15 years of ICT for Development: a reflection

Last week Computer Aid International celebrated providing its 200,000th computer to organisations working in education and development in more than 100 countries.

Computer Aid’s Founder and previous CEO Tony Roberts reflected on changes in the field of information and communication technologies for Development (ICT4D) over the last fifteen years:

In 1997 when we founded Computer Aid International, silver-haired senior managers in the London headquarters of international development agencies were skeptical of our suggestions. They thought us fanciful in seeing a role for ICT on the ground in development (despite using computers themselves at work and at home). It certainly wasn’t the way development was done back then.

Undeterred, experience on the ground told us that the level of demand for ICTs from operational development worker was significant and fast-growing. Local field staff were eager to apply ICT to enhance service delivery and empower communities.

We made mistakes though; a technology-centred approach limited the value of some initiatives. Hype and enthusiasm often preceed the application of sound development practice in the arena of technology and development. This is equally true whether you look at Computer Aid in those early days, the telecentre movement, later on, MIT’s one-laptop-per-child initiative, the bubble of mobile apps for development or some of the current activity around Open Data and transparency.

In the cycle of innovation diffusion and adoption, hype precedes substance; technology-push precedes genuine demand-pull, and technology-centered precedes people-centered development.

In Computer Aid’s case, we addressed these challenges by working in partnership with many of the best-known and most experienced development agencies, drawing on their operational experience. This ensured that each deployment of computers to end users occurred within an integrated development program that included capacity building and appropriate support.

In East Africa, Computer Aid worked with AMREF to equip hospitals with computers so that nurses could use e-Learning to upgrade their skills, and we supplied rural hospitals with telemedicine kits so that isolated doctors could get life-saving advice and support from senior clinicians at the national referral hospitals. Hundreds of schools were equipped with IT labs via partners such as TodoChilenter and Computers for Schools Kenya who provide teacher training and long-term pedagogical and technical support. In partnership with universities and the UK Met Office, we equipped local weather stations in Kenya, Zambia, and Uganda and local staff trained to analyse local weather systems alongside agricultural extension workers and produce climate data for national and international use.

Over the years the logic of using information and communication technologies in development became compelling and most development agencies now embrace the use of ICT to increase the efficiency and efficacy of people engaged in front-line development work.

The landscape of ICT4D couldn’t be more different now from 1997 when Computer Aid volunteers prepared the first PCs for shipment to ‘previously disadvantaged’ universities and hospitals in post-Apartheid South Africa.

Today some development agencies have full-time ICT4D managers; in others, ICT4D has already been ‘mainstreamed’. The nature of ICT4D techniques and sectoral applications continues to diversify and the proliferation of devices and applications continues. ICT4D now has its own dedicated communities of practice, international conferences, and undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes.

Whereas in the 1990s the constraints were experienced as the access issues of internet availability and hardware affordability, today the focus of ICT4D is shifting toward accessibility and effective use. Whilst access issues remain problematic for millions, the situation is improving. The same cannot always be said for accessibility and effective use.

Little attention has been paid to accessibility. Disabled users are being excluded due to a failure to provide adaptive technologies. There is too little focus on whether ICT can be accessed at times and in locations that are convenient for women and girls, and too little investment is being made in producing local content to counter the domination of colonial languages on the internet and software production. There are notable exceptions.

Effective use must also become a key consideration in all ICT4D initiatives. Making ICTs ‘freely available to all’ is not the same thing as equipping people with the skills to effectively use ICTs to realise the developments that they value. 

Whenever we fail to build the capacity of disadvantaged and excluded communities to make effective use of ICT in an ICT4D initiative we run the risk of actually widening the divides between advantaged and disadvantaged people. 

If we create mobile apps and simply make them ‘freely available’ on the internet or if we release government information as ‘Open Data’ without building the capacity of the ‘intended beneficiaries’ to use it, who do we expect to benefit?

It is the already privileged that are best placed to exploit the potential opportunities of Open Data or of new mobile apps. They are able to do so by virtue of their existing advantages in education, technical knowledge, wealth and social capital. So unless ICT4D initiatives integrate capacity building to enable effective use by disadvantaged communities they risk actually widening the digital divide and inequality.

The last fifteen years have taught us that success in applying ICT for Development is 10% about technology and 90% about people processes. Computer Aid addressed this reality by partnering with local civil society organisations and investing in some good old-fashioned empowerment.

At the end of the day translating the potentials of ICTs into valued development outcomes is about building people’s agency and capabilities to appropriate the technology and to apply it effectively to their own valued ends. Achieving effective use of ICTs requires adopting an agency-focused capacity-building that recognises Paulo Freire’s dictum that the real challenge of any development initiative is to make sure that people who are the “objects” of development are also its subjects.

Tony Roberts can be found on twitter: @phat_controller.