No, technology will not save the world

Newsfeed stressing the potential of technology to revolutionize the Arab world are becoming increasingly more frequent. From the Arab Spring to the widespread use of mobiles in Africa, an iPhone can change reality. But are things really like that? After a more careful analysis, technology appears to be but one of the many tools at our disposal to deal with the complex challenges of modernity.

[By Serena Carta, from ICT4dev]

Can technology help us change the world? Have Twitter and Facebook really changed the way we live and relate? Has the Internet the power to democratize access to information? Will education of African children be better due to the so-called m-learning (learning via mobile devices)? So many hopes are nowadays set in technology, often described in enthusiastic overtones and depicted as a panacea for all evils. As it often happens, the reality can be a lot less shiny than some slogans. According to Professor Richard Heeks “Whether ICT is a bearer of epochal changes and revolutionary transformations that change the rules of the game in development processes is still an open question”. In addition to being one of the most cited academics dealing with technologies for development, Heeks is also a blog author at ict4dblog.wordpress.com

As Habermas reminds us, historically, technology was created and used by those who had the money and the power so that they would strengthen their political agenda and economic grip on society. It has also been a source of inequalities, favoring those having the means to purchase it and excluding those who did not possess those means. Today it seems the situation has changed, given that we see a stream of low-cost technology capable of reaching even the most remote and poorest areas of the planet. In January, an article featured on CNN’s website told us that the African continent has become the second country in the world for number of telephone subscriptions. Meanwhile, the Guardian pointed out that only 7% of users in Africa is connected to the internet and that fewer than 20% of those owning a cell phone has a smartphone. But will the massive spread of mobile phones suffice to bridge the gap between the Northern and Southern hemisphere? In his TedTalk, Kentaro Toyama (another ICT4D “guru”) showed how the US poverty rate remained unchanged from 1995 to 2008, despite the raise and development of technologies and key players, such as Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Facing this evidence, Toyama, wondered “why do we keep on thinking that technology will save the world?”. If I were to try and give an answer to this question, I would venture to say that we do so out of misconceptions, in that we overestimate its impact. Or maybe it is because we think of technological tools as something more than just one of the elements that concur to developing an individual and his or her community.

Aiming at laying the groundwork for a broader reflection about using effective, appropriate and sustainable ICT in development projects, I tried to come up with 6 points about what ICT4D is (and is not).

1) Let’s go back to its definition. According to the English construct, i.e., Information and communication technology for development, the ICT4D is a new and extremely dynamic area of international development cooperation. In this framework, ICT encompasses all technology allowing the accessing, processing and distributing of information in the form of text, sound, images, etc. The term often is applied to refer to digital media and communication technologies (mainly PC, mobile phones, and the internet). The D in the acronym stands for development and determines their field of application. “What do we mean by development (economic or human?)” is a key point that deserves to be delved into in a separate entry.

3) When used properly, technology can offer great opportunities for development and economic and social change. At the same time, when technology is thought of an end and rather than a means, there is a risk that the investment in ICT will turn into a waste of resources, and the project will fail. For this reason, it is good to keep in mind that the ICT4D are a combination of infrastructure, content, and skills. Distributing mobile phones is a good thing to do, but not enough. The real challenge lies in figuring out if the phone is the most appropriate tool to meet the challenges a given context provides. Secondly, we need to provide the right skills to our partners and beneficiaries so that they can be autonomous and effective in the use of the technology we provide. To give you an example, if an NGO decides to launch an e-learning project and invests in computers but forgets to adequately train their teachers, it is likely that students – in the absence of educated tutors – will not benefit from the advantages of digital education.

3) the potential of ICTs, therefore, lays in supporting and enhancing, rather than replacing, people intentions and capabilities. ICT does not contain answers or solutions to the problems we want to solve in itself. However, technologies are vehicles that can help us achieve our goals in an easier and more efficient way. For this reason, statements like Nicholas Negroponte’s (who came up with the One Laptop Per Child, ICT4D project with huge media impact, also due to Kofi Annan’s endorsement in 2005 within the UN) trigger some well-deserved perplexity: “We will launch the computer from helicopters to teach children to read.” A vision American researcher Laura Hosman commented in the following terms: “What would happen if we launched a new generation electric car in the middle of the Sahara desert? Nothing, it would be wasted technology! The same can be said of spanking new PC designed by Negroponte. Research reports tell us that no results were obtained because the technological design and appeal are not enough to address the complexity of social issues of our times “.

