ICT4Dev: Technology is not the Magic Bean

As a self-identified computer geek, I can’t help but be drawn to the field of Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4Dev). The basic premise of which seems to be: Think of all the amazing technologies we have in our everyday life and how just a few of those could drastically change the problems facing the poor and disenfranchised of the world?

One of the ‘star’ programs you may have heard of is the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program. This mission is as follows:

“To provide each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop. To this end, we have designed hardware, content and software for collaborative, joyful, and self-empowered learning. With access to this type of tool, children are engaged in their own education, and learn, share, and create together.”

Now this sounds like a great idea, especially when the laptops cost only $100.00 each, which seems like nothing compared to the benefits. But, as Kentaro Toyama, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, explains in his lead article of a forum on the role of ICT4Dev, laptops aren’t a panacea:

“OLPC’s target cost of a hundred dollars or less per laptop (in practice, the machines have been more expensive), sounds affordable, but that’s about half of India’s per-student education budget, most of which is currently devoted to teachers’ salaries. Does a hundred dollars for a computer make sense when $0.50 per year, per child for de-worming pills could reduce the incidence of illness-causing parasites and increase school attendance by 25 percent?”

In fact, technology acts much like investment in my previous article: If you are already educated and have means it will multiply your productive capabilities, but if you’re poor, uneducated, and have little means to purchase or maintain technology, there is little improvement.

Mr. Toyama put is brilliantly when he stated that “technology is a magnifier in that its impact is multiplicative, not additive.” Sometimes I wonder how all of us ‘computer people’ can think that simply giving someone a computer will instantly change their lives, magically granting them the same productivity gain we achieved. I mean, haven’t we all given a computer to our mothers and seen how well that’s worked out? I showed my mother how to put photos onto Facebook on three different occasions until it finally took!

But, there you have the answer, once I did put in the effort, once I figured out the best method to teach her based on how she learns as an individual – which, I might add, is quite different from how I learn and thus accounts for the two failed attempts – I was able to instruct her and thus give her the skills needed so that she could benefit from the technology.

This is a problem with the Revolutionary mindset many people have about technology in the developing world. How does, for example, putting a telecenter (like an Internet Café) in villages in India help the people if they:

  1. Don’t know how to use the computer?
  2. Don’t know what information is out there and how to access it?
  3. Don’t even have consistent power to keep the computers turned on?

In Kisangani we gave one of our workers a laptop and have been teaching him how to use spreadsheets and the word processor, but he only has access to the Internet around our house, and he doesn’t even have power at home so he must charge the computer here as well. Imagine giving laptops to all of the kids in Kisangani? How long until the batteries run out?

ICT4Dev sounds like a great idea which could work as a complementary for actual work on the ground, but it is not a replacement for real development work. Without teachers, engineers, doctors, and other specialists actively working in the countries and with the people, technology will do little to change the face of the developing world.

So, for now, let’s just spend the $0.50 for de-worming pills for each kid — Check out DeWorm The World —  and get them into the classroom. Maybe the other $99.50 could go towards teacher training and classroom materials?



5 thoughts on “ICT4Dev: Technology is not the Magic Bean

  1. Could you expand a bit on your position and the pros/cons of ICT4Dev? I have a number of colleagues all about this and am quite interested in gaining a broader spectrum of views.

  2. Well, my position on ICT4Dev is a bit complicated. I like the idea of technological expansion, and, as my most recent post mentions, a strong understanding of modern communication networks (Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, etc) are assisting popular uprisings in Northern Africa and the Middle East. This would not have happened without an expansion of technology and internet access.

    The problem with most ICT4Dev projects is that they usually see Technology as the solution. Telecenters are a great example. Someone convinced the Western world that if you build an internet center in villages all around India then people will instantly benefit. Thousands were built all around India, and, after a few years, most of them closed their doors and shut down. There was no training to go along with it, no educational program for the locals to understand what they could do with internet access. They often didn’t even consider issues such as stable electricity.

    The problem most critics have with ICT4Dev is that people are trying to see it as a panacea in the development world and as a substitution for actual manpower work on the ground. In the 70’s and 80’s people said the same thing of the TV and VCR saying that you could use it to educate the world! Obviously that didn’t happen.

    But now there are a lot of discussions about these failures, like the forum I linked to above, which are discussing ICT4Dev projects where Technology is a compliment to other work being done. If educational or business development programs are linked with technological development, then actual benefits could arise.

    Another issue, and one that is a problem in all sectors of development, is that often ICT4Dev projects are set up without people in the host country actually understanding what they’re getting. No one actually asked them what they needed, but when they heard ‘development’ or ‘aid’ then they jumped at it with enthusiasm. This is reminiscent to Greg Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea” where he says he’ll build a school for a village, but when he shows up to deliver on his promise he realized he never asked them what they need, and they point out there is no bridge to get the supplies across a ravine. What they needed was a bridge.

    So much has to go right in Development anyway. ICT4Dev’s historical proponents saying that all you need is technology to leapfrog that is naive at best. But if we can use technology to improve upon projects, well, then it could be a tremendous magnifier.

    • Oh, I think that IREX center’s are a great example of how ICT4Dev can work! But they exist more as a teaching library to support students in foreign countries and usually have more resources than many other projects. We had an IREX Center in Sevastopol and it was a fantastic resource for many locals. But it was more than a simple computer center, and it was the educational component that made it a successful development tool and the technology was more of a support.

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