"We live in a rapidly evolving age, where technology can either be used to solve human rights problems or misued to erode human rights." — Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Crash course in ICT4D
ICT4D stands for ‘Information and Communication Technologies for Development’.
It is an academic sub-discipline of ICT and international development. ICT4D is also used as an umbrella term used to refer to projects and activities that use ICT for social good.
There are many projects, activities, initiatives, and interventions that can be considered 'ICT4D'.
ICT4D is a cross-disciplinary field. It incorporates concepts, principles, and vocabulary from a variety of related fields.
Those new to the ICT4D space will find a great deal of jargon and 'fuzzy' definitions to try and untangle.
A helpful lens
In fact, it’s the case that many ICT4D efforts are not aware that they are using ICT4D. They are simply solving a local problem through digital technologies.
We use ICT4D because it can be a helpful way to help look at different projects through the same lens.
This can be a challenge, as ICT4D-related projects are often quite varied. One project focuses on nutrition, while another focuses on databases. One on geospatial systems, another on digital literacy.
To make matters even more complicated, we sometimes focus too much on ICT4D and too little on the outcome we desire in the first place.
ICT4D vs. water
Sometimes the choice to invest in digital technologies does not seem like it should be a priority.
Why invest in digital technologies rather than, say, a water well to allow access to clean water?
It's a good question—and often, it helps all types of projects to ask questions in this way.
But it's often a false choice.
We need to invest in both—differently.
Sustainable development requires water development and digital development. They go hand-in-hand in making effective use of available resources.
IT, ICT, ICT4D, and Digital Development
ICT4D is distinct from IT.
'IT' is often considered “hard” technology—hardware, code, systems administration, server maintenance, and IT assets like computers, workstations, and the back-end of digital tools.
'ICT' is generally "soft" technology—the designing and managing of digital strategies, content and digital processes, and project programming.
'ICT4D' (remember, (Information and Communication Technologies)) then is simply extending 'ICT' into the Development or 'social good' space, where it either functions as a means unto itself (digital literacy, mobile data, computer programming), or as a cross-sector 'catalyst' to improve and effect outcomes in other sectors (education, agriculture, finance).
ICT4D focuses on people
One very important feature of ICT4D as an area of focus is that it looks at all technologies, information, data, and communications through the lens of how it affects people
Rather than simply looking at the diffusion of a technology or innovation on its own merits or what it has the potential of affecting, ICT4D holds the end-user or person as the focus.
Often, the ICT4D professionals and scholars are the most skeptical of a given technological innovation or novel approach because of this important stance!
Access to digital tools opens up a world of exploration, support, and opportunity. For those with access—they find doors open to them. They can improve their education, find job opportunities, and use online services.
But for many in the world, these tools are inaccessible.
Until very recently, "inaccessible" assumed physical accessibility. Phone connectivity was a luxury, and computers were bulky and expensive. Infrastructure for these tools were geographically limited, and services were costly.
Times have changed. Mobile phone networks have diffused across the globe. Computers have both become cheaper and more portable. Smartphones have become an essential personal computing device.
'Accessible' no longer means 'unavailable'. It has taken on a broader, more nuanced meaning.
There is accessibility by literacy, culture, income, sex, race, etc.
And it's not as simple as an on-off switch—accessibility exists on a spectrum, and intersects in a variety of ways. For example, a poor female farmer might make digital tools less accessible.
Less access means less participation in the digital economy.
Economic, social and political life in the 21st century will be increasingly digital, and those without access ICTs will be increasingly excluded.
Those excluded will find it harder and harder to bridge that gap alone.
The 'Digital Divide'
The gulf between the technology ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ has is the ‘digital divide.' It is the social and economic inequality that exists with both access to and use of digital technologies.
The digital divide is not simply the digital inequality between rich and poor countries. It is a proxy term for disparities in geography, status, generation, race, and gender.
Individuals, organizations, communities, and countries must work together to bridge this digital divide.
The goal is not to 'bridge the digital divide' for its own sake, rather to narrow inequality through societies and communities more generally, but to use the digital divide as a frame of reference for action.
Participating in today’s modern digital ecosystem is not a luxury—it is a global necessity.
We must work to make digital tools accessible and useful for people. We must make benefit as many lives as possible.
One thing that separates ICT4D from say, a more straightforward approach to IT interventions is the explicit focus on impact on people, and in ensuring that the primary focus of any intervention is placed squarely on the well-being of the target group.
ICT4D places emphasis on participation, improvisation, flexibility, learning and local capacity.
The successful ICT4D initiatives are not developed in a laboratory. Rather, they are designed together with the communities or designed directly by them, within those communities.