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Screen Shot 2013-07-14 at 2.40.51 PMLast week, 600 exceptional youth activists from 80 countries arrived to New York City for a UN Takeover, where they called for urgent action by member states to meet Millennium Development Goal 2 on education by 2015. The youth’s inputs will feed into setting the agenda for global education priorities post-2015. One of the highlights of the week was this inspiring talk by Malala Yousafzai, who made her first public address to the UN on June 12th, her 16th birthday.

Seven of the youth participating in the UN Takeover with the support of Plan joined us as lead discussants for our July 10th Technology Salon. Agung, Dina, and Nurul from Indonesia; Kamanda and Fatmata from Sierra Leone; Tova from Sweden; and Frank from Uganda told us about ICT access and use in their communities and countries. We also heard about their work as youth activists on issues of child marriage, school violence, good governance, and education, and whether ICTs are effective outreach tools for campaigning in their contexts.

The realities of access

In both Sierra Leone and Uganda Internet access is quite difficult. Traveling to Internet cafés in urban areas is too expensive for rural youth to do regularly, and it is unsafe for young women to travel in the evenings. There is not enough equipment in schools and universities, and youth have trouble affording and finding regular access. The majority of primary and secondary schools do not have ICTs, and non-governmental organizations are unable to reach everyone with their programs to supply equipment and training. Although there are often funds given to governments to build computer labs, these tend to benefit urban areas. In some cases projects and funds are used for political gain and personal favors. Even at university level, student access might be limited to 1-2 hours per week at a computer lab, meaning they end up doing almost everything on paper.

Lack of ICT access impacts on job prospects for youth, because jobs exist but employers are seeking people who know how to operate a computer. Many of these job applications have to be submitted online. This puts jobs out of reach of youth in rural areas. Basic infrastructure remains a problem in rural areas. Although telecommunication lines have been laid, electricity for charging mobile phones is still a problem and often electricity is dependent on a solar panel or a generator, making it difficult to run a computer lab or Telecenter.

ICTs are heightening the development divide, noted one Salon participant. In schools near urban areas, parents pay more in tuition and school fees and their children have better ICT access than rural children. This creates inequality. “Students going to these schools have access and they will even study computer science. But when you go to a rural village you might only see one small room where children can access a computer, if anything at all. Teachers themselves don’t know how to use computers.” In cities, parents know ICTs are important. In the rural villages, however, many people are skeptical of technologies. This inequality of access and education means that youth in rural areas and the poor are not able to meet requirements for jobs that use ICTs.

One discussant noted, “It is possible to access Internet through mobile phones. You can use some phones to access Internet, Facebook, etc. In the villages, however, you find that you can only receive calls and make calls. There is no Internet. When I went to Nairobi and saw everyone with smart phones, I wondered, ‘What is wrong with Uganda?’ We don’t have many smart phones.” Another discussant commented that her university has a wide area network, but it is only available to lecturers, not to students.

Most of the youth discussants considered that, among their peer groups, more girls than boys had mobile phones, and more girls were active on the Internet and Facebook.

Access brings concerns

In Indonesia, it was noted, Internet is very available, except for the more remote islands. In Java, commented one discussant, “every young person has a smart phone. They use Facebook and Twitter and can get all kinds of information, and those without smart phones can use Internet cafés.” Internet access, however, is creating new problems. “Parents are proud that their kids are going to the Internet shop to get information, but they also worry about increased access to pornography.” Internet is believed to contribute to an increase in child marriages. The youth discussants said they would like more guidance on how to filter information, know what is true and what is not, use Internet safely, and avoid exposure to offensive content. One discussant from Indonesia mentioned that parents in her community worried that if girls went to Internet cafes or browsed online, they would be exposed to inappropriate materials or prostitution through Facebook.

In Sweden, access to Internet and smart phones is universal. However, parents may buy children a smart phone even if they cannot really afford it. Although many children learn English early because they can easily access Internet, many also do not learn how to write properly because they only use computers.

When phones are available but there is no capacity to purchase them, additional problems also arise. According to one discussant, “Some girls want to have big things before their time.” This can lead to young women offering sex to older men in return for money, fancy phones and airtime.

ICTs in formal education

Youth discussants all said that they are increasingly expected to have access to the Internet and computers in order to complete their school assignments, and they felt this was not a realistic expectation. In one of the youth’s schools in Indonesia, computer class is offered for 4 hours per week and a computer lab is available with 30 desktop computers. In another school in Jakarta, however, every child is expected to have their own laptop. “Our problem is different than in the remote areas. Every teacher in Jakarta thinks that a smart phone or computer is ‘the world in our hands.’ They think we don’t need education about the computer itself. They think we can learn from the Internet how to use computers, and so we have to search and learn this all by ourselves with little guidance.” In Sweden, “if you don’t have Internet access, it will be very difficult to pass a course.”

