Digital possibilities – how digital innovation is changing international development in Africa

Digital innovation is a cornerstone of life in the member nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). From online commerce and the increasing digitisation of public services right through to the wide range of mobile applications and use of wearable technologies, it is hard to find people, places and businesses that aren’t affected somehow by digital technologies. These new technologies are also increasingly being used to address some of the big challenges faced in international development.

The UK Department for International Development (DFID) recently completed a comprehensive review looking at the impact of Digital technologies in Development which found that ‘digital presents huge opportunities for helping many more poor people benefit from development interventions more quickly and for better value’. The World Development report, due to be published later this year, will also explore the internet’s impact on economic growth, social dynamics and public service delivery in developing countries

The signposts to the possibilities and benefits of digital in development are increasingly evident. For example, recent research by development academics Eagle and Wesolowski, revealed areas of economic activity (for example, market traders in agri-produce) by using data generated from the movements of mobile phone users in Kibera (one of Kenya's largest slums). Better understanding of these trends through the use of digital technologies by individuals, businesses and public sector organisations could help with better public planning around social services and transport as these communities grow and evolve. The vibrant “Ushahidi” technology movement in Kenya is part of a growing East African technological eco-system developing digital innovations such as M-PESA (the mobile payments system) that are uniquely African. Mobile digital networks also played a prominent role in helping to contain the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa in terms of outbreak data visualization, monitoring data collection, Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping and co-ordination of medical workers in the field. Other initiatives such BudgIT in Nigeria and Yowzit in South Africa are helping citizens to better understand areas of public expenditure and provide feedback on the performance of their local public services.

But despite these great examples, there are still many challenges. For example, a recent report by the Alliance for Affordable Internet showed that many significant barriers (such as access and affordability) still stand in the way of realising the true potential of digital technologies in developing countries. These challenges are often more acute among certain populations as a result of geographic, economic, gender and socio-cultural factors, with marginalised or vulnerable groups often the hardest hit.

The potential of digital to improve people’s lives in developing countries can’t be overstated. Digital tools in developing countries can open access to free education via mass open online courses, farmers can use mobile information to improve their crop yields and get better prices for their produce, midwives in remote areas can use mobile information to support the safe delivery of babies and citizens can use digital technology to better understand what their governments do and improve transparency and accountability.

The digital revolution is here to stay and the technology will continue to evolve, opening up more opportunities to collaborate, to work together and transform economies. Whilst not without challenge, these digital innovations promise solutions and offer clear possibilities to help improve the lives of people around the globe. 


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