Author Archives: dkiesels

Nigerian NGOs Working Towards eLearning

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading more and more about homegrown NGOS in Africa defying the traditional model of Western-exported development. As information and communication technology proliferates throughout the world and becomes cheaper, this new type of homegrown developmentincreasingly emphasizes technology. Reading this week, I learned about a Nigerian NGO which serves as an archetype for African, rather than Western, led development.

The NGO is called the Society for the Promotion of Education and Development (SPED). It promotes market-based solutions to education problems through public-private partnerships aimed at introducing ICTs to schools serving underprivileged children throughout Nigeria. In doing so, they explicitly speak of bridging the digital divide that plagues Nigeria, one of the world’s most unequal countries. With offices in Abuja and Lagos, Nigeria’s political and economic capitals, SPED mainly focuses on assisting the urban poor. But their work is not limited solely to urban areas.

One aspect of ICT4D that gets overlooked, in my opinion, is the way that technological proliferation, and thus ICT4D, can build on itself. ICT4D projects do not occur in a vacuum, and as ICTs are introduced to ever greater portions of the world, it is important to recognize the ability of those it is introduced to to, in turn, introduce it to others. As ICTs become commonplace throughout the developing world and barriers to access begin to fall, it will become the responsibility of those who have received technological assistance to pass their newfound skills and technology to others. SPED is a great example of this dynamic, one that I believe will have profound implications on ICT4D, and development generally, in the years to come.

To read this article, click here.

Homegrown ICT4D in Africa

When we discuss ICT4D, we often carry into our discussions a set of assumptions regarding its development and implementation. Foremost among these assumptions, in my mind, is the idea that ICT4D is something to be exported from developed countries to developing ones. Considered far less frequently is the concept of citizens in developing countries using ICT4D to help their fellow citizens. As developing economies continue to grow and middle classes throughout the developing world expand, I think it is important that the direction of ICT4D be reconsidered. While the flow of ICT4D will continue to move from Western countries to less developed ones, I expect that the use of ICT4D within developing countries and regions will grow in the future as the developing world becomes more prosperous.

A powerful example of this new trend is the Apps4Africa Climate Challenge. Though sponsored by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, it was designed to reward ICT4D initiatives created by and for Africans. Offering a prize of $15,000, the challenge aimed to inspire home-grown solutions to problems that might not be as easily identified by foreign NGOs as they are by Africans themselves.

The prizes were awarded by region, with the East African winners announced in January. The East African winner developed an app to monitor grain storage, supply, and consumption across entire nations. In some nations, grain storage is inadequate, resulting in tragic scenarios in which grain rots while nations struggle to feed their populations or food prices spike. This new app, if it works, could be hugely beneficial for countries that struggle to maintain their food supply. I’m hopeful that Western nations, while still undertaking ICT4D initiatives of their own, will continue to facilitate the development of homegrown ICT4D projects around the developing world.


eLearning and Peace-Building in Rural Africa

When I was working at an NGO last summer, I would often ask my supervisors about their experiences working in the field. They shared many of the joys and hazards of field work with me, and, when speaking of the latter, focused on one in particular: burning out. They told me that they could spend years on a project that, even after being implemented successfully, would be undone by conflict or government corruption. They spoke of projects that had to be halted or failed entirely because of political instability. And they spoke of the helpless feeling that, for all their hard work, what they did was simply a “drop in the ocean”–something helpful that did nothing to change the larger environment in which they worked.

Every day, thousands of development projects take place around the world. But how can these projects come together to promote wider stability and peace? A new project, eLearning for Peace, seeks to answer this question. Organized by representatives from a number of post-Soviet countries in concert with African researchers, the conference has two main goals. First, it seeks to examine the relationship between eLearning and peace-building. To this end, it does not focus on broad-based conflicts, like the Sudan-South Sudan oil dispute or Ethiopia’s border conflicts with Eritrea. Rather, it takes a grass-roots approach to conflict resolution, targeting small-scale rural conflicts, such as disagreements over cattle or land. To this end, it asks how eLearning can empower mediators to help opposing parties reconcile more effectively. Second, it researches the potential of eLearning to aid development in a variety of sectors, such as agriculture, governance, and business practices.

The project will begin with a workshop, taking place in Benin, during eLearning Africa 2012. It does not end there, however–eLearning for Peace intends to serve as an online community and forum in which theories on eLearning can be debated and like-minded researchers can connect with one another to develop projects of their own. What really intrigues me about eLearning for Peace is its attempt to tap into ICT4D’s potential in a sector ICT4D seems to generally ignore: conflict resolution. Indeed, this blog doesn’t even include conflict resolution as a category. I think this is a mistake.  There is no reason to think that, with a little creativity, ICT4D, which has so much potential in so many areas, cannot be used to help resolve the small-scale conflicts that drag down living conditions for millions of rural Africans. By emphasizing conflict resolution, this new project seems to me to be something of a pioneer. While it may not prove effective methodologically, I think it’s innovative focus on conflict resolution is inherently valuable.

