The United Nations' agency for ICTs, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), marks today, 17 May, as World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD). The purpose of the day is to “help raise awareness of the possibilities that the use of the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs) can bring to societies and economies, as well as of ways to bridge the digital divide”. This year the theme of the day is “Better life in rural communities with ICTs”.
It is a vital - if optimistic - theme. Over three quarters of the world's poor live in rural areas. They lack economic opportunities, have difficulty accessing basic services, have a limited voice in governance and remain extremely vulnerable to shocks. In Sub-Saharan Africa they account for 67% of the total population and rural poverty in this region is deepening. Rural areas in South Africa share similar characteristics. (IFAD Rural Poverty Report 2011)
But the extent to which information communication technologies (ICTs) have the ability to improve the lives of the rural poor is debatable. There is no doubt that the use of ICTs among poor people is growing rapidly. Coverage reaches further than roads, electricity, sanitation and clean water. ICTs - and in particular mobile technology - provide access to information and communication, complement successful development initiatives, drive innovation, and empower communities and individuals to co-create new solutions.
On the other side, however, is an understandable reaction to the inevitable hype. Competitions and challenges have created a slightly unrealistic environment - at once hypercompetitive and unsustainable - perhaps a case of the ICT4D sector mirroring the commercial tech bubble?
The slightly snarky – but usefully cynical - ict4djester.org talks amusingly of recycled presentations – tweaked slightly from pitches to VCs to Apps4Dev competitions to grant applications. This - and the more constructive Mobileactive.org's Failfare.org methodology (undefensively talking through ICT4D failures) suggests that it is difficult to actually understand the difference between a great plausible idea, and something that actually works.
Maybe. But there are some exciting and effective ICT4D projects. And it is not atypical of deeply innovative phases for there to be a flurry of projects, prototypes, pilots – and the non-profit equivalent of exuberant venture capital – inflows of grants to the field of ICT4D. And maybe it takes a crowded podium/appstore/innovation lab, etc. to separate (and the agricultural analogy is deliberate) the wheat from the chaff. And perhaps one of the most exciting aspects is that much of the hype - the events, the formation of app labs, techno-hubs, living labs and the solutions themselves - is happening in the countries and regions most affected by rural poverty. In India, here in South Africa, and even more so just up the road in Nairobi where “technology” and “technology for development” don't sound like completely different fields.
And sometimes the hype is really just a question over-promising. The pragmatic assistance of existing workflows while saving money and improving efficiencies -maybe not by an order of magnitude, but incrementally. Surveys, field logistics, event and training management, appointment reminders, crowd-sourced mapping are all achievable, useful and scalable – in the context of existing well-designed programmes. A dose of humility is useful: deploying an app that tracks and maps treadle pump sales and installations is cool (Forms! GPS! Photos!) and ensures useful information to the NGO supplying them. But it is not the app that is irrigating previously rain-fed fields...
Larger-scale successful uses of ICTs in rural development include improved access to markets, financial services and employment; increased access to education and healthcare; improvement in emergency and disaster relief; and improvement in transparency and public participation through the use of mobile phones in citizen journalism.
Ciara Aucoin has put together a great list of some of the interesting “Human Development” Apps.
And it is easy to throw around the names of projects and products that have made the field seem so exciting and full of potential - m-Pesa, Ushahidi, e-seva, eSoko - or the nascent projects just starting to bubble to visibility like Jamiix.com
But how can we try and measure the value and impact of these tools in support of rural development, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa?
So, as we celebrate WTISD today, with the emphasis on “Better life in rural communities with ICTs”, SANGONeT is pleased to announce that its 7th annual conference will focus on Information Communication Technologies for Rural Development (ICT4RD) with a theme titled, “Rural Realities, Real Solutions.”
The conference will be held from the 1-3 November 2011 at the Wanderers Club in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Amongst other things, the conference agenda will include a critical review of three keywords that are constantly thrown around in conference presentations and grant applications - scale, sustainability and replication. What is the status of existing ICT4RD projects? Why are so many ICT4D/ICT4RD projects stuck in pilots? What are the secrets of those projects and products that have broken free and are successfully scaling and replicating? Is there a “development innovation curve where we can map successful methods and projects?
The conference will bring together more than 250 key innovators, implementers, social entrepreneurs and thinkers from across the developing world to explore how ICT innovations can benefit rural populations in Sub-Saharan Africa. It will assess the current state of ICT4RD projects, products and policies; create an environment for matchmaking and deep knowledge-sharing; and contribute to the successful use of ICTs in response to the realities of rural development.
The real success requirements of many ICT4RD projects depend less on great software development and more on good research, effective local capacity, influence, great networks and relationships - the types of things a good NGO does well and has done well through many developmental, technological and methodological phases.
And there's not an app for that.
Click here for more information about the 2011 SANGONeT Conference or assist us in shaping the conference agenda by sharing your views and comments on Facebook, on Twitter, or by replying to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Matthew de Gale manages SANGONeT’s “Mobile Services for African Agriculture” programme.
David Barnard is the Executive Director of SANGONeT.