Author Archives: cwhiteman

Rural Information Technology Centers in Nigeria

In the ICT4D field, I think we have a tendency to focus largely on what NGOs, government agencies, and other aid organizations are doing for under-served countries.  While these groups obviously do contribute to and carry out countless tremendous development projects and programs, I think we tend to overlook the projects that developing countries are carrying out for themselves. 

One example of a government working toward ICT4D goals is in Nigeria, where the government formed a distinct department for ICT4D programs, the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), in 2001.  This agency works solely toward the “transformation of Nigeria into an IT driven economy for global competitiveness through a faithful and creative implementation of an IT policy for Nigeria,” as it says in its mission statement.

The agency is currently undertaking several development initiatives, and numerous other programs are currently in the works, to be implemented soon.  I think that one of NITDA’s current programs, the Rural Information Technology Centers Project (RITC), is making and will continue to make great differences to the Nigerian people it affects.  The project was conceived and stated in 2010 at E-Nigeria 2010, a development summit in Abuja, and in one of the resulting reports, National e-Strategies for Development, Global Status and Perspectives, 2010, in which NITDA and other government agencies announced their commitment to its undertaking (as well as several other projects).  Earlier this month, on April 6, NITDA reaffirmed its commitment to the project.

The RITC Project aims to establish RITCs in rural or otherwise under-served areas where internet and phone services are limited or even non-existent.  NITDA works with a private local telecommunications and internet provider, Sham, to establish the centers.

The centers give previously under-served Nigerians opportunities to do much more than just surf the web.  By having an RITC in a close, safe, and convenient location, they can look for and apply for jobs, use ATMs, email or phone family and friends, access information about news or weather (etc.), communicate and collaborate with people from other cities or villages, and more.  NITDA and Sham are currently working to enable the centers to also provide e-learning, e-bill paying, e-voting, and a system for emergency calling in case of an accident.  Another stated benefit of the RITCs is their ability to help empower area youth because they provide an outlet for expression, as we saw in Egypt last year, for example, in the revolution that was largely started and sustained through internet communication. (Not that the NITDA and the Nigerian government are hoping to trigger a revolution, of course, but the kind of empowerment that e-learning, e-voting, and e-communication can provide, especially to youths, would be extremely helpful in advancing countless development goals if the rest of the government is functioning transparently and fairly.)

Performance indicators have been put in place in order to monitor the efficacy of the program.  Other government agencies and private organizations will also conduct independent inspections of the RITCs’ effects on ICTs, empowerment, and development in Nigeria as a whole.  Some are worried that, depending on where and how the centers are established, the project could actually widen Nigeria’s technology divide by making access easier for some lucky areas but leaving other areas cut off.  I do see how this could become a problem, especially if politics become involved in the process of determining locations and capabilities.  However, I do think that based on the problem, program plan, and checks on power and effectiveness, NITDA’s RITC program has a huge likelihood of success.

E-centers have been talked about before, and they will be talked about again.  I think this RITC program is unique, though, because of the wide variety of areas it intends to help (not just in communication, but in education, finance, and politics, as some examples).  NITDA and the government in general also seem extremely committed to the checks and inspections regarding the RITCs’ efficacy and helpfulness and to making sure the centers and their establishment are not being abused or used as political tools.  I think this commitment is a good sign that the project will be taken seriously by the government and will be a real source of empowerment for the country.  And of course, the fact that this project was envisioned and implemented by NITDA itself is, to me, a great indicator of Nigeria’s commitment to taking responsibility for its own development goals.  I look forward to seeing the program’s progress as more RITCs are established and put into use, and I hope for and expect its success.

NITDA website
NITDA reports
NITDA ongoing projects
NITDA ICT4D strategy
Article: Nigeria ICT4D plan implementation
Article: Nitda Launches RITC
Article: Nitda reaffirms commitment to IT development
Article: Nitda tasks Nigerian army

Grameen Bank Village Phone Program – Combining Mobile Phones and Micro-Finance

Many NGOs and other organizations that offer low-cost micro-loans exist around the world today.  These agencies focus especially to underprivileged women in developing countries and often give the loans in order for the recipients to start small local businesses.  The Grameen Bank, which operates in Bangladesh, is one such model.  However, in my opinion, this organization goes above and beyond the basic practices required of micro-loan donors.

The Grameen Bank makes its mission a little more specific by providing low-cost loans, mostly to rural women, for them to set up cell phone exchanges where few landlines are available.  The Bank does this through its Village Phone Program, which encourages women to set up pay-phone-like services in their towns with wireless phones.  This project goes beyond simply economic and female empowerment, but extends its benefits throughout the community by offering wireless communication, a previously more expensive or even unavailable service.  Having a convenient form of communication can help relieve numerous aspects of underdevelopment, such as, “communication poverty” and “information poverty.”

I think that organizations that “multi-task” like this could be one of the keys to establishing successful development projects.  This project has benefits that extend far beyond a single aspect of underdevelopment, thus providing a greater impact and higher rewards at a lower cost because of its multiple rewards.


