Technology, a sign of development?

My interest in development began as a humanitarian impulse to experience using your time for the benefit of others (which was highly addictive to be honest). When I began to get more involved, I noticed something: development is not about feeling right; development is about thinking right. Asking the right questions is the main goal of this career path. If we cannot be assertive in our questions, we will not find the correct answers.

Let’s keep in mind that our work is unequivocally with people and for people. We have a great responsibility in our hands. It is true that the damage is not in the immediate horizon as it would be with a doctor, or an engineer. Our mistakes take time to be noticed, sometimes too much time for us to notice. Reviewing the questions we make a lot of times is something of extreme importance and that is why discussion is an essential part. I therefore want you to think about the following question but in order to bring some structure to the arguments I will establish some facts and ideas about the concept.

Technology is one of the ideas that today shape the world, the world has become so familiar that now we imply the meaning of it and we are sure that we know the meaning, I get surprised when I start the research of this note and I find out that technology is not even well defined from one to another dictionary.

Technology is defined as:

“The branch of knowledge that deals with the creation of and use of technical means and the interrelation with life, society, and the environment, drawing upon such subjects as industrial arts, engineering, applied science and pure science.”

The idea of technology is not only a definition, it is a reality. Technology began when our ancestors understood that their only advantage against claws, size, weight and strength was their intelligence. The creation of the first artifact was the beginning of technology and it evolved fast; beginning with a simple stick and a pointed stone to create a hunting tool, the discovery of how the fire could be created, and the wheel.

But today from my point of view we have taken it too far and too far wrong. I am a little pessimistic but let’s face it, our generation is drowning in technology. I think we have lost the initial focus of technology which was ensure survival and improve the human condition. Now we use it to manipulate other things such as speed of food growth, quantity of production and even interaction between people.


Ethics of technology

Technology is rarely questioned today and it is seen as beneficial and is even sometimes confused with development. But the reality is that not all technological advances are not always beneficial for development. The first example I can think of is genetically modified food.

At first thought it is a great thing to produce a twice bigger apple from a tree one year old than a small apple from a 5 years old tree. The problem is that the apple does not have the real properties of an apple anymore, we don’t understand genetics fully to equal the properties of a ‘organic’ or not genetically modified apple. In the long term it can become even harmful for the health of people by not fitting the nutritional requirements, and by the increase the real quantity of apple that each person should consume to meet the original nutritional properties. That is why we are now capable of paying a higher price for an organic apple than an apple with an unknown process of growth.

Another aspect which could be harmful is the early use of technology. The idea of electronic devices for young kids have made them very intuitive, if you give a five year old a tablet to play with, there is a guarantee that the child will find a way to play the games already installed in the tablet. The downside to this is that we are losing social skills. As proof of this, next time that you meet with your friends notice how much time you spend with them actually and how much you spend looking at your cellphone. As I said above somethings are too subtle for you to notice and it takes time but every minute you spend watching the screen is a minute you lose of real human interaction. One of the many quotes attributed to Einstein in popular culture is ‘I fear the day technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.’ With this idea, it is confirmed how today technology is making us useless and the principle that technology’s main function was for, is now opposite; technology is making us lazy and unskilled. When it comes to social media we need to understand that it is great for some things but it also affects our social skills, it is always easier to send a message to somebody, than taking time to talk face to face.

Our field does not fall short for this idea of technology, I remember holding a talk with two friends about drones that would be able to bring bottled water to areas struck by natural disasters. In the beginning it sounded like something positive and helpful. But somehow this technology impact should be studied deeper because it has a lot of unidentified implications. A robot will fail to notice of another person to point the needs that are not being covered, a robot or a machine cannot understand the necessity of clothing, illness and of course empathy. The distance that it creates from person and community is created by this non- human intervention and relying into drones to bring assistance. Instead of having brigades of people providing water and supporting the people who have been affected in the disaster we would have robots that are not capable to uplift the communities’ spirit the way that human interactions do.

With all these ideas what do you think?

Is technology synonymous with development or is it not a necessary aspect to have in development? Can we create a mechanism in order to identify whether or not technology is being used in a harmful or beneficial manner? Most importantly, how can we better incorporate technology to improve the development of a community?

Marketing & Partnerships (2016)

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’. 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.

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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