Technology itself will not change the world but the people using it

Today’s blog post is written by Alexandra Åhlen. As part of the Bilateral Associate Expert programme, she is seconded by SIDA to develop the ICT4D structure and programmes in the Tanzanian organisation Restless Development. Previously she has worked with democracy support to activists in Russia and Ukraine, with UN Women in Vietnam and civil society in Georgia. She find ICT4D providing an exciting framework of tools to empower people to change their lives, reduce poverty and fight undemocratic structures in unfree societies.

Young people here in Tanzania are excited about how ICTs can empower their lives and are eager to adopt new technology. While most youth here, just like in Sweden, are using Facebook only for socializing with friends and Twitter is mostly for the politically or socially engaged, an increasing number of civic organizations are breaking ground through campaigning on social media. Social media are potential tools for making an impact on society, and while activity is modest in Tanzania as compared with its’ more ICT hyped neighbor Kenya in the north, it will for sure increase when big political events such as the constitution review and parliamentary elections are coming up. This is exciting, and will help strengthening particularly young people’s democratic participation which is desperately needed. Citizens will join online discussions to address election issues through open-source platforms, and will participate through SMS campaigns and radio shows if not having access or the skills to go online. However, even in a society which might be freer than many others in the region, stakeholders should still be aware of the usual risk of the government using the same technology to control or monitor journalists and citizens. ICTs have brought risks along with the opportunities, and it has surely transformed international development.

While ICT in international development cooperation had a large focus on internet penetration and technological infrastructure some years ago, in Africa most people are now looking at mobile phones and smart phone applications. In Tanzania, the main part of the population live in rural areas, compared to the rural-city distribution globally. If you own or have access to mobile broadband you can easily go online basically anywhere in the country – but that still requires a computer or a tablet, why smart phones are on the way to outnumber laptops. Few development stakeholders could foresee the explosion of mobile phones that would take place in Africa, and today this might be the most important ICT4D aspect. Today millions of people use their mobile phones for receiving news about crop prices and weather, as a savings tool and for paying their bills. It’s Africa where the innovations come from and in other parts of the world there’s a great deal to learn from the developers of the mobile payment system M-pesa and dual SIM-cards.

When we – all development stakeholders, whether we are agencies, NGO’s, businesses or individuals – enter the next phase of integrating ICTs in development cooperation, we have to step away from the tendency of looking at ICTs as the end rather than the means. That this has been the case is reflected in the fact that there are almost an uncountable number of pilots going on in Eastern Africa, struggling with scaling and sustainability. It is easy to be seduced by all the new initiatives involving cool technology, but what will change the world in the end is not the technology in itself but the people using it. Over the coming years our task will be to build on the existing success stories of ICT4D in order to meet the challenges of extreme poverty and totalitarian societies – expect even bigger social and economic changes coming up!

Alexandra Åhlen

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