ICT and MDGs

John Daly has published a series of essages looking at the role technology can play in helping the world achieve the Millenium Development Goals set forth by the UN. Writes Daly:

In these essays, I have sought to counter nave theories of technological determinism, suggesting instead that technology is but one of many factors determining progress in achieving the Goals. Technological innovation opens possibilities, but social and economic factors control the development of technological infrastructures, the use of those infrastructures, and ultimately the distribution of benefits from the technology.

Social, economic and technological systems are highly interconnected. ICT innovations in one place result over time in increasingly wide repercussions through society. ICT innovations are occurring globally by the millions, and they influence each other. Moreover, the MDG are interrelated. This complexity is the very subject of these essays, as is the difficulty of predicting the emergent effects of the Information Revolution on poverty and development.

The essays have been written to illustrate the enormous number of innovations taking place, and the complexity of the diffusion of those innovations. They portray a process in which overall order emerges from huge numbers of independent decisions made by very large numbers of people, each acting on the basis of the information he or she has, and the incentives he or she faces.

No country utilizes ICT solely to achieve the MDG, since in all countries different groups seek simultaneously to achieve their own objectives. Because of this competition, limited ICT resources are allocated in patterns that favor one ethnic group over another, male over female, rich over poor, urban over rural. Moreover, there is a dark side to the force! The powerful forces unleashed by the Information Revolution will have negative as well as positive effects, victims as well as beneficiaries. The essays contain warnings against too sanguine a view of the effects of the Information Revolution.

Ultimately these essays are about encouraging patterns of innovation and technological diffusion that would better allocate scarce ICT resources. Incentives should be institutionalized encouraging expansion of the information infrastructure in ways best serving poor communities. So too should there be institutionalized rewards for appropriate technological and social inventions benefiting the poor, and for the adaptation of successful foreign practices to local needs and circumstances. Disincentives to the appropriate applications of ICT should be stripped away, and others created to better avoid the dissemination of innovations that do not work in practice.

Many in the ICT for Development field emphasis the need to replicate and scale up successful demonstration and pilot projects. Scale-up and replication are important, but these essays go further. They emphasize the broad social effort needed to change the information and assumptions on which huge numbers of people base their decisions, to improve the processes by which those decisions are made, and to change the incentives that those people face.

The essays recognize that more could be done using ICT to achieve the MDG, but for a failure of imagination. We need to know more about how to grow the ICT infrastructure and how to encourage applications benefiting the poor, and we need to disseminate such information more widely.

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.