A visit to the British Council’s offices in Manchester today, and an invitation to give a ‘brown bag’ lunch update on current issues in ICT4D that might be of interest to staff there, provided an opportunity for the following reflections:
- There are important differences between ICTD and ICT4D – quite simply the “4”. Much work in this arena has tended to be top-down and supply-led – be it by the private sector or academics who have great ideas and want to try them out in ‘developing countries’. But the “4” can be of very different kinds – either in support of economic growth agendas, or to empower poor and marginalised communities. Yes, these are NOT the same thing. As I have argued many a time elsewhere, economic growth will not, indeed cannot, reduce poverty – at least when the latter is defined in relative terms.
- Much of my own work has tried to explore the needs of poor and marginalised people, and then to identify how ICTs might be used to help them achieve their aspirations. However, I am very conscious that this approach runs up against difficulties, especially when confronted with “rights-based” arguments. Much development literature has shifted from “needs” to “rights”. I guess I have problems with this – although my argument is not as yet well articulated. First, it is all very well talking about human rights, but when people are continuing to be marginalised whilst this discussion is ongoing, I do believe we should also be trying to address the immediate needs of the poorest. Second, I fear that the human rights agenda is actually part of a wider “individualistic” agenda. Yes, of course human rights are important – but we must not forget “collective” and “communal” responsibilities in the rush to ensure that individual human rights are upheld.
- The technologies – there are some great innovations out there – I am very impressed with work being done by the TIER group in Berkeley: robust low cost wifi for healthcare; small microscopes that can be attached to mobile ‘phones; and long distance wifi (WILDNet). Yet, for many of the poorest people in the world, more traditional solutions have to be, at least in the short term, the most sensible. Radio remains hugely important in much of Africa. I remain unconvinced about the claims made for m-learning – a real issue that needs to be addressed remains the screen size. But, the explosion of mobile services across rural Africa provides huge opportunities for innovation. One thing is for certain, within a decade we will look back on desktop computers – and, dare I say it, even my beloved Mac laptops – as being very archaic. The future is small, connected and mobile!
- This brings me on to infrastructure. If Africa is to gain any benefit at all from the potential of ICTs, we must pay more attention to two ‘ simple’ things: electricity and connectivity. If all the aid that has been poured into Africa in the last half century had simply enabled most Africans to have electricity, just think of the changes that would have been enabled! One of China’s great successes has been its ability to bring electricity to something like 95% of all the country’s population. Without electricity modern digital technologies cannot function. The costs of digital connectivity across Africa are likewise scandalous. ICTs cannot in any way be seen as having any potential to contribute to poverty reduction until the prices of digital connectivity (be it by ‘phone, cable, or satellite) are dramatically reduced. Perhaps the arrival of the submarine cable in east Africa later this year will begin to make a difference, but we have yet to see whether the poor will really benefit
- Likewise, we must have rigorous regulatory environments if the poor are to benefit from ICTs. At the very least, these must ensure universal access. The challenge is that it is not cheap to provide connectivity in rural areas of Africa, and this is not something that the private sector is readily geared up to deliver. Across much of Africa, it has been those who are relatively better off who have benefited most from deregulation of the telecommunications sector. We need to find cost effective ways through which dispersed rural populations can gain access to the ‘content’ and ‘interaction’ that modern digital technologies permit.
- This in turn makes us confront entirely new kinds of business model. The extraordinarily rapid expansion of mobile technologies in much of Africa is an indication of the willingness of relatively poor people to pay for services that they see as being valuable. This has opened up huge possibilities for the provision of new services, especially branchless or mobile banking. The potential to deliver large-volume low-margin services across mobile platforms is one that we need to encourage. Traditionally most ICT companies have focused on the top-end of the markets; the potential for bottom-of-the-pyramid models in contrast offers real opportunities for ICTs to be used by poor people to their advantage.
- The challenges of content provision – finally, we need to address the pressing question of why there is so little indigenous quality content development in many of the poorer countries of the world. I have been involved in several collaborative attempts to help develop local content, and have clearly not yet learnt how to do this effectively! In part, the reasons must be related to the costs of developing such content, and the lack of skills to do so. But these factors alone cannot explain the relative dearth of quality digital resources developed within most of sub-Saharan Africa (South Africa being an exception). There is huge potential for the shared development of locally relevant content, but this has yet to be realised.
In conclusion, the above thoughts perhaps reflect an overly pessimistic and sceptical picture of the field of ICT4D, and I am quite sure that many people will be able to point to their favourite success stories. Of course there are some! However, I am utterly fed up with the ways in which small-scale pilot projects are continuously claimed as being huge successes, when they have little chance of ever going to scale, because they were only ever designed to be effective as pilots! We must get real and admit to our failures. Rather than implementing countless small ‘computers in schools’ projects, for example, let’s just try and roll out a single programme at the national scale in Africa to train teachers in the effective use of a full range of ICTs to enhance the quality of the learning that they help children gain. Only when we do so, and when we turn our attention to ways in which ICTs can really be used cost effectively and sustainably to support the world’s poorest peoples, notably street children and those with disabilities, will be able to make any claims that ICTs have had an impact on ‘development’ – at least in the ways that I choose to conceptualise it.