The Importance of Spirit: The Strengths and Limitations of ICT in Development
By: Mitchell Sommers, Accountability Lab Resident
During the 2013 World Bank-IMF Annual Meetings, I attended a panel on “Development in a Digital Age,” which featured representative experts from the Institute of the Future (IFTF), Facebook, various World Bank bodies, and government agencies in Finland and Philippines. The general consensus was that technology and innovation (including information and communications technology or ICT) form a powerful force necessary to achieve the World Bank’s ambitious new goals to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 and to enhance shared prosperity. The Bank’s Chief Innovation Officer for Global Technology Development, Chris vein, asserted, “ICT can produce development that is better, cheaper, and faster.”
Technology enhances our ability to connect with one another. Executive Director of IFTF, Marina Gorbis, said that technology creates amplified individuals – “people are now connected to millions of others. We are always connected and can harness the power of our collective intelligence.” Furthermore, technology extends individuals’ access to opportunities for growth and development. In education, for example, anyone in the world with Internet access can now access Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), free non-degree online courses with open unlimited global enrollment.
ICT can give citizens greater control over their governments. It can empower marginalized people. Ms. Gorbis said that “ICT allows individuals to map their own resources and map their worlds.” Citizens can use mobile phones and other simple devices to report bribery, map
The dissemination of ICT, however, is not a panacea for all development problems, and it certainly is not without its own challenges. Facebook’s VP of Global Public Policy, Marne Levine, emphasized the high cost of data, which can equal as much as 25% of monthly income in developing countries.
Perhaps the greatest challenge is the lack of attention to the poverty of spirit in developing countries. The World Bank VP for Change Knowledge and Learning, Sanjay Pradhan, warned that we cannot rely on technocratic fixes alone: “Powerful vested interests underlie these technologies and they do not want transparency and open governments.” In order to counter this, “we need to surround technology with champions of change and tap into people’s spirit.”
Ms. Gorbis added, “We need to find what is needed to generate the will to use these technologies.” Rather than just focusing its energy on developing new applications of technology, the development community must also take the time to identify the drivers of creative uses of ICT in developing countries, with specific attention to the context. For example, in the Philippines digitization is driven by corruption and the corresponding demand for budget transparency. Mr. Richard Moya, Chief Information Officer in the Department of Budget and Management, illustrated the point well: “The pencil doesn’t make the picture, the artist does. Technology is a pencil; it is spirited people that put it to work.”
This idea of harnessing the creativity of individuals to use technology for issues they really care about aligns well with our mission at Accountability Lab. Technology plays a crucial role in many of the projects we support. For example, our online crowd-sourced portal for public information in Nepal has received over 100,000 hits. Nevertheless, we believe the most innovative aspect of our work is the empowerment of citizens to use their local knowledge and understanding to develop lasting solutions for change. Each one becomes an ambassador for accountability, inspiring others and building up communities for change.