15 years of ICT for Development: a reflection

Last week Computer Aid International celebrated providing its 200,000th computer to organisations working in education and development in more than 100 countries.

Computer Aid’s Founder and previous CEO Tony Roberts reflects on changes in the field of information and communication technologies for Development (ICT4D) over the last fifteen years.

In 1997 when we founded Computer Aid International, silver-haired senior managers in the London headquarters of international development agencies were sceptical of our suggestions. They thought us fanciful in seeing a role for ICT on the ground in development (despite using computers themselves at work and at home). It certainly wasn’t the way development was done back then.

Undeterred, experience on the ground told us that the level of demand for ICTs from operational development worker was significant and fast-growing. Local field staff were eager to apply ICT to enhance service delivery and empower communities.

We made mistakes though; a technology-centred approach limited the value of some initiatives. Hype and enthusiasm often proceeds the application of sound development practice in the arena of technology and development. This is equally true whether you look at Computer Aid in those early days, the telecentre movement later on, MIT’s one-laptop-per-child initiative, the bubble of mobile apps for development or some of the current activity around Open Data and transparency.

In the cycle of innovation diffusion and adoption, hype precedes substance; technology-push precedes genuine demand-pull; and technology-centred precedes people-centred development.

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