manner. We will develop this aspect in more detail in the next section where we concentrate on Appropriate ICT.

Understanding AT is an important element in the education of engineers. In order to operate in a development context they are required to have a good understanding of general development issues, philosophy and ethics, and AT in development (Tharakan, 2006). In the education of computer and information systems engineers, this knowledge has received little attention.

3. Appropriate ICT and the Digital Divide

The use of ICT in developing countries is increasing and the expectations of its role in accelerating the socio-economic development in these countries are high (Walsham et al., 2007, McNamara, 2003). Until recently the use of ICT in Africa and other developing countries was reserved to large international organizations and foreign NGOs (non-governmental organizations). Foreign ICT experts were contracted for the installation and maintenance (Bruggink, 2003) and for conducting training beyond the basic level of Office applications (Heeks, 1998). Local implementers had to fly to Europe or North America to receive training. Over the last couple of years this is changing rapidly (Levey & Young, 2002). The digital gap made it to the international agenda (and is often strongly linked to amongst others the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG)) and with foreign support the first programs and projects have been set up.

Although some progress has been booked, the penetration of computers is still very low in comparison with Western countries (Jensen, 2002). Even at this moment the majority of people in LDCs had never touched a computer and most small and medium sized businesses operate without them. A major challenge concerns the need to bridge the so-called ‘digital divide’ between those people with the ability to access and use information technologies effectively, and those without. The challenge remains to tackle such difficulties and to resolve them (Walsham et al., 2007)

In order to bridge the digital gap information technology must be available in the life of the ‘ordinary man’. Like in Europe, North America and increasingly in Asia, the ultimate goal is that everyone should have access to computers and information everywhere and always (Universal Access). Not only in the large cities, not only the rich class, but information technology must also be available for the population in the rural areas and for people with a lower level of education. This creates formidable challenges to the developers and implementers of ICT solutions.

The application of ICT as a tool in bridging the digital divide is not as straight forward as many international development organizations claim. More technology does not necessary result in development when collaboration between industry, government and development organizations is not involved (Avgerou, 2003). Moreover, the implementation of ICT without local support and no contributing to a local demand/need will not lead to sustainable development. The technology will be rejected after an initial period of euphoria, as there is no added value in it. Small technical failures will easily result in complete break down when there is not technical support. For a multitude of reasons these aspects of the implementation of ICT in developing countries are often overlooked by supporting donor agencies. A theory of appropriate ICT aims to address these issues and support sustainable design and implementation of ICTs in general and particularly in LDCs.

3.1. Appropriate ICT

In line with the approach of Darrow and Saxenian (1986) we aim at the development of a framework for Appropriate ICT that will guide designers, implementers and maintainers of ICT to design and implement effective and sustainable solutions that address the needs, expectations and limitations of the targeted communities and allows the ‘ordinary man’ in LDCs to get connected to the information and knowledge society. This is an enormous challenge and requires careful consideration to limit partial and complete failure and increase the overall effectiveness of ICT for Development (Avgerou & Walsham, 2000).

Appropriate ICT should be perceived from two perspectives: the product and process perspective. The product perspective is concerned with the design of the ICT systems that will be used to offer information and communication services. This covers all aspects from computers (and other connected electronic equipment), servers, network and connections. For example in our approach, a computer setup that is to operate in a community in the African desert is not considered to be appropriate when it is not well protected against heat, sand and dust. The product perspective is very much in line with the guidelines that were developed by Darrow and Saxenian.

The process perspective is just as vital but has not received adequate attention up to this point. A mere techno-centric approach, even when rooted in the principle of AT, will not deliver effective community-embedded ICT that will be appreciated and used by the potential end-users. The emerging, interdisciplinary fields of Social Informatics (Kling, 1999) and Community Informatics (Gurstein, 2000, 2003) provide good references for our process perspective. Social Informatics concentrates research in three areas:

  1. Theories and models: The development of models and theories that explain the social and organizational uses and impacts of ICT.
  2. Methodologies: The development of methodologies that address the social impacts of the design, implementation, maintenance and use of ICT.
  3. Philosophical and ethical issues: The study of philosophical and ethical issues that arise in the use of ICT in social and organizational contexts.

Community Informatics (CI) constitutes a subset of Social Informatics with a focus on communities (McIver, 2003). Where Social Informatics has a stronger research focus, CI is more suitable for the development and implementation of ICT in developing countries (see: Vaughan, 2006). The community itself is involved in the adaptation of ICT to their purposes including advocacy, local information on community resources and services available, community mapping for community planning and development (demographics, geography) (Gurstein, 2000).

The process perspective of Appropriate ICT needs to encompass a community oriented and participatory focus to address the needs, expectations and limitations in which the technology is to be used. So, if computers are introduced in the African context, people should be empowered on the devastating effect of humidity, power fluctuations, dust and sand and learn how to open and clean the computers from the dust door maintain the computers under these circumstances.

In order to better serve development needs, IT-related projects and systems in the developing world must improve their capacity to address the specific contextual characteristics of the organization, sector, country or region within which their work is located (Avgerou & Walsham, 2000). We consider five variables relevant to address in the context:

  1. Culture: Societies, or groups in a society vary in their sets of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices. Culture deserves careful attention when ICTs are introduced in the development context (Westrup et al., 2003). We consider culture a central variable.
  2. Environment: Physical conditions (heat, cold, dust, humidity etc) need to establish an important ICT solution design.
  3. Organization: The structure of the organization (in the broadest sense of the word) determines the implementation strategy of systems both in the developed as developing world.
  4. Economy: The current and future economic situation of a country, sector or organization should serve as a determinant in the ICT investment decisions.
  5. Political climate: Some governments are more restrictive in their ICT guidelines than others. Openness is not always appreciated and some governments have ‘partnerships’ with hardware and software suppliers.

In conclusion we define Appropriate ICT as follows:

The integrated and participatory approach that results in tools and processes for establishing Information and Communication Technology (ICT) that is suitable for the cultural, environmental, organizational, economic and political conditions in which it is intended to be used.

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