Saturday, 11 January 2014

ICT Aid projects in Africa - Why so many failures?

Before I start this article let me make a couple of statements:

Firstly my experience of donor funded ICT projects is limited to Africa, so by necessity any anecdotes in this article refer to projects in Africa. This isn't meant to indicate that any of the points I make are special to the continent of Africa, and are quite probably true of similar aid projects throughout the rest of the world.

Secondly I will mention no names of people, or institutions. This is an article about what I perceive as issues in many of the projects I have witnessed, either as an observer or as a participant, and is not intended as an indictment of any person, or institution.

Failure of ICT projects is not an uncommon thing. Most statistics seem to show a failure rate of between 50% and 70%. So Africa is not on its own in having these failures. However from my observations I have noticed specific areas in donor funded projects that seem to make these projects more liable to failure:
  • "We are a donor funded organisation so we shouldn't use for-profit companies". I have heard this a lot from the donor organisations. This means that they use charitable or religious organisations in order to do the ICT work. This means that local skilled people who happen to work in the commercial sector will not be able to participate in the project. For-profit companies tend to have a better understanding of the importance of meeting deadlines, and they have a reputation to keep up, which means that a successful completion of the project is to their advantage. Non-profit organisations tend to react more slowly and worry less about deadlines. This is a curious decision from the donor organisations as they are happy to hand over money to Toyota for their vehicles, Microsoft/Apple/Dell etc for IT products etc. but when it comes to the most important aspect of the project they limit themselves to the non-profits.
  • "The project should be staffed and managed by local people, and not by outsiders". This is a laudable intention, but does it make sense in this sort of project? As pointed out in the above point many of the quality project manager staff will be in the private industry. Also the fact that ICT projects are a newer idea in Africa than in the west, there is a limited number of qualified local project managers available.
  • Project employees are more interested in perpetuating the project than completing it. Donor funded projects generally pay much better in local terms than other employers. As the project is run by a local project manager, with local staff, then the major interest of these people is to make sure that the money continues to flow, rather than in getting the project completed. In fact, completing the project often goes against their personal interests. I know of several projects where the donors are taken on periodic "stage managed" tours to show that the work is really being done.
  • Projects encourage "cronyism". Too often have I seen projects staffed by the family and relations of the senior members of the non-profit institution charged with the running of the project. I even know of one project that is supposed to be writing software that doesn't employ a programmer as part of it's large staff.
  • Project aims are often too vague. I know of projects where the aim is to do something vague, such as "design and implement software for schools". Project aims should be specific, and the time scale should be set down at the start. 
My experience shows that projects should:
  1. Be managed by an external person employed by the donor organisation charged with meeting targets.
  2. Use the best resources available to them regardless of whether they are non-profit or for-profit.
  3. Set definite targets at the start, both in timescale and project goals. The project manager should be the person held accountable.
  4. Donor organisations should be firmer in their dealings on the ground. Too often I see donor organisations that take a far too "charitable" view of bad work. The project should be run as a commercial project. The original donors of the money deserve nothing less.
These thoughts are based on many years of watching the failings of such projects in Africa. Donor organisations need a radical change in how they view such projects.

Not all projects fail, there have been some outstanding successes but the failure rate is way too high.


  1. Tim great piece - very astute.

    One obvious resource for ICT in Africa and other developing countries (India)is LInux and other free source software; but because the general ethos is that because people (e.g Ricard Stallman and GNU) don't charge there is next to no money to support projects. Microsoft on the other hand has a better business model ,so what it decides to get behind usually doesn't fail

    Secondly it seems to me there is no thought or co-ordination by say the Ghana Government to take the data it has on official registered NGO's concerned with ICT and link activities together.

    As you say some projects are maybe vague. What about this project i've been working on- You take the school wiki download a quality E-encyclodpedia of 6000 articles, 26 million words and 50,000 images which has been checked and based on the UK curriculum( you enhance it with a search function and work out how say 10 or more children would be able to use it with a set up of server/client.
    There would be potential to "personalize" the system if scholars and historians contributed since the E-Encyclopedia is basically a bunch of web pages that can easily be edited. Since the set up involves a web server there is the capacity to use it to teach children construction of web pages, CSS style sheets and computer languages such as PHP.

    I have had a previous meeting with the ICT co-ordinator of the Ministry of Education in Accra, and I bet if I was sitting opposite him now and put the above to him I wouldn't be surprised if he could even comprehend the possible value of such a project.

    Microsoft on the other hand has just appointed Otema Yirenkyi in Ghana; what I can imagine is if Microsoft comes and says "we have the money, the ideas etc so you don't have to do much " then its easy for those with lack of imagination, vision and leadership to just go along with it.

