The concept of ICT4D can be interpreted as dealing with disadvantaged populations anywhere in the world, but is more typically associated with applications in developing countries. The field is becoming recognized as an interdisciplinary research area as can be noted by the growing number of conferences, workshops and publications. Such research have been spurred on in part by the need for scientifically validated benchmarks and results, which can be used to measure the efficacy of current projects. Many international development agencies recognize the importance of ICT4D. For example the World Bank's GICT section has a dedicated team of some 200 staff working on these issues.
A good example of the impact of ICTs on development are farmers getting better market price information and thus boosting their income. Another example includes mobile telecommunications and radio broadcasting fighting political corruption in Burundi.
The dominant terminology used in this field is "ICT4D". Alternatives include ICTD and development informatics.
A telecentre in GambiaThe history of ICT4D can, roughly, be divided into three periods:
- ICT4D 0.0: mid-1950s to late-1990s. During this period (before the creation of the term "ICT4D"), the focus was on computing / data processing for back office applications in large government and private sector organisations in developing countries.
- ICT4D 2.0: late-2000s onwards. There is no clear boundary between phase 1.0 and 2.0 but suggestions of moving to a new phase include the change from the telecentre to the mobile phone as the archetypal application; less concern with e-readiness and more interest in the impact of ICTs on development; and more focus on the poor as producers and innovators with ICTs (as opposed to just consumers of ICT-based information).
ICT4D initiatives and projects may be designed and implemented by international institutions, private companies (e.g. Intel's Classmate), governments (e.g. e-Mexico initiative), non-governmental organizations (e.g. International Institute for Communication and Development), or virtual organizations (e.g. One Laptop per Child). The projects can typically be evaluation research, matching a tool and a problem, exploratory research, or constructive research.
ICT4D projects address one or more of the following issues:
- Access and Infrastructure: providing suitable computer hardware, operating systems, software, and connectivity to the internet. These would include the affordability of software and hardware, the ability to share software (as echoed in the Free Software movement), and the ability to sustainably connect to the internet.
- Capacity building and training in ICT: installing, maintaining, and developing hardware and software, digital literacy (technological literacy and informational literacy) and e-Awareness.
Digital content and services: e-services (e-learning, e-health, e-business/e-commerce, e-Governance/e-Government), including concerns related to local-language solutions in computing, and the Open Access agenda.
- Regulation of the ICT Sector and digital rights: Universal Access vs. monopolistic structures, Intellectual Property Rights, privacy, security, and digital identity.
- Ethics and Social Contexts
- Environment and Agriculture
- Free and Open Source Software
- Gender and ICT
- Health and Medicine
- Policy and Social Analyses
- Technical Innovation for Development
Projects which deploy technologies in underdeveloped areas face well-known problems concerning crime, problems of adjustment to the social context, and also possibly infrastructural problems.
The literacy issue is one of the factors why projects fail in rural areas; proper education and training is needed to make the user at least understand how to manipulate the application to get the information they need. Constant follow up with the community is needed to monitor if the project is being used or implemented.
Projects in marginalised rural areas face the most significant hurdles. Since people in marginalised rural areas are at the very bottom of the pyramid, development efforts should make the most difference in this sector. ICTs have the potential to multiply development effects and are thus also meaningful in the rural arena. However introducing ICTs in these areas is also most costly, as the following barriers exist:
- Lack of Infrastructure: no power, no running water, bad roads
- Lack of Health Services: diseases like HIV, TB, malaria are more common.
- Lack of Employment: there are practically no jobs in marginalised rural areas.
- Hunger: hungry users have problems concentrating.
- Illiteracy: Text user interfaces do not work very well, innovative Human Computer Interfaces (see Human Computer Interaction) are required.
- Lack of means to maintain the project: some projects may be left to deteriorate in time because if a component gets broken they are costly to repair and maintain.
- Lack of support from the local government
- Social Contexts: the potential users living in rural marginalised areas often cannot easily see the point of ICTs, because of social context and also because of the impediments of hunger, disease and illiteracy.
- Corruption is one of the factors that hampers the implementation of ICT projects in rural areas.
- Training and seminars must be conducted according to a suitable time for farmers, to make sure that their daily routine is not affected.
- Many applications are not user friendly.
The World Bank runs Information for Development Program (infoDev), whose Rural ICT Toolkit analyses the costs and possible profits involved in such a venture and shows that there is more potential in developing areas than many might assume. The potential for profit arises from two sources- resource sharing across large numbers of users (specifically, the publication talks about line sharing, but the principle is the same for, e.g. telecentres at which computing / Internet are shared) and remittances (specifically the publication talks about carriers making money from incoming calls, i.e. from urban to rural areas). Remittances are estimated to have a volume of upward of 250 billion USD and websites have been established to take advantage of this fact (e.g. Aryty, Philippines; Mukuru.com, Zimbabwe.
