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Technopoly – ICT4D and the digital divide

Blog | June 1, 2016 | Anastasia-Areti Gavrili

During the recent ICT4D conference in Nairobi, hundreds of representatives from donor groups, NGOs, tech companies and individual entrepreneurs put their heads together to figure out how we can use technology to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

We live in an increasingly digitalised world and technology is becoming a basic part in our day to day lives. It’s a fact.

But while we are taking this promising step forward and investing our hopes and money in technology4change, it’s crucial that we leave no-one behind.


Although technology is more available, accessible and affordable than ever before, a huge digital divide still exists, especially in the developing world. So, how can we make sure that everyone benefits from ICT for development?

Let’s start with ‘incentivisation’ – we do love our fancy words

At Making All Voices Count we often argue that technology is only 10% of the solution. Getting the remaining 90% right is the tricky bit, because it’s about people, not about the platforms.

People won’t engage with even the best digital tools if there aren’t clear (and clearly communicated) incentives.

In Pakistan, the Bahawalpur Service Delivery Unit, uses a mobile application to drive better health and education services in their district. The app allows citizens to monitor, among others, the attendance of teachers and students in public schools through real-time dashboards and geo-tagging.

The BSDU team made a conscious choice to use smartphones in their project despite the fact that 70% of mobile users in Pakistan -located in rural areas- use their mobiles only for phone messaging. To begin with, they had to change how people interacted with their smartphones, by providing incentives for using them. Instead of teaching them how to use the BSDU application straight from the start, they initially built easy to use apps, such as small learning games and household budget keeping. This was part of a longer term strategy to help people in the Bahawalpur district gradually adapt to smartphone technology – and make this project impactful.

“ICT4D is a donor oriented buzzword. It is up to us to find ways to sell them a digital tool and make sure they engage with it.” - Ali Inam, Executive Director of Technology for People Initiative

“We get excited, we want to change the world and we go too fast”

At the ICT4D conference, there was no shortage of great, innovative ideas. But often we see these ideas and projects designed solely in tech labs and therefore not always appropriate for the communities they are actually created for.

In Liberia, This Is My Backyard (TIMBY) is a simple and secure mobile app that helps citizens in rural Liberia report on what is happening to local natural resources.

To get the best possible understanding of how the app could most usefully support communities in Liberia’s rural areas, the TIMBY team worked closely with local CSOs. They eventually designed the whole system around an in depth understanding of community relations, communications and existing CSO actions.

“By filming the process we documented how people think and work. Instead of telling them how to use the tool, we observed and learned from them what works and what doesn’t, and adapted the app. And we keep adapting every day.”- Anjali Nayar, Founder of TIMBY

Be inclusive, creative and adaptive, and share that learning

These are only a few of the many lessons that have been learned from tech-driven projects that are trying to bridge the divide between ordinary people and governments.

Can you even imagine the amount of knowledge that practitioners hold globally? It’s high time we started sharing that knowledge to make sure that in 2030, when the SDGs are expected to be met, we are not still asking 'where do we go', and learning old lessons anew.

New technologies are popping up and evolving at the speed of light. That’s for sure. But changing the way people think, work and behave doesn’t happen that fast. So keeping that in mind, let’s try to overcome the existing digital divide this time around.


About the author

Anastasia-Areti Gavrili is Communication Officer for Making All Voices Count, based at Hivos International in the Hague.
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