Friday, 24 February 2012

"The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed"

By Emilie Wilson

I overheard this quote the other day, as I was out buying my morning coffee. It’s part of the joy of working on a university campus to be overhearing conversations such as these. The quote is attributed to William Gibson, “the "noir prophet" of the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction”, according to WikiQuote.

Setting aside the fact that I know nothing about cyberpunk science fiction, the quote sparked a train of thought, which had begun that morning when I was looking at this excellent graphic published the Guardian website entitled “How Africa Tweets”. 

The map looks at the top 20 countries based on a 3-month analysis of geo-located Twitter traffic in Africa – no one will be surprised to see the biggest tweeters being South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt, and Morocco. What surprised me were the presence in the ‘top twenty tweeters’ of countries like Sudan, Gabon or Angola, and absence of others such as Zimbabwe, Uganda, Botswana or Senegal (countries I associate, perhaps wrongly, as has having a decent technological infrastructure and a vibrant civil society).

With the West Africa Cable System, a 14, 000 kilometre long fibre optic submarine cable with a capacity of 5.12 terabits per second (Tbps), due to be operational in March this year, these figures are no doubt set to increase.

But what does this mean for development, and more specifically, for sharing, communicating and assimilating research which supports development?

ICT4Development – still the new kid on the block?

The development sector has a reputation for getting excited about technological innovation and hoping it will yield a quick fix to some of the most intractable problems relating to poverty and social injustice. At IDS, there is a whole Research Team devoted to analysing the interface between human development and technological progress. And ICTs have joined the fray alongside agriculture, biology, engineering and medicine – the 3rd International Conference on Mobile Communication Technology for Development is being held in Delhi next week, closely followed by the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development.
Does E.M. Rogers analysis on adopting innovation apply in this context?
IDS Knowledge Services has a small team dedicated to exploiting the opportunities afforded by innovative technology, and especially people in the South’s use of this, to improve access and demand for research. For example, the Open Application Programming Interface (API) project is designed to allow technical developers to access the datasets that sit behind renowned development research and information services, Eldis and BRIDGE. This access means they can pick and choose what data they want and need, and repurpose it by developing their own applications.

And it’s not about geeks playing with geeks - in a concrete example of how this can be used: BRIDGE has been working with Uruguayan NGO, ciedur, developing online resources that both bring together Spanish resources from BRIDGE alongside other relevant materials, in a way that is relevant to the Latin American policy context.

How is this being done? The Latin American resources are collected and shared online using an open source content management system called Drupal. A Drupal plug-in (developed by One World South Asia) allows those managing the system to automatically pull in data they want from the Eldis/BRIDGE dataset and repurpose it for their own website and online services.

And this is good because....?
  • It challenges the ‘top-down’, ‘North-South’ direction of technological innovation and editorial decision-making – IDS Knowledge Services partners develop their own applications and select the data that is relevant and useful for their contexts
  • It is relatively cheap: no need for high-tech R&D laboratories or factories, just creative minds and internet access. And these are active in abundance, not just in the Africa, but in Asia (East, South and West!) and Latin America
  • “Open” also avoids duplication and the needless funding of multiple portals and websites which all do the same thing: collect and disseminate research in the hope that access alone is what we need to get research into policy and practice.
Handy technological short-cuts enable us to focus on emerging areas of research communications and knowledge brokering such as stimulating demand for research, or supporting non-academics to be ‘evidence-literate’ (see work of Kirsty Newman at INASP). 