    Personally I am not against Microsoft and admire their business model ; also there is potential for joint projects such as LInux servers and Windows clients

    1. I agree fully with you Andrew. I wrote an article here on the subject of why African governments should look to open source as a way of building a local IT industry.
      I do believe that if these governments invested the money they spent on foreign IT products and services in a local open sourced based IT industry everybody except the multinationals would gain,
      I have set out in that article how I envisioned this working.
      Very much like your wikipedia for schools. Have you tried the Ministry for Education? I am sure you are correct in what you would expect from them. I have previously come across the "if it's not American and expensive how can it be any good" philosophy in Govt departments. There are potentially donor organisations that could help.

  2. I very much agree with you. Leaf should be taken out from AKDN who is involved in organizing development in Africa. They have clear cut program. involvement of people directly affected by development, tight audit and supervision. Many times I found that Donor Countries entered into projects just to please ruling elite irrespective of overall benefit to the Country and and to find some of their Nationals something to do. Start up of a project consumes up to 28% of the value even before first bolt/nut or a stone .having been moved.

    1. I agree that many donor organisations (not just in the ICT sector) do not really understand what it is they are trying to achieve, other than a vague idea of "doing good".
      Specific targets, and sustainability are crucial and are missing from so many projects.

  3. Dear All,

    This is very interesting because as we have seen over the years that developing countries rely most on donors for their IT endeavors. This is particularly interesting to me because as I have been researching on e-government implementations in developed and developing countries. I think it is also important if we can distinguish and examine the role of donors on one hand in funding IT projects in developing countries and on the other hand in developing and implementing those projects. The later is of particular importance in my research because most IT project failures in developing countries are caused by lack of "local context" and of a better understanding of the settings, culture and organisational structure which largely influence how IT is successfully adopted and implemented.
    The experiences, solutions and practices already existing in developed countries are of vital importance to e-government implementation in developing countries, however this should be carefully considered because as explained above, the local context is very important in this regard.

    1. Hi Cathy, thanks for your comments. The degree of local context in developing and implementing these projects is critical. The project has to be needed - sounds obvious but you would be surprised at how many projects fail because they aren't really required in the local context. Too little use of local resources can be damaging to the take up of the project if locals don't feel ownership, but too much use of local resources can lead to failure as I discuss in this article.

      I feel that many donor organisations get this balance wrong because of a lack of local knowledge. A person or group is sent to Africa to evaluate the project. They stay in a luxury tourist hotel, are entertained by local people eager to say whatever they think is needed to be said to get the money flowing. None of this is wrong, but means that they don't get a clear view of what is needed and the people locally will not always tell them for fear that the project will not go ahead.

      Am happy to help your research with specific examples but do not wish to public these specifics here as I want to keep the discussion more general.

      Please feel free to contact me if you want this, or any other help.


  4. Dear all,

    My name is Catherine G. Mkude and I am a PhD researcher at the University of Koblenz-Landau in Germany working on a framework for e-government systems design for developing countries. In my research, I am investigating e-government strategies, programmes and projects (applications, infrastructures, comprehensive solutions, etc.) in developed and in developing countries. In doing so, I want to determine how developing countries can leverage from the more successful e-government endeavours in developed countries.

    I am currently in a stage of collecting information on experiences, practices and solutions in 5 domains of e-government implementation in developed and developing countries. These domains are (1) electronic public services, (2) electronic participation, (3) application of information and communication technologies (ICT) in policy making processes, (4) e-government infrastructure and, (5) evaluation and sustainability of e-government.

    Therefore I would like to kindly ask you to participate in a survey, which investigates these domains through separate questionnaires. I would highly appreciate if you could fill in one (or even more) of the below questionnaires. The responses for the questionnaires are entirely confidential and anonymous.

    The following links direct you to the respective questionnaire per domain. The approximated time to fill in a questionnaire is also indicated below. Please choose the link(s) of the domain(s) you feel most comfortable to answer.
    1. Domain electronic public services: Approximate time is 40 minutes.
    2. Domain electronic participation: Approximate time is 40 minutes.
    3. Domain ICT in policy making: Approximate time is 35 minutes.
    4. Domain e-government infrastructure: Approximate time is 30 minutes.
    5. Domain e-government evaluation and sustainability: Approximate time is 30 minutes.

    In advance I appreciate and thank you for your time and contributions. If you are aware of someone who I can ask to fill in either of the questionnaires, please let me know by email and I will invite them.

    For further questions and suggestions please contact:
    Catherine G. Mkude
    Research Group E-Government, Institute for Information Systems Research
    University of Koblenz-Landau
    Universitätsstr 1
    56070 Koblenz, Germany

    Thank you and kind regards,
    Catherine G. Mkude.

  5. True Phil
    The problem is that even from the top of some funding organisation, coordinators of the project at the top that request and solicit for funds also may not need the projects to be completed, wanting the problems exist so that they can always embezzle money and for other personal benefits. This is the same challenge in Public institutions, since ICT come up with transparency this means culprits will be in the net. So all will be done to ensure that ICT funding and ICT implementable fails.
    That's why as long as there is no management willingness to have ICT implementations , success will always be a night mare

    1. Hi Joseph,

      It's Tim :-)

      I agree with you, and that is why I am advocating a more "hands on" approach from the donors. It is a natural human instinct to want the money to keep flowing which means dragging the project out rather than on achieving the goals.