Lighting Africa’s Economy

Lighting Africa, a project that Dr. Murphy mentioned briefly in her presentation, aims to create a market for high-quality and fairly-priced electric goods.  It is a joint project between the IMF and the World Bank, and it functions in Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Senegal, and Mali.  The key focus of this organization is to inspire the countries’ private sectors to mobilize at the chance of making money in a market for off-grid lighting projects.  As part of its approach, the group works to lower all types of entry barriers to trade in the off-grid lighting market.  To do so, the program works together with local political and business leaders, manufacturers, consumers, and other major players in the areas.  This contact with local populations helps to establish Lighting Africa’s credibility and to help them spread the word about the market.

This organization’s main focus on stimulating a private market surprised me, because I can think of few other aid groups or NGOs that focus on such broad market-oriented approaches.  It seems to me that most organizations are focused more on the humanitarian side of development activities – providing basic goods, educating and training, and generally aiming to increase empowerment among individuals.  And of development activities that do focus on “capitalist” development programs, most of these focus on relatively small and specialized projects, such as micro-loans.  In any case, Lighting Africa’s attempt to create markets across a wide swathe of land was an approach that was new to me.

I am conflicted over my feelings on this project.  One one hand, I do think that helping the spread of cheaper, more energy-efficient, and “cleaner” lighting in Africa is an important cause and an issue that definitely needs to be addressed.  I also personally think that establishing a market system to promote Lighting Africa and other similar initiatives is currently the most sustainable way to keep the organization’s goals in place and help the changes spread to new locations.  But I am also skeptical about any organization’s ability to guide part of an economy that is already firmly in place.  I’m wondering, are these market-based any better than traditional approaches to development?  What are the benefits and draw-backs to this type of approach?  How could programs like Lighting Africa be made more effective?

Social Media and Revolution

One of the most interesting aspects of ICT4D to me is the effect of social media on development, especially political movements and development.  Personally, I am not a big user of social media and am not very fluent in it.  For that matter, I’m not very good with technology in general.  However, I still think that examining the role of tech, including social media, today is a crucial aspect in understanding development processes and in creating effective programs for the future.

I think one of the most obvious, as well as the most intriguing, examples of social media and its role in development is the case of Egypt and its 25 January revolution.  It’s known around the world that much of the organization and collaboration that was necessary to create such a huge crowd in Tahrir Square, the center of Cairo, was achieved through Facebook and Twitter.  Especially for the youth in Cairo, it was much easier to spread messages and plan events over Facebook and other social media outlets.  As an example of just how large a role social media played in the Egyptian Revolution, it is interesting to look at the most common words and phrases that were posted worldwide on Facebook and Twitter in the first quarter of 2011: Egypt, January 25, Libya, Bahrain, and demonstration.

Even before the mass realization that social media had such a huge cultural and political influence both domestically and worldwide, there have been been many studies, forums, and conventions about social media and its effect on today’s global climate.  Cairo itself has a yearly convention called Cairo ICT Summit.  One of their main focuses for the 2012 summit, which will occur on 26-29 April of this year, is social media and how it has affected (and will continue to affect) politics and development around the world, and especially in Egypt and other Arab countries.

The Cairo Summit this year will have many groups and individuals speaking and answering questions.  Two individuals in particular, Ahmed Sabry and Ahmed Rayan, both Internet experts, have much to say about Facebook and other social media outlets and how they played such a large role in both Egypt’s and other Arab countries’ recent uprisings.

One reason why social media outlets were so effective, says Sabry, is because they are actually much more credible than traditional media outlets such as TV, the newspaper, and the radio.  I found this surprising, but Sabry backed his statement up with some compelling arguments.  He said that several studies (which, unfortunately I could not locate on my own) had said that, in the Arab countries where they were conducted,) general public confidence in media outlets was about 15-16%.  On the other hand, these studies found out that people’s confidence in the credibility of posts on Facebook were about 70%.  There are several reasons for this discrepancy in faith.  The most important, according to Sabry, is the fact that what people post on social networks is done completely of their own volition; on the other hand, people who speak on the news or in commercials are advised by their superiors on what to say and are also inclined to say certain things because that is how they make money.

Another reason why people apparently find social media more credible in spreading information about government and human rights issues is because their “friends” or the people they “follow” on Facebook or Twitter (or on other social media sites) are people they trust and respect, whereas most people have no personal relation to or inherent trust of people on TV or other media sources, or even government speakers and employees.  This is exacerbated by the fact that in many Arab countries, oppressive regimes have much control of most aspects of their citizens’ rights, including the media and what information it puts out.

In my opinion, Egypt provides for an interesting case study on social media, a concept we have not talked about in class yet but one that I’m sure we will, and how great of an impact it can have on development.  This one case that I have mentioned focuses specifically on political change and development, but by interlinking people from different areas and classes of cities, countries, and even the world, I think we could find ways in which social media will eventually have the power to make change in cultural, economic, and other areas of development in the future.