- Lessons learned
What's crucial in making any ICT4D effort successful is effective partnership between four key stakeholders:
- Public sector (governments - from developed nations, developing nations, international bodies, and local governments)
- Private sector (companies belonging to members of the target audience, multi-national organizations wishing to expand their markets to the 4 billion people under US$2/day, pro-poor or social companies)
- Informal sector (NGOs, advocacy groups, think tanks)
- Representation from the target audience
InfoDev have published 6 lessons from an analysis of 17 their pilot programmes (see below). These lessons are backed by a variety of examples as well as a list of recommendations:
- Lesson 1: Involve target groups in project design and monitoring.
- Lesson 2: When choosing the technology for a poverty intervention project, pay particular attention to infrastructure requirements, local availability, training requirements, and technical challenges. Simpler technology often produces better results.
- Lesson 3: Existing technologies—particularly the telephone, radio, and television—can often convey information less expensively, in local languages, and to larger numbers of people than can newer technologies. In some cases, the former can enhance the capacity of the latter.
- Lesson 4: ICT projects that reach out to rural areas might contribute more to the MDGs than projects based in urban areas.
- Lesson 5: Financial sustainability is a challenge for ICT-for-development initiatives.
- Lesson 6: Projects that focus on ICT training should include a job placement component.
A growing perspective in the field is also the need to build projects that are sustainable and scalable, rather than focusing on those which must be propped up by huge amounts of external funding and cannot survive for long without it. Sustaining the project's scalability is a huge challenge of ICT for development; how the target user will continue using the platform. ICT4D is not one shot implementation but rather it is a complex process to be undertaken continuously, and the progress of each project evolves around the pervasive education for, and adaptability of, the technology
Also, many so-called "developing" countries, such as India (or other South Asian countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as also nations like Malaysia, China, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa and many others) have proved their skills in IT (information technology). In this context, unless these skills are tapped adequately to build on ICT4D projects, not only will a lot of potential be wasted, but a key indigenous partner in the growth of this sector would be lost. Also there would be unnecessary negative impact on the balance of payments due to imports in both hardware and software.
Currently, the main two perspectives coming out of this sector either emphasize the need for external aid to build infrastructure before projects can touch viability, or the need to develop and build on local talent. Both approaches are, of course, not mutually exclusive.
As it has grown in popularity, especially in the international development sector, ICT4D has also increasingly come under criticism. For instance, questions have been raised about whether projects that have been implemented at enormous cost are actually designed to be scalable, or whether these projects make enough of an impact to produce noticeable change.
In Sri Lankan journalist Nalaka Gunawardene argues that thousands of pilot projects have been seeded without regard to generalisability, scalability, and sustainability, implying that these projects will always require external funding to continue running and that their impact is limited. This sentiment echoes a 2003 report by the World Bank.
Further criticism on ICT4D concerns the impact of ICTs on traditional cultures and the so-called cultural imperialism which may be spread with ICTs. For example, young males are tempted to spend their recreational time playing violent computer games. It is emphasised that local language content and software seem to be good ways to help soften the impact of ICTs in developing areas.
Anriette Esterhuysen, an advocate for ICT4D and human rights in South Africa, pointed out that some ICT4D projects often give more emphasis to how ICT can help its beneficiaries economically rather than helping them create a society where social justice and equal rights prevail. She believes that sustainable development can only be achieved if there are human rights and people can speak freely.
Another point of criticism against ICT4D is that its projects are seldom environmentally friendly. Beneficiary communities are often given the responsibility to dispose of the toxic electronic scrap when an equipment breaks down beyond repair. Since transporting the equipment to a recycling facility is costly; the equipment is often disposed of improperly, thus contributing to the pollution of the environment.
ICT4D projects typically try to employ low-cost, low-powered technology that can be sustainable in developing environment. Desktop virtualization and multiseat configurations are probably the most simple and common way to affordable computing as of 2009.
ICT4D projects need to be properly monitored and implemented; the system's design and user interface should be suitable to the target users. ICT4D projects installed without proper coordination with its beneficiary community has a tendency to fall short of its main objectives. For example, the usage of ICT4D projects in the farming sector in third world countries, where a majority of the population are considered to be technologically illiterate; projects lie idle and sometimes get damaged or become obsolete.
Furthermore, there should be a line of communication between the project coordinator and the user for immediate response to the query of, or the difficulty encountered by, the user. Addressing properly the problem will help encourage the user via interactivity and participation.