Some challenges for this ICT4Development model

Having been in this sector for quite a while (BRIDGE is 21 years old, Eldis is 16 years old), we are quite aware of some of the challenges to this paradigm:
  • Quality, trust and credibility: traditionally, “closed access” models for sharing research, such as peer-reviewed journals, ‘paid-for’ materials, such as books, or resources only available via a reputable institution, are supposed to guarantee all three. What happens when the credible is aggregated with the less credible? Can we maintain trust in the resources divorced from the branding and reputation of their original source? How is quality maintained once access is ‘opened’?
  • Ownership, power and access: fundamental issues around funding and publishing research are not really addressed by the ICT4D model (e.g. the incentive systems where researchers achieve greater points for promotion by publishing in prestigious closed access journals), there is still a digital-divide, even with increasing internet access (e.g. urban v rural access);  many free internet services are privately owned and developed (e.g. Google or Twitter), particularly by companies based in the global North: should we be worried about our dependence on them? See ITforChange’s excellent thinking and research around this area
  • Cost and financial sustainability: the open source model is one in which developers innovate ‘for free’, but then are more likely to be employed on the basis of their innovative contribution – but is this sustainable in the development research context? Who will pay for it?
We are still grappling with these challenges – are you?

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Monitoring and evaluation in partnerships: why learning comes first

Guest post: Andre Ling, Research Officer/Technical Assistance with the Agricultural Learning and Impacts Network (ALINe) at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS)

The Impact and Learning Team and the ALINe project members share insights and good practice during bi-monthly Learning Labs, an afternoon of learning and reflection framed by our project work and esearch questions. Andre shares his reflections in this blog post.

Last week's Learning Lab with the Impact and Learning Team (ILT) touched on two topics that are probably relevant to just about all actors involved in development processes: partnerships and sustainability. Both are buzzwords, frequently used and misused, open to a range of interpretations and often obscuring the hard realities that confront development practice.

This post looks specifically at 'partnership' and what approaches to monitoring and evaluation (M&E) may be most appropriate in a partnership context.

The term 'partnership' frequently glosses over the complexity of inter-organisational relationships:
  • The many reasons for which organisations find themselves in a partnership to begin with
  • The power asymmetries inherent in the common model of grantor-grantees that defines many partnerships
  • The different interests, values or ideological positions of partners
  • The specific organisational development needs of different partners

Image from:
The prevalence of such factors can lead one to the conclusion that most partnerships are marriages of convenience as those joining in such ventures do so largely to serve their own interests. But, at the same time, it barely deserves mentioning that an individual actor can do little to address the complex problems of our times.

So how do we go on together honestly? How do we make partnerships work?

And what kind of M&E makes sense in partnership contexts?

To begin with, taking stock of power asymmetries within the partnership and mapping out the divergent interests, values, worldviews, spheres of concern and needs of partner organisations may be a good place to start. Often the leading agency in a partnership (usually a grant-maker of sorts) will have goals of achieving some kind of systemic change. The other partners (frequently grantees) may be more concerned with implementing specific activities to contribute to more localised changes and be less comfortable with confronting systemic change. Such a divergence creates a critical disjuncture, resulting in the leading agency wanting to make changes in the other partners; to make them see the same way. Failure to engage with this rift in a sensitive manner can lead to a variety of problems, for example low trust and limited ownership.

One response is, perhaps, to establish a joint M&E framework; a system of indicators and reporting requirements that can be deployed to ensure that all organisations are 'on the same page' and are held accountable to achieving desired outcomes in a standardised way. The danger here is that compliance and standardisation – both power mechanisms – ride roughshod over what might be considered the more crucial goal: learning how to work together effectively to achieve mutually desired change.

This is not to dismiss the contribution of joint M&E frameworks but rather to put them in their rightful place as servants of learning (individual, organisational or institutional) rather than formalities implemented for their own sake. To clarify, the point is that learning encompasses a far wider set of practices and activities than what usually goes by the name of M&E and, furthermore, that regular M&E is not a sufficient pre-condition for learning to take place. Just think of all the evaluation reports that have been shelved and forgotten.

An emphasis on learning prior to M&E opens the door to a potentially more diverse set of tools, techniques and practices that can be used to (a) build relationships of mutual trust; (b) reveal and question entrenched assumptions; (c) share and cultivate more systemic ways of thinking about the nature of the problems that the partnership is seeking to tackle.

This can prepare the ground for co-creating an M&E system that is both oriented toward learning and situated within a partnership culture that is supportive of learning. A significant consideration here is that this means taking the partnership itself as a unit of analysis to be monitored, evaluated and learned from and through over time.