Six lessons for implementing technological change in developing country communities

By Jonathan Ensor, Daniel Vorbach, Steven Johnson and James Moir

1. Jonathan Ensor (biography)
2. Daniel Vorbach (biography)
3. Steven Johnson (biography)
4. James Moir (biography)

How does the provision of new technology, infrastructure or community institutions interact with the social setting, especially at the village community level in developing countries? How does this interaction determine the sorts of changes that are experienced? Given this interconnection between the technical and social worlds, what are the implications for the design and implementation of interventions? And what does this more holistic perspective suggest that implementing agencies should be considering and advocating for alongside their on-the-ground activities?

Three lessons for project design and implementation

1. Design the interventions with the village community

Any technological change, such as the introduction of new infrastructure or technologies, will have an impact that emerges from the interaction between that technology and the social, cultural and institutional systems in the community.

Whether a new technology is used, repurposed or abandoned; who gets access; the share of costs and benefits; how the technology is maintained; how decisions are made about its use and management… all of these characteristics are determined by how the community and the technology interact.

Design, therefore, means much more than just addressing technological considerations and training. It requires working in close partnership with community members to understand the impact that the technology will have on the community, and the impact that the community will have on the technology. In turn, this means iterative design steps that make adjustments to the technology (for example, material selection or interface design) and to community governance (for example, new rules, decision-making or management arrangements).

2. Introduction of committees

A large body of experience now indicates that there are three likely outcomes for externally designed committees that are introduced into villages in rural or peri-urban settings. As Jessica de Koning’s seminal work on forestry institutions (2014) suggested, they are:

  • rejected;
  • adapted towards locally valued ends; or
  • merged (at least partially) with existing institutions.

The best potential for designing lasting governance arrangements in support of technological interventions lies in building on existing institutions: this means understanding what committees or decision making structures are functional in the community, and what arrangements are sustainable in the village context. The norms and processes of these existing institutions may not be exactly what is anticipated; however, they may provide a realistic starting point from which to explore how new governance arrangements can be sustained.

3. Making connections to other initiatives or programmes

A challenge for creating institutional change is that local institutions are grounded in deep rooted or longstanding norms, values and practices that are unlikely to be overturned by the introduction of new institutional arrangements. Equity issues, such as considerations of gender, age or disability in decision making, are unlikely to be overcome through securing representation on a new committee alone. The underlying power relationships can be incredibly challenging and very significant.

Gender norms, for example, are frequently reproduced when women secure representation, either through the normalisation and internalisation of gender roles; the pressure to conform that is felt in decision making settings; or/and the threat of violence if norms are not observed. In some cases, women may also have other well-established, informal avenues for influence that are not readily observable to outsiders. For these reasons it is important to link technological interventions with long term initiatives or programmes that focus specifically on equity issues (including gender equality and violence against women): this may enable interventions to make a positive contribution to ongoing processes of change, or ensure that locally specific best practices are followed.

Three actions that intervening agencies can recommend or support

1. Strengthening facilitation

Working through processes of technology co-design and the development of institutions for new technology governance requires skilled facilitators, capable of working with communities to support them through a process of analysis, reflection, design and testing.

Equally, addressing and ameliorating inequitable cultural norms and practices requires careful and sensitive work with both marginalised and dominant groups. While challenging, care with methods and the design of engagement processes can support effective facilitation.

For example, analysis of existing systems can take place in different groups (men, women, youth, older people, people with disabilities) with each group supported to develop their opinion and view, and then brought together in a facilitated plenary session that supports an exchange of understanding between groups.

However, the required facilitation and methodological skills are scarce in many settings; there is an urgent need to invest in developing a cadre of practitioners who have been trained in facilitation methods and are well practiced in their deployment. The potential exists for intervening agencies to make a recommendation to the government along these lines. There may, for example, be the potential for local university campuses or other training providers to introduce facilitation courses that would be open to students and practitioners of different disciplines, with the medium to long term effect of building a facilitation ‘community of practice’ in the country.

2. Long term engagement

Securing lasting change in social arrangements does not happen through short term projects. Governance reforms for new technologies, however well designed, will not overcome deep rooted norms of gender, age or disability discrimination, for example. Sustained, long term engagement is required to address different social issues.

This type of engagement is already found in some communities that have (for example) strong women’s groups, often supported by national civil society organisations. The presence of these long term initiatives can provide coherence to short term interventions. An opportunity exists for external agencies to push for greater investment in these long term initiatives as part of their work, recognising that they need to connect to longer term projects if their goals for more equitable access and control over infrastructure are to be realised.

3. Strengthening government capacity at different levels

A fundamental limitation to improved infrastructure and governance lies in the lack of capacity to support communities via different levels of government. In settings such as the Pacific, where communities can be highly isolated, layers of government below the national level are important for connecting local communities to national resources and policies. Specialists at these levels are critical to providing expertise and in channeling resources to the community level but, in many cases, these levels of government lack staff and /or resources, to the point that they are unable to visit communities.

