ICT: Catalyst for Inclusive Development

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What is ICT?

]Digital technology has become a key factor to reducing global poverty—mainly because it gives the poor access to vital information, such as weather forecasts and market pricing. This is the main message of the 2010 Information Economy Report from the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which was published on October 14th.

In the developing world, most users access the Internet on a mobile phone. Thanks to ever-cheaper smartphones, lower rates, and expanding networks, more and more people in the developing world now have Internet access. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 2.3 billion people will have mobile-broadband subscriptions by the end of 2014, with 55% of them in developing countries (ITU, April 2014).

The situation is very different when it comes to personal computers (PCs) and fixed Internet, particularly broadband access. PC use in low-income countries is rare, and almost non-existent in rural areas. “A person in a developed country is on average over 600 times more likely to have access to fixed broadband than somebody living in a least-developed country”, according to the 2010 Information Economy Report (The Economist, Oct. 16th, 2010).

Information and communications technology (ICT) is the integration of telecommunications, computers, and other tech systems to enable users to access and transmit information. The Internet, which is just one component of ICTs, has played a fundamental role in its rapid progression.

As ICT usage has grown over the years, so has its importance to the developing world. “Information and communications technology is not a luxury but a catalyst for development, members of the International Broadband Commission agreed during the 10th meeting of Broadband Commission for Digital Development on Sunday in New York” (Devex, Sept. 22nd). The UNESCO Director-General explained, “ICTs are a critical enabler in achieving sustainable development, education, health, and gender and other development challenges…the transformational power of ICTs is immense” (Devex, Sept. 22nd).

Despite the success of such schemes as M-PESA, Safaricom’s popular mobile payment service in Kenya, there are reasons to be mindful of the barriers created by the use of ITC in poor countries as well. Even where people have access to a PC and the Internet, they often lack the necessary skills, in particular literacy, to use it. In fact, the adoption of ICTs can actually increase the gap between better-resourced enterprises and poorer ones, and can hinder development at a national level.

Skilled programmers in India, for example, can sell IT services around the world despite the low overall level of development of the Indian economy. India has masses of cheap, unskilled labor that ought to be attractive to companies wanting to set up low-cost manufacturing facilities. However, operating them would require at least some skilled workers, and their rising wages (created by trade in ICT services) makes it uneconomic for many manufacturers to hire the necessary talent.

To avoid this, policies to promote the use of ICT in poor countries need to be pro-poor and inclusive. Some NGOs and private companies are helping governments to do this. TechChange—a start-up that promotes the use of technology for development—“has taught more than 600 students in more than 70 countries through their online classroom. Its most popular course to date has been ‘Mobiles for International Development’”. Organizations such as Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS have created software that gives NGOs the ability to collect valuable data via text messages. Furthermore, it is now easier to provide health services to people in remote areas through enterprises such as MedicMobile (The Economist, June 27th, 2012).

How is STT using ICTs?

STT has made its own strides in the field with its own ICT program. It aims to support community activists by securing their access to computers, the Internet, online tools, and related training while also improving STT’s research methods and evidence-based advocacy.

In July, the ICT team hosted a training seminar for 10 representatives from different communities. With the support of the European Union, STT funded the training course and bought smartphones for use in the session. The purpose of the course was to teach community representatives how to use information technology and the Internet to circulate news regarding the abuse of land rights, human rights, evictions, security, and other urban issues.

Every month, STT hosts a workshop on the uses of social media for urban poor community activists in the computer lab. By encouraging community members to use social media for advocacy, STT hopes to increase participation and awareness of urban issues in Cambodia. STT has also focused on building staff capacity with ICTs: back in August, 25 employees participated in a workshop on Internet security.

International development is no longer monopolized by Western governments fixated on building schools and hydroelectric dams. The rapid evolution of ICTs has allowed for a vast assortment of start-ups, NGOs, and entrepreneurs to provide progressive and inclusive development services around the world.

By –Nick Jones (November 14th, 2014)