ICT and inclusive growth and development: Impediment or useful tool?

Technological advancements have resulted in structural changes involving the reorganization of the global economy, an increase in trade, and globalization. As a result, nation-states across the world have benefited through an increase in capital flows and unprecedented access to information in contemporary society. Conventional wisdom suggests that increased investment in ICT has increased growth and development across the world. Investments in ICT have yielded significant outcomes in growth and development initiatives in both developed and developing countries.

Impact of ICT on the global economy

Understanding the impact of digital technologies on populations at the global margins provides an essential opportunity for evaluating the limitations and opportunities associated with digital technologies. Technology enthusiasts have long proclaimed the value that can be derived from the adoption of technology, citing its potential for revolutionizing access to education. Moreover, technology is perceived as a critical tool in reducing inequality in contemporary society. Additionally, it is expected to help lift people out of poverty while also creating opportunities for the expansion of their democratic space. Their view is supported by the multitude of examples of poor farmers using technology to increase their incomes.

Fig 1: Technology and farm production (Edgy Universe, 2019)

In her text, Rettberg (2008) explored the rise of digital media and how the sector has transformed communication practices in contemporary society. Her text addressed the revolutionary nature of technological innovations and how it creates new value streams. Blogs and other digital media have created an opportunity for different groups to be active participants in social discourse (Rettberg, 2008). As such, minority groups now have the means to challenge narratives which they believe are unfair to their identity. Similarly, they now have the means to be actively involved in shaping discussions about their culture and groups. In this regard, digital media has increased inclusivity as minority groups are now able to circumvent gatekeepers to widen their reach. As web blogs have become an essential part of the public consciousness, individuals are now able to participate in social discourse. Moreover, more people can express their needs and challenge stakeholders to align development initiatives to them.

Technology has created opportunities for more people and communities to exercise agency in the development ecosystem. For instance, more people can document their lived experiences to increase cultural awareness. A good example involves the fact that more Africans are taking an active role in sharing stories and images about their communities. This phenomenon challenges the white gaze through which development narratives about poor and developing countries have been cast. As such, the target recipients of aid programs can take a more active role in the development programs that purpose to improve the quality of their life.

The poor communities in the world are now being enrolled in digital networks, a phenomenon that is narrowing the connectivity gap that has undermined inclusive growth in the past. However, the fact that wealthier populations had a head start means that technology may have entrenched social-economic disparities across the world. Between 2012 and 2017, over 1 billion people became new users of the internet (Graham, 2019). In 2017, there were more internet users than those who do not have access to the internet (Graham, 2019). The networking of poor communities means that more people have access to the internet and can be active participants in the global economy.

The rise of digital economies has created a lot of opportunities for the realization of inclusive growth and development. However, a majority of literature on this subject has centered on high-income economies. Consequently, there is a lack of sufficient knowledge on the implications of technology for those communities that are at the margins of economic growth.

Carmody (2013) critiqued the optimistic view that has led to many stakeholders to equate increased internet access to the realization of equality of opportunities for digital entrepreneurs, digital enterprises, and digital workers. Although people across the world have access to the internet, it does not automatically mean they have access to similar opportunities. Nonetheless, it is essential to appreciate the fact that it has created new opportunities for the narrowing of social-economic gaps in contemporary society.

In essence, technology can be a powerful instrument in poverty eradication across the world. Presently, about 767 million people live below the poverty line with a daily expenditure of less than $1.90 (Deichmann & Mishra, 2019). Out of these, 80 % live in rural areas, with more than 60% of them involved in agriculture (Deichmann & Mishra, 2019). About 40% of this population is under the age of 15 years, while 40% also do not have access to education (Deichmann & Mishra, 2019). Since 1990, about 1.1 billion people have been lifted out of poverty due to increased urbanization and the adoption of market-oriented economic systems (Deichmann & Mishra, 2019).  The data demonstrates the continued prevalence of poverty in contemporary society.

Fig 2: Farmers in the market (International Finance Corporation, 2018)

Deichmann and Mishra (2019), proceed to note that the innovation of mobile money, which gained a lot of transaction in Kenya and Bangladesh, has revolutionized access to financial services across the world. The capacity to do mobile transfers has created employment opportunities, increased access to financing, and reduced the barriers to engagement in the economic system. Data collected from research in Peru indicated that access to mobile financial services increased household incomes by 11% between 2004 and 2009 (Deichmann & Mishra, 2019). Moreover, it also contributed to an 8% reduction in poverty levels (Deichmann & Mishra, 2019).

Fig 3: M-pesa considered 9th most influential innovation in the last 50 years (Staff Writer, 2019)

The rollout of digital identification systems in India resulted in an increase in efficiency in public service. Furthermore, technology-enabled Nigeria to save $ 1 billion annually by removing ghost workers from the payroll system (Deichmann & Mishra, 2019). More importantly, having a digital identity has been credited with empowering individuals to enjoy access to financial services.

