Enabling human capacity in ICT development programmes

Over the last few years, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have permeated into increasingly diverse and novel spheres of our public and private lives.

What was largely restricted to elite scientific and military establishments in high income countries of North America and Europe has, over the past few decades, become available and accessible to more and more people across the world, through proliferation of personal computers, internet and, more recently, mobile phones.

During the last 10 years, the number of individuals with access to internet has grown almost three times, from 15.8 per 100 persons in 2005 to 43.4 in 2015. The number of mobile-cellular phone subscriptions has gone up from 33.9 to 96.8 per 100 persons, as per the latest data released by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

While the developing countries now having more internet and mobile phone users than the developed countries, disparities continue to exist in terms of not only the quality of access but also the nature of benefits that access to these technologies provides to the people in different regions of the world. The 2016 World Development Report echoes this sentiment by noting that a rapid rise of digital technologies across the world do not seem to have translated into a concomitant set of development benefits for people in many regions of the world.

Ongoing discussions in the ICTD (ICT for Development) space now bear a close resemblance to the late 20th century debate about the IT Productivity Paradox triggered by Robert Solow’s famous 1987 remark, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics” with productivity now being substituted by development.

That ICTs bring with them heightened optimism in dealing with many complex development challenges our societies face is evident in their growing role as integral components of development policies in India and across the world. The optimism is in their potential ability to reach people even at remote and distant places at relatively low costs. This can be harnessed to deliver development services as well as to make the development process more participative and relevant for diverse peoples and communities. It is also due in part to the recent experience of ICT projects contributing to positive development outcomes spread over various sectors and regions.

Deterministic notions and universal prescriptions have started facing growing resistance in the realm of development theory and practice. From stages-of-growth theory to human development, there is an increasing realisation of the importance of contextual realities in the shaping of development directions and pathways. The shift also resonates in Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which accord significance to the development of all people, with a special focus on those who find themselves marginalised in the existing globalised world order.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which was adopted by the United Nations in September 2015 acknowledges individual nations and local communities as critical not only in implementation but also the design of their respective development policies and programmes.

Even within the technology study literature, there is a growing acknowledgement of the key role that the understanding of local needs, customs, practices and knowledge play in good product designs. Technology and society are now not seen as mutually exclusive but as actively shaping each other through interactions at various stages of design and use. The ICTD discourse is not immune to this change and, in many ways, is contributing significantly to its emergence.

The global system of consuming ICTs has witnessed a more even distribution over the last 10 years. Investments related to providing broadband connectivity and services over the internet and using mobile devices are, therefore, high on the priority list of many governments including India. Cloud computing, social media, data analytics, intelligent devices, machine learning, robotics and other automation platforms are expected to enter governance and development strategies very soon.  

What do these shifts, changes and trends mean for ICT human capacity building in India and other similar countries especially in Asia and Africa, many of which continue to lag in terms of both development and ICT indicators?

Global markets

The approach till now has been to create capacities within government agencies and other development sector organisations to better use various features of ICT products that are available in the global markets. Such has also been the focus of many university curricula: to provide training on how to use the existing programming languages, standards, protocols and other techniques to build digital systems and applications.

Given that the use process, in the initial stages of technology adoption, turns out to be a highly challenging enterprise, the guiding principle for many ICT capacity building programmes, including those embedded within e-governance programmes of the government, till now has been to largely enable an intelligent use of ICTs. This has certainly helped in ensuring that the initial set of anxiety accompanied with the introduction of a new technology has given way to a reasonable degree of comfort in its handling.

In the ensuing years, the efforts at ICT human capacity building may, however, require a transformed approach to reflect the aforesaid shifting wisdoms emerging in the fields of development and technology studies. To contribute more significantly to achieving the SDGs and, in keeping with the democratic and pluralistic spirit of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, not only should the consumption of ICTs but even its production needs to involve more and more people from diverse regions across the world, including women and other marginal social groups in India.

From a focus on intelligent use often aimed at passive recipients, the ICT human capacity building strategies have to move on to also incorporate ICT product and services design capabilities enabling a more democratic and active contribution from individuals and communities more appropriate to meet local development needs.

(The writer is a faculty member associated with the Centre for IT and Public Policy at IIIT, Bengaluru)

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