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Information is power: build systems to deliver it, and the excluded will come

Information is power: build systems to deliver it, and the excluded will come

ICTs may not provide optimal solutions to every challenge, but they can enable women’s and girls’ freedom, equality and dignity under the right circumstances, said UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore. 

She was speaking on the Human Rights Council panel discussion on Advancing Women’s Rights in Access to ICTs along with experts from the private sector, government, and civil society. 

The same can be said of other excluded communities. Gilmore noted that the global ‘offline’ population is disproportionately poorer, rural or isolated, and female. Yet innovation exists within a context of social and cultural norms that do not necessarily promote gender equality.

There must be a combined effort to bridge this digital divide which prioritises the four A’s of awareness, availability, accessibility and affordability, in order to make progress on the Pathways Commission’s stakeholder priorities to connect the unconnected.

There are several interesting examples of ICT4D in action in low-resource settings. Here we look at programmes designed to bridge the digital divide by building hard infrastructure, innovating business models and educating communities for longterm use and empowerment.

Refugees need wifi

UN Refugee Camp Management Officer Marie Beroit says that the first question refugees ask her when they arrive at Lagadikia refugee camp is how to connect to the wifi. It’s for a simple reason: the only way that they can move onwards is by claiming asylum. And the only way to do that is for them to call a Skype number. 

Mobile data connections are too expensive and so wifi is their only connection to the wider world, to relatives already in transit or back home, and to the next stage of their journeys. 

NetHope saw that wifi infrastructure investment was crucial in the migration crisis facing Europe. It worked in more than 20 camps on the migrant routes through Europe to provide wifi connectivity that helped refugees to not only call the Skype asylum number, but also to continue with their studies, to seek information about health issues and to stay in touch with their families. 

Humanitarian organisations also benefit from the wifi; camp workers use the connection to track and upload data on health issues or supply needs. 

Attaching ethernet cable to Cisco access point. Source: NetHope.org

A digital lifeline 

Access to information is a lifeline for the unconnected. NetHope saw that wifi connectivity was a crucial tool on the migrant journey. But they also needed information in their own language about what they would face on the path ahead.

With its partners Google, Mercy Corps and the International Rescue Committee, NetHope built Refugee.Info, an information hub to where NetHope wifi users are automatically directed on login to find information about border closings and asylum procedures. It provides reliable information and facts in six languages, to counter misinformation that can quickly spread among migrants in the camp and on the routes across Europe. 

Homepage of Refugee.Info in Arabic. https://www.refugee.info

A new business model for access 

The private sector is also making progress on infrastructure for access.

Hundreds of millions of Indians use the railway network daily, and they are also likely to have a wifi-enabled device. In Mumbai, Google has built a wifi network across the metropolitan railway network where people can access the internet for a limited time period. 

This project undoubtedly provides a valuable service for many millions in Mumbai, but it does not address the issues of access for women and girls. Cultural and social practices in India are deeply entrenched and mobile ownership is largely male. Further, it is a purely philanthropic programme so its scalability is questionable. 

Google wifi router at Indian train station. Source: News18.com

Also in India, the new mobile network Jio is another infrastructure project building a digital lifeline for the unconnected. India has one of the highest rates of mobile penetration in the world, and the cheapest data costs. 

Jio was launched in late 2016 by Reliance Industries with a three-month voice and data package completely free of charge. It now offers a data-only service, voice services free-of-charge, with the lowest data rates globally.  

It was certainly an innovation in telco provision, but so far it has stopped short of other initiatives to improve access for women and other excluded communities such as subsidising handsets or providing preferential tariffs.

Techplomacy as an educational bridge 

That’s where basic digital literacy comes in. Rokhaya Solange Ndir, Head of Digital Ecosystem Relations for Sonatel in Senegal, said on the HRC panel discussion that her experience was that if women are not specifically targeted by a programme, they do not think it is meant for them and they will not participate. 

In many parts of the world, girls are kept at home to do chores instead of going to school. If girls do not stay in school, Ndir says, they will not learn digital skills. State incentives must be put in place to stem this brain drain at puberty as girls need school-level education in basic and digital literacy to take ownership of their lives. 