The Development Potential of the China-Africa Relationship

As a political economy major, I try to read the news and keep up to date on trends throughout the developed and developing world. One of the most important (and, in many ways, unsung) trends affecting development in the world today has been China’s massive investment in Africa. Like the great powers preceding it, China has reaped huge benefits from investing in Africa in terms of both energy extraction and business development. But has China’s presence benefited any Africans? That is the question that a new article, written by Stephen Haggard, tries to ascertain. As with most development issues, the answer is complex, and hugely variable from country to country.

I’ll start with the negatives. China has shown few qualms about working with some of Africa’s most repressive and violent dictatorships, even in the face of international condemnation, if they can gain access to energy sources in return. The Chinese Communist Party gained access to Sudan’s considerable oil reserves in exchange for arming its genocidal regime, and enjoyed close ties to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe in exchange for extractive contracts there. These policies inexcusably granted economic lifelines to some of the world’s worst leaders and allowed them to continue stifling development in their own countries as they enriched themselves. Even in countries with less destructive governments, China has shown little genuine commitment to development, concerned instead with satisfying the wishes of national leaders, who often lack the expertise (or political will) to demand development projects that work effectively. The result has been a heavy emphasis on infrastructure. China has received contracts to build roads, bridges, and dams all over Africa which, while important and perhaps very helpful, does little to improve the lives of Africans at a grassroots level.

But this may all be changing, and much of this change stems from a shift in focus to ICT4D. As popular opinion in many African countries begins to turn against China’s presence (though still generally somewhat favorable, complaints about poor working conditions at Chinese firms and its willingness to arm rogue states like Sudan have become major political issues in some African countries), China has begun to make a more concerted effort to work with Africans themselves, and not just their leaders. The early results have been very promising, and have shown a surprising prioritization of e-learning. Haggard cites the case of Kenya, where China has agreed to supply every Kenyan secondary school with IT suites containing with 25 PCs and internet access. Though one could worry that this amounts to little more than dropping off hardware, it could also provide newfound connectivity to a country containing some of the world’s most remote peoples.

During this shift, China has shown a newfound willingness to survey the needs of African development, rather than simply appeasing African leaders. It will, for the first time, send a delegate to this year’s eLearning Africa conference to present on the successes of eLearning in China and to discuss how these successes can be exported to Africa. It also agreed to fund an $8 million African training initiative led by UNESCO. While $8 million may seem like a relatively paltry sum, it is representative of a larger change in how China views its role in Africa and what policies it will pursue in the future to work with, rather than separately from (or against) grassroots development and education in Africa. China’s growth as an economy and society over the last 30 years has been, in effect, the most effective poverty reduction program in human history. If China can export its development lessons to Africa (and sees it in its own interests to do so), the potential impact is difficult to overstate. By focusing on eLearning, China seems to be taking a step in the right direction–and greatly enhancing the impact of ICT4D as a field of development.


New Tools for Transparency in Remittances

It is well-known that remittances serve as a pillar of many third-world economies, especially in countries falling within the economic spheres of major superpowers that exist nearby. As noted in the article this post discusses, these remittances can comprise up to ten percent of a nation’s GDP. An archetype of this economic dynamic is Central America and the Caribbean and the remittances its people receive from relatives working in the United States. What I had never thought about, until I read this article, was the method by which remittances are transmitted. To be honest, I just kind of looked at remittances as free-flowing, as money that simply left one country and reappeared in another.

This article makes clear that that sort of simple understanding of the process is plain incorrect. The method used to send money and the provider offering this service can drastically alter the cost of sending remittances. The lack of transparency in this process and the generally uninformed nature of those sending remittances has led to an unfortunate lack of competition in the remittance provider sector, resulting in some workers paying vastly more than they would have had to otherwise to send money home to their families. On a macro level, this can have a pronounced effect on the economies of remittance-dependent countries.

What this article is discussing is the advent of a new tool meant to shed some light on this opaque industry. The tool is a website called Envia Centroamerica and offers people sending remittances to Central American countries a rare opportunity to compare the prices of service providers, allowing them to send greater portions of their income home. Hopefully, this will inject some much-needed competition into provider industry. As the article notes, sending US$200 to Central America can cost anywhere from $8 to $333 (more than the money being sent!) depending on the method and provider used.