External agencies are in a strong position to make recommendations around the minimum levels of support that may be required, and the particular skill sets that are necessary at these levels if effective and equitable technological changes are to be secured and sustained.


The lessons presented draw on our experience in co-developing water safety testing technologies and related community institutions with communities in rural and peri-urban settings in Vanuatu. If you have been involved in implementing technological change in rural villages do these lessons resonate with you? Do you have other lessons to share? And if you have been on the receiving end of such technological innovations, what advice would you give?

Koning, J. D. (2014). Unpredictable Outcomes in Forestry-Governance Institutions in Practice. Society & Natural Resources, 27, 4: 358–371. (Online):

Biography: Jonathan Ensor PhD is a Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute, University of York, UK. His work is concerned with how development processes can address histories of marginalisation, and focuses on disaster risk reduction and environmental change, the governance and politics of technology and infrastructure, and how processes of contestation and learning can account for power and social justice in ‘resilient’ development.

Biography: Daniel Vorbach is a PhD candidate at the Stockholm Environment Institute, University of York, UK. His research focuses on how community institutions in rural Vanuatu emerge and change. He lived and worked in Vanuatu for more than five years, most recently as Oxfam’s Program Director.

Biography: Steve Johnson PhD is an interdisciplinary physical scientist in the Department of Electronic Engineering at the University of York, UK. His research is focussed on hybrid technologies that integrate solid-state devices with biological systems and he has a particular interest in participatory approaches to technology innovation.

Biography: James Moir PhD is Professor of Microbiology at the University of York, UK. His research interests revolve around bacteria in natural environments and how they impact on human health, pollution, agriculture and technology.

6 thoughts on “Six lessons for implementing technological change in developing country communities”

  1. These are excellent ideas. Working in the Pacific requires strong co-produced initiatives working with communities. Understanding these communities and the relationship between different communities is a necessary part of any intervention strategy. Who speaks for whom? This understanding is not simply obtained through ‘representative’ committees. The process of engagement, through Pacific methodologies such as talanoa, tok story, kakala is of critical importance. Recognition of co-produced knowledge is at the key factor in transdisciplinary approaches to research and learning.

    • Thanks for this response – and I think you raise a really significant point. Care and critical reflection are needed before relying on representative committees as the ‘voice’ of an entire community. As noted in the blog, there are many factors that can lead to a dominant but minority view being reproduced in such settings. But as you point out, the methods that we choose to elicit views from individuals and groups also matters – and particularly so in the Pacific where there are strong oral traditions that need to be recognised and understood. The methods of engagement that you raise are out there – it’s important that researchers and practitioners are aware of this, and sufficiently skilled, experienced and flexible in their approach to make use of them.

  2. Interesting blog post and some very useful reflections, particularly in relation to the Pacific. But also in general, one such example, in relation to point 1, maybe the COVIDsafe app in Australia, which probably would have been useful in the current climate, but the lack or limited community/ user engagement (public and health department users) during the early design phase may have limited its acceptance and utility. Could it have been done differently? Crisis situations come with an acute time pressure and identifying a fine balance between time and level of engagement maybe critical. The point of stretched workforce and system, and silos in Pacific also resonated; requiring strategic ways for increased and longer term integration for better sustainable outcomes.

    • Thanks Meru. It’s really interesting to have your reflections from a very different setting. The problem of emergency or crisis response is a very real one, with no easy answers. That said, I suspect that the more deeply ingrained these principles become (of user engagement, for example), the more likely they are to be applied even in pressured circumstances. If cultural norms among donors, designers and engineers shift towards engagement, then these working practices are more likely to fall into place even during crises – with the institutional support and mechanisms for securing user engagement already in place. Jon

  3. The authors are on point. I have worked in Uganda, on several projects mainly in informal settlements for over 20 years. The issues raised resonate very well. I agree with long term engagement, because it is a serious issue; where projects are implemented, everything is going well, and as soon as the projects end, certain things collapse or do not proceed well. The practicality of achieving long term engagement, considering that projects are implemented with life spans of some 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 years……is a serious matter that doesn’t seem to have an easy solution. I totally agree that the six lessons elucidated reflect the realities that we grapple with in achieving project sustainability in the developing countries. I am Charles B. Niwagaba, Associate Professor of Civil Engineering at Makerere University (, or I thank you for this nice piece.

    • Hi Charles – thanks for reading and reflecting on this. Short termism is, regrettably, hard-wired into too much research and development work. What we see is the potential to better align new projects with organisations, movements or programmes that are a more permanent presence on the ground, co-designing projects with them to ensure that short term projects play a positive role in longer term changes. Donors, of course, could encourage or require this, if they were so minded… We worry that this is a particular blind spot for infrastructure and “technology” projects, which don’t see that they have (or could have) a role in wider processes of social change. Does this reflect your experience?


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