In 2011, after several developing countries witnessing dramatic change in their political systems due to social media and the power of the internet; the UN has declared the access to the internet is a human right! Who would have thought the power of technology and the internet reach to the UN Human Rights. However, in today’s globalised world, the internet is essential in order to stay connected and have an open market.
Unfortunately, many of the developing countries do not enjoy the luxury of having access to the internet or even technology. Hence, many of the development agencies or IT professionals try to embed technology in the emerging development processes. Whilst, policymakers try to boost their country’s dependency on IT by increasing the budget spent on it. But, is it right to depend on technology? Does it enhance development? Does everyone benefit? Who implements the technology? And is it aid or trade?
Many questions rise as we think of how technology can be integrated into the process of Development.
Rich World Perspectives. As I attended a couple of conferences regarding humanitarian development, the panels were always filled with representatives from the developed countries offering solutions from their perspectives or problems faced by the affected countries or populations. There was a discussion on “The Change in Humanitarian Trends” that struck me and urged me to speak out when I found representatives speaking based on what they have seen through their humanitarian work.
They have focused mainly on how the developing countries are being offered more aid, but, something they have missed is their usage of human capabilities or how can the people adapt to their methods of development.
Same thing goes for the digital development that has been encouraged in many developing countries.
Much of these technologies are developed in the countries-with-high-speed-internet that it tends to forget that this technology will be used by people who still don’t have access to the internet.
For example, the founders of One Laptop per Child focus on developing educational opportunities for the children. Nevertheless, a major fallback in this optimistic idea is the lack of trained teachers to teach the children how to use laptops and give up traditional methods of teaching.
In addition, many of the social entrepreneurs or development projects depend on crowd funding websites where the products or projects need to appeal to the donors or the philanthropists instead of the beneficiaries of the project. Therefore, we are never sure if the project proposed will benefit the people in need or not.
I’m not saying that the efforts being put in making such projects is bad. Yet, it would be better to test or make sure of their sustainability before spending the money somewhere else. In some cases the medicines being invented or products create a good marketing strategy and raise money before testing the product to see if it would be sustainable as the Harvard economist Michael Kremer notes.
This again wastes money which could have been used by rephrasing the question of the problem.
Digital Media. Nowadays, if we would like to boost or increase the effectiveness of any project; the essential aspect is digital media. Even if we are dealing with the developing countries that have no access to internet or are not capable of creating innovations in such mediums. Yet, wherever we may be, Digital Media steals our attention and seems more convincing.
In development, it has played a major role specifically regarding humanitarian organizations or individual initiatives. The digital media tries to connect the East with the West. It is not only a one way direction of implementing projects in developing countries. However, it has also been intensively used to increase awareness on the issues faced by affected populations to bring about initiatives and innovation.
It has been considered as a main connection between technology and development.
While awareness has been spread over the western world, the people in the developing countries are being trained in order to take full advantage of this technology to voice out their problems, possible solutions to the rest of the world.
Take BBC as an example, BBC Media Action is a programme created by BBC in developing countries specifically African countries. This programme works with local professionals and journalists in order to use media and communication to tackle problems such as maternal and child health in Ethiopia.
It focuses on raising public awareness on the importance of voicing out one’s opinion and the individual’s rights.
This is when technology and development meet with true impact.
The aforementioned on digital media is centered on raising public awareness and voicing out opinions in countries where media is under threat.
NGO’s such as Oxfam and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) have taken a step forward to integrate the technology into social media. Oxfam has been using mobile phones excessively as they realize it is a cheap, portable and reliable product that is easily available all around the world.
They use mobile phones in Cambodia to provide information for women and girls on basic health information. While in Africa, they use it for monitoring drought and in Bangladesh, they provide early warnings prior to floods in order to save lives and communities. Whereas, MSF uses it on an experts level to keep track of their patients’ records and stay connected to the various missions.
This all sounds wonderful and has an amazing impact on the people. However, what we seem to forget as we enjoy the luxury of fast internet and latest gadgets is – all this technology depends onElectricity. Unfortunately, many of the developing countries face major issues regarding their access to electricity. Many of those countries face black outs especially in the seasons where they require those ‘early warnings’. Even while I was writing I thought for a second, this seems brilliant. So, this is an aspect of thinking from the rich world perspective in today’s digital media. What organizations and governments need to do is allow the simple, local citizen to depend on technology, yet, innovate with the fact that they cannot be totally dependent on electricity.
Education. In several developing countries such as Bangladesh, Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt etc, the policy makers try to involve technology in different sectors of the society such as health, education and security. Yet, what they fail to understand is to what extent is it possible to involve technology in among communities where almost 50% of the country’s population is living in poverty.
Kenya recently announced to deliver 1.3 million laptops to children across the country to encourage e-learning strategy which will cost more than $600 million.
As Kenya’s elites in the parliament decided to spend 35% of the constrained financial resources on buying laptops for children in schools; it creates a beautiful image in one’s head to see a developing country catching up with technology and benefitting its own people as Kenya plans to be the digital heart of Africa.
But, it isn’t a happy decision when there’s a lack of trained teachers to teach the children and shortage of power supply that will be required by the laptops. On the other hand, Kenya suffers from high inequality and a large gap between the rich and poor.
In addition, most of the school buildings in the villages suffer from weak infrastructure. Therefore, in my opinion, this amount of money could have been spent differently for instance, by treating the malnourished children so that they will be able to go to school.
Once again, it is not technology, it‘s about rephrasing the question of the problem!
Technology can play a major role in assisting development but not become the main source. For instance, Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University (UK), created a project called a “Hole in the Wall”. This project is based on placing a computer in the public in villages in India with no supervision. The computer displays a program with whatever field (biology/programming/physics, etc) for the children of the village to pass by and try using the computer. Surprisingly, with dense information available on a technology the children never used; they were able to understand and teach themselves with what was available. (http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_build_a_school_in_the_cloud.html)
Mitra believes “even in the absence of any direct input from a teacher, an environment that stimulates curiosity can cause learning through self-instruction and peer-shared knowledge”. It is true, and that is when technology can help build the blocks of innovation and educate children. YET, it cannot be solely depended on.
In conclusion, technology in development can be a blessing and a curse. However, it is up to us on how we use it to empower, encourage and enhance the development of a community for their own benefits and not the donors or our perspectives or our companies.
Suzan Shedid (Dubai Campus)