What is ICT4D (Information and Communications Technologies for Development)?
ICT4D (Information and Communications Technologies for Development) is a decentralized movement dedicated to making access to digital technologies more equitable, with the goals of bridging the digital divide and advancing global economic development. The United Nations, through its UN Development Programme (UNDP), has identified ICT4D as a force for economic and social development around the world, particularly among poor and marginalized communities.
The need for ICT4D
Information and communication technologies (ICTs) include any communication device and the technologies that enable it to function. Examples of ICTs include radio, television, mobile phones -- including smartphones -- computer networks, satellite systems, blockchain, artificial intelligence and so on. The various services and applications associated with these devices, such as video conferencing and distance learning, are also part of the ICT landscape.
Globally, access to digital devices and technologies is inequitable. People in developed countries, particularly those in urban areas, tend to have easier access to technology compared to people in underdeveloped countries, and this is especially pronounced in rural or remote areas. Such inequities have led to what is now known as the digital divide. Simply put, the digital divide refers to the disparity between the technological haves and have-nots in terms of geographic locations or demographic groups.
ICT4D aims to reduce the digital divide and enable more users -- regardless of their location, race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status -- to access the latest digital technologies and devices. Its goal can be described as both a moral imperative and one that ultimately benefits the larger global economy. ICT4D asserts that access to digital technologies can accelerate the social, economic and political development of marginalized, poor and vulnerable communities. It can also help advance social justice and protect human rights around the world.
The most popular ICT4D solutions
In areas where ICT4D is needed most, technology is usually not the only scarce resource. These communities also face barriers to healthcare, education, agriculture, transportation, communication, banking and other vital services. For this reason, the most popular ICT4D solutions don't simply seek to provide access to technology for novelty's sake; they use ICTs to improve health, safety, literacy, employment and other factors affecting people's well-being and livelihoods. Many ICT4D projects seek to align with the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which articulate the actions every nation needs to take to end extreme poverty, reduce inequality and protect the planet by 2030.
Because of the complex, often overlapping challenges disadvantaged communities face, ICT4D solutions must be implemented in a thoughtful manner -- one that considers the cultural context and accommodates limitations of the environment. For example, delivering hundreds of Chromebooks to a remote village does not achieve much if the region lacks internet access or even reliable electricity. Similarly, a psychotherapy chatbot is not the right tool for increasing access to mental health services if most constituents are illiterate. For these reasons, the most successful ICT4D solutions are typically developed in partnership with the communities they serve and with input from key stakeholders.
Healthcare is one area especially ripe for ICT4D projects. The need for healthcare is universal, and the lack of healthcare resources is often dire in many parts of the world. ICT4D solutions seek to close this gap through digital innovations and community-based interventions. One novel example of this is a Vodafone Foundation project called m-mama, which provides pregnant women with affordable emergency transportation to health facilities in rural Tanzania, Lesotho and Kenya, where maternal and newborn death rates are disproportionately high and ambulances are scarce. The m-mama program uses a mobile app and mobile payment system to connect women experiencing a pregnancy, labor or newborn emergency with a network of verified drivers who can provide safe, timely transport.
ICT4D solutions are also playing a key role in education. All over the world, students use digital platforms, online courses and e-books to support their learning; in many cases, ICT4D projects focus on supplying internet access and Wi-Fi networks to facilitate use of these tools. Other endeavors go further, such as a SOS Children's Villages project called Digital Villages, which provides families from vulnerable communities in 60 countries with digital literacy skills to support their education and career prospects. The program also provides cyber safety training to children and parents, teaching them how to avoid scams and other forms of online exploitation.
Agriculture is another popular area for ICT4D solutions. Projects using drones and geographic information systems enable farmers to learn about new farming methods, modernize their existing farming practices, improve farm planning, monitor fertilizer application, keep an eye on farm operations and track crop growth. Further, real-time data and visualizations are helping to increase crop yields and address food insecurity.
There are many other ways ICT4D initiatives are making an impact on global development outcomes:
- Mobile wallets are helping to improve financial inclusion, particularly among communities that do not or cannot maintain a conventional bank account.
- Websites and mobile applications enable skilled workers to apply for more jobs and companies to find the candidates they need.
- Entrepreneurs use digital tools and sources to conduct market research, find investors and set up online stores.
- Governments can communicate with citizens via online portals to share important information or to make public services more easily accessible.
- Community radio can help strengthen local democratic processes and promote political participation through information sharing and discussions.
History of ICT4D
The foundation for ICT4D was laid in the 1950s when a few governments started using computers to analyze the performance of their development programs. Between the 1960s and 1980s, computer access increased, and more organizations were able to implement development programs and evaluate their performance.
However, it wasn't until the 1990s that ICT4D as it is known today began to formalize. It was at this time that digital ICTs entered the development mainstream and started touching the lives of more people in the Global South, which refers to developing and underdeveloped countries. The formalization of ICT4D was mainly due to the growth of the internet and the increasing ubiquity of computing and digital systems. The establishment of the UN's Millennium Development Goals in 2000 also underscored that ICTs are essential for sustainable global development.
At the 2002 G8 Summit, governments formally recognized the role of ICT in enabling social and economic development, leading to the creation of ICT4D 1.0. The 2010 Haiti earthquake helped showcase the importance and power of ICT4D. Post-2010, governments, development organizations and for-profit companies around the world started developing or adopting digital tools to support their development programs. This then heralded the era of ICT4D 2.0, sometimes referred to as digital development.
Over the past decade, ICT4D has helped improve the effectiveness of development programs worldwide and continues to be an influential framework for promoting economic and social development. That said, challenges exist that limit the effectiveness of ICT4D due to resource constraints and issues surrounding privacy and cybersecurity.
UNDP's ICT4D and the human development and capability approach
In 2010, UNDP published a paper titled "ICT4D and the Human Development and Capability Approach." Its aim was to evaluate whether ICTs had -- until then -- led to positive outcomes for human development based on several basic dimensions: health, education, income, social participation and empowerment.
Ultimately, the paper and its authors concluded that ICTs can improve people's lives. However, they cannot achieve this without being part of broader development strategies, plans and goals. Moreover, these strategies must be designed to make the best possible use of various digital tools and techniques in order to promote and accelerate human development. Also, the goals must be specific to the target community so the right ICT resources can be identified and used to deliver expected, sustainable outcomes.