4) we can surely claim that ICT4D doesn’t always mean most advanced technology. On top of it, there is no adaptable blueprint fitting in with every need. Every context, every community, every project has a story to itself. Similarly, ICT taken for granted in some parts of the world may have no impact elsewhere. Consider the case of an e-democracy initiative calling on citizens to report corruption cases through the phone. If citizens are located in a rural area with a high illiteracy rate. It is very likely that people will prefer to send voice messages (via IVR systems, Interactive voice response) rather than SMS. Even the absence of reliable Internet connection and electricity, ubiquitous among “rich” population, can make it difficult to use cloud services or streaming. “They are systems that makes the job easier when everything goes smoothly –Donata Columbro says, coming back from a social media training in schools in Burkina Faso – “however, Internet connection in Africa rarely go without problems. USB sticks and the plug-in cards can download and transfer data in a much easier way, as well as Bluetooth, and those are the main technologies over there”.

5) The ICT4D are by nature a multidisciplinary field requiring intervention and involvement of professionals with various background. It also cannot fly without needing the help of experienced developers. Research plays a significant role in this sector, which requires analytical observation of the progresses so that one can learn how to better the process. Last but not least, the field also requires a commitment to disseminate and share the learnt lessons, failures and best practices via an open source approach.
6) Finally, communication and information are a universal right in that they contribute to human development. Not surprisingly, recently, 195 associations of civil society have asked the UN to put at the Centre of the debate on the Millennium Development Goals 2015 the access to free and independent information. In this regard, the contribution of ICTs could be crucial.

 

photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection via photopin cc

ICT4D, the importance of building the net

Computer scientists, geographers, sociologists, anthropological, political scientists: the field of ICT4D is inherently multidisciplinary, and it involves different actors. The Spider Center at the University of Stockholm brings together practitioners, researchers, civil society organizations and institutions around the same table to create a global network able to implement technology for development from an inclusive perspective.

[By Serena Carta, from ICT4dev]

I have been in Stockholm for a couple of weeks now, for my research on ICT4D. I am a visiting student at the Spider center, an independent research center based in the computer science Department of Stockholm University. Since 2004, the Spider’s mission is to “encourage innovative use of technologies for development and poverty reduction through building partnerships and strengthening the knowledge on ICT4D at the global level”. The main activities of the Center can be summed up with two keywords, networking and information brokering; “interconnected world” and “digital solidarity between the generations” are part of the vision that informs it.

The Spider center acts as a network of universities, civil society actors, governments, private companies. Most funds come from SIDA (the Swedish Agency for development and cooperation) that is in charge of financing 90% of the activities of the Centre. The remaining 10% is accounted for by the Stockholm University whose annual turnover is around 1.5-2 million. The Spider center finances the realization of projects targeting the use of technology applied to democracy, education and health promotion. The countries involved are those labeled as “priority areas” by the Swedish aid policy (i.e., Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia). At the same time, the Center also encourages and supports on-site research by students and researchers. Such a combination of research and fieldwork allows the implementation of ICT innovation in development projects, as well as the creation of a geographical network of all the stakeholders involved in international cooperation. It also furthers interactive research to develop best practices and lesson learned repositories for spreading.

The projects

From its inception, Spider has completed roughly fifty projects in various fields. Since the adoption of a “2.0” agenda in 2011, the Center has focused on three key themes: democracy, education, and health. Particular attention has been paid to the empowerment of young people, creativity, and capacity development. The Spider project officer Ulf Larsson explained that the financial support is given to each project up to 56 thousand euros spread over 1-2 years. According to Larsson, this is but “a seed from which we hope sustainable impact initiatives can arise». Associations and local networks in partner countries of the South are the average grant applicants: “we publish a notice on our website, then start our selections. The winner receives our support through monthly meetings that help us to monitor the development of the project. Once completed, the applicant should be able to stand on his or her own legs and, if successful, s/he will receive more funds from us or other entities to implement it to its completion. ”

Research and knowledge brokering

The Spider center, however, also has an academic core. Each project is audited by one or more students or researchers who conduct theoretical and empirical analysis on site to monitor and log both the results, and impact generated. «The collaboration between professionals and researchers contributes to contextualize the study of ICT4D. At the same time, it helps those leading the project to gain a broader view and make it better” Ulf says. In some cases, a partnership between the Spider center and the youth Promotion Association AIESEC, young people who just graduated is involved in spending a few months in the field by providing technical expertise project. Finally, the research results are published as reports or videos and made available to the public at large via the Spider website. The aim is of facilitating the circulation and sharing of ideas and best practices in the field of ICT4D.

The importance of building the net

The chosen name, Spider, makes the intent of this research center clear. Over the years, the network it built became quite impressive. There are 230 experts from 40 different countries, 800 active stakeholders worldwide, 17 partner universities in Sweden and four geographic and thematic networks bringing together all the countries in which funded projects came to fruition. The intent was to strengthen South-South cooperation and connect those initiatives with new contributors. The international EIFL Association, a partner, based in Rome, is among them in promoting access to information through digital libraries in developing countries.

 

Photo: Dorothea Kleine (Royal Holloway, University of London) and Paula Uimonen (former Spider director)  – credits: https://spidercenter.org/