Our practice of applying ICT for Development (ICT4D) is often concerned with access issues: trying to ensure that even the most marginalised communities, in the most remote locations, have equitable access to the tools that they require for development.
In some rural settings ICT4D practitioners will initially be focused on making unavailable technology available; in others situations they will be working on making available technology affordable; and even when the technology is both available and affordable there is still be the task of making it accessible to the most marginalised groups.
With so much of our effort focused on these tasks it is no wonder that we get such little time to work on advocacy or adoption issues. A is for Access.
ICT4D is necessary because the diffusion of new technology is uneven, and tends to benefit the richest first; the most disadvantaged are at the back of a very long queue. Technology that is already ubiquitous in New York may remain unavailable in rural Mali. If it was left to market forces alone, the benefits of new technology might never reach the most rural areas. Apple are not launching the iPhone in Timbuktu anytime soon.
When new technologies have the ability to improve health or education, the failure of market forces to evenly diffuse innovation can itself further widen inequality and compound under-development. In such circumstances government and not-for-profit organisations need to intervene to make available ICT for Development (ICT4D)
where it is most needed.
Millennium Development Goal 8 requires that we address the needs of the least developed countries and, in cooperation with the private sector, make available the benefits of new technology, especially information and communications.
Only when technology is affordable to the many are benefits widely dispersed. In the early stages of diffusion supply is limited and the market sets a high price. The market price of new technology is often not affordable for people living on less than $2 per day.
In commercial markets the activities of ‘early adopters’ and the media help select and promote adoption of new technologies. Early adopters demonstrate ‘proof of concept’; positive reviews widen demand. Increased demand and competition creates downward pressure on prices and widens access.
In under-served areas where the market dynamic has not delivered affordable provision, government and not-for-profits need to take action to stimulate development by removing prohibitive tariff barriers and ensure an affordable supply of technology.
Where no affordable supply of ICT existed for health, education and development, organisations like Computer Aid intervened to make available thousands of high-quality, second-user computers. This delivered direct benefits to schoolchildren, patients and disabled users that would not otherwise have been possible.
Moreover the provision demonstrated that effective demand existed in that market. This acted to attract other providers of second-user, locally assembled, and new imported PCs and the increased supply and the competition maintained the downward pressure on prices, ensuring that more affordable PCs reach more beneficiaries.
Computer Aid is often the first provider of affordable computers to enter a developing economy, and later, the first to withdraw. Once there was a healthy choice of affordable providers in South Africa we withdrew staff and ceased outreach; we’ve turned our attention to economies such as Liberia and Burkina Faso.
Diffusion of innovation is always uneven. Socially marginalised groups such as rural communities, women and the disabled, may be amongst the last to feel the benefits of new technology. This is a particularly cruel irony as ICTs offer great potential as an accessibility tool enabling disadvantaged groups to overcome exclusion.
The market does not provide equitable access to education and employment opportunity. Women and people with disabilities are under-represented in higher education and professional employment in most countries. Women with domestic responsibilities are not free to spend several years studying based at an urban university campus. People who are disabled or whose mobility is restricted can also be excluded from university education if appropriate adaptations are not in place.
So here again there is a progressive role for governments and not-for-profit organisations to make available the benefits of new technologies (especially ICTs). Computer Aid has equipped rural eLearning centres for university students as well as providing training and experience to build the eLearning capacity of a number of Africa universities. We have also provided computers and adaptive software for people who are blind or visually impaired in twenty different countries and right now we are working on a very exciting new access and accessibility initiative which is still very ‘hush-hush’.
Watch this space…..