Focus on private sector: Making ICT partnerships work

Copyright: Flickr/IICT

Speed read

  • ICT projects are said to benefit from public-private partnerships
  • There are barriers to success, mainly funding and local suitability
  • Good partnerships promote capacity building

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Tanzania's science minister, Makame Mbarawa, has recently called on the public and private sectors in Rift Valley nations to collaborate on information and communications technology (ICT), highlighting examples of how such partnerships have benefited his country's development.

But what do these public-private partnerships (PPPs) look like in practice? I put this question to Laura Hosman, assistant professor of political science at the Illinois Institute of Technology, United States, who specialises in ICT for development (ICT4D) and such partnerships.

"There's certainly no cookie-cutter partnership format. It can be two partners, it can be ten, it can be very small projects, it can be mammoth projects," she says.
Hosman cites three ongoing examples.

The first is a large-scale collaboration between Microsoft, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Kenyan government to build the first energy-neutral building.

Another project — a nationwide partnership involving both big players (Inveneo, an ICT-focused non-profit; the US Agency for International Development; and Ethiopia's education ministry) and multiple smaller partners — is seeking to boost literacy levels in Ethiopian primary schools.

Finally, Inveneo, the University of California, San Francisco, and Kenyan NGO Organic Health Response are working together on a small-scale project to establish a long-distance WiFi link to a hospital on a remote island in the middle of Lake Victoria.

But working out how to scale up ICT4D projects has been a struggle — and Hosman says there are two main barriers.

"The first is that … in order for [scaled-up projects] to be successful they actually have to be tailored to the local places [where] they are being deployed.

"The systems that work for the Silicon Valley might not work in the Rift Valley."

“PPPs are not a silver bullet; they must be viewed as an enabling method of doing business.”

Laura Hosman

The second issue is funding. Convincing donors to increase their investment based on experience with a handful of projects is a challenge. "It is so sexy to fund pilot projects — there are so many out there. But making the case to scale up is difficult."

So what makes a successful partnership?

For Hosman, all good partnerships share three key ingredients: correct incentives, clarity of involvement and capacity building.

"Each partner needs to be forthright about what they can contribute, if there are compromises to be made, [and] how long [they're] going to be involved in this project.

"Local capacity building is paramount. It doesn't serve to bring in, let's say, Microsoft to build a solar-powered data centre if we don't have people in and around Nairobi who can maintain it or who can build the next one."

Capacity building also extends to the legal aspects of the agreement, adds Hosman. "You need to have local people who are capable of making sure that the partnership is carried out."

"PPPs are not a silver bullet; they must be viewed as an enabling method of doing business. One of the things that needs to come out of them is capacity building — or they have been for naught."

Naomi Martin is SciDev.Net's deputy news and opinions editor.