As someone who is not very technology-savvy, this semester’s ICT4D course was eye-opening for me. I have learned that technology is being used in development projects in diverse sectors, from text messages sent to pregnant women as health reminders to post-crisis crowd mapping. Over the course of the semester, there have been two takeaway lessons for ICT4D that have really stuck with me.
The first important lesson for technology use in development is that technology should be used as a means, rather than as an end for development projects. I believe that new ICTs should be used to help achieve development goals such as higher literacy rates, lower maternal mortality, lower rates of diseases such as HIV/AIDS, etc. Often times in development, there is the temptation to implement a brand-new, fancy technology in a developing country and consider it a success. One Laptop Per Child is a good example of this type of project. It’s intentions were obviously well-meant, but it basically just dropped technology in places where people did not know how to use it and it was not sustainable. Brining shiny new gadgets to a developing area might look good on advertisements or to donors, but it rarely meets the needs of the community. Using technology as a means to achieve basic health, education, or disaster relief goals, however, can be very effective. This is why it is important to also implement “back-office” ICTs, which may not be as flashy as other technologies, but they can make a real difference in efficiency and sustainability.
Another significant lesson that I have learned from this semester’s ICT4D course is that it is always important to consider the needs of the community that will benefit from the development project. This lesson is true of all sectors of development, but I think that it is especially salient in ICT4D. For example, the Farm Radio program in Africa that we learned about was very successful because it used a simple technology that reached many people, and it also involved the beneficiaries (the farmers) in every stage of the planning and implementation process. This way, the people who would benefit from the program had a say in its development and became active participants. I believe that this type of strategy greatly increases the effectiveness and sustainability of a project. In ICT4D, it is important to make sure that the local people know how to use the technology and repair it if there is an issue. That way, the technology does not cease to be used after the development agency leaves the area, as we saw with some computer labs in African schools. Overall, I think that taking the community’s needs and wishes into account, as well as ensuring that technology is a means rather than an end to a development project, give ICT4D initiatives a great chance of success and the potential to make a real difference in the developing world.
In class this week, we have talked a lot about how mapping technology can be used in disasters, such as the Mission 4636 project in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. However, mapping technology can also be very useful in other areas of development, such as health. Online maps can track serious disease outbreaks and therefore help governments and scientists manage these outbreaks. For example, a few years ago the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) launched a mapping tool known as “Predict” that tracks animal diseases. While this might not sounds important, it is actually essential to international development because many of the most serious human disease outbreaks of the last several decades originated in animals. The virus that caused the SARS outbreak and Ebola, for example, are both thought to have come from bats. The USAID mapping project emerged specifically as a response to the H1N1 virus (more commonly known as swine flu), which contained a mixture of genes from both North American and European pigs. Interestingly, the H1N1 virus was never actually detected in pigs before it was detected in humans in Veracruz, Mexico. This is significant because it reflects a serious knowledge gap in the international health community. The goal of USAID’s mapping project is to track animal disease outbreaks that could eventually transform into threats to human public health.
Here is how the “Predict” works: it monitors data from over 50,000 websites, among them the alerts that the World Health Organization sends out, online discussions from experts, local news, and wildlife reports. The system then sorts through all of this information to find the most relevant data and put points on the map. The pin points on the global map are color-coded based on activity level, with yellow being low and red being high. The map can also easily be divided to focus on different regions or priority diseases. It is very user-friendly and open to the public, something that Damien Joly, an associate director for wildlife health monitoring in one of the map’s partner associations, says is essential to the mission of the project.
In my opinion, the “Predict” tool represents an efficient use of mapping technology to track disease and it is important because it focuses on animal disease that could pose a threat to human health, which is often overlooked in international development. The question now is how people will begin to use “Predict,” and whether it will become a tool for the general public, or will mainly stay in the realm of scientists and public health experts. You can read more about the launch of this mapping tool here.
As we were preparing our presentation for the health sector this week, one thing that kept coming up was the importance of the World Health Organization (WHO) in encouraging the use of ICTs in improving global health. The WHO, founded in 1948, is a specialized agency of the United Nations that works to improve international public health. The WHO Constitution has been signed by all member nations of the UN, and it has been an extremely influential organization in the field of public health for many years.
In the last few years, the WHO has adopted a policy of supporting the use of ICTs in international public health. They especially encourage public/private partnerships between national governments, large international organizations, and private companies involved in ICT. Other WHO initiatives in the field of ICTs in health include the Health Academy e-learning course, an online healthy living and best practices class targeted towards the general population, and the Health Internetwork Access to Research Initiative. This last initiative is especially important because it provides doctors and professionals in low-income countries free or low-cost access to thousands of biomedical journals in a massive online database. This initiative is an example of a back-office mechanism targeted towards professionals and medical staff that helps reduce the “know-do gap,” aka the gap between what information doctors have access to and how well they are able to diagnose and treat their patients. The WHO initiatives mentioned here represent an important step forward in increasing the use of ICTs in international public health, as well as the powerful impact that technology can have in improving basic health care services in developing countries.
