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‘ICT4D’ or ‘Digital Programming’: the state and evolution of technology in nonprofit programs

Findings and reflections on the state of ICT4D in NetHope Member organizations.

April 20, 2023

By Nora Lindström, CRS; Maria Berenguer, SOS Children’s Villages; Elizabeth Njoroge, Christian Aid on behalf of NetHope’s ICT4D Working Group

ICT4D is nothing new. In fact, NetHope began as an imperative from its Members to bring technology to the communities that we work with.  In the words of one of our NetHope Founders, Ed Happ, “We shared a common problem: how to reach the remote places where we work with ICT”. Because the sector is rapidly and constantly evolving, the use of ICTs in the development and humanitarian sectors is a conversation that is now decades old, notably with evolving insights, partnerships, and practices as the role and ability of digital technologies has itself evolved.

NetHope Working Groups coalesce on topics of interest at a point in time by staff in NetHope Members, and at the NetHope Summit ’21 the NetHope ICT4D Working Group was established to foster increased collaboration and shared learning on ICT4D-related topics among NetHope Member’s staff today.

As one of its first tasks the group agreed to conduct a survey of its group members, to gain insights into how different Member organizations are currently applying technology in their programming. The survey contained 28 questions and was administered during 2022. Thirteen Member organizations responded to the survey. The initial results were presented and discussed in a Working Group meeting and shared publicly at the NetHope Global Summit in November 2022. This blog post shares survey findings across five key areas and provides some subsequent reflections on the state of ICT4D in NetHope Member organizations.

What’s our practice even called?

Across the respondents, only a third call their practice “ICT4D”. Other names for the practice include, for example, Technology in Programs (GOAL), Digital Programming (SCI), Tech for Development (Christian Aid), and Digital in Programs (Oxfam). There seems to be a slight trend towards moving away from using the term ICT4D. Organizations with more established and older teams, such CRS and SOS Children’s Villages, continue to call their practice ICT4D, while organizations with more recently established teams, such as Save the Children International (SCI), have moved away from the term and in the case of SCI are calling it Digital Programming.

The move away from the term ICT4D reflects two trends. On the one hand, there seems to be a desire to disassociate the use of technology in programming from traditional IT, thereby making it more accessible to and embedded in the programming space. On the other hand, the move also reflects a broadening of the practice overall – from conceptualizing digital technology primarily as an enabler of humanitarian assistance and development work, to considering the wider societal implications, opportunities, and risks associated with digital transformation.  

Are we even doing the same thing?

Despite variations in name, the survey found that the focus across the responding organizations nevertheless is on enabling the transformation of programs using digital technology. Some differences do exist however. For example, data collection and analysis are explicitly not part of the remit of the ICT4D team at SOS Children’s Villages, which focuses primarily on supporting the design, implementation, and monitoring of program participant-facing digital solutions. In contrast, the majority of CRS’s ICT4D practice is focused on data collection and analysis, much of it in the MEAL space. Oxfam again is increasingly engaging in questions around digital rights and applying a rights-based analysis to digital contexts.

How are we set up to practice ICT4D or Digital Programming?

While the focus of the work is roughly the same across the respondents, there are clear differences in approaches taken. This is evident in terms of how “ICT4D” is set up and the size of the practice, as well as how it is funded.

In terms of setup, just over half of the responding organizations have a distinct ICT4D team or unit. A third do not have a distinct team focused on ICT4D, while two respondents are organized horizontally. The size of distinct ICT4D units or networks ranges from a couple of staff members to over twenty, however particularly the larger organizations responding to the survey noted that they have a significantly higher number of ICT4D staff in their organizations overall. As can be expected, the organizations that have invested in distinct ICT4D units and have the most ICT4D staff also have the largest ICT4D budgets, with some organizations’ annual ICT4D budgets being well above US$1million. The survey did, however, not ask what percentage of the organization’s total budget this represented.   

Reflecting the role of translator between programming and technology that ICT4D teams often play, the survey showed that there is no one standard location for where the ICT4D practice sits. In some organizations, the ICT4D practice sits in the IT department, in others in Programming, while further in others it sits across both, or in a separate department such as Strategy. In most organizations the ICT4D practice sits at the HQ level with representation or support organized geographically. Only two respondents stated they are also or solely organized sectorally.

What tools do we use?

