Continuing on with the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) related posts…. I’ll be on a panel on Sept 21st talking about how ICTs can contribute to the MDGs. My perspective is less from a top down, big business, giant project point of view. In my work, I look at ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) as tools that children and young people can use to create and access information and to advance their own agendas locally and beyond, and ICTs as tools that organizations (big and small, local or not) can incorporate into their work to improve their efforts to attain development goals (such as the MDGs).
ICTs can be helpful tools for enhancing accountability, transparency, citizen engagement, public debate, participation and local ownership of the development process — all of which help with achievement of the MDGs. (See my post on MDGs through a child rights lens for more reasons why). ICTs and social media can also help organizations do more efficient, effective, engaging and high quality work.
ICTs are not silver bullets or magical elements, however; and they will not solve anything on their own. They need to be well-integrated into programs, and well-contextualized.
One framework I especially like to use for thinking about how organizations can integrate ICTs into their work comes from Hannah Beardon. Hannah suggests that ICTs can be integrated directly, strategically and indirectly:
Directly (Providing Access to ICTs): Mobiles and other ICTs have an immediate and striking impact at the family and community level, connecting people for personal, business and community reasons. Mobile devices save individuals time and money and are indispensable in emergencies and for connecting people to the larger world, such as for remittances and commodity pricing. Mobiles and ICTs can help people access information, improve their education, maintain social networks, participate in governance and community, and generate income.
Providing equipment directly is one way to think about ICTs in development programs. This includes ICT tools such as computers, mobile phones, video cameras, digital cameras, radio equipment, electricity, and Internet access. Often direct ICT support is considered for education programs and efforts focused primarily on ICT training or media projects. Computer centers and classrooms are an example, as is supplying mobile phones to project participants or GPS units for mapping projects or equipment for health programs. If this equipment and the information it collects are managed at the community or local organization level, it can enable people to assess and respond to local development needs in a powerful way.
The availability of ICTs is obviously a pre-cursor to using them in different programs and projects. However I’m not much in favor of development organizations coming in and giving away mobile phones (unless it’s some type of extreme emergency or crisis, I suppose). I’m also wary of external NGOs setting up computer centers or giving large equipment donations because of sustainability and capacity concerns. Care needs to be taken that a non-profit organization is not assuming the role that local businesses or government institutions should be playing. Working in good partnerships with local and national government institutions and local businesses and keeping clear agreements on the roles of all actors, including the community, can help to reduce these risks and make programs more sustainable. Programs that directly provide equipment also need to think carefully about what other elements are required for success (purpose of the equipment, training to use it, ongoing maintenance and repair, electricity/power, a place to keep the equipment safe, local involvement in defining the type of equipment, etc). (See 10 Worst Practices in ICTs in Education).
In thinking about providing direct access to ICTs, one place for NGOs to focus energies is keeping an eye on government ICT policies and plans and strengthening civil society to pressure government to ensure that ICTs (including Internet) are accessible to the population now that more and more information is shared via ICTs. Article 17 in the Convention on the Rights of the Child outlines children’s right to information, including access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources, especially those aimed at the promotion of a child’s social, spiritual and moral well-being and physical and mental health. States Parties are obliged to (a) Encourage the mass media to disseminate information and material of social and cultural benefit to the child and in accordance with the spirit of article 29; (b) Encourage international cooperation in the production, exchange and dissemination of such information and material from a diversity of cultural, national and international sources; (c) Encourage the production and dissemination of children’s books; (d) Encourage the mass media to have particular regard to the linguistic needs of the child who belongs to a minority group or who is indigenous; (e) Encourage the development of appropriate guidelines for the protection of the child from information and material injurious to his or her well-being, bearing in mind the provisions of articles 13 and 18. The 2005 World Summit on the Information Society’s Tunis Agenda also provides a useful platform for thinking about advocacy around rights to information and ICTs.
Strategically (Using ICTs as tools to support development processes): Beyond directly providing ICTs, new technologies can be used in a myriad of ways to support the broader development process. Starting from larger program goals, defining the roles that information and communication play, looking closely at the local context, and then researching existing tools that could be supportive is a good way to start when planning concrete initiatives. (Forthcoming is a second publication by Hannah outlining a good process for local contextualizing and ICT integration into specific programs). If there are no existing tools, a case can be made for developing or building onto a tool or an application.
