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Sudan: Is ICT all it's cracked up to be?

In a December 2009 Global Voices article titled “ICT4D: Past mistakes, future wisdom,” Aparna Ray points out that many technology for development projects have “started with a bang and later died with a whimper.” According to a recent article in the Financial Times, such is the fate of a multimillion dollar World Bank plan to supply Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan, with computers and Internet access.

According to Laurence Clarke, who heads the World Bank's program in the country and was interviewed for the article, the failure was not due to a lack of equipment or support. Instead, the problem is a lack of will:

Laurence Clarke, head of the bank's south Sudan programme, explains that fund money was used to buy computers, software and equipment for satellite links in Juba, the south's threadbare capital. But then “all kinds of problems came up,” he says….

“Some of the ministers apparently decided they were too old to learn to use a computer, and so they showed no enthusiasm.” In some cases even their younger assistants did not know how to log on. “So the system is lying there…moribund,” Mr Clarke says.

The recent surge in availability of mobile phones and Internet access in Africa has prompted considerable enthusiasm regarding the use of these technologies for everything from marketing and e-commerce to tracking crop diseases and reminding HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis patients to take their medicine. But the news from Southern Sudan forces the question: is the hype surrounding information and communication technology (ICT) justified? And how can those of us who work in this field make sure that our efforts don't result in moribundity?

As a researcher for the Technology for Transparency Network, I'm particularly interested in the way that ICT can help engage citizens in the governance of their country and encourage governments to be both transparent and accountable. Many projects are successfully using technology for transparency; David Sasaki's recent review of the network's first eight case studies shows as much. But, as the situation in Juba shows, technology does not magically lead toward better governance.

Sudanese blogger and Global Voices author Drima believes that Internet and mobile phones are not enough. “ICT is merely that, a technology. Its real usefulness is ultimately something that can only be realized if the users utilize such technology skillfully towards a good goal,” he writes in an e-mail.

If technology is to have an impact, Drima says, support must come not only from donors, but from within:

“When it comes to attitudes and goals, this is something the Southern Sudanese need to fix. And before we can even get into this whole idea of ICT as some kind of ‘silver bullet’ we really need to address many underlying concerns, beginning with corrupt leadership and destructive tribalism.”

As Sudan moves towards elections in April, technology has the potential to play a major role in both engaging citizens and in monitoring the political process. Sudan Votes, a bilingual web site sponsored by German organization Media in Cooperation and Transition along with Sudanese organizations Teeba Press and the Association of Inter-Media, hopes to “enhance the quality of media coverage on the elections” and “promote a better understanding across language barriers.” The site features articles on topics ranging from politics to health and culture, as well as a Sudan Electionnaire to help citizens learn more about the country's political parties.

Sudan Votes

Sudan Votes

Sudan Vote Monitor, led by the Sudan Institute for Research and Policy, plans to use Ushahidi to enable citizens to monitor and report on the elections.

Sudan Vote Monitor

Sudan Vote Monitor

In an election where “many citizens are unfamiliar with basic election processes, are opposed to multi-party competition and have doubts about whether the vote will be fair,” these projects may play critical roles in educating people and documenting possible problems with the voting process. In order to be successful, however, they must first find a way to convince citizens of their usefulness.

Both Sudan Votes and Sudan Vote Monitor appear to have substantial Sudanese involvement at the ground level, which may help them succeed where the World Bank program has failed. As the elections loom nearer, I'll be watching closely to see how these organizations unfold. Will they fall flat, ignored and unused by Sudanese citizens? Or will they manage to translate technology into true civic engagement?

11 comments

  • […] Read the full article » […]

  • Thanks for the great post Rebekah. And thanks for quoting me. I realize, after reading this, that I may sound too pessimistic, so for the sake of context, I’d just like to add that while I do stand by what I have said above, it’s important to note that ICT can and does indeed have a real impact when a bottom-up approach is taken. Why? Because that tends to involve citizens who are passionate about the issues and driven to solve them.

