After last week’s ICT4Ag conference, there was one panel discussion that really stuck in mind, and in particular one speaker: USAID’s Chris Burns. This is not some fawning post batting eyelashes at the donor, but a true appreciation for the content of what Chris said and his eloquence in getting at what I see as really the heart of the matter in any ICT4D work: smart partnerships that leverage comparative advantages.

It Takes a Village

High-quality ICT work is never the result of one single organization’s efforts; by its very nature it involves multiple parties, from the content creators and the technologists to the channel providers and end users. Despite this inherent need for strong partnerships, we still struggle as a sector to execute on this knowledge—papers have been written about this topic, conference sessions convened, donor dollars put forth to address it. Too often we see development organizations trying, and failing, to do it all—either on their own or through ad-hoc initiatives by allocating a significant budget for a mobile messaging campaign without any funds to develop quality content, or launching a huge mobile data collection effort using a poorly designed tool that has a bad user experience and thus low usability. We keep shooting ourselves in the foot by not putting in the hard work to craft strong partnerships, and instead take shortcuts or use the same partners over and over again because it’s just ‘easier.’ Yes, a lot of this is driven by the speed and cost constraints of the donors, which is why it so heartened me to hear Chris speak.

Play to Your Strengths

Chris focused on the need to ensure that we’re leveraging the comparative advantages of each party in any ICT deployment—as development organizations we don’t own mobile towers; as operators we don’t know farmers; and as local value-added service providers we don’t have best practice horticultural content to disseminate. But combined, these three parties have a robust partnership that brings forward everything you need for a truly high-quality ICT intervention: the channel, the content, the end-user knowledge and the savvy packaging.

Chris also asserted that no more should ICT4D interventions ignore the digital revolution transforming the development world. Our work should run parallel to, and be integrated with, concurrent transformations in access to broadband, social media, smartphones, and over the top (OTT) services such as Whatsapp and Viber. I could not agree more with this concept, and this is why we focus so strongly on Digital Insights at DAI. We even think that programs should be designed with the pace of change baked in so that what is happening now with ICTs is just the starting point of interventions over the three- to five-year project workplan that should end with ideas currently over the horizon so to speak. Chris closed his presentation by emphasizing the importance of understanding the enabling environment for ICT services; just a farmer with a phone in her hand does not a strong ICT4Ag deployment make.

The work doesn’t stop here—articulation is certainly different from execution, and the burden is on all of us working in this space to make sure these smart partnerships are the norm and not the exception.

Looking for guidance on how partnerships can make sense—from a business model perspective and otherwise? Here’s a good place to start.