It sounds pretty normal: When you plan a mountain hike, you ensure to wear firm boots and a pullover against the cold at higher altitudes; in case you go to the tropics you choose a light, well ventilating tropical outfit and a hat or cap against the merciless sun. You have been taught that you need to adapt to the local circumstances. In disciplines such as architecture, civil engineering, and industrial design, the discipline of identifying suitable and Appropriate Technology (AT) is an important component. However, in the field of information and communication technology (ICT), which is a young discipline, this concept is still in its infancy.
Computer hardware and software, and also methods and techniques for design and implementation of information technology, are almost without exception invented and developed in the West (Europe and North America). Environmental requirements and conditions become an integral part of the design and limit the transferability of the technology to other, different environments. Designers are often not aware of the contextual elements that become part of the design. Embedded assumptions become clear in cases of breakdown of operation (Winograd & Flores, 1986) and will initiate problem-solving discussion or discourse. In the field of ICT for Development (ICT4D), a discussion on the limitations of commercial off-the-shelf ICT tools, software, and methodologies in the context of less-developed countries has been initiated.
The field of ICT4D has grown dramatically in size and importance over the past decade (Levey & Young 2002; McNamara, 2003). ICT4D is based on the premise that ICT is able to bridge the digital divide between the West and the less-developed countries and, therewith, able to contribute to equal distribution of wealth. ICT is considered to be vital for the improvement of governance and production resources. The importance of ICT for poverty alleviation was recognized at the highest international levels when the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) dedicated their Annual Human Development Report to the role of information and communication technologies. At present, most large development organizations have substantial ICT programs and a large number of smaller development initiatives have started projects in the field of ICT.
Many who are not familiar with ICT4D wonder if ICT is relevant to the poor. They argue that poor people in the South not only have less access to ICT, but they also do not have access to sources of stable income, education and healthcare and at a first glance these issues may seem more relevant than access to ICT. However: ICT is increasingly important in the creation of economic opportunities and for the delivery of services such as health and education. When focussing on healthcare: it is not a matter of choosing between ICT or health, but it is a matterof choosing the most effective way to improve healthcare delivery. ICT is one of the tools to improve healthcare delivery.
In spite of all the efforts, the digital divide has not been bridged, and well documented success stories of the application of ICT for poverty alleviation are hard to find. Evaluation of ICT projects often reveal underutilization of resources, because the newly introduced ICT has not been well integrated within the local context. The worst cases result from “dump-and-run” approaches and lack of local ownership in the receiving communities. Also, technical (hardware and software) problems resulting from the “hostile” conditions (dust, heat, and humidity) in which the ICT was introduced put a strain on the actual impact. High rates of breakdown combined with low technical problem-solving skills has lead to underutilized and even abandoned projects. Finally, recurring high maintenance costs for hardware, software, and Internet connectivity put a financial burden on projects, making them financially unsustainable.
There are many reasons why ICT projects in less-developed countries fail, and these problems have been reported from the start. In this article by Victor van Reijswoud and Arjan de Jager, explores the premise that many ICT projects in less-developed countries fail because the technology and the change management process do not take into account the local conditions and requirements. They will develop a theory for the design and implementation of ICT projects in less-developed countries along the lines of existing theories in AT in other fields of science. Like in other disciplines, the design and implementation of ICT solutions must be carried out in relation to culture, environment, organization, available resources, economic and political circumstances, and desired impact. They propagate an integration of the AT discipline, which aims at devising suitable technological solutions. The theory identifies principles to do so at three levels: hardware, software, and ICT change management. They first describe the theory and then the guiding principles of Appropriate ICT are illustrated by means of real-life cases in Africa in context of ICT4D.