Limitations of ICT role in the development

However, the available evidence suggests that these developments have not succeeded in yielding positive outcomes in poverty eradication. Skepticism about the impact of technology in poverty eradication can be understood by noting the fact that technology benefits those who are socially and economically advantaged the most. ICTS tends to be productivity-based and skill-based. As such, only those who have access to education have the opportunity to acquire the skills they require to thrive in a digital economy. In some countries such as Niger and Afghanistan, about 70 % of the population is illiterate (Deichmann & Mishra, 2019). Similarly, disparities exist in Mali and Uganda, where a majority of the third graders cannot even read. Even among those who can afford mobile phones, the high cost of data means that these advancements would benefit advantaged groups the most. As such, instead of being equalizers, digital technologies risk aggravating existing inequalities across the world.

Isaac Asimov’s 1964 prediction seems to have come true. He cautioned stakeholders to be wary of the potential for technological advancements to entrench inequality in society.

Not all the world’s population will enjoy the gadgety world of the future to the full. A larger portion than today will be deprived, and although they may be better off, materially, than today, they will be further behind when compared with the advanced portions of the world. They will have moved backward, relatively” (Asimov 1964, n. p.).

Another challenge associated with technological advancements is the impact that it has on production systems. Traditionally, the development path for most societies goes through manufacturing, which provides employment opportunities to low-skilled persons. However, technological advancements have led to an increase in automation, which reduces the number of employees that are hired in any system. As the future of jobs becomes skewed to knowledge-intensive ones, the availability of opportunities for members of poor communities to achieve social-economic mobility will shrink.

Furthermore, while the internet can be both an accelerator and enabler of growth and development, it does not offer shortcuts for a country to achieve high-income status. Moreover, there is the risk that technology can act as a placebo, delaying the structural and systemic changes required in society to enable it to achieve inclusive prosperity.

In this regard, for technology to yield positive outcomes in promoting inclusive prosperity, there must be deliberate efforts aimed at strengthening the business environment through appropriate macro-economic policies. Besides, there must be a lot of investment in the improvement of skills development among young people, while adults must be willing to re-learn a lot of things. Furthermore, there must be a lot of emphasis on increasing accountability among stakeholders in the public sector. As such, technology cannot replace the foundational elements of economic development, the business climate, human capital, and good governance. While the internet and mobile technologies can bring more people into the social-economic environment, they cannot replace the foundations required to achieve desired outcomes.

In his paper, Bitange Ndemo (2019), citing his experience in participating in increasing internet access in Kenya, noted that the difference between transformational change and a lack of it in a society is the level of connectivity among participants in the economy. As such, when a country has adopted the fundamentals that are required to achieve social-economic growth, technology can offer an essential next step. He noted the impact that mapping Kibera and increasing internet connectivity had in creating opportunities for young people in Africa’s largest slum. Before the initiative, many people had thought that over a million people lived in the slum. However, ICT enabled the government to identify that only 300,000 people lived in the area (Bitange, 2019). In this regard, policymakers were able to make informed planning decisions.

Fig 4: Mapping Kibera slum (Doherty, 2012)

Similarly, in Uganda, data collected from satellites as part of the United Nations Global Pulse is enabling farmers to make data-driven planting decisions and to track disease patterns accurately. Some of the pictures captured by these satellites can be used to track poverty prevalence in the country, an activity that has not been possible in the past. Furthermore, Gro Intelligence aggregates both structured and unstructured data, which it then uses to enable farmers to have a better understanding of the ecosystem within which they operate. In Kenya, ICTs have resulted in the elimination of intermediaries, allowing farmers to sell their products directly to customers. These developments have created unique opportunities for farmers to improve their social-economic status by deriving more value for their produce.

Fig 5: Empowering farmers with data (Murray, 2019)

Technology and social-economic inclusion

According to Bitange (2019), a majority of Big data studies have erroneously focused on populations with a pre-existing digital footprint, a factor that can have a disruptive effect on the capacity of stakeholders to understand the inclusivity caused by technology. The flawed approach is contributing to an increase in the discrimination of communities affected with low-incomes.

The adoption of SDGs as a framework for promoting inclusive development in contemporary society in 2015, offered opportunities for the utilization of data in designing and implementing development programs (Bitange, 2019). Data-driven development initiatives are vital in ensuring that stakeholders can make informed decisions. Moreover, it can optimize resource allocation by matching at-need populations with the interventions they require the most.

Pepper and Jackman (2019), in their paper, explored gaps in the integration of technology in the modern economy that have hurt the impact of technology. For example, they established that small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Kenya struggled to fill job slots despite the country having a large population of about 10 million unemployed youths (Pepper & Jackman, 2019). Duma Works, a startup based in Kenya, utilizes an algorithm to match job seekers with employers who require their skills the most. At the time of their study, they noted that the organization had already assisted 3,000 Kenyans to find jobs at 250 organizations (Pepper & Jackman, 2019.

At a macro level, digitization has streamlined markets and production systems, reducing the challenges that stakeholders face as they create value. For example, Colombian food vendors are now able to place orders through SMS based on a service provided by Agruppa. The orders are then aggregated into a wholesale order, which reduces the prices by 30 % (Pepper & Jackman, 2019). The example demonstrates how technology can be used to solve social-economic challenges and create opportunities for inclusive growth and development.

