In a world where 6 billion people have access to a phone, yet only 4.5 billion have access to a toilet, it is pertinent to ask how technological innovation can meet the needs of those living in poverty. At the How Can We Do Technology for Development Better? Technology Salon at ThoughtWorks in London, Amber Meikle, Senior Policy and Practice Adviser on Technology Justice at Practical Action, and Wayan Vota, Senior Mobile Advisor, TechLab at FHI 360, led a discussion on some of the challenges and principles for the use of technology in development.
Three challenges were raised:
- Access: There is a huge inequality in access. This is especially true for access to basic technology to meet basic material needs such as water pumps; there is a need to focus on expanding access before upgrading existing technology.
- Innovation: Innovation is globally skewed in the private sector. It is led by those who can pay so the needs and wants of people in the developed North are prioritised. It is important to address how we can incentivise innovation that is centred on those who need it most, where they are involved and can participate in governance. As such it is important to take a principles based approach.
- Use: Overuse and overconsumption in the developed North has been a leading factor in climate change which has resulted in limits on the development and use of technology in the developing world. It is important to address how the use of technology will have to change if we want a fair share and use of technology.
During the discussion the idea that basic technology can empower people was addressed. For example, technology can provide farmers with ways to carry out money transactions and buy the best seeds. When a large amount of technological innovation is happening in the North, it is important that the technology is not limited by assumptions about what is needed in the South. Rather there is a need for education that encourages people to take steps towards thinking differently. It was commented that there is no agreement on what education for development should look like but that encouraging open discussion leads to better citizen engagement and feedback. In this way civil society can be brought into the conversation and technology can be adapted to best suit user needs.
Indeed it is necessary to address customer satisfaction and move away from talking about ‘beneficiaries’ to ‘customers’. It was agreed that collecting accurate data from customers was challenging as they are not always aware that they have a right to give feedback or indeed complain about a service. There are also instances where there is a failure to identify the right people to consult. For example, it is sometimes more appropriate to consult intermediary regulating services than the service user.
Further challenges for development arise when great ideas are only applicable in one community or long term planning is problematic in countries that are unstable. The adoption of the nine Principles for Digital Development when designing development can help guide the process. The example of Oxfam and the University of West England’s development of a ‘Pee-power’ toilet, which could be used to light cubicles in refugee camps, highlights the importance of using the principles to feed in at every stage of the project. It was also suggested that the current move towards delivering on Payments by Results can be a barrier to designing for the user as there is less scope for defining goals as you go along, which makes using a principles-based approach all the more important.
With technological innovation driven by the private sector in the North it is essential to understand how the private sector can be incentivised to focus on the developing world. At the same time there is a lot of innovation coming from the South that should not be overlooked such as M-Pesa, a mobile money transfer service. It was commented that it is not who develops the technology but rather how it is shared that is important. Services developed in the North such as WhatsApp and Raspberry Pi have been very useful resources in the South. Indeed it was suggested that lower levels of innovation in the developing world should not hold back efforts in the North.
Overall it was generally agreed that there is a need for development that is sustainable, which increases wellbeing for all people, where costs and benefits are shared and which is better harnessed for environmental good. In order to do this it is important to take ownership over development and bring citizens back to the centre of decision making so that they can have a voice in decisions that affect their lives. This needs to be reinforced now so that it is considered in future development.
Eleanor Radford is the Digital Leaders Manager at Civic Agenda