  • And yet the World Bank says Sudan has the 2nd highest Internet penetration in Africa – more than Kenya, Senegal or Nigeria!

    http://www.ictworks.org/network/ictworks-network/222

  • The World Bank should be focussing on smaller initiatives that do not need large amounts of capital. Why not invest in say, computer use for primary school teachers as a first step, then move on to other areas?

  • JP

    In Feb-March of 09 and Aug-Sep 09, I spent time in Juba working with the Sudanese Network for Democratic Elections (SuNDE, democracysudan.org), trying to help them design and set up a website and otherwise incorporate ICTs into their organization’s mission.
    I also worked with a number of Sudanese workers employed by an INGO, similarly trying to familiarize the local staff with the use of ICTs (data collection, data management, spreadsheet usage, RSS, web usage, etc.).

    The problem in Sudan is certainly not infrastructure, equipment, etc. but simply TRAINING. Most Sudanese in Juba have little idea how to use a mouse, let alone Excel, any web2.0 ajax application, or other standard software which World Bank employees would use.

    Why the World Bank pumped millions of dollars into the objective of supplying Southern Sudan with internet connectivity is beyond me, since anyone who’s spent time on the ground with the Sudanese workforce knows that extremely basic IT capacity is the real need to get the people of Sudan up to speed on ICTs.

    Certainly, poor internet connectivity is an issue in Sudan, but I would think that providing education and trainings on technology would be much more productive. The Southern Sudanese are thirsty for knowledge and greatly enjoy demonstrations, discussion groups, and other group learning activities – they are historically a tribal people who grow and learn _together_, as a group – so why the millions of dollars were not put towards training initiatives shows a terrible lack of understanding of the situation to me.

  • Anne Nelson

    Great post. The Sudan case raises the question of whether more groundwork before the technology was introduced would have made the project more effective. The old “role of the anthropologist” issue…

  • The World Bank example seems like an easy case of stupidity when it comes to development projects. Since it’s so easy to point to the failure there, I worry it could distract from what are the thornier issues in this space. How do you strike the balance between external influence (training, etc.) and local galvanization behind these efforts, especially in places where there are literally no locals who know how to use the technology? What if the locals just simply aren’t interested? Do we risk paternalism if we try and foist these technologies on them? How can we ensure that local customs, norms, etc. are taken into account when setting these projects up? What’s the long-term responsibility for the sponsoring organization?

  • I completely believe that a bit more research on the front end would have helped the World Bank project, but Clarke’s quote makes it sound like training may have been involved, and the trainees just weren’t interested. It looks like the WB is pushing e-governance — I’d be curious to know how much prep is going in to designing these projects and what the level of local consultation is.

    @Catherine: Excellent questions. I’m afraid it’s going to take a lot of trial and error, but I think that overall, the more local involvement, the better. In a recent talk, US State Department eDiplomacy guru Richard Boly advises people in the field not to “fall in love with your (social media) creation” — to be willing to change it if it isn’t working for the community you’re working with. I think that’s sage advice. If that means that some ICT projects don’t happen because there’s no local support, I think that’s okay — it’s worthless to build systems no one is going to use. Better to come back later, when people are more interested, or to completely rethink the project so that it serves peoples needs.

  • JP

    Of COURSE the trainees just weren’t interested – they’ve gone through decades of civil war, not civil governance – so it’s a two part process to getting them engaged: 1) teach basic civic and governance concepts, provide trainings on good governance, etc., THEN as a result they’ll see that 2) technology (and access to it, as well as the internet) can help improve their ability to do their jobs.

    Why would any civil servant not be concerned with doing that which will benefit their country the most? The most obvious answer is that they simply aren’t aware of the benefits provided by new technologies.

    Undeniably, it’s not JUST about training on ICTs, just as it’s never JUST about the ICTs – there are a lot of parts that go into e-governance, and it sounds like the looming deadline of the April elections led to some cutting of corners, when only time, patience and dedication are going to be enough to get the Sudanese caught up.

  • […] and accessible tools. Earlier this year, reports on an e-governance program in Southern Sudan revealed that a lack of enthusiasm for technology on the part of government officials led to the […]

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