Why doesn’t Angelina Jolie invite Practical Action to her parties?

I recently attended an event with some passionate voices in the ICT4D world. ICT4D is a common abbreviation for those who develop internet and communications technology for international development.

Podcasters sharing knowledge in Zimbabwe

Podcasters sharing knowledge in Zimbabwe

In this event, we discussed the need to develop guiding principles for good ICT4D design, and, more importantly, how those principles can be conveyed to the larger development community. But as we began to discuss these principles, I noticed that, for the most part, these aren’t specific to ICT4D, but show up in many design circles. The issue though, is how to get them all to work together. Practical Action often considers how systems work together. As an organization, we have been working on systems thinking since around 2003. In many ways, our focus areas of energy access, water and sanitation, resilience-focused agriculture, and disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation all work together, and we see a lot of crossover. So not only do we use many of these principles in individual applications, we also should see crossover with these principles in our everyday activities.

You can see the source document here, but if I go through this list, Practical Action nails every one of these.

1. Design with the user in mind: we do collaborative planning where we put beneficiaries at the center of stakeholder engagement. Check out our work on Participatory Market Systems Design and EMMA.

2. Understand the existing ecosystem: We’ve been working with systems thinking since 2003—and many of our projects start with collaborative ecosystem mapping exercises with an “all parties at the table” approach.

3. Design for scale: Our founder, E.F. Schumacher, used to argue against mass production. But mass production is only one kind of scale. If you don’t design for local needs, you won’t design for purpose, and scaling will be impossible. Designing products and services that can be replicated in many communitities is also scaleable.

4. Build for sustainability: When I go visit Practical Action projects, they don’t want to take me to the ones we are currently running, they show me the water system set up 10 years ago that is still running. We not only do this, we can show you organizations that we built years ago that are still going strong.

5. Be data driven: We’ve not only built our successes on good data, we are also looked to for innovations in monitoring and evaluation using systemic approaches that focus not just on direct impacts, but on indirect impacts as well.

6. Use open standards and open data: Look at Practical Answers. The open-source-anyone-can-use-it repository for everything you need to fix in your community website. 1.3 million downloads of technical briefs last year, and no one was charged for them.

7. Reuse and improve: Practical Action works with local communities to identify issues, and then finds already existing ideas and technology that can be deployed as a unit to address specific needs.

8. Do no harm (i.e. have a secure approach to data, and ensure equity and fairness in co-creation): So this may be the most ICT4D centric point in this review, but it still has non-ICT4D applications.

9. Be Collaborative: In this, I would point to our work on MAFI with the SEEP Network, as well as our engagements with the Sustainable Energy for All movement. And of course the work we did with USAID’s collaborative learning work in connection to the KDID office.

This maybe looks like a little like Ayn Rand’s run-on train section in Atlas Shrugged, but you get the point. Practical Action has done all this, and in ways that have little to do with ICT4D. What’s more, we would argue that they are all extremely important for development as a whole. And they aren’t new concepts—designing with the user in mind as a guiding principle has been around since the 60s.

Photo credit: Simon Davis/Department for International Development

Photo credit: Simon Davis/Department for International Development

But if this is a list of best practices for development engagement, not just for ICT4D, but for development in general, why isn’t Practical Action being heralded by Barack Obama, the World Bank’s Jim Kim, and for that matter, UN ambassador-to-the-world Angelina Jolie, as the paragon of development? Why doesn’t she invite us to her cool-kid pool parties? We, like so many other organizations, can point to examples of how we do this. We even lead in these activities. But we are still working at doing it all at the same time. These principles form an ecosystem of their own—they have to be done in conjunction for maximum impact.

This is a greater issue for more than just Practical Action. Many organizations can point to best practice principles, but they rarely get to that ideal state achieved. Often because they move onto another list with similar objectives with which they feel they need to start over. Practical Action often unofficially takes a portfolio approach. We acknowledge there is room for many solutions, and developing several of them means you are better to solve them. We collaborate with other organizations that want to explore these combined approaches even further. But we’d be interested in hearing about other collaborations as well.

When have you seen organizations openly collaborate, with their end users as partners “at the table”, that resulted in sustainable scale? What do you think is missing from this list above, not just for ICT4D, but for “D” in general? And what do you think makes all of these principles come together, or prevent them from coalescing?

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