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The ICT for Rural Economic Development conference jointly organized by GTZ and BMZ from 18-19 November 2010 in Berlin, concluded on Friday 19 November with an engaging panel discussion on “What role can development cooperation play in ICT for rural economic development?”

The two day event brought together numerous practitioners, policy makers, donor organizations and private sector players. The event allowed colleagues to interact, network and share their rich experience and at the same time put on the table a number of challenges.

I think, it is safe to say that there was quite a bit of apprehension about the fact that some major donors have abandoned ICT4D sector. For those of us in the agriculture world, this is a déjà vu. But if there is one lesson to learn from our experience, that is under-investing in this sector – similar to under investing in agriculture -  will have negative impact in the lives of poor rural people.  We’ve learnt that ICTs are tools and for these to add value and improve the livelihoods of poor rural people, they need to be:
  • Affordable
  • Scalable
  • Self-sustaining
  • Sensible
  • Appropriate
We also learnt that we need to:
  • Focus on PEOPLE and not technology
  • Ensure ownership and appropriation
  • Develop local content
  • Ensure language and cultural pertinence
  • Ensure participation
  • Mainstream ICT4D activities as part of development projects
  • Build local capacity and scout for local talent and local innovations
This is the message that came out loud and clear from the concluding panel, moderated by Corinna Kuesel, Head of section for economic policy and private sector development of GTZ.

Ms Kuesel kicked off the panel discussion by sharing her impressions about the event. “I am impressed to see what an important role ICTs play in economic development and at the same time perhaps I am a bit concerned that development cooperation is moving out of ICT4D”, said Kuesel.

While recognizing that development agencies are competing for funds and funds are getting scarce, Kuesel made the case that this should not lead to abandoning ICT4D, because we’ve now have the evidence that ICTs can indeed make a difference in the lives of poor rural people.

Kuesel underscored the importance of public-private partnership and called on development world to:
  • play a facilitation role in forging partnership
  • build the capacity national governments, grass-root organization and poor rural people
  • create an enabling environment so that ICT4D initiatives can be implemented and scaled up
Susanne Dorasil, head of division economic policy, financial sector of BMZ underscored the importance of using ICTs to get better outcomes. Recognizing that the ICT4D community has a challenge of being heard, she talked about:
  • importance of working towards putting in place regulations to reach the goal of universal access
  • challenges and opportunities of linking up and broadening cooperation with the private sector to develop a robust ICT sector
  • importance of showing impact and showing how ICTs contribute to and add value to “hot development topics”  such as rural development, food security, rural finance and more
Ekwow Spio-Garbrah, CEO of Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization talking about private-public partnership brought in the missing dimension – namely PEOPLE. He talked about public-private-people partnership. Spio-Garbrah talked about importance of involving not only national governments, but also local governments. He talked about not exclusively partnering with multinational private sector, but local enterprises and grass-root entrepreneurs. And most importantly he talked about the very PEOPLE, who we work with and work for – the poor rural people and civil society.

Wow, what a concept….. During the course of the two days, I must admit, we focused primarily on technology and perhaps not enough on People. So thank you Dr Spio-Garbrah for putting PEOPLE in the forefront and for sharing your vision of intra-institutional cooperation.

Giacomo Rambaldi, Senior Programme Coordinator, Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, CTA echoing Dr Spio-Garbrah reminded the audience of the need to involve the civil society. Rambaldi talked about the risks of ICTs and how ICTs could both help disseminate/preserve but also usurper indigenous knowledge.

He talked about how ICTs have provided access to information that previously was not readily available and how ICTs have democratized access to information, citing the examples of services such as YouTube or Google maps have given a voice to the previously voiceless segment of the population.

Rambaldi reminded us of the importance of generating localized and relevant content.  He talked about how as development workers, we have to make sure that ICTs actually add value and contribute to knowledge generation and becoming a catalyst to disseminate locally generated knowledge.

After all we have to remember that  ICTs are tools and if they are not used to generate and disseminate relevant and local content, they are nothing but a useless device which can end up gathering dust!!

David Grimshaw, Head of International Programme: New Technologies with Practical Action and Senior Research Fellow, DFID, made the case for mainstreaming ICT4D initiatives where we have solid evidence that these have improved the livelihoods of poor rural people. Grimshaw underscored that technology has no magic power and is not a silver bullet. It is what we do with technology and how we use it that will make the difference.

