The limit of ICTs for development

16 Nov 2010

The Mobile Asia Congress is coming up this week, and a likely recurring theme – indeed, a favorite of the GSMA Association – will be the potential for mobile to boost economic development.

But there is a flipside to the idea of technology as an economic enabler: the human element that holds back that potential.

That is the message of this essay by Kentaro Toyama which argues that so-called ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for Development) isn’t a guaranteed solution to alleviate poverty.

The long list of failed projects – like telecenters – attests to that.

“If I were to summarize everything I learned through research in ICT4D, it would be this,” writes Toyama, a researcher at the School of Information at the University of California.

“Technology—no matter how well designed—is only a magnifier of human intent andcapacity. It is not a substitute. If you have a foundation of competent, well-intentioned people, then the appropriate technology can amplify their capacity and lead to amazing achievements,” he wrote in the Boston Review.

“But, in circumstances with negative human intent, as in the case of corrupt government bureaucrats, or minimal capacity, as in the case of people who have been denied a basic education, no amount of technology will turn things around.”

Toyama also includes the users themselves in that equation, noting that while access to ICT and mobile phones may be great at connecting people, it doesn’t necessarily make them more productive. In other words, for every farmer who uses the village PC to track market prices in the nearest city, there are a dozen people using it to watch YouTube videos (for example).

Not that he’s blaming the users, he hastens to add: “Blame, if it must be attributed, falls readily on historical circumstances, social structures, and the rich world’s unwillingness to invest in high-quality, universal education.”

Which goes to show what a complicated undertaking all this is.

Toyama’s point isn’t that ICT and mobile technologies are useless in promoting economic development, but that like any technology, its effectiveness depends on the people using it and the organizations promoting it.

The essay is interesting and sure to start an argument, so I recommend taking the time to read it – not as an argument against the GSMA’s objective of pushing mobile broadband as an economic development tool but as a reality check of the enormity of the task at hand, and the many ways in which it can go wrong.

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