Effective ways to reach and engage youth in campaigns

Discussants were asked about the communication channels that are most effective for campaigning or engaging youth and communities. In rural Sierra Leone and Uganda, face-to-face was considered the most effective outreach channel for reaching youth and communities, given low levels of access to computers, radios and mobile phones. “Most times our campaigns are face-to-face. We move to communities, we use local language to be sure everyone gets the message,” said one youth discussant. In Jakarta, however, “it’s easy to use online means, it never sleeps. Young people in Jakarta are too lazy to attend workshops. They don’t like to listen to speakers. So we share by social media, like Facebook and Twitter.”

Digital media is only useful in urban areas, said one youth discussant from Sierra Leone. “We mostly use radio to do advocacy and sensitization campaigns. We also do it face-to-face. For secondary schools, we do talks. We tell them about documents signed by government or NGOs, what is in place, what is not in place. We give advice. We talk straight about health, about sex education. You just wait for the light in their eyeball to see if they are understanding. We also do dramas, and we paste up wall bills. We do all of this in our local languages.” Youth groups and youth networks are also useful channels for passing along messages and building support.

Radio is effective in theory, but one discussant noted that in his district, there are only two radio stations. “You take your information or announcement there, and they say they will pass it, but you stay waiting… it’s a challenge.”

Campaigns must also involve engaging local decision makers, a participant noted. Often chiefs do not understand, and they may be the very ones who violate the rights of girls. Youth noted the need to be diplomatic however, or they risk being seen as impolite or trouble-makers. “You have to really risk yourself to do rights work in the community,” noted one discussant. Another commented that having support and buy-in from local leaders is critical in order to be taken seriously. “You need a ‘big voice’ to back you and to convince people to listen to you.”

INGO staff can help legitimize youth work in some cases, but there are also issues. “Local leaders always ask for money,” noted one discussant. “When they hear Plan, UNICEF, Care, Save the Children, they think these organizations gave us money and we’ve taken it for ourselves.” Youth often resort to using external INGO staff as their legitimizing force because “we don’t have other role models, everybody wants money. The politicians say they will help us but then they are always too busy. We have to take the lead ourselves.”

Conflicting information and messages can also be a problem, commented a Salon participant. “One year, it’s the ABC Campaign for HIV prevention, the next it’s condoms, and then it’s prevention. Sometimes youth don’t know who to believe. The NGO says something, the government says something, and local leaders say something else. We need consistency.” In addition, he noted, “INGOs come in with their big range rovers, so of course local leaders and communities think that there is money involved. INGOs need to think more carefully and avoid these conflicting messages.”

What would youth like to see?

Going forward, the youth would like more access, more ICT education, more transparency and accountability in terms of how governments spend funds directed to ICT programs, and more guidance on filtering information and ensuring it’s veracity so that children will not be taken advantage of.

*****

Thanks to the Population Council for hosting us for the Salon! Join us for our next Salon on July 25th: How can we scale Mobiles for Development initiatives? 

The Technology Salon methodology was used for the session, including Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this summary post. Sign up here to receive notifications about upcoming Salons in New York, Nairobi, San Francisco, London and Washington, DC. 

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At the global level, a very small percentage of development funding goes to urban spaces, yet hard-hitting issues impact many of the urban poor: lack of tenure, lack of legality of land, informal settlements, lack of birth registration and civil registration in general, waste disposal, clean water, politicizing of local authorities and more. Can new technologies be a solution for some of these issues?

Tuesday’s Technology Salon NYC offered a space to discuss some of the key challenges and good practice related to working with children, youth, and urban communities and explored the potential role of ICTs in addressing issues related to urban poverty.

According to UNICEF, who co-organized and hosted the Salon at their offices, half of the world’s people – including over one billion children – live in cities and towns. By 2030, it is projected that the majority of the world’s children will grow up in urban areas, yet infrastructure and services are not keeping pace with this urban population growth. (See UNICEF’s 2012 State of the World’s Children or Plan’s 2010 Because I am a Girl Report: Digital and Urban Frontiers).

We welcomed 3 experienced and engaging discussants to the Salon, who commented on the intersection of children, youth, urban environments and new technologies:

  • Doris Gonzalez, Senior Program Manager Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs at IBM Corporation who manages IBM’s grade 9-14 education model Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH), a program that maps work-based skills to the curriculum and provides mentors to students and teachers
  • Ron Shiffman, a city planner with close to 50 years of experience providing architectural, planning, community economic development, and sustainable and organizational development assistance to community-based groups in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods; and the co-founder of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development [PICCED]
  • Sheridan Bartlett, a researcher affiliated with the Children’s Environments Research Group at CUNY and the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, co-editor of the journal Environment and Urbanization, supporter of Slum Dwellers International, and researcher on the link between violence and living conditions as they affect young children.

