Getting technical in East Africa

Oxfam Innovation, Methodology


How can Oxfam, and the development sector in East Africa, make best use of ICTs? Here Francesca Reinhardt, reflects on an event which brought together Oxfam staff from seven different countries, with international NGOs, local civil society groups, technology providers, donors and others to discuss the future of ICTs in the region.

Recently, colleagues from the aid and development sector across East Africa got to meet with tech developers to discuss the future of ICT for development and tackle some big questions such as:

  • How do we balance meeting local needs with getting programmes to scale?
  • How do we work out bugs in rapid-response emergency contexts?
  • How do we keep the end-user in the development process?
  • How do we work around poor phone-network or internet coverage to reach remote areas? 

While telecom and communication technology are transforming many parts of East Africa, South Sudan is not scheduled to get fibre-optic cables till 2018, and many parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo do not have GSM coverage. How do we bring communication technology and all the services it can bring to low-literacy populations?

These were just a few of the questions up for discussion, and now is a great time to draw the attention of governments, donors, and ICT developers to these important issues, as well as see what progress Oxfam is making.

How can we use ICTs in our programmes?

ICT has a range of applications in humanitarian and development work. Electronic data-collection and data-base management can help organisations respond faster and better in emergencies, share information between regions and countries, and track information responsibly over time. This also brings the responsibility to manage and protect personal data according to international standards (e.g. identities of beneficiaries.) Other systems can improve government services to remote areas, or help cover gaps in existing market systems for poor farmers.

For example, the Kenyan government is piloting a system of aerial drought and livestock monitoring which feeds into an electronic mapping server; this can improve early warning and animal insurance systems. Some solutions can mix high- and low-tech options, such as field monitors sending text-messages on key water-points, which are managed and analysed through a central database.

Making connections between different sectors

These technologies don’t just happen automatically. Many have been adapted from existing public and private sector products to fit the needs of the development and humanitarian sector. Making that link between developers and the aid-sector could open a lot of doors for strategic products and services to help the most vulnerable.

In most cases, mass-market products and services are not adapted for vulnerable beneficiaries, such as people who have never used a pin-code, don’t have an ID card, or have disabilities. And context is critical – in development contexts with longer time-scales, ICT innovations can be developed collaboratively over time in an iterative process to get the best results. However, in emergency contexts, there just isn’t time to do this – we need products that are ready to go and can be customised quickly in the field. Maybe it is possible to
combine the best of these and do the learning in-between emergencies?

As with many cross-cutting sectors, we don’t all speak the same language right away. NGO internal procedures might be new for ICT developers and service providers. NGOs might not have a lot of IT-literacy in the field teams that will be implementing solutions. In most cases, mass-market products and services are not adapted for vulnerable beneficiaries, such as people who have never used a pin-code, don’t have an ID card, or have disabilities. It’s important that beneficiaries are involved in the development process, and that technology includes user-friendly functions such
as images, voice-commands, and large screens and interfaces.

Donors want to create the space to innovate, but also want to know that implementing partners have done their due diligence in scoping ICT solutions. All actors are committed to results and conventional project monitoring, but also want to have the flexibility to adapt implementation processes as the technology matures. One major challenge is that NGOs don’t always have the in-house expertise to evaluate ICT partners and solutions. This could be improved by NGOs pooling their expertise to assess and monitor service providers and also by promoting common standards and
inter-operability for ICT solutions.

Sharing learning across Oxfam programmes

For Oxfam colleagues from Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, it was a great chance to find out what’s happening in other Oxfam programmes.

  • Oxfam Ethiopia is developing an Early Warning System for drought-affected areas with the support of the Ethiopian government and the office of the Vice President.
  • Oxfam Democratic Republic of Congo uses electronic data-collection and beneficiary registration to speed up emergency responses in remote areas. Information is collected on hand-held android devices which local surveyors can be trained on quickly. Data can be transferred through the GSM network to central servers, or by email, for rapid analysis and sharing.
  • Oxfam Uganda is working on youth employment projects in the IT sector. Unemployed and at-risk young people are trained on web technology and design, and other ICT services, as well as entrepreneurship.
  • Oxfam Somalia is delivering health education to remote and insecure areas using mobile phones. An interactive learning system based on text-messages allows trainers to share important public health information with isolated communities. While some parts of the cost structure are still expensive, Oxfam is working with the telecom company’s corporate social responsibility unit to find solutions.

What next..?

The development sector is going digital and Oxfam risks being left behind. This workshop shows that there is definitely a demand for a more ‘holistic’ ICT4D community for sharing best practice and speaking with a shared-voice across the region – perhaps Oxfam can be instrumental in helping to form this.

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Author: Francesca Reinhardt
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.