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2015 is the final year of the Connect 4 Change aid programme, in which Akvo has been a key partner. C4C, as it’s known for short, was sparked by a desire to extend and apply the experience of a Dutch organisation called IICD, which had a long history understanding the application of information and communications technology (known in development and education circles as “ICT”). The magic was that this would be fused with the capabilities of three large international NGOs, Cordaid, ICCO and Edukans, with strong regional and local relationships in 11 of the poorest countries in Africa and Latin America. The final ingredient was Akvo – which was developing tools and processes to bring online the project network, so it was clear what was happening, where. C4C would be one of the first programmes to fully adopt Akvo RSR which was developed in parallel. It would also later become an initial user of Akvo FLOW, for smartphone based surveys and monitoring of projects.

Photo top: I’m very proud of our Akvo Heroes photo series, and there’s surely no finer set than those of Gladys Mamani and Arminda Cargas, agricultural promotors for Red TIC Bolivia affiliate PROINPA. Jaime Cisneros photographed them in front of Arminda’s house in Romer Kota community, close to Lahuachaca, Bolivia. C4C had trained them in 2013 to make and edit short videos detailing successful agricultural techniques and technical innovations which they show to local farmers in community cinemas as one in a range of teaching tools they use to spread information. See the full case study here.

IICD has recently closed down, and it would be easy to jump to a conclusion that this was somehow a reflection of failure – perhaps of both IICD and Connect 4 Change itself. But I think that would be to misunderstand the role that development organisations play, and the transient nature of the whole machine.

Connect 4 Change was a bold idea, because it didn’t focus on any particular sector area, such as water or health – it was instead about the role that information and communication technology could play in the lives of the poorest people in the world, and developing the underlying skills and capacity to trade, farm, provide healthcare, or improve education. With a budget over five years of just under €50 million, it mobilised a network of international, regional and local NGOs.

We’ve had many discussions over the course of this summer and autumn, to examine what we’ve learned from the experience together. Here I’m going to paraphrase some insights.

June 2015 – Connect 4 Change In the Spotlight C4CspotlightIMG_7131_850

In the summer, Akvo organised a wrap-up event at our headquarters in Amsterdam. Called Connect 4 Change in the Spotlight, it brought together key people who had been involved with the programme, or were affected by its legacy. I was pleased to facilitate the event, along with Frodo van Oostveen.

We had good representation across the Netherlands-based organisations. Rob Witte came from ICCO, Dik Verboom, Miet Chielens and Herman Kruijer of Edukans, and Caroline Kroon now an open data specialist at Data Openers and previously charged with bringing Cordaid’s project portfolio online. Krista Kruft attended from IICD and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs was represented by Kees Oude Lenferink. A number of key Akvo people were involved, including Kathelyne van den Berg, Charlotte Soedjak, Josje Spierings and via Skype link Francis Warui from Akvo’s Nairobi Kenya hub.

Here’s a video playlist of short interviews I did with some of the attendees about their insights and experiences on the day.

Lessons learned:

The group noted some key lessons learned.

RSR (C4C specific)

The people who write updates in RSR can feel uncomfortable doing so, because it’s publicly published. They either feel they don’t have a communications background (they work “merely” at the implementation level) or that they need to watch their words (field level).

Capacity building

In order to realise goals, the capacity to do so needs to be in place. This takes up time, because people in the field need to be trained. Needed to calculate more time for people to get adjusted to using smart phones and tablets in the program planning.

Organisational structure/culture shift

IATI isn’t just for external use, but can be used by your organisation internally. Internal transparency is at least as important as external transparency for organisations. Transparency will lead to more efficiency within an organisation, because people will know where to find the information they need. Need to bridge the gap between technical and non-technical persons in implementing ICT projects. It takes time to adjust an organisation to transparent reporting. Changing report structures will mean double work at first. Transparency needs organisational change and capacity building.

