5 tips for using low-cost technology for development in remote areas

Children entertain themselves with books from independent nonprofit organization, Buk bilong Pikinini in Papua New Guinea. Quality of education in the country’s most remote areas remain low. Photo by: Ness Kerton / AusAID / CC BY

As the international development landscape is changing, all stakeholders agree that technology can — and will — play a central role, for instance, when delivering aid to far-flung regions.

Take the case of Papua New Guinea, still lagging behind in its development indicators with escalating fears that it will also fail to achieve targets for the Millennium Development Goals. Aside from health, quality of education in the country’s most remote areas remains perennially low.

Here is where technology can fill in the gap.

VSO International has pilot tested a mobile phone intervention project called SMS Story in Papua New Guinea’s most inaccessible rural communities. Funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, the project to help teachers plan their daily lessons by through text messages has seen a 30 percent improvement in the students’ reading comprehension abilities at a very low cost of about $1 per child in just 100 days.

“It's a system that works very well in an environment that is resource-poor and the teachers are living in very remote areas,” Richard Jones, VSO’s senior program manager for education, told Devex. “In [Papua New Guinea’s] case, the communities are remote in terms of logistical reach, but fortunately, mobile coverage is good.”

The VSO official added that the program can also work to improve quality of education in “conflict and post-disaster situations where getting reading books to schools is really difficult.”

The SMS Story is only one of many situations where technology can be applied to further development goals. Jones shared five suggestions for aid organizations planning to use low-cost technology to provide high-impact programs in areas where development results are needed the most.

1. Use the most practical form of technology.

One of the biggest mistakes that organizations commit when planning to use technology in their development programs, according to Jones, is their tendency to use inappropriate forms of technology.

Technology is always changing and there will always be better tools out there in the market, but the actual technology that will be used has to be tailored to the organization’s resources as well as the community you are going to work in.

“My biggest advice is you aim for the lowest and simplest kind of technology, with the lowest and simplest cost to it. Don't get suckered in by the fancy stuff,” he said, adding that in the case of SMS Story, the cost is very low because “text messaging is ubiquitous and everyone uses it. It doesn't require you to provide any additional technology.”

2. Know the context and environment.

Using a certain technology in an incompatible environment and context is an utter waste. That’s why it’s crucial that organizations know the environment and context of a particular remote community when planning a development program centered on technology to increase its effectiveness and efficiency.

“I think one of the biggest problems in the Pacific is electricity. That was the biggest problems that teachers found: charging their mobile phones,” Jones said, adding that sufficient mobile coverage in Papua New Guinea makes the program implementation smoother. “I think there needs to be an understanding of that.”

Other issues also include the physical accessibility of these remote areas as well as social behavior, including the country’s high 15 percent turnover rate of children in school that threatens sustainability of learning and program results.

“In terms of access as well, for our volunteers to go to the communities because these are very remote areas and we usually face logistical challenges,” he shared. “But as long as you're well-organized and informed enough, I think it will not be impossible.”

3. Get a good research base.

When implementing development programs centered on technology, the need to lessen risk to avoid resource depletion and avoid margins of error is significant. Jones said that basing the development program on sound research makes the whole process more scientific and organized.

“It's important to also get a good research base on it,” he said. “If you try something, and I've seen a lot of mobile technology for development these days, make sure you get evidence for its effectiveness.”

Jones added that doing this initial research also adds more efficiency: “If you don't know that what you're doing is not doing significant results and you keep doing it, you're wasting time and money. I think it's making sure that you don't get suckered in by the technology.”

4. Ensure buy-in from concerned stakeholders.

Getting every stakeholder is on board for a project is nothing new in international development. Since development is a multistakeholder undertaking, making sure that everyone is on the same page can make or break a program’s success.

“You have to loop in the government, community, teachers, parents and volunteers, to name a few, on the project,” Jones said, explaining that all their volunteers are linked or are working within Papua New Guinea’s education department to gain support and also streamline the goals.

He added: “You should also know the community more, gain their trust. We've been in [Papua New Guinea] for over 50 years so it's embedded in our work. We know the context and the people.”

Jones explained that working through official local organizations who also know the context helps. “You should always strive to work within the system, with the explicit permission from authorities and concerned stakeholders. This is essential.”

5. Manage goals and expectations.

Lastly, organizations who want to make a difference by using technology in very remote areas in far-flung regions in the world should learn how to manage goals and expectations. While many in the international development community shoot for lofty goals that sometimes are not realistic, organizations on the ground should learn objectives step by step.

“You have to make your goals and expectation manageable but still aligned with bigger and (loftier) goals for development,” Jones said. “Community-driven development is a step-by-step process so it's not hard to understand this concept.”

Given the context of working in very remote communities, having a smooth workflow with manageable expectations not only bodes well to the operations of the project’s implementations but also eases the community’s ability to assimilate the program to their own context.

“Always look for sustainability through planning and organization,” he concluded. “When you make something, make sure it will stay and work even when you're gone.”

Read more development aid news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive top international development headlines from the world’s leading donors, news sources and opinion leaders — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.