Sustainability (in ICT4D) is Overrated

Women trained on computing fundamentals at iLab Liberia.

I started my day yesterday (deplorably early) at a (very engaging) discussion on the role of technology hubs in international development. It was the most recent Tech Salon sponsored by Inveneo.

I’m a big fanboi of these tech hubs (as you already know) so was happy to join the conversation. While the discussion had a habit of wandering away into a thicket of mobile apps monetization challenges, it did clarify some thinking on my part.

Namely, ICT4D (tech for development for the uninitiated) sustainability can be a red herring.

Of course in the development biz I believe successful projects are the ones that continue on through lo the many years. However, if one is too doctrinaire on this point, incredibly valuable ideas may never see the light of day. iHub Nairobi came into being on the back of a bunch of Ushahidi money, and served very usefully as a home for projects dedicated to social good without being able to cover their costs for years.

The perfect example is iLab Liberia. That organization has the second fastest internet connection in Monrovia (number 1: NDI field office) and they have to pay through the nose for it, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars a month. The need to cover those costs - let alone staff, computers, space, electricity - would condemn the project to failure. It’s completely unimaginable that profits from developed applications or user fees could cover those costs for years. They do a good job bringing in additional money via consulting (NDI’s a satisfied customer) but that can only go so far.

On my first trip to Liberia it was almost impossible to find software firms who spoke Open Source, much less a vibrant community of enthusiastic young techies. iLab has helped gather that. Constant training, resources, and learning from each other has produced a new generation of open source geeks, and that is a fact that would continue even if iLab was crushed by a giant bat/pterosaur from the ocean depths tomorrow.

Sometimes simply sparking something new is sufficient to count as a success. NDI is generally in the political institution-building business, which is the definition of the long haul. In the case of technology and development, though, too much focus on that idea could prevent the creation of a new generation of tech geeks who will themselves shake up their world. If iLab is able to do that for a few years before closing its doors, that would be a great achievement for Liberia - and I'd call that a development win.