Technophiles, beware

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In an article last month in the Boston Review, Kentaro Toyama, a former computer scientist for Microsoft turned ICT4D promoter, confronts the limits of technological solutions to development problems:

But the value of a technology remains contingent on the motivations and abilities of organizations applying it—villagers must be organized, content must be produced, and instructors must be trained. The limiting factor in spreading Digital Green’s impact is not how many camcorders its organizers can purchase or how many videos they can shoot, but how many groups are performing good agriculture extension in the first place. Where such organizations are few, building institutional capacity is the more difficult, but necessary, condition for Digital Green’s technology to have value. In other words, disseminating technology is easy; nurturing human capacity and human institutions that put it to good use is the crux.

Of course, the same criticism could be applied to most development interventions—institutions nearly always return as the limiting or enabling factor for every development program. 

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Ryan Hahn

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April
January 05, 2011

A great piece Ryan. Thanks for posting. Toyama captures many of the concerns I have, from observing recent attempts to apply technological innovations to solve health and health service problems in developing countries.

A choice quote:

"Technology—no matter how well designed—is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity. It is not a substitute."

I see many initiatives trying to improve services by making info about performance (schools; clinics) flow better to different actors (users; district supervisors). Unfortunately - the actors who become better informed with the tech-supported improved info flows often lack the leverage or motivation (or both) to use that info to address performance problems.

Mike Trucano
January 05, 2011

Thanks Ryan. FYI In case it might be of any interest to you or PSD Blog readers, Kentaro (and a host of other well-known people in the field) will be participating in this month's on-line EduTech Debate ("Are ICT investments in schools an education revolution or fool’s errand?"), which is sponsored by the World Bank's infoDev program. http://goo.gl/w6vEP

Scott McQuade
January 13, 2011

I increasingly think that knowledge is the most fundamental building block. Without it, institutions cannot be formed or utilised. Videos (if that is what is needed) can be made where knowledge exists: having institutional capacity is not essential.
This extract from Toyama's article suggests a very institutional perspective. Do villagers really "need to be organized"? Are agricultural practices always performed by "groups"?