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Photo: Connect 4 Change helped introduced patient feedback systems, in rural Uganda. This is Sister Anne Prisca, Health Office Diocese of Jinja. Photo by Papa Shabani. Taken at Wesunire Catholic Health Centre III, Diocese of Jinja, Eastern Uganda, 22 November 2014. See the full Akvo case study here.
FLOW

Garbage in = Garbage out. It’s important that people get trained well to collect the right information. Beyond data collection itself, it’s important to make sense of the data.

Training

Less is more (information wise). Focus on goals and not on technical specifications. Show biggest incentives for local partners. Don’t talk about it, but show it!

ICT 4 D

Could better connect to ICT developments locally. ICT solutions need to be embedded in local society. Have eye for local initiatives. Don’t have a one-fits-all-approach. Look out for the risk of applying Northern solutions to Southern problems – solutions need to be supported locally.

Program design

Consortiums should see themselves as entrepreneurs with an appropriate business case. Have a clear structure of roles and responsibilities at the start. Specific agreements on collaboration should be in place from the start. Cross-cutting themes don’t work, because it’s hard to measure and monitor results. Coordination within the strategic partnership should happen at programme and at country level. Strategic partners should start with the content and then think of the means to achieve their goals. More time to communicate, get to know each other and build a trust relationship at the start. Need to think how to use the different partners for optimal synergy.

Akvo’s experience peterandthomasnyc_170509_850 Photo (couldn’t resist using this old shot): Peter van der Linde and Thomas Bjelkeman. SoHo, New York. 17 May 2009. (I did point out the sailor suit thing, but they seemed unphased)

I spoke recently with Thomas Bjelkeman and Peter van der Linde about Akvo’s experience with C4C.

Thomas Bjelkeman: “At the beginning of C4C, the whole thing of public transparency in aid was a new subject. It’s not just us (Akvo) who have been doing this, but we’ve been a significant contributor in the Netherlands. Now there is a whole ecosystem around this, with a lot happening. That’s an important legacy of Connect 4 Change.”

“When we started this, people were telling us we can’t have a reporting system that can work across multiple organisations. But Peter van der Linde didn’t agree with that and worked out how to create something that did cross. And later we found out that a parallel initiative called IATI was happening. Now that’s become a big thing for international development, and we were able to merge our thinking into the IATI structure really effectively but with more depth of context and narrative. C4C was foresightful, and that worked for us. The consortium was awarded extra points because we were innovative, by the ministry. C4C was ahead, but the approach of showing everything online is definitely moving toward the mainstream now.”

“Another aspect is that IICD doesn’t exist any more. And I think one could think of that as a success actually. It means that specifically working on IT related aid has now been subsumed by other types of programmes. Information and communication technology is now the fabric underneath everything, smartphones are widely available – and becoming more affordable – in most of the poorest parts of the world. This is a game-changing developing compared to five years ago.

Peter van der Linde: “Connect 4 Change acted as a proving ground for large aid organisations like Cordaid and ICCO to experiment with project reporting. Within a few years of programme start, Cordaid was reporting all of its projects through RSR, and now ICCO is doing the same.”

“When we started working with C4C, we thought we would provide the tools and the organisations would be able to pick up on the usage of these tools so we wouldn’t need to have representation in those regions. But it didn’t work out like that – we thought other people could do the training and we would focus on technology – but that proved harder than we thought (see Mark’s blog on training the C4C Bolivian partners here). It may be that this isn’t needed now – it’s just taken longer than expected. We weren’t really expecting to do that much capacity building, but we needed to adapt and show people how to use the tools to tell their story.”

“C4C was one of the only programmes designed for technology and development – now it’s a much more mainstream topic that pervades everything. For us it was the first move outside water – it was a deliberate choice to start looking at different sectors. C4C helped us to widen the scope into areas like agriculture, which are really big now for Akvo. It also helped us realise that the technology players in the development sector were not very good, and that we needed to deliver something better.”

Mark Charmer is a co-founder and the communications director of Akvo.