Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Misgivings and Missed Opportunities

Let's face it. For all the success stories, the uplifting anecdotes about plucky women making a living with their mobile phones, or farmers realizing greater profits by checking prices on the Internet, there are still many in the development community who are deeply ambivalent about the value and impact of technology. Yes, anyone who spends 10 minutes in Nairobi or Kuching can see the ubiquity of the mobile phone, and it's clear that clever, resourceful people are wringing value out of the devices far beyond simple phone calls and text messages. But a longer, deeper look at the impact of technology on society can be troubling. Social norms and traditions are disrupted by material acquisition. Kids who used to kick a ball of woven cloth now play video games. And in the most desperately needy corners of the world, clean water, food, shelter, education and medical care are higher priorities than phones and Internet access.

Within every philanthropic organization, regardless of its mission, there are opportunities to mitigate the negative effects of technology and maximize the positive ones - for individuals, societies, or the organization itself. In past Nuggets, we've considered how to extend mobile broadband and create an environment conducive to mobile-based health, finance, governance, commerce, and education. But what about smaller, local NGOs that aren't actively involved in this space? Or what if Internet access might help your programs, but isn't necessarily your core focus?

The truth is, mobile and broadband adoption is continuing apace. In Africa, which had less than 1% mobile penetration at the turn of the century, 60-80% of all adults will own a mobile phone by the end of this year. This means beneficiaries who once stood in line for a cash-based training per diem can now catch the bush taxi home and receive a mobile payment on the way. With the torrid pace of mobile and broadband adoption, local NGOs can now achieve far more than the obvious improvements in communication and reduced travel costs. This includes potential co-funding through partnerships, alignment with corporate or government priorities, better operational efficiency, and the opportunity to steer responsible, sustainable technology usage while it's still in its infancy. Local NGOs can also support local innovation and technological independence by delivering on-the-ground training programs and capacity support. Many development organizations have benefited from stepping back to re-assess their mission and program portfolios. A comprehensive review of programs and a reallocation of resources to maximize the benefits of the new tech reality would be both healthy and timely, even for the deeply ambivalent.

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