Amie Vaccaro

Net Impact 2009: ICT in Emerging Markets is an Enabler of Good Things, Not a Cure-All

What are the challenges and opportunities of introducing information and communications technology (ICT) in emerging markets? How has ICT been received? What works and what does not? The Net Impact conference featured a panel on “Using Technology to Develop Business in Emerging Markets” which touched on some of the fundamental struggles of development work. The panelists displayed a level of respect and caution regarding spreading ICT in emerging markets that I appreciated.

Moderated by Glen Dowell, Professor at Cornell University, the panel featured David Ferguson, Director of Global Development Commons at USAID, Grant Thomas, Vice President of Strategic Development at the Digital Opportunity Trust, and Molly Tschang, Managing Director of International Programs at Cisco. Together, the panel brought in a wide array of development voices from academia, government, non-profit and the private sectors.

How can ICT help emerging markets? In one example, Internet in the developing world has been found to double the stay of tourists, Ferguson pointed out. Lots of the developing world is a wonderful place to visit, but if you can’t see it online, you won’t go, so developing internet abilities will open it up to tourism and business.

International development as a field is incredibly wide, because each region is unique and contextual. An emerging market strategy that’s not country specific will fail, Tschang pointed out. In her work, she focuses on community driven work that has already proven scalable.

The panelists agreed that ICT fails when it’s dropped in to emerging markets irreverently, without taking context into account. And short of the mobile phone, ICT hasn’t really taken off in the developing world, Tschang explained. Other technologies can be well intentioned, but unless they are delivered in a thoughtful and relevant manner, they won’t be utilized. Tschang described that they’ll find PCs used as doorsteps just years later. “We think they need what we have,” Tschang pointed out. We must engage people, bring them into the conversation, create an equal opportunity partnership, rather than a donor/ beneficiary relationship.”

It’s best to involve the people living with the problem when you go to solve that problem rather than shove a solution down their throats. Never set up something that cannot continue without you, Ferguson advised. He also stressed the need to involve government in change – “Government stays in the way of a lot of things.” And the status quo has gotten us where we are. Be sensitive to local government context.

Thomas told a compelling story of a telecenter built in South Africa that initially caused a divide between young and old. The elders thought they had nothing to do with the technology. But someone purchased a digital camera and took photos in the community, then brought people in to see their photos on a computer. People began to learn about the skills of those around them that they hadn’t known. With a thoughtful steward, the computer unified the community, rather than divided it.

When partnering in emerging markets, Thomas stressed that everyone has to put in to the partnership. If it’s free for one side, then it has no value to them and it won’t be utilized. Also, you need to understand the motivations of all partners – especially in the case of private sector involvement. Tschang noted that it’s a sign of respect to place a value on the services provided to developing world, and this shifts the aid dynamic in a positive way from one of handouts to willing partner.

ICT in emerging markets needs to be better understood – investing in ICT will not cause immediate economic growth. Rather, when shared thoughtfully, ICT is an excellent enabler across many areas of need, including education, health, and employment.

“The more we can get people connected [to ICT], the more they will figure out how to use it for their own good,” Ferguson noted.