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Responsible Data: Sustainability of ICTs

Among the buzzwords that have permeated both the ICT4D and greater international development industries in the past decade is "sustainability." On many levels, sustainability is important. We all want to see our interventions succeed in the long-term. Often, we have to write sustainability plans as part of our project plan.

However, rarely do we hear definitions of sustainability beyond “it continues past the period of performance”. In the course of our 15 years of work, we at Sonjara have seen our clients, including USAID, the UN, major INGOs and governments, talk about sustainability in the following ways:

Benefit to Beneficiaries

Will the benefit of the ICT4D interventions continue to serve beneficiaries? Did the project or intervention serve as a proof of concept? Did the project or intervention iterate on something that was already adding something positive to the beneficiaries' lives?

These questions may refer to the processes, not necessarily the software or hardware. In fact, one indication of a sustainable ICT4D project in this context is if you swap out the software and hardware, local partners will be able to adapt and continue to deliver the benefits. Software and hardware change frequently. Good processes last much longer.

Example: An electronic medical records activity digitizes the process for medical care in a health facility. The software and servers could be replaced due to age or compatibility, but the capacity of the clinicians and staff to use EMRs, as well as written policies and processes for EMR use, continues.

Tangible Technology Outputs

Will the tech - software, hardware, data - you created, designed, procured or set up continue to be actively and beneficiallyused? Creating a new dataset with a survey, procuring tablets or writing software is relatively straightforward. Figuring out how those outputs will actually be used to the benefit of stakeholders is far more complicated.

Example: an mHealth project collects digital case management data on children under 5 in a district. Once the mHealth intervention ends, the data continues to be available to the community health workers, facilities, and district health officers on a new mHealth platform. The data is used to decide what communications campaigns to do in the following year. Community health workers use the tablets procured for the project for another mHealth activity.

Local Tech Capacity

Can a local partner in the country run the project once the international partner has left? Undoubtedly, with the continual global proclivity to digital tech, there is great tech talent in nearly every country in the world. Has your project managed to capture the right talent to keep the intervention running?

One strategy that works well is introducing new technologies in one project, then bringing those same technologies into multiple other projects if the first rollout shows potential. Over time, staff have more than one chance to work with the new technology. When donors and partners see the new technology in multiple projects, they are more inclined to help organize solutions with governments and other stakeholders to address systemic challenges, such as infrastructure.

Example: An mFinance project runs into issues for people who did not previously have digital IDs. Namely, there is no way to virtually verify their identity. Biometric verification with fingerprints are thus introduced into the project. Staff who were hired for their tech finance skills now need to learn about an entirely new subject. The biometrics show great value in the first project, and thus the system of verification is brought into other eCommerce and eFinance projects, giving staff more opportunities to learn about biometric technologies.

Donor and Government Understanding

The realities of government and donor funding, and partner financial and human resources can make grand ideas of sustainability unrealistic. Few donors want to fund the second, third or further iterations of a project. Many projects using experimental technologies or established technologies in experimental ways have a heavy lift in articulating why a project needs to continue if the first iteration didn't produce stellar results. Project partners may do well working together, but many donors are skeptical any one partner can continue alone.

Lessons Learned

By virtue of the ICT4D industry, interventions are fed into a country or regional ecosystem. Digital technology start-ups in the United States and Europe didn't proliferate out of nowhere; they were built on centuries of technological advances and populations who incrementally advanced their own technology skills. Likewise, the expectation that an ICT4D intervention will address many things at once is often unrealistic. Projects need to feed into something greater, staff need to have a frame of reference, and beneficiaries need to have a point of orientation.

Coming up with realistic expectations for sustainability for any ICT4D project is critical, especially knowing that our industry, (like most others) have headwinds against transferal to local partners. If the four definitions of sustainability above cannot be addressed as baselines, perhaps the intervention needs to be rethought.


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