There was a wide spread across respondents on how ICT4D tools/platforms are chosen and managed. This ranged from tools being mainly centrally selected and managed to them being locally selected and managed. There is some correlation between how tools are selected and managed and where funding for ICT4D, or the technology specifically used in programming, primarily comes from in an organization: organizations whose ICT4D practice is funded through unrestricted funds are more likely to have centrally selected and managed tools, whereas organizations that rely on project/grant funds for their ICT4D work are more likely to select and manage tools locally.

Despite the variance outlined above, there are interesting similarities in ICT4D tool usage across the respondents. Most of the respondents have some standard ICT4D tools that are used across their organizations, and this standardization tends to center around tools used for data collection and analysis. All but three respondents had a standard data collection tool, with CommCare being the most used platform. Several organizations had more than one standard data collection tool, with Kobo Toolbox, SurveyCTO, DHIS2, and RedRose being used by many organizations as well. WhatsApp is also commonly used in ICT4D projects, although its use seems to be more informal – while seven respondents indicated they use WhatsApp at scale in the ICT4D practice, not a single organization listed WhatsApp as one of its standard ICT4D tools. 

In terms of principles for procuring ICT4D tools, many respondents mentioned favoring open source tools as well as procuring software as a service (SaaS). Some organizations outlined a strong aversion to building software, which mirrors the tension about appropriate approaches to the configuration vs customization debate as a best practice for digital implementations in the NetHope nonprofit community at large.

Are we following best practices and measuring success?     

In reviewing how to measure best practices and success the Working Group chose to use The Principles for Digital Development framework, which represents nine best practices for integrating technology into programming. This framework was launched in 2015 and has to date been signed by over 300 organizations and companies worldwide. Somewhat surprisingly, less than half of the organizations responding to the survey have, however, endorsed the Digital Principles. In discussing the results of the survey, some of the organizations who are yet to endorse the Digital Principles said that while they by and large follow them, they have not yet formally endorsed them as they would want to ensure any endorsement is meaningful.

Perhaps less surprisingly, none of the organizations who have endorsed the Digital Principles actively monitor their use in their respective organizations. Some have, however, embedded them into how they work. For example, SCI conducts internal workshops on how to apply the Digital Principles while Oxfam takes them into consideration when selecting ICT4D platforms.

The majority of the respondents do, however, measure the success of their ICT4D–or digitally–enabled projects. Yet how this is done varies significantly. Means to measure success range from embedding ICT4D into project M&E, through ICT4D-focused case studies and learning sessions, to completing formal evaluations. The lack of common indicators or frameworks to measure success is expected given the diversity of projects that are considered ICT4D–or digitally–enabled. Working Group members have identified this as a key area for joint learning and collaboration moving forward, so watch this space.


Twenty-eight high-level questions answered by representatives from 13 organizations evidently does not give us very deep and specific insights. Nevertheless, the results and subsequent discussions do outline some high-level trends:

  • ICT4D is at a bit of a cross-roads. Organizations are reflecting on whether the term “ICT4D” remains relevant and appropriate and are coming up with alternative names for the practice. The practice itself is also expanding in scope to cover broader issues such as digital transformation and digital rights.
  • There is a large variance in how ICT4D is resourced across organizations. Many organizations do not have a specific ICT4D team or unit, and when they do many of these units are very small. By comparison, some organizations have large ICT4D teams with relatively significant budgets. However, without further data on how the ICT4D team size and budget compares to individual organizations’ overall size it is not possible draw conclusions as to the adequacy of investment into ICT4D.
  • Standardization of data collection is widespread. Data collection forms part of ICT4D in most organizations, and they have found it advantageous to select one or more data collection tools to use at scale in the organization. The same handful of data collection tools are used across most organizations.
  • WhatsApp is a commonly used tool. Yet its use is largely informal, and WhatsApp is not considered a “standard” ICT4D tool. A joint learning agenda on the use of WhatsApp among ICT4D practitioners would be valuable to ensure its use is both impactful and responsible.
  • The Digital Principles are not deeply embedded in ICT4D. Many organizations have not endorsed the Principles, and practice of the Principles is mixed among those who have. Organizations continue to struggle to put the Principles to practice even if they use them as high-level guidelines.

These and other insights from the survey are now being used to inform the ICT4D Working Group’s future plans and areas of collective action and learning. This Working Group is open to all NetHope Member organization’s staff worldwide, and we encourage those interested to join through joining the ICT4D Working Group on NetHope NetWork, or contacting the NetHope Team.

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