ICT presents many opportunities for development but also challenges and potential threats to large INGOs. Photo: Wayan Vota/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Information and communications technology (ICT) represents an enormous opportunity to introduce significant and lasting positive change across the developing world. The rapid penetration of mobile access in particular has resulted in considerable improvements in the lives of the poor in both rural and urban contexts. All evidence suggests that this trend is going to continue, as the availability expands and the cost of access continues to decline.

The breathtaking pace of penetration and uptake of mobile telephony and broadband Internet is supporting many new possibilities, products, and services; providing breakthrough ideas in agriculture, health, education, and access to finance; and helping local and international trade. It also provides new ways of communicating and lobbying, which transcends international borders, as shown by the role of mobile phones and the Internet in the waves of revolution that spread across Northern Africa in 2011.

An Internet search using the phrase “information and communications technology for development” (ICT4D) produces an overwhelming volume of literature, with many exciting examples that promise enormous possibilities. ICT is changing the landscape whether we like it or not, and despite its somewhat erratic progress to date, the influence is increasingly profound.

With this growing momentum, INGOs are, in theory, well positioned to influence how effectively and quickly ICT is utilized to benefit the poor and the disadvantaged. Through their field programs and local partners, INGOs have a deep understanding and a close working relationship with the poor on the ground, with district and national government bodies, and, increasingly, with the business community at local, national, and international levels. In addition, through their international program teams, they have the potential to test, share, and develop valuable knowledge networks that can assist them to spread valuable learning, build on successes, and avoid pitfalls.

However, this new potential and opportunity is accompanied by significant challenges and possible threats for large established INGOs.

1.  Sustainability and scale

The use of ICT in development programs supported by INGOs has, to date, been relatively ad hoc, with many examples of small initiativesor pilots but very few large-scale, sustainable, ICT-supported programs. To unleash the full potential of ICT in development programs, a new level of collaboration, both internally and with other organizations, and a new approach to scaling solutions to achieve a really material impact are needed. This will necessitate significant coordination between INGOs, technology companies, private sector organizations, universities, and government entities (central and local), as well as with traditional development partners.

2.  Lack of knowledge

Many INGOs are not well equipped internally to support and nurture the effective exploitation of ICT to benefit development. They simply do not have the knowledge, expertise, or organizational capacity needed. The use of information technology is often seen as a thorny, problematic issue relating to back office systems. Furthermore, ICT often has a questionable reputation as a result of previous unsuccessful or costly initiatives.

3. Pace of change

INGOs’ current structures, staffing, and ways of operating have a strong momentum that is not easy to halt or redirect.It is relatively easy to utilize ICT to sustain and improve current organizational constructs and approaches, making useful but incremental progress. It is incredibly difficult to conceive of new ways of working with organizational constructs that are fundamentally different from the status quo and require a shift in terms of strategy, competence, skills, and organizational structure.

4.  Funding

There also is a significant challenge in adequately planning and financing the use of ICT in development programs.With cyclical donor funding and pressure to minimize administrative and management costs, it is often difficult for INGOs to properly plan and resource financial and human investments in ICT as a core capacity for development programs.

5. Changing roles and norms

The emergence of new ICT possibilities potentially presents some more fundamental and far-reaching questions, challenging or even undermining the assumptions on which INGOs came into being. When we reflect on why INGOs were originally founded, we can isolate a number of specific gaps between people and communities in poverty and those in more affluent, developed parts of the world. For example, if we think about gaps around understanding and information, traditionally INGOs helped us understand the dire need of communities in the poorest parts of the world. There are also gaps in terms of access, communication, and of course resources that INGOs have historically played an important role in addressing.

While some of these gaps still exist, they are, arguably, not as clear or compelling as they once were. We can see that developments and possibilities created through ICT, directly and indirectly, materially change the landscape in relation to many of these gaps.

Excerpted and adapted from Building a Better International NGO: Greater than the Sum of the Parts? Copyright © 2013 by Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. Used with permission of the publisher, Kumarian Press, a division of Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.

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