Technology and international development: the intersections

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Photo by Oscar Nilsson

Three years ago I became a tech entrepreneur. Kind of. My friend and I were selected to be part of Startup Chile, a (then) unique government program that targeted entrepreneurs around the globe to come to this country and develop a tech business idea that could be escalated (a startup). We did not succeed, at least not in the business sense. However, my view of the tech world was changed forever because of this incredible experience. Now, as a student of the Master in International Development Practice, that view has expanded even more. Here, I discuss three important ways in which technology and development intersect with each other, as well as some challenges and projects that are impacting lives.

 

1. The Internet of Things

The internet of things (IoT), as you may know, refers to the capacity to connect devices (watches, phones, appliances, etc.) to the internet allowing to collect useful data. The potential of this information is huge. In fact, Cheney sustains that IoT can ‘address global poverty by helping the international development community narrow the gap between data and action’. SweetSense.inc has done that successfully. This company installed 200 sensors on water pumps in rural areas of Rwanda to monitor their use and detect malfunctions (they also have sensors installed throughout 15 countries). The data they gathered helped to decrease the number of broken pumps and the repair time dramatically. IoT can, therefore, aid in the decision-making process, during monitoring and evaluation, and to improve systems.

 

2. Innovation

Most tech companies pride themselves on solving problems, and often times they change our lives completely. Electricity providers, computer companies and cellphone creators have all marked a before and after in history. This could make you wonder if technology is the true way to social change. Yet, it is just a tool. We can’t afford to be naive about technology’s potential (check out this article for more insights into that assertion). Similarly, we cannot dismiss the human rights violations committed by some of these companies, or sustainability issues related the use of fuel and other non-renewable materials.

Yet, if we go back to the beginning, to the purpose of tech companies, we can see that there was always someone who had the idea, the vision, the discipline, the guts and the necessary knowledge to innovate. So, how do we integrate that mindset into international development practice? And how can we successfully and mindfully incorporate technology into our work and programmes? Let’s start by looking at successful projects.

My friend @marijosevm, an education leader herself, pointed me towards Worldreader. This literacy project takes advantage of the available technology to increase children’s access to books in poor countries. Sometimes they provide e-readers to schools, but their libraries are accessible through cell phones (an artefact that has become widely available almost everywhere despite poverty rates). But again, the organisation is not naive. Their work is accompanied by the curation of books and continuous fieldwork, which helps them to understand the kids’ context and to make sure they are able to engage with the technology. At the same time, Worldreader reminds us that schools are not the only pathway to literacy. That is, I would say, innovation.

Similarly, Pia Mancini (an extraordinary Argentinian woman) has embarked in the journey of modernising politics through the wonder of technology. In her TED video (see below) she argues that politicians are attempting to solve today’s problems with a system developed two or three hundred years ago. So, along with some friends, she created an app where new policies in the making are presented in plain language for citizens to vote “for” or “against” them. The project has been iterated, but their idea is gaining traction and support from key stakeholders. My favourite quote from the video, if you don’t watch it, is this: ‘Our political system can be transformed, and not by subverting or by destroying it, but by rewiring it with the tools that internet afford us now; by transforming noise into signal’.

3. Social entrepreneurship

Social entrepreneurs want it all: to change the world by solving social issues through innovation; to generate profit, and to be socially responsible while doing so. This translates into being sustainable and respecting labour rights, for instance. I consider this not to be a trend or a type of business. This is how things are supposed to be, especially when it comes to technology. I am not the only one thinking that. Wired has an article titled “Startups don’t need to choose between profit and purpose”.

While living in Cambodia, I interned for a small and amazing consultancy group (Agile Development Group) that was also building a wheelchair-accessible tuk tuk (first one in the country). My role was to develop a business model to make this a profitable and sustainable project, rather than a one-time thing that helped only a few Of course, there are challenges. A big one was to actually incorporate the knowledge of Cambodian people with disabilities into the first accessible tuk-tuk design. Yet, everyone who is involved is learning from the process, the team is multidisciplinary and the prototype is successfully serving as an MVP (minimum viable product) to test and improve the business idea. More importantly, the mission is on point and the main driver of the project. What they seek is to transform Cambodian transportation by making it more inclusive in the long term. As Rowan (2016) says, ‘If your aim is only profit, that’s what you’re optimising for. If your aim is mission, you can’t screw somebody along the way’. Even if you could, you won’t.

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Mobilituk, first accessible tuk tuk in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo by Ivette Yanez.

Technology is neither good or bad. It is a crucial component of international development. If you are into science fiction (how about The Matrix or Ready Player One?), or you are simply aware of the rapid advance of technology in the last century, you know that it has to be an ally. Moreover, technology is an opportunity. There are many challenges that were not even discussed here, such as privacy and high costs. Still, development practitioners have to continually reflect about the best use of technology to address social problems and, perhaps, to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

NOTE: This post was created by incorporating or reflecting upon of the ideas of those who replied to a facebook post where I asked: ‘What comes to mind when someone says “technology” and “development”’. Thanks for your input!

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