In a rather ironic turn of events, the people that would benefit the most from the adoption of technology are currently the least connected. Presently, about 4.1 billion people do not have access to internet connectivity (Pepper & Jackman, 2019). Furthermore, 90 % of unconnected populations live in developing countries (Pepper & Jackman, 2019). The market-driven growth in connectivity has resulted in this outcome because investments in internet connection are influenced by market fundamentals, which determine affordability and the profitability of internet service providers.

Potential solutions

Overcoming the problem of unequal access to connectivity requires a multi-stakeholder approach. The private sector, communities, governments, and the business sector must collaborate to increase internet connectivity across the world. Reducing the gap in access to the internet will play a vital role in narrowing the inclusion gap and creating opportunities for more people to benefit from increased access to the internet.

Improving access to the internet will require innovative solutions that would facilitate the provision of the internet to remote and low-density population areas. Furthermore, there must be an effort aimed at ensuring that more communities can transition quickly to emerging technologies. For instance, while most of the developing world is focusing on the adoption of 5G internet, it is appalling that some communities are yet to transition from 3G or 4G internet.

Another critical dimension that stakeholders must address involves closing the gender gap in access to the internet. The gender gap can be linked to issues with affordability, gender-sensitive design, and relevance (Pepper & Jackman, 2019). The failure to adequately align technological developments with the needs of diverse social-cultural groups can hurt its impact.

Conclusion

In sum, stakeholders must appreciate the fact that they share a responsibility for ensuring that technology is a tool for promoting inclusive growth and development across the world. In essence, there is a need to ensure that the internet is used as a force for enabling different groups in society to achieve positive outcomes. Furthermore, there is a need for stakeholders to ensure they address the systemic, structural, cost, and design flaws that undermine the capacity of diverse populations to harness the potential of technology to improve their social-economic status.

References

Asimov , I. (1964). Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014. Retrieved from

http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/03/23/lifetimes/asi-v-fair.html

Carmody, P. (2013). A Knowledge Economy or an Information Society in Africa? Thintegration and the Mobile Phone Revolution. Information Technology for Development 19 (1), 24–39.

Deichmann, U & Mishra, D. (2019). Marginal benefits at the global margins: The unfulfilled potential of Digital Technologies. In Digital Economies at Global Margins. The MIT Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Doherty, P. (2012). Digital Technology-Informal Settlements and community empowerment in the Kibera slum, Kenya. Retrieved from https://www.slideshare.net/pwdoherty/digital-technology-informal-settlements-amp-community-empowerment-in-the-kibera-slum-kenya

Edgy Universe. (2019). Why Urban Farms are the future of food production. Retrieved from https://edgy.app/urban-farms-are-the-future-of-food-production

Graham, M. (2019). Changing Connectivity and Digital Economies at Global Margins. In Digital Economies at Global Margins. The MIT Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts.

International Finance Corporation. (2018). Technology Helps African Framers sell what they sow. Retrieved from https://www.ifc.org/wps/wcm/connect/news_ext_content/ifc_external_corporate_site/news+and+events/news/impact-stories/technology-helps-african-farmers-sell-what-they-sow

Murray, S. (2019). Empowering African farmers with data. Retrieved from http://news.mit.edu/2019/empowering-african-farmers-with-data-0530

Ndemo, B. (2019). Toward the transformative power of Universal Connectivity. In Digital Economies at Global Margins. The MIT Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Rettberg, J. W. (2008). Blogging. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Staff Writer. (2019). M-pesa ranked 9th most influential project globally over the last 50 years. Retrieved from https://www.cio.co.ke/m-pesa-ranked-9th-most-influential-project-globally-over-the-last-50-years/

 

 

Personal Reflection

The learning experience has enabled me to appreciate the value of investing in developing digital literacy. In light of the integral role of technology in influencing development patterns across the world, every person needs to develop the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in a digital economy. Furthermore, technology must be at the center of development initiatives across the world.

I have developed an in-depth understanding of the role of ICT in promoting growth and development across the world. Furthermore, I have reviewed the literature on the impact of technologies in different parts of the world. However, I learned to recognize the negative implications of technology on marginal populations. The readings have demonstrated the disruptive effect of technologies in the economy in ways that disproportionately affect poor communities. Analyzing the different readings on this subject taught me the importance of relying on the lived experiences of people to examine different theories and ideas.

The insights that I have gained from this endeavor will enable me to be an active participant in advocating for inclusive development approaches. I am now more aware of the limitations of technology as a tool for development. Besides, I have learned that a failure to use technology strategically can undermine the net effect that it can have on the most vulnerable populations.

In sum, I have learned the value of critical thinking and the need to ensure that I can identify both the positive and negative impact of technology. Furthermore, I have learned the importance of research in enabling me to have the knowledge and skills that I require to be an active participant in promoting inclusive development. Moreover, I am now aware of the need for cultural competence in understanding the needs of different communities across the world.

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