Girls in a team at African Girls Can CODE camp.
Source: Twitter

The African Girls Can CODE initiative is a joint programme of the African Union Commission (AUC), UN Women Ethiopia and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) with support from the Government of Denmark. It teaches girls across the continent in a four-year programme on digital literacy, coding and personal development skills. 

The programme aims to teach 2,000 girls and spark their interest in ICT careers. That may seem like a small proportion of the continental population, but the programme is replicable with other partners at the national level. 

Girl-powered bikes bring internet to India 

Google’s Internet Saathi programme in India hopes to become a blueprint for scalability. Women ambassadors, kitted out with bikes and wifi enabled entry-level devices, cycle on a route taking in 300,000 of India’s rural villages. 

They come to train the village women how to use these devices to access the internet to help them in everyday life challenges. The Saathis are trained by Google, and supported on a stipend from Tata Trusts. They come from diverse backgrounds; some are teachers looking for other ways to support a community’s learning journey, others are from low-income families and need additional monthly income. 

An Internet Saathi rides her bicycle to teach village women digital skills.
Source: http://www.womenwill.com

Together, they are teaching India’s rural women and girls how to use devices and access information that until then was beyond their reach. Impact is difficult to track on long-term use; a call centre does random follow up calls with village women who have been trained to see if they are still using the internet, but there is no measurement framework in place to track usage post-training. According to reports, three out of four women do not access the internet again after being trained. 

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it

ICTs don’t inherently promote gender equality. Partners across private, government and civil society sectors must invest in the build and maintenance of ICT infrastructure to provide access. They must ensure that excluded communities are involved in the design of these ICT solutions, and they must train these communities to use the solutions for their own benefit at a cost that is affordable for their means and to get information that will empower them. 

Lastly, if we don’t measure programme successes (and failures) then we cannot improve them. The target is to meet SDG 9; to significantly increase access to ICT and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020. 

Building infrastructure is one part of the solution. The excluded will come, but only if you teach them how. 


  1. Lan Yu Tan

    Thanks for an enlightening post! It’s encouraging to read about the ways Google is helping to create programmes and initiatives to help people. It’s interesting you brought up the 4 A’s in your piece. And it got me thinking about O’Donnell and Sweetman’s paper in Gender & Development where they write one might add another two A’s to the list, namely, agency and ability. A point you also make in your post, ie. providing people from excluded communities with training for them to be truly empowered to use these tools.

    What also struck me about the examples you illustrated is how far there is still to go on this journey of ICTs and development in the global south. The four As are important, as are the two extra ones, but tracking progress and maintaining the outcomes are important next steps. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it”, as you rightly point out. Your post also made me think about another digital divide between LMICs and HICs. The technical side of ICTs seem to be the main focus, and it seems that despite the ubiquity of ICTs in development, a top-down approach is still prolific.

    Thanks again,

    1. Yes – top-down is perhaps the default norm because of an ingrained aid hierarchy. But even hardware has the potential for bottom-up development, and application. The mobile phone is perhaps the best example of this. But low cost tablets that are connected to a solar tile on kids’ schoolbags and charged on the walk to school are an example of scalable distribution.

      There are multiple concerns attached to such scalability, not least funding and R&D spend, but it shows that there is a way. We need to scale the will with development agencies, private companies and governments. But as Michael writes in his latest post (https://wpmu.mah.se/nmict182group1/dont-wait-for-a-tipping-point/) we actually need to use ICTs to teach the next generation that they should work to change the top-down system to demand the rights they deserve; turning them into social activists takes a tool and a teacher.

  2. Emanuel Foukou

    Thanks, for a great blog post covering a range of different examples from countries around the globe. It was especially interesting to read about the need for WIFI in refugee camps. This made me think of how unequal the world really is. I recently visited an African country where until the beginning of this year, people in the capital complained over the lack of areas with free WIFI connection, along with the high prices of the internet for mobile phones. That was in the capital of a country, at the same time people in some refugee camps got free access to WIFI, we truly are living in a peculiar world. Thanks for a thought-provoking post…

    1. I think democratisation of connectivity is a huge issue to tackle and is really interesting so thank you for your comment.

      There is enormous potential for partnerships to provide this access and ability to use technologies that can help people in their lives. Public-private partnerships is one way. But small-scale entrepreneurial action is another–in India we’re starting to see social businesses develop ICT loan programmes, skills classes and even remote connections to off-grid areas.

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