“We need to focus on the HOW and on the process to move to ICT for DEVELOPMENT”, said Grimshaw.
Challenging the development world, he said: “You cannot work with logframes when you are doing a research project. These types of projects are different”. Concluding his remarks, Grimshaw said: “We need to focus on the process and focus on people’s need.”

Anton Mangstl, Director of the Office of Knowledge Exchange, FAO, underscored the importance of conducting impact assessments and learning from existing activities and pilots. He urged us to work with governments and other key stakeholders to scale up those activities that have worked. He reminded the audience that similar to development projects, for  ICT4D projects  to succeed they too need be sustainable.

Given the key role that ICT4D activities play in rural development, Mangstl put his finger on a crucial challenge, namely why have bilateral development donors such as DFID and SDC stopped their ICT4D programmes and investments.

Mangstl echoing the other panellists made the case, that donor agencies – be it bilaterals or multilaterals – need to mainstream ICT4D activities in their core activities and integrate these more and more with their respective knowledge sharing and communication for development activities.

Ilari Lindy, Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Finland asked the fundamental question of whether ICT4D activities were well positioned to show impact in rural development and agriculture related activities.

He urged the participants to pay attention to policy and regulatory frameworks when designing and implementing ICT4D activities and repeated Mr Mangstl’s call for action – that is the need to improve knowledge sharing on ICT4D activities and integrating ICT4D activities with organizational knowledge sharing activities.

Lindy pointed out that to innovate, there is a need to bring together and create bridges between development and scientific communities. He also talked about the importance of convergence between North-South networks and last but not last the fundamental prerequisite of responding to grass-root demands.

Our colleague Tobias Eigen from Kabissa, reminded the audience that Africa is the hot bed of innovation and made the case that we should have more African innovators in events such as these.

Madam Dorasil from BMZ in her closing remarks reiterated the following fundamental points:
  • there are no silver bullets in development
  • we need to listen to and cater to the needs of the people who we work with and work for
  • we need to build local capacity and groom local talents
  • we need to get better in documenting, sharing and capturing the impact of ICT4D projects and feed these back into the learning and development loop
  • we need to have indicators that clearly demonstrate how ICTs are changing the lives of poor rural people
  • as a development community, we need to join hands to make sure that developed and developing countries governments and decision makers understand the importance of ICT4D activities and assist them in putting in place an enabling environment so that these activities flourish and replicate
  • we need to raise awareness about ICT4D and make a concerted effort to put this topic on the G20 agenda
  • we need to adopt an integrated approach and mainstream ICT4D activities in rural development projects and programmes
  • we need to show how ICTs are reaching those living in the “bottom of pyramid”
As the event came to a close, I asked myself – how long will it take for ICT4D to make it back to the global development agenda? Do we need two decades of under-investment in this sector before we hear the wake-up call – or can we show that we learnt from the negative impact of under-investing in agriculture and start mainstreaming and investing in scaling up ICT4D activities?

At this event I talked about "Development 2.0: Putting ICT4D Lessons into Action to Make M-Development a Reality" and shared IFAD's experience in Zambia with the Zambia National Farmers Union - better known as ZNFU4455!


  1. Hmmm ... nice resume of what sounds like an interesting discussion.

    Except I remember many similar ones from around 2000.... I had hoped we had moved on a bit...

    Am a bit concerned with the message that ICTs needs to be a focus of development cooperation.

    Do we really want development cooperation 4 ICT 4 D?

    Let's just get really good development and development cooperation that uses the best (ICT and any other) technologies!

    In my opinion, cooperation that aims to promote ICTs is not, often, what we should be about.

  2. You know, the problem I have with these results is that when I use the text itself and Find/Replace ICT(4D) with WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene), say: the basics before you even think using I(C)T, some 95% of the text makes sense too! Almost all examples and arguments fit putting WASH on the G20 agenda too (I liked that suggestion, but the G20 is busy with them selves as agenda).

    ICT is at the very heart of geo-economics and politics. Nations do not liberate their telecom market (Ethiopia, Taiwan etc).

    My proposed ICT4D policy for IFAD is to give every IFAD employee a mobile phone, and renew them every year and give the used ones away 4D.