ICT4D: a coming of age

C4D, S4D and now ICT4D. The latest “4D” could represent one of the most important social and economic development trends in years. Communication technologies have long been seen as development “silver bullets.” First radio was going to boost productivity for rural farmers, then TV sets were supposed to replace teachers in remote classrooms, then computers were to become the great equalizers. Outsized expectations have almost always exceeded Information and Communications Technology (ICT) realities for development.

But ICTs could finally be coming of age – due to the rapid spread of cell phones and internet – and their impact is reaching far beyond text message weather and commodity price reports for rural farmers. In a many ways digital technology and wireless communication networks are now over-shooting expectations and starting to deliver development dividends that generate their own forward momentum. Best of all, in many instances, end users in impoverished regions are having their say and formulating the framework of the latest generation of ICT for development: ICT4D.

Things are moving so quickly that research and documentation can hardly keep up with the diffusion of ICT4D innovations. To help map and analyze these developments the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti is releasing a new report called “Children, ICTs and Development: Capturing the potential, meeting the challenges”which polls 35 leading experts in the field and analyses major research on the use of ICTs to improve the situation of vulnerable children. The report could be the first effort to specifically study the relationship between ICT4D and efforts to improve the situation of children.

UNICEF has recently launched a global innovation unit pioneering the use of these and other new technologies, and has dedicated its November 2014 State of the World’s Children report to the theme of “Innovation for Equity.” The evidence of positive impact is mounting.

The case of Zambia’s U-reporters is inspiring. With UNICEF help young people are using a simple SMS application to engage with policy makers on burning issues. More than 25,000 youth across Zambia – almost half female – are using SMS to access confidential, quality HIV-STI services. Zambia’s U-Reporter network is focused on HIV prevention, but will soon expand to address other needs.

In Uganda, similar technology is going even further. Through U Report, more than 200,000 young people are connecting, discussing

Local staff printing a birth certificate at Mityana hospital in Uganda using technology called Mobile Vital Records System.
Local staff printing a birth certificate at Mityana hospital in Uganda using technology called Mobile Vital Records System. ©UNICEF/Uganda/2013/Sibiloni

and mapping issues from sanitation in schools to gender discrimination. The network’s most recent SMS polls have covered, child poverty, birth registration, child health days, women’s access to credit. Connected by SMS, this vast network is gathering hard evidence and generating data maps to pressure leaders for change. According to one report “Information collected from these channels will be used to build a real time ‘accountability chain.’”

In China the “10m2 of Love” smartphone app is mapping a growing list of breastfeeding rooms in workplaces and public buildings which meet ILO standards. Across 60 cities the app is helping families navigate to the nearest breastfeeding space and encouraging Chinese employers to embrace Child Rights Business Principles in the work place. Woven into China’s popular social media networks, the app mobilizes crowd-sourced quality control, provides contact details for hundreds of trained breastfeeding peer counselors and galvanizes an increasingly passionate breastfeeding advocacy movement. Before the launch of this ICT campaign UNICEF had never partnered with volunteers in China!

10m2-ICT4D blog

Despite the clear up-side, the development community still needs to exercise caution, as the new research shows the ICT4D experience for children also contains its share of challenges. The study shows that girls are still less likely to benefit than boys, and while rural access is expanding it is still well behind urban areas. Cost is also a major obstacle which could mean that “quick fix” ICT4D interventions have the potential to widen inequities. The necessity of rooting ICT4D strategies deeply in the local cultural context is highlighted.

Watch this space because I will continue to devote much of this blog to the impact of new interactive communication technologies on child rights.

(Blogger note: This is my first blog post since joining the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti team. Our new study “Children, ICTs and Development: Capturing the potential, meeting the challenges,” has been jointly produced with the ICT4D Centre at Royal Holloway, University of London and Jigsaw Consult. It will be launched at the “Digitally Connected symposium on children, youth and digital media” hosted by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society and UNICEF on April 28-30, 2014 at Harvard University.)

C4D – Communication for Development; S4D – Sport for Development; ICT4D – Information & Communication Technology for Development

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  1. ICT4D brings together two worlds with not always comparable priorities/principles….But the future of ICT/Tech and Development world has never been so interdependent… New forms of partnership will quickly arise to bring the full potential of “ICT4D” to the most disadvantaged children, adolescents and mothers. It is my belief that if “equity” is to be compared to a “social vaccine” for sustainable development, therefore ICT4D will invent its “supply chain”…L

  2. Equity is a goal that all development efforts should strive for, but I’m not sure it can ever be perfectly achieved. I heard it said recently that unequal access to information can sometimes be an opportunity from which new ICT fosters a leapfrogging effect. Yes, ICT4D will accelerate its own demand, and I believe that translates into penetration to ever more remote (inaccessible) communities.