Until recently, development has predominantly been a top-down affair. Donor countries and NGOs have tended to outsource materials, policy and workers to underdeveloped countries in an attempt to build local capacities, or in other words, what they see as crucial pillars of society necessary for development. Building capacity comes in the form of creating schools or giving basic supplies such as food to communities in need. This method has been criticised by some for only temporarily solving the problems of development, instead of creating structural, long lasting change.
This report will not delve into the merits of top-down approaches, nor address the problematic relationship that international aid has developed with security and neoliberalism. We must instead just note that top-down down approaches have been limited in their success in many places around the world and have failed to deliver the civil empowerment and economic development that many hoped. Despite previous failures, a new form of development thinking has emerged. These newer forms work through a bottom-up logic to solving issues and promoting development. They work to empower communities through tools such as technology, securing rights or giving agency. This form of development is often independent of NGO support. Technology is empowering people all around the world and helping them to develop their own societies.
A Deloitte study estimates that an increase of 10% in mobile penetration will increase the GDP growth rate in developing nations by up to 1.2%. Mobile phones have become cheaper and cheaper since their inception. The UN estimated in 2014 that in low-income countries more people have access to mobiles than toilets. In the case of development, it is not the shiniest or most multi-tasking pieces of tech that are most effective, but rather simple Nokia ‘brick’ mobile phone can be very effective.
Mobile phones have greatly helped farmers in developing countries. Crop prices often fluctuate with demands in urban areas. Thus, mobile phones allow farmers to communicate with buyers to make more efficient pricing decisions. Additionally, in countries like Kenya where extreme weather conditions can destroy livelihoods and tools of farmers, now insurance can be purchased through phones to protect these farmers. This is very important for farmers who live far away from urban areas. Additionally, grazing spots and successful farming techniques can be shared throughout regions to produce better yields.
One of the areas that technology has been most effective is economics. M-PESA is a mobile system that gives the ‘unbanked’ access to a financial system which lets them pay bills, save money and transfer money. In only 3 years since its inception in 2007 in Kenya, cash deposits and withdrawal transactions amounted to US$650 million per month. It also reached 80% of Kenyan households within four years and has since spread to neighbouring countries. Thus, we can see how simple technology has revolutionized the lives of many as people, especially in remote locations, can now manage their money more efficiently and use the functions to better their own lives and businesses. By having access to payments through mobile networks, money can be sent easily in times of emergency as well. M-PESA has also been linked to gender empowerment as it allows women to manage their own money and have greater independence.
Technology has also been effective in healthcare. It allows people to look up health information or for mass SMS messages to be sent to populations, warning them of health issues. An offline app called Sproxil in India allows citizens to check if the drugs they are buying are counterfeit or real. Users scratch code off back of package and text it in and it tells them if drugs are legitimate or not. Thousands of people die every year because of fake malaria and tuberculosis pills. Innovations like these are so important in these countries where there is the greatest disease burden but the lowest number of doctors. Thus we can see just a few of the ways technology is greatly changing the healthcare in developing countries.
Technology has also been useful for creating better governance and civil society. There are tools which track the Kenyan budget and monitor political participation in Ghana. In Zimbabwe, information about the election was share through mobile networks and allowed citizens to monitor the election themselves and report via their networks. These technological tools allow greater transparency in government systems and encourage better governance. Technology is also being used to monitor human rights. An app called eyeWitness allows human rights abuses and war crimes to be reported and collected for legal use.
It is clear then that technology, especially the mobile phone which is now so widely available, is aiding development and empowering citizens. Technological innovations from the bottom up will surely only become more important in the future as they help solve many of the problems facing those in developing countries today.
While technology does hold great potential, there are some possible issues. Firstly, not everyone has access to the technology, thus there is a danger of leaving those without behind and creating a technological divide which will surely also be economical. It would also be foolish to assume that technology alone will cause democracy and economic development around the world. Technology is merely a tool, and there must be effective government and international NGO policy to support areas of development, to ensure they are successful.
Technology has already proved its potency and there remains much potential for it to aid in development. It’s empowering nature is especially helpful as it gives agency to those in developing countries and helps produce bottom-up development by promoting, healthier civil societies, economies, and citizens.
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