Last week, I was during three days at the Second International Meeting on ICT for Development Cooperation where I gave a talk on Mobile and ICT for Development.
I originally accepted the invitation because it was organized by my colleague Brendan Doyle from Fundacion CTIC, and I’m always happy to chat with him and Josema (José Manuel Alonzo). I participated in the first instance of this conference last year, and to be honest it was not really focused on my current work interests, and was mostly targeted at an audience from Spain. Therefore, I didn’t expect very much from it this year and obviously I was completely wrong!
This year it was an event of another dimension. The attendance was far bigger (around 200 people I would say), and there was a strong international participation. Not only there were people from all over the World, but, more interesting, almost all the different actors from the development sector were represented. There were people from international organizations like The World Bank, OECD or UNDP, academics from Africa (Meraka Institute), people from the industry like Nokia, Microsoft Research India, people from small or bigger NGOs like Ushahidi or APC, people from Development agencies or related like the Swiss development agency, IRDC, IICD or the South Centre. This diversity brought very interesting discussions.
Out of the networking opportunity and meetings with very interesting and nice people, I’m coming back with two particular highlights I would like to share.
The first one is about mobile. While last year, the event was also on the use of ICT in Development, almost nobody was talking about mobiles. I tried to ask questions, and see what the opinion of presenters was on the role of mobile in development but no success, mobile phones were person-to-person communication mechanism, not a real ICT platform. That was only 12 months ago. This year, I don’t recall one talk or round table not mentioning mobiles. It is really impressive to see how quickly all actors of ICTD have adopted mobiles.
The second highlight for me was to realize how diverse the views of the different actors of the domain are. There were different dimensions discussed. The first one is the role of governments. Being a bit provocative, I would say that some people believe that governments are mandatory parts of the solution, while at the opposite some others believe that they are part of the problem. I’m personally somewhere in the middle. I believe that governments have to be out of the critical path. There are simple services that could really improve people’s lives, and empowering local NGOs is the only way to see these services being deployed and available quickly at the local level. In another domain, about human rights, democracy, freedom of speech, transparent elections, only NGOs could develop and provide relevant services that would put pressure on governments to take the good option.
On the other end, for country-wide challenges (health, education…), or for public services, governments are the only one that could launch required actions, and empowering them with appropriate technologies would allow a better availability of these services. Therefore, in summary, I really believe that it is essential to work at both levels, empowering both NGOs and governments to allow them to better accomplish their work.
About empowering people, governments or NGOs, I realized also during this event that this is a concept that not everybody is sharing. For me, coming with a background and history about the Web, empowering people is the only way to have an impact at the global level. But from people coming from the development sector, the traditional top-down approach is to first understand what the issues are, then develop an appropriate solution and finally implement it in the field. There were lots of discussions on this approach. I was particularly interested by the talk made by Kentaro Toyama, from Microsoft Research India, where he presented two important concepts around first the importance of focusing on development and not on technology (understanding what are the needs first instead of trying to understand what kind of problems a particular technology could solve), and the need to integrate people in the very beginning of the cycle. Very inspiring presentation.
We were also few on the side of the importance of empowering people. Here, I was impressed by Juliana Rotich from Ushahidi, by Merryl Ford from Meraka Institute and Anriette Esterhuysen from APC. Another very interesting talk was done by Vikas Nath from South Centre about the importance for Developing Countries to shape their agenda themselves and not let others do it. To summarize, it is very important to understand the different viewpoints of the different actors, and in that regards convening people from different sectors was a great success of this event.
Finally, discussing with different people running projects in different countries, I realized that I was over-optimistic on the awareness of the potential of the mobile platform. Being in the domain since 3 years now, I didn’t realize that they are still people working in the field that are not really aware of the potential of mobile phones, and the way they could use them in their projects, without requiring heavy negotiation with operators and governments. There is a need for an important work on raising awareness on the easiness of developing, deploying and accessing mobile content.