Research in ICT4D shows that “technology — no matter how well designed — is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity [and] not a substitute”. This is one of the main messages from Kentaro Toyama’s lead article in a forum on the role of information and communication technology in global development.
Another lesson from Toyama own experience in India is that “myth of scale is the religion of telecenter proponents, who believe that bringing the Internet into villages is enough to transform them”.
His thought-provoking article has several quotes related to the continuing discussions on whether the promotion of mobile phones is detracting attention to and finance for basic services like drinking water and sanitation.
On the myth of sale:
The myth of scale is seductive because it is easier to spread technology than to effect extensive change in social attitudes and human capacity. In other words, it is much less painful to purchase a hundred thousand PCs than to provide a real education for a hundred thousand children; it is easier to run a text-messaging health hotline than to convince people to boil water before ingesting it; it is easier to write an app that helps people find out where they can buy medicine than it is to persuade them that medicine is good for their health. It seems obvious that the promise of scale is a red herring, but ICT4D proponents rely—consciously or otherwise—on it in order to promote their solutions.
On competing investments:
In a fine example of the skewed priorities of ICT4D boosters, Hamadoun Touré, secretary-general of the International Telecommunications Union, suggests, “[governments should] regard the Internet as basic infrastructure—just like roads, waste and water.” Of course, in conditions of extreme poverty, investments to provide broad access to the Web will necessarily compete with spending on proper sanitation and the rudiments of transportation.
On the negative effects of mobile phones:
Kathleen Diga of the University of KwaZulu Natal observed that some households in Uganda prioritize talk time [on mobile phones] over family nutrition and clean water .
While some “80 percent of the global population is now within range of a cell tower, and mobile phones are increasingly seen in the poorest, remotest communities” there is still a digital real-time communication divide, Toyama contends.
[The] mobile have-nots [are] predominantly poor, remote, female, and politically mute. Whatever the case, if the spread of mobile phones is sufficient to help end global poverty, we will know soon enough. But, if it doesn’t, should we then pin our hopes on the next new shiny gadget?
In his response to other forum contributors who say that ICT alone can improve basic services and business, Toyama sticks to his belief that “charging in headfirst with technology to repair human problems simply doesn’t work”.
[I]t doesn’t matter how many complaints are logged online if the government neither intends nor budgets to address them (the bane of so many e-government programs). The application of technology to progressive ends also assumes political commitment, but this is again, a problem of intent, not of technology.
[M]obile phones helped an effective literacy program [in Niger] do better. This is a subtle but earth-splitting difference [between implying] that we could eliminate illiteracy by increasing technology penetration [when in reality] technology is useless if it is not built to supplement effective adult-literacy programs.
On Africa’s much acclaimed M-PESA mobile-phone based money transfer service, Toyama notes:
[N]one of the four factors contributing to the success of M-PESA are “technology-related.” M-PESA amplifies an existing custom of rural remittances. Whether M-PESA and its extensions lead to better financial management among the people who use it will depend on whether the kernel for those behaviors already exists, and whether there is sufficient investment in non-technological financial education. Expecting an extension of technology to create intent is wishful thinking.
In a final note, Toyama points to the United States where the rate of poverty stagnated at around 13 percent for the past four decades despite the boom in information and communication technology.
 Diga, K. (2007). Mobile cell phones and poverty reduction : technology spending patterns and poverty level change among households in Uganda. Masters Thesis. University of KwaZulu-Natal. Full document [PDF file]
Read the full lead article by Kentaro Toyama, other contributions to the forum “Can Technology End Poverty?” (including an article by Nicholas Negroponte of One Laptop per Child) , and Toyama’s response in November/December 2010 issue of the Boston Review.
See also Kentarao Toyama’s blog The ICT4D Jester