Mobile phones, as tools for effective and timely dissemination of information, have real potential to strengthen the design and delivery of programs, for example in health, education, household economic security, disaster risk reduction and response, emergency and crisis management, HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment, child protection, youth-led advocacy, and water and sanitation. ICTs should be an integral part of local, country-level and broader strategic planning processes and they should be incorporated, where appropriate and relevant, into programs where they can add value, keeping a close eye during monitoring and evaluation on whether their purported benefits are real.
On-going capacity building and exchange at various levels is critical to help program staff become aware of advances in the field of ICTs and to help ICT advisors better understand programs, staff needs and community realities. Conversations across sector and silo boundaries are also critical to ensure that ICT integration is successful. ‘Bridge figures’ are helpful — those persons with good knowledge of both programs and ICTs — to help these processes along. In the absence of someone to serve as a bridge figure, well-structured teams with expertise in both areas should work closely together to take advantage of their specific expertise and to learn from one another. ICT tools should be selected based on local needs and contexts as well as program priorities, starting with information and communication needs, rather than starting with new ‘breakthrough’ technologies. (Though other sectors often start with the cool technology and see if/how it can be useful). During strategic planning processes, program staff should be analyzing program information and communication needs and working with ICT staff to incorporate technology that may add value and help reach program goals in a higher quality and more effective way. Again, ‘bridge figures’ can be helpful in that process. Monitoring and evaluation are important along the way to check whether adding ICTs is actually helping. Sometimes things work perfectly fine without new ICTs.
Indirectly (Using ICTs to improve efficiency and communication within the organization): The wealth of knowledge and information that a development organization generates and uses needs to be documented, shared and communicated effectively in order to improve impact. Advances in knowledge management and on-line collaboration, including blogs, wikis and other social media tools and feedback mechanisms can bring immediate access to information and real-time discussion. Lower cost technology, notably in the areas of digital mapping, GPS, mobile mapping, mobile internet can help staff to carry out their daily work and improve information sharing and decision-making across departments and to engage and inform the public. Engagement with donors can also be heightened through ICT tools and social media, always taking into consideration the additional burden 24/7 demands can add to staff’s workload, and the child protection and other risks posed by more direct access to communities.
ICTs and social media can help make aid and development organizations more participatory, more agile, and able to pull in information from variety of sources and process it faster. This in turn can help pull people out of their silos and force them to consider new ideas and ways of working and thinking about challenges. Mobiles especially are helpful for better communication with community members and local organizations. Forward thinking organizations should be taking advantage of these new tools to gather direct feedback from those that they are supporting, for better dialog to improve their work, and for devolving helpful information to community members. Mobile data collection, for example, in addition to being a strategic tool for program implementation, can also be a way of improving the quality of data collection and increasing ownership by community members of their own data which support them to take back management of their own development processes from external agents. Mobiles are also a great tool for gathering data quickly from a broad subset of the population; data which can shape rapid responses and emergency interventions.
Twitter and blogging and other web-based services can serve as a springboard for deeper discussions and coordination among different development actors, government agents, institutions and the private sector. Social media is a way to share and discuss lessons learned and challenges faced, and to diffuse information about new ICTs and how they are being used by different agencies and individuals. Global partnerships can easily be initiated, developed and nurtured on-line. Organizations can provide on-line training opportunities to staff and save time and money by using new technologies such as forums, blogs for sharing and reporting, Skype and chat tools, and social networking. These same tools can be used to improve relationships with donors and with partners and staff working in disperse offices. However, in order for any of the above to happen, command and control practices that are common in large institutions and organizations need to be abolished so the tools can be most useful. Here is an excellent post on use of social media tools in humanitarian work.
Using those three categories to think about ICT integration in an organization’s work can help clarify and strategize. Some initiatives may include all three categories and some may be more focused on one particular category.
In a follow-up post, I’ll share some examples of tools that I find interesting and helpful for organizations working at the grassroots level to achieve broader programmatic goals and to improve local community participation and ownership of the development process.
MDG related posts on Wait… What?
ICT related posts on Wait… What?