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Home / Stories from the field

Making Technology Accessible

2004-03-03 16:24:04

It has now been a year since I started eRiding, and not much more than that since I first heard about it. The opportunity to work in the development sector was what appealed most to me back then. Africa faces many challenges, and I wanted to do what I could to meet those challenges. I saw that Information and Communications Technology (ICT) provided the unique opportunity to impact on just about any aspect of the development effort. ICT can make any sector more effective, be it health, education, civil rights, environment or any other area where people are striving to improve the condition of their world.
I soon learned, though, that ICT of itself can not solve anything. The technologies have been designed to be used in a specific way, for a specific purpose. If the intended beneficiaries of the technology are for whatever reason unable to use it, or if the purpose of the technology is irrelevant for them, then it is a waste of investment. It serves to hamper rather than promote development. Bridges.org provides an excellent explanation of this in their 12 Real Access criteria.
Unfortunately, working in the field I saw many failed technology efforts. The reasons that technology efforts fail are many and varied, but there are a few common situations. Because the eRider model is holistic in its approach, it can effectively avoid almost all of these these.
Satellite Internet in Botswana

There was a potentially very relevant development project in Botswana, where a number of NGOs were provided with free two-way satellite infrastructure. This gave them the potential for permanent broadband Internet access in a connectivity-starved environment. Unfortunately, the project failed dismally. Working with one of these NGOs it was easy to see where the project went wrong. The lessons learned here can easily be applied to other scenarios.
Solutions are technology focused
The satellite technology project was created by technologists. They saw that there were NGOs with no Internet connection and they came up with satellite as a solution. The environment was never given sufficient consideration. The NGO was never consulted about how relevant the solution would be to them. They did not adequately consider what the NGO would actually use the Internet for. Even the question of whether the NGO had the technical capacity to use the connection was ignored.
NGOs do not understand how new technology can impact on them
Even after the satellite infrastructure was installed, the NGO never knew how it could tie into their administration and projects. They knew that the Internet could be used to send email, but that was the extent of its integration. The technology was wasted because the organization did not understand the full potential that it held for them.
Technology projects are seen as rollouts with little concern for individual scenarios
When technology projects are rolled out, there is insufficient attention given to the requirements of individual cases. In the organization that I worked with, there were several computers, but no network installed. This meant that broadband Internet access was only available on one computer, resulting in severe under-utilization.
Capacity building is not prioritized
When the satellite infrastructure was installed, only the secretary, whose computer was used to host the connection, was ever shown how to use it. When she left the organization shortly afterwards, nobody knew how the connection worked. Even worse, nobody within the organization understood how the Internet could help them, so there was no motivation for them to learn.
Technology solutions are too often not sustainable
The satellite rollout project incorporated one year of free Internet service. Beyond this point the NGO would have to pay the monthly fees to keep the Internet connection. There was some consideration given to sustainability models, but this was done without the participation of the NGO, who did not understand the satellite technology, let alone possible models to make it sustainable. In more extreme situations, an NGO might be forced to sign financially binding contracts to take advantage of short-term free services without a realistic understanding of the consequences.
Failed technology projects damage trust
Because the satellite project had introduced so much confusion within the NGO, and it was seen as a nuisance rather than a benefit, the organization was naturally suspicious of new technologies. It was a severe challenge for them to accept new technologies that may be more relevant to their needs.
eRiders As a Solution
The issues discussed above are not unique, nor are they likely to disappear from the development arena. However, eRiders are uniquely placed to ensure that technology solutions are appropriate to the needs of an NGO. Because eRiders understand both the on-the-ground reality and the high-level development agendas, they can provide valuable insight into new projects to ensure that they really meet the needs of the end-users. If new technology is considered, eRiders can consider all the consequences and ensure that the organization actually has the capacity to take advantage of it. Technology planning ensures that the ICT integration process is owned by the organization itself, and that the value of the technology is appreciated. eRiders are so valuable to the development world because they are experts at making technology accessible.

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