NGO and technology: 10 common ICT4D myths

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Chances and risks of using technology in non-governmental organizations’ work

Technology is changing the world around us day by day. Most of these changes are, of course, for the better. One of the first groups that have learned how to use technological advances in order to help the society are nonprofit organizations. They know better than anyone the value of time, especially in crisis situations. Thanks to technology we can help people much faster. The process of planning and executing projects was never as efficient as it is now. Our actions became more precise, aimed at specific goals. NGO and technology is a powerful duo that can create many solutions and help many people.

However, along with the development of technology, various myths and incorrect assumptions about it appeared. It happened also in non-governmental organizations’ communities. During a  Summer School on Computing for Socio-Economic Development (June, 2010) Kentato Toyama, a co-creator of Microsoft Research India, listed 10 common ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for Development) myths. In other words, he pointed out 10 incorrect beliefs about using technology for social and economic development in the poorest regions of the world.

If we are being aware of these myths, we can use technology in a more mindful and effective way. 

Technological myths in NGO communities

Myth 1: Technology X will save the world

This sentence was repeated many times over the decades of human history. However, in spite of new technologies, the world is still the same. Radio, computers or television – these inventions had a significant influence on our lives. But they did not fix the world. There still are some aspects of life that can be improved and people that need our help. Nowadays, the weight of the world’s problems is put on mobile phones. However, in many countries they are still rare. And even if present – they do not always contribute to improving the quality of life.

Myth 2: Poor people have no alternatives

It might be shocking news to some people, but even in the modern world technology is not the only source of information. There are many alternative ways of obtaining information, rather than googling it on your smartphone. Especially in poorer communities there are other means of exchanging messages and knowledge. What is more, these means of communication are free-of-charge. For people living in such communities it is much easier and cheaper to travel to a neighboring village and consult with a specialist on a certain matter, than to invest a big load of money into a modern mobile phone.

Myth 3: Needs are more pressing than desires

Health, education or earning opportunities will not always be the priority for poor people. Some of them will choose to spend their money on entertainment or funding their daughter’s wedding. People’s needs are very much subjective and different depending on culture and community. We can not assume what someone else’s priorities are, without asking them.

Myth 4: “Needs” translate to business models

Poor communities are harder to reach and more difficult to work with, because the financial deficiencies can be a serious obstacle in many technological projects. They can not afford costly solutions to their problems. Therefore, it does not make sense to apply our business models to this communities, because their situation is completely different than what we know from our surroundings.

Myth 5: If you build it, they will come

People are not always choosing to do what is best for them. That is not how our nature works. Toyama uses the example of cigarettes. Everyone knows that smoking is bad for human’s health. In spite of that, some people still decide to smoke. Charity is a completely different thing, but works similarly. Some services are free-of-charge and open-access, and their purpose is to help people, but still many are not using them for many different reasons.

Myth 6: ICT undoes “rich getting richer”

According to statistical data the above sentence is not true. In fact, the existence of technology makes the social and economic inequity even deeper. In order to fix this we need to get to the roots of the problem and find the solution. Technology itself won’t change the situation.

Myth 7: Technology permits socio-economic leapfrogging

People are rather slow at learning new things. Even if we provide them with technology, their lives won’t magically change for the better. “Having the treadmill won’t make you athletic,” says Kentaro Toyama. You must first learn how to use it to train your body and improve your condition. For that reason, education plays a big part in the process of making changes.

Myth 8: Hardware and software are a one-time cost

The infamous program of One Laptop Per Child met a spectacular failure. Its purpose was to provide children from developing countries with cheap laptops, costing 100$ for each. However, in reality in the first five years of the project the cost of these laptops grew up to around 250$ for each. Electricity, malfunctioning, service, as well as the course on how to use these laptops all have generated more financial expenses than it was expected.

Myth 9: Automated is cheaper and better

This applies especially to regions where physical work is cheap, and access to education is limited. In such places the cost of automation suprasses the cost of hiring local citizens to get a certain job done. Moreover, there are many obstacles blocking the way for these technologies, making it extremely difficult to implement them.

Myth 10: Information is the bottleneck

Information is not the only shortage in the modern world, nor is it the most crucial one. Both, the economy and infrastructure have much more significant influence on the development of the poorest regions. 

Kentato Toyama’s insights on technology are still relevant and worth being aware of. In the process of planning a new project in which technology plays an important role, let’s have these 10 myths in the back of our heads. Maybe they will inspire us to do something differently this time. We all want our projects to succeed and bring help to people. Therefore, we should use technology sensibly, so that it is not just a mere idea, but an actual tool that makes us reach our goals.

Design with the User

Many of these myths can be debunked, if we look at our project through the lenses of Principles for Digital Development. One of the Principles states: Design with the User. Not for the user, but with them. This approach can save you from falling into these technological myths.

The myths themselves came to be because of people from highly-developed countries, who tend to think that they know what poor communities need. But, how it turns out, they know nothing at all. If you design your project with the user, you can create a product that is actually something these people need, and not something that you think they need. Without being mindfull, humble and without listening to these communities’ voices, we will never break the myths and start to change the world. So keep that in mind the next time you and your NGO engage in a technological project.

More information about the Myths of ICT4D.

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