In class this week, we discussed many of the criticisms of the “One Laptop Per Child” program, which gives sturdy, affordable laptops to children in developing countries. Some of these criticisms include the fact that the model is entirely dependent on the computer itself, which could break, the fact that the teachers are almost completely left out of the equation, the financial instability of the project, and the fact that the local historical context is rarely considered in the implementation of OLPC. Studies have shown that the program has caused very little improvement in learning benchmarks or economic indicators in most cases.
However, there are other voices on the ground who argue that OLPC is making a big difference. For example, Maureen Orth, an award-winning journalist, Peace Corps volunteer, and founder of the Marina Orth school in Medellin, Colombia states that OLPC is “the most wonderful tool they could possibly have.” In an isolated region plagued by gang-related and drug violence, Orth says that One Laptop Per Child is making a big difference to children’s education. According to her, computer and English skills are essential to helping children compete in the global market. She also says that the laptop keeps children interested because they view activities as a game, and it teaches them responsibility because they take it home.
I think that maybe the key to OLPC’s success at Orth’s school in Colombia is that they design their own curriculum and put a lot of emphasis on teacher training. These are traits that make Orth’s school different from other places where OLPC has been implemented. Despite One Laptop Per Child’s many flaws, Orth’s on-the-ground perspectives shows that it can be successful in improving children’s education in developing countries if it is implemented in the right way, such as keeping the emphasis on teachers and being aware of the local context.
The 2010 earthquake in Haiti was one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory. In the chaos and destruction after the earthquake hit, one radio station continued broadcasting and became a lifeline for Haitians. The station, called Signal FM, somehow withstood the earthquake and its tower was not damaged. Immediately after the earthquake, with electricity supplied by generators, the station started broadcasting important information about where to find help. One woman was even able to find her missing husband through a message she broadcasted on Signal FM. The station stayed on the air constantly for the two weeks after the earthquake. Originally they only had three days of fuel for their generators, but the Haitian government and several NGOs stepped up and provided funding to keep the station on the air. Signal FM organized a panel discussion on-air with journalists to keep people up to date on what was happening in the post-disaster chaos. According to this CNN report Signal FM reached about 3 million people in the Port-au-Prince area during the disaster and was also available to over the Internet. The fact that Signal FM combines traditional radio presence is combined with availability on the Internet is a great example of blending different types of ICTs in order to reach more people, as we saw in the case of the Farm Radio in Africa using SMS to tune people in to radio broadcasts.
Signal FM has been extremely important in disaster recovery in Haiti, especially considering the fact that Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, has only a 62% literacy rate. In this context, the radio is an effective ICT because it can reach large quantities of people in their native language and give them access to critical survival information in a post-disaster setting. The importance and effectiveness of radio in post-earthquake Haiti can be seen in the fact that the U.S. Army handed out solar-powered and hand-cranked radios to around 80,000 Haitians living in a displacement camp close to Port-au-Prince. In situations of extreme disaster, where other ICTs are not feasible due to the destruction of infrastructure, radio is often the most effective tool in getting critical information to the greatest number of people. According to Louis Richardson, a Haitian earthquake survivor quoted in the CNN report, Signal FM radio was “the most important source of information.”
Argentina has one of the largest economies and highest overall levels of development in Latin America. It has high levels of education and low infant mortality rates, but also still suffers from extreme poverty,especially after the 2001 economic crisis. As far as ICTs are concerned, Argentina does not have an official policy and is seriously lacking in infrastructure, especially in rural areas. The government regulatory environment is also not conducive to the development of ICTs.
However, despite its many problems with ICTs, Argentina does have a fairly strong telecommunications industry. In 2009, ICTs represented 5.6% of the national GDP. Argentina’s statistics for fixed-line and mobile density, as well as Internet penetration, are the highest in the region. Argentina is considered a “qualified software producer” and the cities of Buenos Aires and Cordoba are home to telecommunications hubs. The FORESTA report that I used for my paper mentions the group “Polo IT Buenos Aires,” which is made up of over 80 domestic SMEs (small and medium enterprises), almost half of which export to 15 different countries. This shows the strength of ICT production in Argentina, especially the fact that the products are high-quality enough to be exported. Mobile-phone subscriptions are increasing rapidly in Argentina, as well as Internet use. In 2009, the number of mobile subscribers in total per 100 inhabitants was 125.6, while the Internet penetration in total per 100 inhabitants was 57.3. Both of these figures show remarkable growth in the last decade. Overall, the telecommunications industry is strong, especially in urban areas such as Buenos Aires and Cordoba where businesses cooperate with universities and the government.
Most of the information concerning Argentina’s telecommunications industry can be found in the FORESTA report, pages 58-65.
