On Tuesday this week I attended a conference in London sponsored by DFID, the Omidyar Network (set up by the founder of the on line shopping empire eBay) and WIRED magazine. The topic of the conference was the use of new communications technology (social media, mobile phones and the web) to promote open government, transparency, participation and development. It was a high profile conference with a video message form the UK Prime Minister and a speech by the new UK Secretary of State for Development Justine Greening. More information on the conference itself can be found at www.openup12.org or on twitter at #OpenUp12 . DFID is clearly interested in this area and used the occasion to announce a new $50m fund created together with USAID and SIDA called Making All Voices Count to support the development of web and mobile technologies in developing countries that can empower citizens.
At the conference there were some interesting examples of social media being used to promote transparency. The Ushahidi platform which was initially developed after the violence of the 2008 Kenyan elections was one. It allows individuals to post information by SMS, MMS or via the web about election irregularities, intimidation, violence etc. to create a real time map of problems that is available on line and which can be used to force government to take action. Ushadhidi has since been used in the Ugandan and Congo elections and in various disasters including the Haitian earthquake. The Ushadhidi platform (and another simpler version called crowdmap which can be set up and used in a few minutes) are open source and can be downloaded and used for free and have the potential to be used for non-emergency situations as well where you want large numbers of people to contribute to information that could be displayed on a map (for example – latest market prices for tomatoes at different town centres or the location of broken water points or villages without electricity connections). There was also an interesting presentation on the use of Facebook and Twitter in Nigeria to co-ordinate political protest.
One thing that struck me during the many presentations and discussions was that, just as in the real work, in the digital world there are many technology injustices. For example, depending on whose statistics you believe, in Africa, out of a population of over 1 billion people, somewhere between 400 and 750 million people have access to a mobile phone. But the cost of use, the level of connectivity, and the availability of electricity to recharge phones means that 90% of those people use less than 1 MB of data a month (in comparison the average data consumption in Europe and the US is between 150 and 400MB per person per month). This means most people are not really able to use the technology to access and exchange information beyond the most basic level.
It also means that when we are talking about a new wave of political engagment through the use of social media, be it during the “Arab Spring” or the co-ordination of political protests in Nigeria, we are talking essentially about political engagment by a relatively small ‘middle class’ urban group, who has the connectivity and who can afford the telephone bills. There is a danger, as one participant of the conference noted during a question, that we overestimate the power of social media to change the balance of power and give voice to the marginsalised. Its use (at least at the moment) is just as likely to simply accrue more power and voice to those who already have it.
There is also a digital technology gender injustice to contend with as 300 million more men than women have access to mobile phones world-wide.
Practical Action is certainly not Luddite in its approach to new technology. Around the world we are increasingly using social media and the web in our programme work, most obviously in Practical Answers, where we see the use of the web and YouTube videos in Latin America to provide information to farmers, podcasting in Peru, Zimbabwe and Nepal to get recordings out beyond the reach of the internet, SMS messaging for agricultural help lines in Nepal and Bangladesh, and mobile phone networks being used to provide advanced warning of floods in Nepal.
But we need to remeber that social media technology alone is no panecea and cannot, without other parallel action, overcome the more fundamental causes of poverty. You can’t join a twitter protest campaign if you live in a place that has no electricity to charge your phone!No Comments » | Add your comment
The book, which is published by Practical Action Publishing, taps into Duncan’s wealth of real-life examples of what has and hasn’t worked, to argue that motivated people working with a democratic government should drive international development, rather than looking at our traditional charity models.
I have to confess, I travelled down to Oxford with a degree of trepidation, spending much of it wondering how I, with less than six months experience working in development, could possibly carry off an interview with one of the most influential development thinkers around.
Fortunately, Duncan is not only an optimist who offers a vision of how poverty can be beaten, he is also highly engaging. During the interview he offered his personal views on Technology Justice, Schumacher’s economics, geo-engineering and the controversial subject of enabling economic development while being mindful of climate change.
You can watch Duncan’s full interview, first with me and then with Toby Milner, managing director of Practical Action Publishing by clicking on the links below:No Comments » | Add your comment
A new report published today suggests that up to 1.6 million people in Zimbabwe will require food aid next year. http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2012/aug/01/zimbabwe-food-shortages-aid
This is an appalling position to be in. Zimbabwe used to be Southern Africa’s breadbasket – producing and exporting food but a combination of poor rainfalls and political turmoil have reduced their output dramatically. The problems are exacerbated by a lack of skills, inputs and knowledge by farmers, all of which reduces productivity.
The response form the international development world to Zimbabwe’s downfall has been slightly mixed. The big agencies like USAID, World Bank and others, who I met recently in Harare, want to see an emphasis on support to commercial farmers. They think that, if they can get the export market up and running, some of the income will trickle down to the 1.6 million – who have very few resources.
