Almost 8 years ago I started working at the GSMA’s ‘Development Fund’, better known nowadays as Mobile for Development. We were a modest team at the time with only five of us based in the GSMA’s Kingsway office (affectionately known as Mumbai due to its lack of air-conditioning) although quickly grew to many more. The early days were a buzz of activity and innovation. We were finding our way in the new and exciting world of M4D and the projects were coming in thick and fast. We grew incredibly fast. In fact, by the time I left the team in 2014, we were 80 people give or take a few. The reason I start this blog with a reflection back to those early days and our growth is, in a roundabout way due to the recent release of the World Bank’s report on Digital Dividends. Let me elaborate. For those who missed it, the World Bank recently released a report highlighting the significant digital divide that still exists predominately between the developed and developing world. According to the report’s findings there is currently:
- 6 BILLION without BROADBAND
- 4 BILLION without INTERNET
- 2 BILLION without MOBILE PHONES
- 4 BILLION without A DIGITAL SIGNAL
I don’t necessarily think this in itself is ground-breaking information, but what interested me most was some of the messages wrapped around these findings. For example, Uwe Deichmann admits that they see a lot of “wasted investments” and that it is “quite shocking how many e-government projects fail”. He goes on to say that technology is “not going to help us circumvent the failures of development over the last couple of decades”. However it’s not all doom and gloom. His next statement, which is a key theme in the report, is not that technology has failed us all, but just that we still need to “get the basics right: education, business climate, and accountability in government”.
Furthermore, the report places great focus on strengthening the ‘analog complements’ around technology. I like this thinking. To me this relates to taking a step back and reinvesting time and resources into getting the key foundations which will enable technology for all and help to close the digital divide. It’s what got me reflecting on those early days at the ‘Development Fund’. In the beginning our mission was to ‘Connect the Unconnected’. Unlike the service-based solutions that became our core focus for many years after, our initial projects were about building technical capacity. Whether that be building networks like the Lake Victoria project or the Green Power for Mobile programme, or connecting refugees to mobile networks, the focus was on laying the foundations. Another early stage project that saw a lot of publicity was the Jokko initiative which among other things helped to develop women’s technical literacy by teaching them how to navigate their way through a mobile phone menu.
But this is just part of the picture and the World Bank report looks beyond this still highlighting three areas that are key to support the healthy growth and uptake of technology and help to close the divide:
- A business environment where firms can leverage the internet to compete and innovate for the benefit of consumers;
- Workers, entrepreneurs, and public servants who have the right skills to take advantage of opportunities in the digital world; and
- An accountable government that effectively uses the internet to empower its citizens and deliver services.
Not making these necessary reforms, claims the World Bank, means “falling farther behind those who do, while investing in both technology and its complements is the key to the digital transformation”. The report’s co-Director Deepak Mishra pushes the agenda that “policies and regulations are needed to ensure the digital market is competitive and in order to promote “more inclusive, efficient, and innovative societies”. Ensuring that citizens have the right skills to benefit from technology is key to ensuring no one is left behind. And more governments could do with taking a leaf out of India’s book and taking a leading role on the implantation of digital policies.
So what does all this mean for those of us working in ICT4D? Sometimes I feel, just like the technologies themselves that we have evolved too quickly. Perhaps now is a good time for reflection and to start looking again at the enabling environment that will set the foundation for all the services that we lay we on top. We must encourage governments to develop the right kind of policies and a regulatory environment which would help strengthen delivery of networks and ICT solutions to development challenges. Investment in schools and teachers, businesses and small enterprises, health care and government services should still be at the top of the list of priorities, and technology should be incorporated into this and not seen as a standalone solution.