Are development professionals too resistant to new technologies?

A community health worker uses Surftab technology to track critical data during home visits. What is the role of technology in development? David Rochkind / USAID / CC BY-NC

A healthy tension exists in the development community about whether the uptake of new technologies can produce large-scale change. Few can deny the benefits that connectivity, computation and communication offer in the digital age. But opinions vary — at times widely — on the feasibility of spreading that digital dividend to development projects that serve the world’s poor.

On one side technology advocates argue that the power of information technologies such as cognitive computing, artificial intelligence and virtual design — with appropriate funding and the right project integration — can be a vital resource for development purposes.

The rollout and adoption of those systems, however, comes with a cost. For many development professionals, those costs can be burdensome and often unrealistic. Development workers who espouse a more traditional approach to interventions can roll their eyes at new technologies. Mobile gadgets and cloud based apps are useful and desired, they say, but are impractical for contexts with little electricity, connectivity and technical literacy.

The tech-savvy community, in turn, sometimes interprets that pragmatism as resistance.

Who, if anyone, is right is a matter of perspective. But the debate itself reveals broader divisions about the way IT can and should be applied for development purposes.

As an obvious starting point, technology is moving fast, very fast, often to the bewilderment of the developers themselves.

A decade ago, algorithms used to build computations for smart devices were simpler, in shorter supply and, consequently, their intellectual property was much more expensive. But they have vastly proliferated. For every new algorithm designed today, coders and developers can build hundreds more, driving down costs in the process, said Kamal Bhattacharya, vice-president of research for IBM Africa.

In practice, for example, technologies that were once prized by banks to score credit and measure lending risk are now “finance 101” tools used to analyze borrower behavior and routinely issue mobile loans, Bhattacharya said.

Or technology can help schools wanting to measure dropout, enrollment and attendance rates by using classroom photos and facial recognition to tag students and track attendance patterns over time. Some might be concerned about the cost but budget tablets conducive for remote environments can go for about $100 and can run images for roughly one cent each, said Bhattacharya. And there’s the issue of privacy concerns, but he has a solution there as well: “You can lock the images in a distributed database so they are cryptographically secure.”

The language itself might seem cryptic and complex, but the point that he and other IT experts make is that the technology exists at reasonable costs to make tremendous gains to address problems of social and inclusive development.

“It’s not a tech problem, it’s a value problem,” he said.

The problem he points to is a reluctance by development organizations to “dare to think bigger.” It’s an aversion to take a risk on sophisticated technologies either out of antiquated sticker shock anxieties or an unwillingness to integrate new techniques with traditional approaches, Bhattacharya said.

While perhaps true in some regards, development organizations contend that the risks and costs associated with the uptake of information technologies are often unnecessary.

“Context really drives the solutions that are most appropriate,” Matt Lineal, a program adviser for Nuru International, told Devex.

In some circumstances, limitations to social and physical infrastructure constrain the rollout of new technologies. Nuru, for example, recently launched a mobile payment system in Kenya using the widely successful M-Pesa network to disperse funds to local farmers.

The system is still new but it has the buy-in from the farmers. They see it as transparent, easy to use and helpful in lowering transaction costs, which has so far made for a successful migration from a paper currency system.

The same type of payment system, however, has not had the same positive response in neighboring Ethiopia. “Not because farmer needs are different or we, the personnel, have changed,” said Lineal. “But local circumstances prevent those systems and practices from becoming widely adopted.” Cell phone penetration is low, coverage is growing but still limited and the financial sector is not as mature as in Kenya.

Nuru, like many other organizations, also invests in local capacity building by training communities to sustain development practices beyond a donor’s funding window. The solutions, therefore, need to be custom made for local needs and financially viable for the long term. It does not preclude the adoption of technological innovations, but as Lineal noted, local preferences for simple solutions that can also gradually be brought to scale tend to favor human-centered design approaches.

“We need to understand the context well before introducing outside innovation. We don’t want to intrude by offering a superfluous, very cool technology to a population that doesn’t need it,” Lineal said.

His point gets to the heart of the debate about the role of IT and development — if a technology does not fit the context of an intervention, is it because of an inherent mismatch or an ingrained mindset to veer away from new technology because of cost and risk?

Both may be true. Compared to the public sector, private enterprise is built to push the boundaries and to render limitations obsolete through innovation. Where a development organization sees constraints to technology in remote hinterlands, for example, IBM will see a potential solution in small-scale power sources.

“Small solar panels are one option, but you can also power sensors by sticking a probe in the root of a tree and use electrochemical processes with no environmental damage to the tree,” said Peter Williams, chief technology officer for IBM Big Green Innovations. “It’s equivalent to the elementary school project of using a potato to make a lightbulb.”

At the same time, funding constraints are a reality. Development organizations are ultimately tied to donor funding — often from governments — which operate on more incremental budgets and shorter investment horizons than private sector innovation plans.

This discrepancy is reflected in what Williams observes as a tendency to overlook IT needs in the design phase of development projects. Projects, he said, can be conceived and designed as a civil engineering, education or public health investment from the start, with IT needs typically relegated to an afterthought instead of a core objective.

“You don’t want to be doing IT as a build-on after the project has been implemented,” Williams said. Otherwise, as tech developers have noticed, the IT needs that later surface will be constrained by the limitations of the project’s pre-fixed budget.

The private sector recognizes that technology is neither foolproof nor a panacea for development needs. There are inherent costs and risks that come with the deployment of new technologies. But companies such as IBM are urging donors and public organizations to shift their mindsets to embrace the value that new information technologies can deliver, particularly as they become more affordable.

Doing so can build the necessary partnerships between public and private entities that the 2030 development agenda relies on and can bridge technological divides between the two.

Join Devex to network with peers, discover talent and forge new partnerships in international development — it’s free. Then sign up for the Devex Impact newsletter to receive cutting-edge news and analysis at the intersection of business and development.

About the author

  • Naki B. Mendoza

    Naki is a former reporter, he covered the intersection of business and international development. Prior to Devex he was a Latin America reporter for Energy Intelligence covering corporate investments and political risks in the region’s energy sector. His previous assignments abroad have posted him throughout Europe, South America, and Australia.