Practical Action believes strongly in working with those in immediate need – who may own only one cow or a goat. Helping them to make the most of their meagre resources, gives them a safety net and an ability to take their own choices. This is what we mean by a hand up and not a hand out. Our podcasting work, for example, helps people to tackle disease and get the best form their livestock. We are also working to get people access to clean water and better sanitation.
On reading the new report my thoughts are with the women I recently met. I wonder what their fate will be, come January and February next year when the problems are due to be at their worst.1 Comment » | Add your comment
The Secretary General of the FAO came to Harare today. According to the papers his most important message was that Zimbabwe should be seeking local solutions to local problems.
This echoes a meeting I had with the FAO just a couple of days back. FAO are excited about our podcasting work. They are currently funding the creation of a post-harvest handbook for farmers and extension workers in the local Nbele language. Now we are talking about breaking down that manual into audio chunks – podcasts – which can be played to the local communities.
Our meeting got exciting as I started to think about the Practical Answers website becoming a repository for podcasts in local languages from throughout the Southern African region. Part of our project is to capture the local knowledge – in danger of being lost as older generations die out. If we could harness the power of all our partner NGOs to capture this knowledge – upload it and then share it we could reach hundreds of thousands of people. To make the project sustainable we could even create a subscription service where NGOs and others contribute to the costs of the service but the information is made freely available to the people who need it.
We’ll see how this one develops but it’s another sign of how powerful our knowledge sharing service already is, but also what the potential for further growth is.No Comments » | Add your comment
The Ministry of ICT in Zimbabwe have three digital programmes. They want to encourage e-government (improving their own webistes etc.), e-learning (equipping schools) and they are interested in setting up Community Information Centres, where people can gain one stop access to a whole heap of services and information. It is this last initiative which Practical Action is interested in partnering with.
Fibre is a relatively recent arrival in Zimbabwe – previous the only connection to the internet was via satellite and microwave links. In the last couple of years two new companies have brought the internet through fibre cable – and now all the major roads seem to have a recently completed trench at the side deomnstrating the progress of the fibre cable to different towns.
The idea of the Ministry is to use a handful of public buildings (possibly Post Offices) to host these community information centres. Our contribution would be to create a technical information point for our Practical Answers service where people could view our technical briefs, ask questions of trained staff, view “how to” videos and listen to podcasts.
Working with the government in Zimbabwe is of course fraught with challenges – nothing in Zimbabwe is apolitical. But equally you can’t build any kind of communications infrastructure without government endorsement. So as we go forwards we will need to ensure that whatever partnership we come to, our independence is assured.1 Comment » | Add your comment
We travelled for a day and a half to reach Ntepe – a ward in Gwanda district, south western Zimababwe. A crowd of 50 – mainly women greeted us beneath the spreading arms of a huge, but dead, tree. Around us the earth was completely parched and there was red dust in the air as the winter wind was picking up.
I was travelling, with the Permanent Secretary of the Zimbabwean Ministry of ICT and a number of our key local partners – to witness for myself the podcasting work that Practical Action is delivering there.
Podcasting is effectively a way of communicating with people who have no access to the internet, no access to mobile phones, no TV and no radio. We use it to share information with remote and vulnerable people around agricultural techniques and issues of water and water conservation.
Local knowledge workers charge their MP3 players and are given new materials through our local partners who operate from the nearest market town (Gwanda) some 70 km away. They take the new messages out to community meetings where they play them. Unlike traditional extension services – where the Ministry of Agriculture employee comes, delivers a lecture, and then goes, the podcast and MP3 is left in the community, so anyone who missed it or wants to listen again can do so.
The most effective thing about the podcasts is that they are recorded in local languages and dialects. This means that unlike many knowledge materials – they really do reach the last mile. One of the women told me that what she liked best was that she could trust the podcast – it was accurate where, she suspected the men from the Ministry did not always tell the truth!No Comments » | Add your comment
Unless you have been on a different planet this week you cannot have escaped the rhetoric around responsible capitalism. If you don’t know what this means try “googling” “responsible capitalism”; I have just tried that and found over 13 million hits, many of them within the last 24 hours. So certainly we have a public relations success. Still wondering what the term really means?
The core idea appears to be that fairness matters. In other words inequalities in society such as high salaries and the bonus culture amongst failing non-profitable banks is being recognised as challenging most people’s concept of fair. High on the political agenda in the UK is the rhetoric around making markets work for all. Basic notions of “justice” in most people’s minds is based on equal treatment of people. Indeed thinkers like Sen go further and claim justice is about what is reasonable. He further argues against parochialism, saying that we must adress global injustice.
