ICTs give development aid a shot in the arm

A simple satelite phone can make a huge difference in countries like Somalia Keystone

Development aid has been decreasing over the past decade, hardly making an impact in the world’s poorest nations, according to experts.

This content was published on December 5, 2003 - 08:06

But they are hopeful that information and communication technologies (ICTs) could help turn this trend around.

“For the first time, humankind now has the tools to redress the inequalities that divide us,” said Adama Samassékou, the president of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

“ICTs also vastly increase the potential for learning and production,” he added.

Gerolf Weigel, head of the ICT division at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), agrees that technology could help give existing development strategies a much-needed shot in the arm.

“These tools open up access to specialised and relevant information and they allow for the exchange of information and knowledge on a variety of issues,” Weigel told swissinfo.

“They also give marginalised and disadvantaged populations a chance to make themselves heard.”

Full of promise

All over the globe, ICTs are already being used to increase development potential in fields such as health, commerce and good governance.

And experts say developing countries that have managed to integrate these technologies into their educational systems are starting to reap the benefits of an increasingly qualified workforce.

“For years we have deliberated over which technologies are appropriate for developing countries,” said the head of the World Bank’s Information for Development Programme, Bruno Lanvin.

“High technology seemed too fragile, costly and sophisticated,” he added. “But today, some of the most advanced technologies are the cheapest to use.”

Opposing viewpoints

But while experts may agree that ICTs are likely to boost development efforts, opinion is divided over how best to integrate and apply these tools.

“The most widespread theory is that building technical infrastructures that offer access to ICTs will automatically generate development,” Weigel wrote in an SDC report on the information society.

“The other option, which is backed by the SDC, is to concentrate on local needs and priorities,” he explained. “This theory is based on the idea that while ICTs are powerful tools, they are not an end in themselves.”

According to Lanvin, the debate over ICT integration once again raises the issue of developing countries’ technological dependence on the industrialised world.

“During past industrial revolutions, the strategy of advanced countries was to halt the spread of technology in order to maintain the upper hand and keep potential for wealth from spreading abroad,” Lanvin said.

“But today, the industrial transformation brought on by ICTs, which is global in nature, must take into account the inequalities between North and South in order to continue evolving,” he added.

swissinfo, Frédéric Burnand in Geneva (translation: Anna Nelson)

In brief

Experts believe information and communication technologies (ICTs) will give a much-needed boost to existing development programmes, which have been flagging in recent years.

From health and education to commerce and good governance, ICTs are increasing the economic and social potential of developing countries by giving them the tools to help themselves.

But opinion is divided over how best to integrate these tools in poorer nations.

Some specialists believe that building technical infrastructures holds the key to improved development, while others argue that the priority should be on adapting ICTs for local populations.

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