ICTs for Development:
Understanding the Potentials and Pitfalls


Hari Srinivas
Concept Note Series E-165. September 2022.


GDRC's Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) for Development programme focusses on the smart technologies that enable information assililation, communication and knowledge transfer for broad-based development. It also explores the uptake of internet and ICTs that involve skills and capacities in information management, particularly in developing countries.

So what is it that ICTs can enable in achieving sustainable development goals? And broader developmental objectives? How can access to smart ICTs be increased?

What are ICTs? ICTs

"ICTs" stands for Information and Communications Technologies, and covers a conundrum of equipment and devices that enable transmittal, processing and use of information and knowledge.

ICTs for Development

With a particular focus on poverty and developing countries, ICTs can be powerful tools for very low-income groups to improve accessibility, ensure credidibility and build trust to improve their status in society.

In this GDRC programme, the role of internet and ICTs in development is explored in detail - not just the 'nuts and bolts' of the actual technologies, but also in terms of the skills, capacities, and decision-support systems that are necessary to drive such technologies.

Of particular and more recent concern for GDRC, is the role that smart systems and technologies - big data, Internet-of-Things, Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality et al. - can play in providing solutions to developmental challenges that we face today

Access to and use of ICTs are important to achieve developmental goals such as improving access to health and education services or creating new sources of income and employment for the poor. ICTs have enabled individuals and communities to access previously "inaccessible" information, resulting in better market access, driving competitiveness and broader economic growth and social development. Free flow of information and ideas, particularly through websites and social media have opened up new ways of doing things, leading to better qualities of life.

Thus ICTs help in improving the human development aspects such as income, education, health, and security particularly in developing countries. They are critical in enhancing the productivity of all sectors of the economy - a tool that can be used for reducing poverty by generate income opportunities for the poor, extending health services, or expanding educational opportunities.

ICTs are more than just mobile devices, and includes technologies such as radio, television, cellular phones, and computers to carry out a wide range of developmental activities - through, for example, accessing information on web-based portals and other electronic devices, videoconferencing and distance learning.

Access to ICTs, particularly mobile devices/networks, have also gained importance as a means to closing the disparities between technological haves and have nots, and aiding economic development by ensuring equitable access to up-to-date technologies such as radio, television, cellular phones, and computers, along with appropriate hardware and software, satellite systems and so on, as well as the various services and applications associated with them.

Recent trends in smart technologies have increased the potential of ICTs to contribute to overall development, for example, Big Data has enabled the collection of vast sums of data on the way that the environment and society has been changing, enabling better scenario development; Machine Learning systems have seen considerable improvement to automatically crunch data and develop alternative solutions and predict outcomes; Geographic analysis and visualization tools have enabled better and focused decision-making; "Internet of Things" has provided a means for everyday objects with sensors, processing ability, software, and other technologies to connect and exchange data with other devices and systems over the Internet; and a wide variety of Mobile applications to carry out different activities.

Unfortunately, ICTs access and use are still unequally distributed within and between countries. The digital divide with respect to internet use, innovative capacity and quality access, is particularly pronounced. Therefore, along with developmental priorities such as income/job opportunities, education, health etc. is the need for access to ICTs that will enable communities and countries to overcome these challenges. People now talk of digital inequality to explain the disparities in knowledge and abilities to use ICTS among individuals with different demographic, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, or the digital divide the describes the gap between those that have access to ICTs, and those that don't or have restricted access.

ICTs and the SDGs ICTs can help accelerate action in achieving all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 9 in particular-helping to build resilient infrastructure, promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialization and fostering innovation, and specifically SDG Target 9.c - significantly increase access to ICT and strive to provide universal and affordable access to internet in developing countries. This allows countries to participate in the digital economy and to increase their overall economic well-being and competitiveness.

" ICTs are able to achieve results at a scale, speed, quality, accuracy and cost not imaginable just a decade ago. They are means to deliver quality goods and services in the areas of health care, education, finance, commerce, governance and agriculture, among others. They help to reduce poverty and hunger, boost health, create new jobs, mitigate climate change, improve energy efficiency and make cities and communities sustainable.
[ITU, 2022]
Only half the world's population have access to the internet, or do not have the necessary skills to fully utilize ICTs. If we are to achieve the 17 SDGs by the target year of 2030, we need to substantially increase the percentage of people who have access to, and can beneficially use ICTs for improving their quality of life.

The policy solutions being proposed to overcome digital inequality or digital divide primarily focusses on digital inclusion - ensuring that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of ICTs, for example, access to internet-connected devices and services, digital skills training, technical support or provision of hardware/software resources.

A key objective of ensuring digital inclusion is that of digital literacy - the ability to use ICTs to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.

The emergence of ICTs and other digital objects has also given credence to the protection of digital "rights" that call for providing universal access to ICTs to everyone, protecting intellectual property rights issues, and ensuring online privacy and security.

Ultimately, ICTs remain a tool for develoopment. They are not a replacement for knowledge that does not exist, or food that is not on the table. But ICTs do represent a potential to spped up the achieving developmental priorities such as poverty reduction, education or health, and in meeting the SDGs.


APPENDIX:
Examples of ICTs for development:

Kenya

Providing online educational content offline through CDs and computers.

India

Promote the positive use of mobile phones to close the digital gender gap.

Tanzania

Use geographical information systems and digital maps to determine appropriate soil management techniques better agricultural produce.

Kenya

Enabling transfer of money payments using mobile phones.

Africa

Use of taxis as ambulances during medical emergencies connected together with mobile networks.

Africa

Facilitating use of drones and other unmanned flying devices to deliver essential medicines to remote rural locations.

India

Web portals that allow farmers to check both futures prices around the world and local prices before going to market.

Africa

Access to the Internet via satellite and solar panels provides information about local weather conditions, soil-testing techniques and other expert knowledge that will increase their productivity.

Cambodia

Delivering educational programs with IT tools to educate the children of the rural poor in computer-based technologies

Uganda

Use of earth-satellite VSAT technology to connect schools and communities to Internet to access knowledge, educational resources

Ghana

Dissemination of medical content by health workers using ICTs to improve the quality of health care delivery in the country


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Contact: Hari Srinivas - hsrinivas@gdrc.org