ICT 4 Development: Pulling the right policy levers

18 November 2017 | 09:41

ICT 4 Development: Pulling the right policy levers

Photo: Yoshimasa Tsuruta.

 

There is little doubt that Information and Communication Technology (ICT) will play a key role in accelerating the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

 

Driven by the rapid diffusion of mobile and broadband technologies in the last decade, the ‘ICT 4 Development’ idea has gained significant traction. Globally, private firms and tech start-ups are using these digital rails to deploy solutions which address wide-ranging issues in agriculture, health, education, governance and finance.

 

 

For instance, in Kenya, access to mobile money increased per capita consumption levels and has lifted an estimated two percent of Kenyan households out of poverty. In India, access to mobile phone-based agricultural advice services for farmers is  leading to improved agricultural practices and yields.  Health workers in Zimbabwe are using mobile-based data collection systems to process rapid diagnostic tests for HIV and malaria. And yet, nearly 20 percent of the population in developing countries does not use mobile-cellular services. In larger developing economies such as Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Pakistan, nearly 40 per cent of the population does not own a mobile phone. Moreover, ownership and usage rates among women, elderly and rural populations are much lower than the rest of the population. Catalysing ICT access and adoption in these regions requires significant investment, innovative partnerships and capacity building at the last-mile. The World Development Report 2016 also makes a compelling case for investing in these ‘analog complements’ to enable ICT adoption: strong competitive regulations, worker skills adapted to the demands of the new economy and institutional accountability.    

 

 

A growing body of evidence suggests that poor access to infrastructure and high costs are among the biggest barriers to mobile-phone and broadband usage. Although mobile and fixed broadband prices have declined steadily in the last few years, the pace of decline has been slow. For instance, 1GB of data costs an average African citizen nearly 18% of his/her monthly income4. In nascent broadband markets, inefficiencies such as historical monopolies, poor spectrum allocation and high costs of entry discourage private sector investment. These challenges are best addressed through policy and regulatory forms. In OECD markets, policymakers have adopted unbundled access as a way to foster competition. Funding backbone infrastructure is another key supply-side policy lever, which has been adopted by policymakers in Australia, Iceland, Greece and Canada. In Korea, policymakers have used a combination of demand and supply-side interventions to develop its ICT market. In the years following the launch of broadband in 1998, the market saw rapid expansion in supply and demand. This was backed by public investment in building a backbone national network that connected public institutions and post offices throughout the country, availability of applications with a strong use case, and clear master plans for the development of an information society.   

 

 

Private service providers also face the daunting task of achieving financial sustainability, especially in countries with a significantly large population at the base of the pyramid, and an emerging ICT sector.  In such cases, governments and public institutions can help providers achieve economies of scale by aggregating demand across agencies and lowering costs particularly in case of ICT-based delivery systems for public healthcare, education and infrastructure. The evolution towards ‘e-governance’ - provision of integrated public services online, is another push lever for governments to facilitate increased ICT adoption among citizens. As of 2016, 90 countries offer one or more single entry portal on public information or online services, or both and 148 countries provide at least one form of online transactional services. However, these efforts largely remain fragmented especially in countries which have a complex, federal structure of Government. A clear national roadmap, which aims at integrating these technologies with existing processes such as payments, tax collections, procurement, information management, and analytics, these initiatives are unlikely to generate economies, is no longer an option.

 

 

  

Contrary to popular belief, access to technology is rarely neutral.  While ICT is a powerful tool in the hands of policymakers to foster inclusive development, lack of a clear roadmap for implementation can perpetuate the digital divide and preclude vulnerable populations from accessing essential services. ICT initiatives often fail to consider specific barriers to access and use that prevent women, elderly, children and rural populations from leveraging their potential. Apart from the lack of affordable devices and connectivity, poorly designed products and services, and lack of locally appropriate content discourage ICT use.  ‘Digital Identity’ is the latest in a series of ICT for Development initiatives which is based on the premise that lack of official personal identification can prevent people from fully exercising their rights. However, as recent developments with respect to India’s ambitious biometric identity project ‘Aadhaar’ suggest, such technologies can further exclusion and vulnerability, unless they are backed by a robust policy and regulatory architecture to implement them at the grassroots.

 

 

 

The significant rise of first-generation ICT users has serious implications for policies that focus on digital capabilities and consumer protection. While digital literacy is increasingly becoming an essential life skill, a clear understanding of digital skills appears to be missing from the current ICT discourse. The challenge is further confounded by lack of rigorous evidence on ‘what works’ in promoting digital literacy. Mobile money presents an interesting case in point. While mobile money has witnessed a rapid expansion in diverse countries such as Paraguay, Ghana, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, a significant proportion of these transactions are conducted over-the-counter (OTC) i.e. assisted by an agent. This suggests that users in developing countries can lack the confidence and skills to use digital platforms independently and there is a need to improve their readiness to adopt these technologies. This is another area which needs a strong policy push, given the lack of a strong business proposition for the private sector to invest in building digital capabilities of users at scale. At the same time, on the supply side, there is a need to equip front-line personnel such as public sector employees with the skills to deploy and use ICT systems.

 

 

 

Beyond these areas of intervention, the policy ecosystem in developing countries needs to focus on  standards and processes that strengthen data privacy and enable data collection, management and transparency in a secure environment. Since these countries are still in the early stages of ICT adoption and use, policies must focus on creating the right conditions for catalysing the growth of technologies. This will spur innovation and encourage private sector investment in solutions which can accelerate the achievement of the SDGs. There is little doubt that the right partnerships with private sector and civil society, as envisioned in Goal 17 of the Global Agenda, will provide a considerable boost to ICT growth in the developing world. Building on the experience of advanced economies such as Korea, public policy in developing countries must take the lead in building an enabling ecosystem for technology access and adoption.

 

 

 

Diksha Singh is a Policy & Outreach Manager at IFMR LEAD. Views expressed in the article are her own.

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