      I am planning a new article on the subject of Sustainability and Corruption in these projects as they are two issues that have come out of the comments on this article.


  6. This is interesting, being in the industry I believe I can also pin point some key areas to why ICT Projects seem a failure in Africa.
    1. The readiness of African people especially the top officials in the Governments to accept and adopt ICT in their organization. This is one of the key issue that has left many ICT Project fail, the issue of business as usual seem to be a key factor of the failure. The question here is that is true that African Governments are ready to adopt ICT's or it is just a source of corruption and miss use of the donor funds.
    2. Believing in the existing professionals and semi-professionals. If we continue in the error of not believing in our own made projects and professionals, trust me ICT Projects will continue to fail now and again. Most of the people involved in the industry(Africans) are not believed in, even among ourselves in Africa we don't believe in having relevant skills and requirement to run these projects minus the supervision of the super power countries.
    3. Unfair selection of project supervisors and project team members. With no doubt many people involved in the ICT Projects are not rill from the ICT industry, this is big challenge especially in Tanzania where the qualified candidates are never given opportunities to participate in these projects. These projects are being run by people without any knowledge in the ICT industry


  7. Also keep in mind that failure is endemic in ICT projects everywhere.

    1. Hi, yes I did say this in my article, but my research seemed to show a greater failure rate where the project was funded by donor agencies

  8. Great posting, Tim. I wonder, though, if the problem isn't as much to do with the donors' lack of ICT understanding as it is with their lack of local understanding. An ICT project -- especially a software-type one -- isn't something you build in seven months; it's something you operate for seven years. If donors could fund projects with smaller teams and longer terms, assuming frequent releases and continued development from the first to the day, then donor and implementor interests would line up better with the project's success: finishing a weekly or monthly release, for example, wouldn't put some of your country team out of work; on the contrary, it might convince the donor to unlock more money.

    Of course, releases aren't everything. If you're building an SMS app or a web site or a fiber network, the donor can see what you've built so far and verify that it works, but we'd still need M&E to know if it's having the planned impact. You've mentioned, Tim, what you think needs to be improved with ICT project management; how do you think donors could do ICT M&E better? And please don't take away their three-star hotels. :-)

    1. Hello David. In general what I have seen is the need for more closely defined deliverables, but most of all strict auditing of those deliverables by people who understand the local culture and are prepared to get tough where needed..
      For instance I was once involved on the periphery of a project to install & implement a software solution in the hospitals of a certain African nation. The software was written, all that was needed was to train the hospital staff on how to use it. However what was happening was that the donor organisation was regularly sending out people who knew nothing of the country, who were put up in nice hotels, and given carefully stage managed trips to hospitals where the staff had been given "incentives" in order to say the right thing. These people then returned to Europe reporting that all was well. Over a period of many years I don't believe a single hospital got a working system. This wouldn't have been hard to see, with local knowledge. Understanding of the local language enables you to ask the right questions and to audit the project freely. In this case those traveling to Africa from the donor organisation were shown what they wanted to see and never questioned it, and didn't want to know those of us trying to tell them the reality.

  9. Dear All,
    Well said.
    But among the failures we need also to learn from successful projects in ICT such as Mkulima Young that within one year has thousands of followers on social media and an online market. This has led to great impact in youth and agriculture. The project is managed by local people who understands the needs of the youth. Visit their web

  10. Dear All,
    I think the problem can also be 'doing right thing for the wrong reason'. Most (if not all) of the failed projects were initiated by outsider or local elites (who can write a so called good proposals) in order to get money. They are not part of the problem and whatever solution they proposed does not concern them..For this kind of project to succeed you must have an outsider as a manager so that he can force the locals to work on something which they are not interested (as they know deep down there hearts that proposed solution will fail because it not what they want or anything that can help them..and therefore they know that the project is just an opportunity to earn something)..

    A successful project must come from ground..from the people themselves..they know what they need..but these people are not 'good proposal writer' ..donors should understand this..put efforts to help people solve their own problems..

    Need I say more?..


    1. Yes, Superman I agree.
      It must be a true collaboration between 'outsiders' and local expertise on the ground. We call these local experts "Changemakers" and I have a 10 years of working at a distance using ICT with them. They are overlooked by funders and the local and lasting impact they have achieved is not measured or researched. Take Dadamac Changemaker John Dada, without funding, without a 'project manager' he has just built a 150 Computer based testing centre in rural Nigeria.

  11. Excellent article and discussion! One root cause is fixed project terms and funding and the lack of post-project evaluation to learn from what is still working/existing or not! Most projects ICT investments end with funding- rarely do funds exist to retain project knowledge, listen to participants about what worked best etc. see if interested..

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