Technology tools can help South Asians expand skills and knowledge to build a better future

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Mother and child in India
There is a wealth of human potential in South Asia, and technology, if used well, can turn potential into progress. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, community centers equipped with computers were a critical source of assistance for poor women in Mysore, India. The Namma Mahiti Kendras – “Our Information Centers” – gathered details about new government and private philanthropic programs created to help residents cope with a national lockdown and the loss of income.

The women-run information centers knew exactly what to do based on several years’ experience helping marginalized women claim government entitlements and services. “They were ready during the pandemic to take and run with the demands required for relief,” said Anita Gurumurthy, executive director of IT for Change, a nonprofit group based in Bengaluru. “We saw the ability of communities to self-organize.”

A growing network of similar information centers is helping women use digital technologies to obtain a range of government services and become informed citizens. The centers run community-based radio stations, create podcasts, offer video screenings, and hold debates on gender inequality and social injustice issues.

There is a wealth of human potential in South Asia, and technology, if used well, can turn potential into progress. 
 

This is one of the most important themes that emerged during a recent #OneSouthAsia Conversation, Harnessing Technology to Build Human Capital in South Asia. The live event reflected on some of the key messages of the new report, The Converging Technology Revolution and Human Capital: Potential and Implications for South Asia. It proposes several dozen actions to lay the foundation for technology and data that can expand opportunities in the region.
Human development – through education, health care, and other social services – is more important than ever as South Asia responds to climate change. Expanding the supply of clean energy will require new jobs, new skills, and inclusive training. Also needed are government programs that operate more efficiently with data-driven decisions and dynamically updated social registries.

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The correct use of technology will ensure access and equity for the people who need it most so the benefits filter through to vulnerable groups for the greater public good. Achieving this would be a sea change for South Asia, where technology policies – to the extent that they exist – have so far not favored vulnerable groups.

Technology is destiny
Technology has assumed a powerful role in every-day life, like the role of banking in the international economy. Access to technology “defines the destiny of people” and communities, according to Gurumurthy.

Technology can also reshape the delivery of government services.

In early 2020, Sania Nishtar, Pakistan’s minister for poverty alleviation and social safety, launched Ehsaas, a national program to support millions of households whose incomes were hit by COVID-19. Pakistanis used mobile phones to apply for government payments, so digital literacy and access to technology were critical. Nishtar’s team developed digital skills programs such as instruction and access in community centers to teaching girls in school so they could teach their mothers at home.

“Data is an input. Technology is a tool. They are not ends in themselves,” Nishtar said. “They are meant to make systems work better.” Government programs can deliver better, faster social services with technology and data-driven decisions, she said.
 

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school kids in india
We should use technology wisely to ensure access and equity for the people who need it most so the benefits filter through to vulnerable groups for the greater public good.

Opportunities in health, education

Another speaker, Khondaker A. Mamun, founder of CMED Health, a Bangladesh start-up company offering preventive healthcare, said technology can put developing nations on the path to universal health care. His company, for example, uses medical sensors connected to a smartphone to measure patients’ vital signs. Patients get instant feedback about their health, and data is stored securely to help their doctors provide better care. 

CMED Health also used artificial intelligence for COVID-19 surveillance in Bangladesh. The pandemic has shown that “if we can utilize more technologies, apply and adapt them to solutions that are data-driven, we can very effectively reduce the cost of health care,” Mamun said.

Technology offers governments a huge opportunity to support the growth of their citizen’s human capital by improving and cutting the cost of social services. But any effort to do so will raise thorny issues of technology and data governance if the goals of equity and inclusion are to be reached. Data governance establishes rules for transparency and accountability in how data is collected, safely stored, used, and reused. 

Rabi Karmacharya, executive director of Open Learning Exchange (OLE) Nepal, said weak governance  makes it difficult to direct services and resources to people who need them most. OLE is a non-governmental organization that works to improve the digital literacy of the underserved. It has programs in 50 schools and trains teachers to use technology in classroom learning. OLE Nepal also created interactive digital learning materials  based on school curricula. 

Role of regional cooperation

Given the complexities of applying technology to human development, the countries of South Asia have much to learn from each other. Here and there, some seeds of cooperation are sprouting. We heard about opportunities for more exchanges of knowledge and experiences; for working together on digital infrastructure and open-source platforms; and for collaborating on standards, governance,  and regulatory frameworks. “One of the key areas where collaboration can help is sharing success stories and cases where successful models have been implemented,” said Karmacharya of OLE Nepal.
I hope our conversation triggers new opportunities for cooperation in South Asia, and we look forward to seeing some of that take place. We will continue to keep the dialog going through social media. Share your ideas and thoughts on social media with hashtag #OneSouthAsia. 

Watch a recording of the #OneSouthAsia Conversation on technology for human development or read a text summary of the event. Learn more about other events in the #OneSouthAsia series here.

Authors

Cecile Fruman

Director, Regional Integration and Engagement, South Asia

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