For those who care about equity in the wider world these are exciting times. But the debate needs to be broader than the somewhat narrow economic definitions of markets and capitalism. Injustice is something we can come together and fight against. One of the less obvious sources of injustice in the global society is the way access to technologies is limited. Among the key questions we need to ask are:
- How do we address technology injustice?
- What is a reasonable and fair access to technologies such as clean water and sanitation?
- How can we deliver access to energy services to more than 1 billion people who lack them by 2020?
Let us know what you think about the technology injustices that are current in our global society. Join in the conversation…remember we can only change the world one conversation at a time.
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In the 19th Decmber 2011 issue of the magazine New Statesman, Bill Gates authored an opinion piece on why he believes that “the world is on the cusp of finally unleashing innovation for the poorest”. As evidence he cites a number of examples including the development of new varieties of maize that can be 50% more tolerant of drought, a breakthough last year in the development of a more accurate and simple TB test, the Serum Institute of India releasing a low cost vaccine for meningitis A, and recent examples of technology transfer from Brazil and China.
Bill Gates has, in recent years, consistently raised the issue of a ‘tragic misallocation of resources’ in global technology research and development, complaining in an often referenced TED talk a couple of years ago that more money is spent annually on research a cure for male baldness than for a vacinne for malaria. He is absolutely right to raise this as an issue and a barrier to the poor having access to the technologies they need to achieve a reasonable standard of living.
But the New Statesman article reads as if technological innovation is all that is needed to end poverty (e.g. “Yes we have a global food crisis. But with innovators all over the world focussed on the problem, we also have a good chance to fix it”). But its not. Many of the technologies poor people need already exist, and in some cases have been in existance for centuries. Its their inability to access to them that is the core issue – due to a assortment of barriers ranging from simple affordability, to the poor having no voice in decisions around allocation of investments for basic services.
We need innovation not only in technology itself, but also innovation to over come the social, political and economic barriers that prevent poor people from accessing existing technology and that prevent innovation really focussing on the interests of the poor. So, for example, we need innovation to help utilities in urban centres in the developing world overcome their reluctance to provide water, sanitation and electricity supplies to the residents of informal settlements and shanty towns, which often make up half or more of the population of developing country cities. And, in an era where governments have largely handed over resonsibility for technology R&D to the private sector, we need ways of sponsoring research and innovation into knowledge which cannot be commodified but which is never the less helpful to the fight against poverty – for example research into improving the productivity of traditional agro ecological forms of agriculture.
Like Bill Gates, I too am an optimist. I believe this is possible and that a growing number of people are beginning to understand and respond to the challenge.1 Comment » | Add your comment
As dawn breaks in 2012 we enter the season of technology forecasting. What will new technologies bring us in 2012 and beyond? Most of these forecasts seem to dwell on the fortunes of the developed world. What about the majority of humanity (4 billion people live on less than US$5 per day)?
IBM put forward five forecasts for 2016, (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-16302566) one of these is that the digital divide will end. Whilst it is likely that more people in Asia and Africa will be able to own a cell phone or connect to the Internet it would be stretching credulity to suggest that these same people will have a similar level of affordability of digital technologies as those living in the developed world. Currently, in India there are 1.2 billion people who are not connected to the Internet. Most of these people live in rural areas where there may be a lack of ability to pay and a lack of access to electricity. So the digital divide in terms of affordable, accessible and appropriate devices is unlikely to be at an end by 2016. More needs to be done on energy access and on education to build the capabilities needed to use the technology.
In remote rural areas of developing countries few people have access to electricity. So ownership of a mobile phone might be a measure of “connectedness” or even of “progress” but if the phone can only be charged after a walk of 10 kilometres we may argue that there is a lack of appropriate accessible technology. A second important prediction relates to bio fuel cells (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-15305579) reported by the BBC as “power from the people”. Perhaps that could be re-phrased as “power to the people”. Yet, in all likelyhood the applications of this new technology will be in medical appliances in developed countries. What if resources were put into developing this technology as an alternative, local power supply for rural communities in developing countries?
Technology will likely bring much that is new and exciting in 2012 and beyond. What can we do to increase the probability that these technologies will be applied to real need in developing countries? We need to work together with scientists to ensure that technologies are accessible, affordable and appropriate to the needs of people. Only then can we approach a state of technology justice in the world.
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At a second community near Gwanda the loudspeakers, carefully placed on a wheelbarrow delivered messages about the local governance of the recently installed water pump. The language was Sotho, so my Shona speaking colleague was unable to translate for me.
However, it was clear that the borehole and pump were transforming the livelihoods of the community. There was a very genuine desire to learn. The knowledge sharing in local voices was clearly owned by the community extensionist, an elected member of the community.
Going beyond technology the digital extension service is building a community driven process of change.