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Information Technology in International Development

Question

You know the story … teach a man to fish …, yes that’s the one. Quite famous in the world of international development. But what does it mean when dealing with information and communication technologies (ICT)?

Does it mean that we send money and consultants to teach other so called developing nations how to use a particular product? Does it mean donating our used equipment? Or does it mean that we share our information with them without royalties and let them sort themselves out?

In either case it creates and maintains a dependency much like the economic dependencies we see in the world today. But this dependency is a knowledge based dependency. The developing world is still dependent on the handouts of the developed world … their willingness to share information and know-how. Granted, that much of this information can be obtained over the internet, but wait, how in the first place do you get an internet infrastructure up and running in a stable and affordable fashion? As a developing nation, where do you get the resources to do so? … remember nothing is for free.

But the economics is not the focus of this discussion, yet it does have an affect. As has been noted in the business world, IT has become an infrastructure technology that is common and accessible by all; however, it is still quite scarce in the developing world and therefore an attractive market for service providers looking to expand their market base. The developing world would still be dependent on funding, hardware, and knowledge. But would still be told what to do and choose because general assumption is that they don’t have the basic know-how to become that resourceful and independent. Granted there is an argument that in time they will develop those abilities, but I argue that it would not.

It has been 60 years or so of dependency and there will be many years of financial aid to come for many of these countries. Many of which contain valuable natural resources for those who “invest” in them. Today, IT is a major pillar upon which our economies are built on, developing countries will continue to depend on the developed world in the hope that they will achieve a state in which they can participate within the global economy. However, the Achilles heel in all of this is that several generations have learned the value of being dependent on foreign aid: do nothing since others will come to your aid and you can make a life for yourself. Not exactly the kind of situation that will be productive to further sustain our global economy or knowledge development.

So how is this cycle broken? For the cycle to be broken implies that it is fixed within a given set of parameters. And there is nothing wrong with being dependent on each other … it just needs to be a bit of give and take.

What many have argued for is the decrease in the dependency of the developing world on the resources of the developed world. One way is to start building into their systems and policies a way to build up their self sustainability and begin to decrease their dependancy on at least financial aid. Indeed that is what I started to do within the Ministry of Education of the government of Mozambique.

Work

The placement title was technical advisor to the ICT department of the Ministry of Education and Culture, Mozambique. The focus of the work was supposed to be on the software programming capacity of the group while creating web applications to capture, process, and present information from around the country across the various sectors of education. As all projects do as they start out, this one grew to include giving technology workshops, leading a task force, and looking into ways the ministry could cut costs by moving away from paid software to open source software.

While the placement ended up being six months long, much was accomplished. I did manage to create the web app and install it within the virtual enterprise environment. Using that project I manage to begin the capacity building of the team. But one can not jump in and say “right, learn how to maintain this application …” you have to get buy in. So how does one go about that? The answer, as humanly as you can.

To get buy in, you need interest. To get interest, you need a relationship. To get a relationship, you need to bridge a gap. In this case there are several: cultural and language.

Really everything starts with the language … the language that comes out of your mouth, and that your body displays. All of which start from a tought, an attitude. You must understand that in our so called “developed world” we have lost or at least seem to have a dimished capacity to pick up on the subtelties of body language. In a culture such as that in Mozambique where agression is frowned upon and saving face is paramount, you will find a hightened sensitivity to body language and to your intent.

In your travels you may have across a few people who seemingly look down on the host country and its citizens. Perhaps they may think that they know better, or that they themselves have better, higher standards than what they observe. Nevertheless, we all bring something to the table, all of which have value, how much is a different issue. But what maters most, is how we bring it to the table. And that’s where humility comes in to play. If you approach your bridge building activities from the point of view that “I’m just another human being trying to reach out” as opposed to “look here, I have something important to share with you” you’ll find greater success and stronger relationships with your team. From there the act of using the language and demonstrating your ability to quickly improve and accept corrections further builds trust. The trust you need to help you build the capacity of the team. This trust is also a very powerful motivator tool: if team members don’t pull their weight, they realize they have erroded your trust in them … something they deeply value and will be quick to rectify. Do not abuse this balance or you will quickly erase any bridges you have built.

The stronger this relationship the greater the effects of your capacity building efforts will be. They will not be excluded to a set of individuals that you directly work with, but will extend to their colleagues and departments.

If you take the time at the onset to understand their interests you do two things: one you demonstrate that you are interested in helping them advance towards their objectives, and two, you learn what motivates them. This will save you oodles of time and energy when it comes to planning your projects and assigning resources. You will be tapping into the direct interests of the individuals and automatically getting their buy-in into the project. Now you’ll have motivated individuals. This is not to say that all will be smooth sailing. If there are demands on your team members by someone with a higher authority, then for sure they will attend to those demands prior to attending to your project tasks. But patience will win the day – yes, it’s not easy …

New?

No, I don’t think any of this is new, but I do think it is worth putting down on paper. I have been asked many times as to how I built the seemingly strong relationships within my partner organizations. How is it than in six months I’ve been able to acheive so much. This is article is my attempt at explaining how I did it. It isn’t that I’m such a wonderfuly capable person, ok perhaps I am, but seriously, it is about how an intent, an attitude will shape the outcomes of our projects.

Posted: February 2nd, 2014
Categories: ARTICLES
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