Doris shared IBM’s experiences with technology education programs with children and youth in New York City, including the highly successful P-TECH program which prepares youth for jobs that require 21st century skills. Some of the key aims in the PTECH program are making technology accessible, engaging, relevant to children and youth, and connecting what kids are learning to the real world. Through the program, IBM and partners hope to turn out skilled employees who are on entry-level career tracks. They look at what jobs are hiring with AAS degrees, what skills are attached and how to map those skills back into curriculum. Helping children and youth acquire collaboration, communication, and problem solving skills is key to the approach, as are broad partnerships with various stakeholders including government, private sector, communities and youth themselves. The program has been lauded by President Obama and is in the process of being replicated in Chicago.

Ron highlighted that working on urban poverty is not new. His involvement began in 1963 when John F. Kennedy was elected and there was a thrust to address urban poverty. Many, including Ron, began to think about their role in abolishing (not just alleviating or reducing) poverty. ‘We thought as architects, as planners about how we could address the issues of urban poverty.’ Broader urban poverty initiatives grew from work done forming the first youth in action community based organizations (CBOs) in Bedford Sty, Harlem and the Lower East Side. Originally these programs were empowerment programs, not service delivery programs; however because they confronted power, they faced many challenges and eventually morphed into service delivery programs. Since then, this youth in action community based model has served other community based initiatives all over the world. Ron emphasized the importance of differentiating among the roles of CBOs, technical assistance providers, and intermediaries and the need to learn to better to support CBOs who are on the ground rather than supplanting their roles with NGOs and other intermediaries.

Sherry picked up where Ron left off, noting that she’d collaborated with a network of federations of the urban poor in 33 countries, looking at ways they’ve used technologies and how technology presents new challenges for communities.

A large percentage of the urban poor live illegally in non-formal settlements where they can’t vote and don’t have legal representation, she said. They want partnership with the local government and to make themselves visible. The first thing they do is to count themselves, document the land they live on, map every lane and garbage dump, every school (if schools exist), their incomes, livelihoods, and expenditures. This body of information can help them engage with local authorities. It’s an organizing tool that gives them a collective identity that can lead to a collective voice.

This process seems to be a natural fit for technology, in that it can allow for management and storing of information, she said. However, technology use can be incredibly complicated. Traditionally the process has been managed manually. The information comes in on paper, it is fed immediately back to community members, contested and corrected right there. The process is very participatory and very accurate, and includes everybody. Things that have been mapped or measured are validated. Boundaries are argued and joint agreement about the community reality and the priorities is reached right there.

Sherry noted that when technology is used to do this, participation becomes more restricted to a smaller, more technically savvy group rather than the entire community. It takes longer to get the information back to the community. Many urban poor are technology literate, but there are complexities. Sometimes youth want to go with technology and older leaders are more comfortable with the more manual, inclusive processes.

The complexity of urban environments was addressed by all three discussants. According to Sherry, many people still hold a development image of the ‘perfect village,’ contained, people sitting around a tree. But urban communities are very complex: Who owns what? There are landlords. Who represents whom? How do you create the space and the links with local authorities? Ron agreed, saying that cities and settlements  tend to be far more pluralistic. Understanding the nature and differences among them, how to weave together and work together is critical. Doris noted that one organization cannot work on this alone, but that multiple partners need to be involved.

Participants at the Technology Salon. (Photo: UNICEF)

Key points brought up during the ensuing discussion included:

Process, product and participation:

  • It’s important to work directly with community based organizations rather than surrogates (in the form of external NGOs). It’s critical to work on building the capacity of people and organizations on the ground, recognizing them as the core actors.
  • The process by which people engage is just as important as the end product. If new technologies are involved, participation needs special attention to ensure no one is being marginalized and the data is interpreted by local people, and they play a role in gathering it and learning, sharing and discussing during the process.
  • Digital data collection and fly-over mapping should not replace participatory processes of data collection and local interpretation. Bringing in more efficient processes via new technologies is possible, but it often means losing some of the richness and interpretation of the data. If you’re not including everyone in this process, you risk marginalizing people from the process.
  • Every community, village or barrio has a different personality. No one size approach or model or technology fits all.
  • It’s important to let people create solutions to their own challenges; set the right policies so that what is produced can be scaled (open/open source); and make sure things are hyper-local – yet help move the ideas and build networks of south-south collaboration so that people can connect.
  • The technologies only make sense when they are done within a participatory framework or context. People get excited about technology and the idea of really iterating and trying things out very quickly. But this only makes sense if you have a bigger plan. If you go in and start playing around, without context and a long-term plan, you lose the community’s trust. You can’t drop in tech without context, but you also can’t come and create such a huge infrastructure that it’s impossible to implement. You need balance.
Children and youth:
  • We shouldn’t forget protection and privacy issues, especially with children and with mapping. These need to be carefully built in and we need to be sure that information and maps are not misused by authorities.
  • We can’t forget the young people and adolescents that we are working with – what do we want them to gain out of this? Critical thinking, problem solving skills? This is what will serve them. Educational systems need to address the pedagogy – if children are even in schools – where do you get that critical thinking? How do you create space for innovation? What is the role of tech in helping support this innovation? What is the role of mapping? Just accounting? Just quantifying? Or are you helping youth know their communities better? Helping them understand safety? What are we mapping for? Community self-knowledge or outside advocacy?
Technology:
  • We need to always ask: Who owns and manages technology? Technology is never neutral. It can both empower and disempower people and communities, and certain groups of people within communities.
  • The technology is a tool. It’s not the technology that teaches, for example, it is teachers who teach. They use the tech to supplement what’s going on in the classroom.
  • Rather than bring in ‘really cool’ things from the outside, we should know what tech already exists, what children, youth and communities are already using and build on that.
  • The challenge always comes down to the cost. Even if an idea works in the US, will it work in other places? Can other places afford the technology that we are talking about? There are some very good projects, but they are impossible to replicate. We need to find feasible and sustainable ways that technology can help reduce costs while it improves the situation for the urban poor.
Engaging local and national governments and the private sector
  • Bottom up is important, but it is not enough. The role of local authorities is critical in these processes but national authorities tend to cut local budgets meaning local authorities cannot respond to local needs. It’s important to work at every level – national policies should enable local authorities and mandate local authorities to work with local communities.
  • Local authorities often need to be pushed to accept some of these new ideas and pulled forward. Often communities can be more technologically savvy than local authorities, which can turn the power dynamic upside down and be seen as threatening, or in some cases as an opportunity for engagement.
  • Communities may need to learn to engage with local governments. Adversarial or advocacy techniques may be useful sometimes but they are not always the right way to go about engaging with the authorities.
  • It’s useful for CBOs to work with both horizontal and vertical networks, and NGOs can play a role in helping this to happen, as long as the NGOs are not replacing or supplanting the CBOs.
  • There needs to be support from the local city government, and an interest, a need, an expressed dedication to wanting to be involved or these kinds of initiatives will fail or fizzle out.
  • There is a tendency to seek quick solutions, quick fixes, when we all know that creating change takes a long time and requires a long-term perspective and investment. The city of Medellin for example has done a good job of investing in connecting settlements to the city through infrastructure and access to technology. Long-term vision with participation from private, public and  community engagement is critical.
  • The quality of investment in poor areas needs to be as high as that in wealthier areas. Many interventions are low quality or limited when they are done in poor areas.
  • Multiple partners and collaboration among them is necessary for these initiatives to move forward and to be successful. You need to bring everyone to the table and to have an existing funding structure and commitment from local and national governments and ministries, as well as local communities and CBOs, NGOs and the private sector.
  • A role for the UN and INGOs can be to help ensure that the right channels are being opened for these projects, that the right partnerships are established, that systems and technologies are kept open and not locked into particular proprietary solutions.
Learning/sharing challenges, approaches and good practice:
  • There is much to learn from how marginalized youth in communities have been engaged without technologies. Once they have the information, no matter how it was gathered — in the sand, by SMS, on the wall — then how can marginalized young people access and address local authorities with it? How can we help enable them to feel more empowered? What can we learn from past efforts that we can apply?
  • There is a lack of exposure of those working in ICT to the urban space and vice versa. This reflects a need to break down the issues and opportunities and to think more deeply about the potential of technology as a part of the solution to urban poverty issues.
  • We need to make a distinction between wonderful projects that some are doing, but that are very costly and have a high cost per participant; and programs that can be done in developing countries. Consider that 75 million youth are now unemployed. The more we learn about what others are doing, the more information we have on how to do it, the better.
  • ICTs are a relatively new element in the urban space. It would be helpful to have a a follow-up report that focuses on how ICTs have been used to address specific issues with children, youth and communities in urban spaces and what specific challenges are posed when using ICTs in this space. What projects have been done or could be done? What are the challenges in implementing projects with refugee populations, undocumented populations, migrants, and other groups? We need to understand this better. We need a document or guide that explores these issues and suggests practical ways to move forward.
  • Social media and new technologies can be used to spread information on successful case studies, to share our learning and challenges and good practice so that we can apply the best approaches.
A huge thanks to ICT Works, UNICEF, our discussants and participants for making this 2nd Technology Salon NYC a success!

Save the date for our 3rd TSNYC, on April 13, 2-4pm at New York Law School. The topic will be the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI); how it can contribute to  better aid coordination and effectiveness; challenges and opportunities for CSOs in signing onto IATI; and ways that technology and open data are supporting the process. 

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