Our fascination with information and communication technologies (ICTs) crosses many borders. The public, private, and nonprofit sectors are all atwitter about it. The same goes for young and old, rich and poor, and the many groups in between. For the more affluent, it’s partly about aesthetic coolness and conspicuous consumption. For geeks, it’s partly about what the newest gadgets can do that previous versions could not. From a development perspective, it’s partly about more effective and efficient delivery of public and private goods and services. And for all, it probably has something to do with enhanced opportunities for connections among people who might not have known of each other’s existence otherwise. So, indeed, our fascination with ICTs crosses many borders.
It was this insight that I took away from a lunchtime seminar jointly organized by CommGAP, infoDev, and the Africa Governance and Anti-Corruption (GAC)-in-Projects Team at the World Bank. At the event, Prof. Steven Livingston presented findings from his new study published by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies entitled Africa’s Evolving Infosystems: A Pathway to Stability and Development. Summarizing field research from at least six countries in the region, Livingston reasons that
Linked by mobile telephony and supported by geographical information systems, civil society networks now have unprecedented opportunities, to develop security-monitoring programs, provide information needed for effective health care, create banking services, and provide farmers with market information. Remarkably innovative uses of mobile communications, often paired with radio broadcasting, have created entirely new types of institutions that promote transparency, accountability, and security. These evolving institutions are often organic to Africa and pegged to the immediate needs of the communities they serve (emphasis added).
For those who work in development, it’s not about technology, per se. Or at least it shouldn’t be. While it may be the case that cutting-edge hardware designs and software applications have the ability to fire up our imagination, it is only significant human experience that evokes inspiration. What really matters are the ways in which mobile telephony, geographical information systems, and web connectivity can contribute to revealing the stories – including the needs, preferences, and abilities –of those most underserved and vulnerable in the world. Perhaps, more broadly, these technological innovations lend added credibility to the promise of demand-driven approaches to development.
These stories have all existed in their own right throughout human history. What is new is that they are now, in the word offered by Livingston, “discoverable” to anyone who is likewise connected through multi-layered and far reaching global infosystems.
Please watch this space for a contribution by Prof. Livingston!
Photo: Steven Livingston presenting to a packed room at the World Bank on Feb. 22, 2011.