ICT4D programs are generally the source of a great deal of controversy as people debate the effectiveness and appropriateness of various projects. This project, to me, is a rare one with very few drawbacks. It does not work outside of the market or foster dependency–rather, it seeks to make an important development market function more efficiently. As a watchdog more than a direct aid program, it does not have the same hardware-without-expertise problems plaguing projects like OLPC, which people accuse of simply dropping off technology in poor countries without explaining how it can be used effectively. And it’s benefits are direct and difficult to dispute–it will save impoverished families money that can be used productively for other purposes. My only qualm with this project is the possibility that many workers sending remittances will not know about it. As useful as the website is, it is of no value to people that don’t know about it. I had never heard of it until doing research for this blog post, and I wonder what portion of workers, documented or otherwise, are aware of this service. Until word of this service is spread, its effect will be limited.

An Evaluation of One Laptop Per Child

Click here for report on OLPC in Peru

As we all know, One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is perhaps the most prominent-and most polarizing-ICT4D initiative underway today. We ourselves had a lengthy discussion on its pros and cons and, like the ICT4D community writ large, struggled to come to a consensus as to whether it deserves the attention and, by turns, celebration and criticism, it has received. While much of the larger discussion within the development community has been important and well-researched, OLPC’s prominent nature has also led to a great deal of poorly informed opinions, whether for or against it, being put forth regarding its utility. That’s why I was heartened to see the publishing of a recent report seeking to substantively its impact in Peru.

Peru would seem to be a perfect fit for OLPC. It is relatively stable and, while hugely impoverished in many areas, it is far enough along that introducing laptops does not seem to skip more substantive, broader-based steps seeking to ensure children have access to schooling at all or can learn in safety. The report sought to answer some important questions about OLPC and provide an important contribution to a sector of ICT4D that is generally lacking-evaluation.

With that being said, the report was a bit disappointing, especially for anyone looking for a conclusive verdict on OLPC’s quality as an ICT4D program. It drew three main conclusions, one obvious, one damning, and one promising, with regards to OLPC’s impact. First, the obvious: OLPC has dramatically increased access to computers in targeted areas (319 primary schools). The computer to student ratio in these schools has skyrocketed, from .12:1 to 1.18:1, meaning that there are actually more computers than students in the areas targeted by the program. Computer skills have obviously increased with this greater access. Second, and worryingly for proponents of OLPC, this increase in access has shown no impact on math or language skills, making one wonder if OLPC is simply the worst kind of ICT4D program-one that simply drops off hardware with no plan for how it will improve learning conditions for those who receive it. Third, and more promisingly, the program has led to an increase in general cognitive functioning among students. This implies that simply providing access to computers, however incomplete the follow-up, does have a positive impact on how students think and process information.

Naturally, the evaluation itself has been subject to some criticism. Though much of this criticism has been aimed at the methodology employed in the evaluation, some of it also targets the problem that bedevils (and, given the pace at which technology develops, will likely continue to cause problems) ICT4D generally: the shortness of the time horizon. Though fifteen months were allowed to elapse before the evaluation took place, proponents of the program have argued that this is an insufficient amount of time to allow the program to develop. I think fifteen months is enough, and in comparison to many evaluations, is ample time to allow a program to gestate before trying to measure its impact. But the fact remains that long-term studies of ICT4D are simply difficult to do, especially given that, if enough time elapses, the technology being evaluated will simply become obsolete. Though this paper, like almost everything surrounding OLPC, remains inconclusive, it is important in that it sheds light on ICT4D’s most prominent (deservedly or not) program.


New Uses of Technology to Meet Local Needs

The technology introduced to third world and developing regions during development projects is no different from much of the technology we use every day. Cell phones, iPads, and other new innovations are almost universally present in effective ICT4D projects. Obviously, local populations that receive these devices and technologies have very different needs than users in the first world. The result has been the ingenious manipulation of these technologies to meet these needs. In a recently published paper entitled Mobile Phones and Rural Livelihoods: Diffusions, Uses, and Perceived Impacts Among Farmers in Rural Uganda, by Brandie Lee Martin, these new and creative uses are described in detail.

These uses fall into a number of different categories. The most prominent is use for coordination and increased availability of information. These include “coordinating access to market inputs, market information…and access to agricultural experts.” They also serve a purpose as record-keepers, especially to monitor financial transactions. Finally, they are useful during emergencies to maintain financial and agricultural security.

This innovation is extremely dynamic, and operates independently of the NGOs and other organizations that provide the technological inputs. As the paper notes, these innovations change as needs change and the two tend to evolve concurrently. This is important as a proof of the ability of developing communities to innovate effectively and of the presence of the same entrepreneurial instinct central to first-world development.