In class this week, we discussed some of the development theories and frameworks that we use to think about ICT4D. One of these frameworks is neoliberalism, an economic ideology that emphasizes free markets and a minimal role for the state. In the context of development, neoliberalism says that macroeconomic growth is the most important goal. This framework has been heavily criticized both within the development world and in other academic fields for its imperialist approach and lack of attention to local conditions. In his article, “ICTs, the Knowledge Economy, and Neoliberalism,” Richard Hull from the Department of Human Sciences at Brunel University in the UK argues against dominant theories of ICT and the ‘knowledge society’ because he claims that these theories perpetuate neoliberalism. You can check out his article here.
Hull says that the common argument that ICTs have created a new era in which information and knowledge are central to politics, society, and the economy is actually in danger of perpetuating neoliberalism. He supports his claim by arguing that the idea of ‘knowledge’ as a measurable factor and a unit of analysis was invented by neoliberal theorists in the 1930s and later used to justify the search for new markets. Hull’s article is interesting because he claims that the concepts of the information and knowledge society that we now take for granted as givens are actually part of the neoliberal agenda. It seems to me that Hull would probably fall under the category of post-developmental thinkers because of his criticism of the concept of knowledge as a universal, measurable idea. Hull argues that there are different forms of knowledge, an idea also supported by post-developmentalism with its emphasis on indigenous forms of knowledge. Like other post-developmentalists, Hull offers a stinging criticism of neoliberalism, but without offering many suggestions for how development should be done. It is also interesting to see how ICTs and ICT4D fit into these frameworks about how we view development and how ICTs can be used effectively (or ineffectively) in achieving development goals.
In his article “ICTs and the MDGs: On the Wrong Track?” Richard Heeks questions the Millennium Development Goals and criticizes their Western-biased “do as I say, not as I do” approach. One of Heeks’ suggestions for how to use ICTs in an effective way for development is ICT consumption. Specifically, Heeks references “the use of technology in applications like e-commerce and e-government.” According to Heeks, these are areas where ICTs are being used in a positive way to make real effective change in development. In order to understand his perspective, I think that it is important to take a look at who Richard Heeks is and the work he has done. Heeks, a native Englishman, is the current Professor of Development Informatics in the Institute for Development and Policy and Management at the University of Manchester. When he was younger, Heeks worked as a volunteer science teacher in Nigeria, an experience that could influence his critiques of development policies created by the global North for the global South. Heeks is considered one of the founders of the ICT4D field. One of his most important contributions of the study of ICT4D is the Design-Reality Gap Model, a monitoring and evaluation tool used to measure the success of ICT4D projects, especially e-government projects.
The basis of Heeks’ model is the idea that there are two points in any e-government project: the reality, that is ‘where we are now,’ and the goal of the project, that is ‘where the e-government project wants to get us.’ It’s really quite simple. The larger the gap between these two points, the more difficult it is to successfully complete the project. The small the gap, the higher the chance of success. Heeks’ claims that there are 7 dimensions that determine this gap. These 7 dimensions are: information, technology, processes, objectives and values, staffing and skills, management systems and structures, and other resources: time and money. These 7 aspects of e-government analysis can be helpfully summed up in the acronym ITPOSMO.
The Design-Reality Gap Model created by Heeks is an important contribution to the field of ICT4D because it provides a systematic and uniform way to monitor e-government projects and assess their success. I think that Heeks’ emphasis on e-government and e-commerce, while not the most exciting of all development projects, is what is really making a difference on the ground. It is essential to focus on projects that are effective and sustainable, even if they are more ‘behind-the-scenes’ than a typical ICT4D project. Richard Heeks is an important figure in the ICT4D world because of his contributions such as the Design-Reality Gap Model. It might sound dull, but efforts such as these are what make real improvements in the developing world.
In the developing world, there are many barriers to access to technology, including infrastructure, language, geography, and gender. One Zambian women’s group has been making important strides in improving women and girls’ access to information and communication technologies. The Asikana Network, founded in 2012 by developers Ella Mbewe, Regina Mtonga, and Chisenga Muyoya, seeks to “level the playing field for women” in ICT and bridge the gendered digital divide. Some of their activities include a mapping project of all ICT women’s organizations in Africa in order to achieve their goal of building a Pan-African Women in Technology Network.
The Asikana Network seeks to improve girls’ access to technology through outreach programs in high schools and universities. One of their other main objectives is to build a continent-wide support network for women in ICT professions. According to co-founder Ella Mbewe, ICT is still considered a male-dominated field and women often have to work twice as hard and be extremely resilient in order to be successful. In her words, “we aim to change perceptions and behavior towards women in ICT and to level the playing field for those young women who come behind us.”
The Asikana Network, though small, is making important progress in increasing women and girls’ access to technology in Africa and bridging the gender gap at the professional level. These women are using technology to change cultural perceptions and improve the quality of life of their peers. Perhaps they can serve as an example for ICT4D professionals looking to break down more barriers to access to technology.
You can check out the Asikana Network’s Facebook page or some more info about their current work online.