Updated: Jan 21
In January 2017, in a meeting that took place in Italy, one of the meeting leaders – let us call him Mr. Hardy – boasted how “if we’re asked today to reach a community in rural Africa, we know that’s as easy as setting up a Google Talk. And it’s done!” Mr. Hardy was demonstrating how the power of technology allows him to sit behind his desk to interview villagers from, say, Nkhotakota, to collect data and information that would be useful in shaping the international dialogue on development. Efficient. Impressive!
Mr. Hardy’s remarks happen to have been shared in the confines of a network that oversees global efforts on agriculture research, and the sentiments were made as a feel good way of how technology is making research and extension in the agriculture sector a more practical tool for development. And also an affordable one. It makes the plausibility of a sustainable future a more realistic aspiration too.
Indeed, technology is helping development practitioners beyond Mr. Hardy and is allowing developing countries reach greater efficiency, when handled with the right dose of determination, that allows for growth and transformation to materialize for many poor people. According to a 2016 analysis by EPICS in IEEE, a non-governmental effort that seeks to not only assist communities in achieving their specific local community improvement goals but also encourage students to pursue engineering for community improvement as a career, five areas seem to bring to light the impact of technology on development. EPICS in IEEE identifies advances in healthcare, environment, economy, education and electricity. In agreement with some of these developments are the evidence we see in UNICEF drones being deployed to remote African health centers, including in Malawi, to deliver vaccines over relatively long distances.
The emergence and growth of mobile money is changing the way traditional banking conducts business, while transforming mobile phone operators into quintessential banking behemoths. A fair share of the East African Community’s cash and savings economy is walking the streets in mobile phones and not the deposit account at the commercial bank. Asian and Central Asian countries are picking up on the practice steadily, and want these cheap solutions for their people too. And technology is improving access to affordable clean energy solutions, although we are yet to fully benefit from efficiency gains in as far as durable equipment is concerned for the poor. Technology in development work is improving the way communications for various development activities take place, much in the manner of Mr. Hardy’s celebration above.
Pruning Google to Deliver for Development
In spite of their growing importance in development, there needs to be a limit to how far specialist communications technology entities influence delivery of socio-economic and development work in developing countries as Malawi. There are a few reasons why.
In this article, we would like to place emphasis on just a few critical points.
The first is the need for physical appreciation of those charged to deliver activities on the lives of the poor. A Google Talk will only perform its role as a medium of communication, relaying words and instructions on a selected group of people whose complete life environment cannot be captured by the lens of a computerized camera. This is particularly easier for those countries where no danger to life exists, although it may be more desperately needed to instill hope in people living under dire security threats. Such mediums create a barrier to how the holistic needs of individuals and communities at large can be observed, understood and for which tailor-made solutions can be developed.
In light of this fact, technology needs to be employed to solve the limitations of past development methods, many that have proven to be shallow and innocuous of the needs of Africa. It should be used as a cost-efficient means of ensuring universal education can really happen beyond counting the heads of poor children in a classroom, a mistake UNICEF and the World Bank have acknowledged as a major shortcoming in the implementation of structural adjustment programmes and liberalization. In Malawi, poor Bakili Muluzi jumped at the universal education idea as a means of feeding his political appetites, which indeed allowed him to parade himself as a champion for inclusive development, when he realistically only achieved the ‘inclusive’ part and not ‘development.’
The second is the lack of creating mentoring platforms for the poor. The missing human touch becomes an important, yet opaque, psychological fence that keeps the poor from interacting with the educated, and those who have benefitted from development like Mr. Hardy. There is no way a village woman in Chididi (Nsanje) will ever appreciate the success of another woman who has overcome significant gender barriers without encountering the physical success story. For example, Bethany Fleck and Pablo Chavajay, in 2008, and many others, have shown how important physical interaction is in early childhood development, indicating how delivery of education via an electronic platform would be a major limiting factor.
Furthermore, many African cultures (and more relevant, the Malawian ones), which we believe are critical for development to be successful, are founded on physical interaction that would be rendered inadequate by interactive technology platforms to properly relay knowledge and information to those who need it. As a matter of fact, the adoption of technology would first have to surpass the potential hurdles that create an existent gap between the poor and technology itself, before another human being can be introduced on the other end of the technological spectrum.
Although technology is an indispensable element in our modern world, it will need to be tamed like anyone else if humans are to maintain control over the world’s phenomena, and certainly how development should happen. Like those desperate to see transformation in Africa and other parts of the Global South, the poor also need the benefits of human-oriented technological development to reach them. However, reaching them needs a balance between physical outreach and the provisions that setting up a mobile satellite, with a camera pointed at both developer and the one to be developed, can deliver cheaply. It would avoid such disasters as one created by Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. Mr. Ceausescu’s grand plan, to raise the Romania’s birth rate through "science," had not factored in the numerous orphanages that followed.
So, Mr. Hardy needs to court the old-fashioned mode of delivering research and development interventions once in a while. He needs to get on a plane and prepare himself to face the realities of the poor. This is the only way he will be able to integrate the important factors that affect the local partners he is commited to help transform out of poverty, over and above understanding the depth of human behavior that needs to be overcome if change is to happen.