When colleagues talked of ICT for development in a country where the electric supply is erratic at best, there were always those who were scathingly sceptical. Perhaps it was because they have long resented the slow digitization of everything, from books to conversations to relationships. Perhaps it was because they genuinely felt the developing world has considerable catching up to do in terms of basic, tangible development indicators, before worrying about the greater implications of cell-phones and Facebook.
Seeing the wave of change sweeping over the Middle East has called for a serious questioning of the traditionalist’s stance towards these new-fangled tools. Not only have they proven to be catalysts for change that could otherwise take decades, but have also broken the myth that their influence is necessarily limited to a certain segment of the population.
In fact, it is the outreach of social media that makes “democratic development” suddenly seem like an idea that can be extracted from the nebulousness of abstract thought, and translated into reality. Everywhere in the developing world, people are beginning to ask questions. Once disparate voices are connected to articulate their need in unison, they can become a force to be reckoned with. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, this has bred the widespread demand for political change; elsewhere, the need can be different. The greatest opportunity – and challenge – lies in accessing those at the periphery and giving them the tools to be demand-articulate.
In an interesting, technologically empowered world, a host of innovative solutions are rising to meet this challenge. In Pakistan, for instance, new social enterprises like the Pakistan Urban Links and Support (PULS) are aiming to create a “LinkedIn” for the “mobile yet offline world”. This job-match platform for the informal sector will connect employers (through the Internet) with employees (through SMS). The idea, if it takes off, can be extended to create a bridge of communication between the urban and rural population that never existed before.
To put things in perspective, a study by the Thardeep Rural Development Program revealed that 90.9% of people in interior Sind province have mobile or wireless phones. The four districts covered by the research include the Tharparkar district, which has the lowest score on the Human Development Index (HDI) in Pakistan. This is a desert land where water is scarce and survival is tough, where the female spends her existence in a shadowy corner. Not surprisingly, only about 12.1% of the entire area under research has paved roads.
To be able to access minds in an area with such inhospitable terrain and lack of infrastructure can have very powerful implications for drawing them away from the margins. Just in terms of basic awareness about the rights that they can ask for, the new media for information-sharing can be extended to spread awareness of facilities for health, education and social security that do – or should – exist. It can become a very effective mechanism for ensuring accountability, seeing if development programs are being implemented or whether the allocated budget is feeding ghost schools. The issue then is to devise effective ways of reaching out to people, discovering what they need and connecting them to the right resources. Perhaps simply connecting them to the voices in cities, who can ensure that they are heard.
The traditionalists are right when they say that poverty demands simple solutions – schools, hospitals, access to contraceptives. However, if they look around they will see that there are exciting new ways of facilitating these simple solutions, so that people don’t have to wait so much longer.
While the pace of change in a hyperlinked world can be overwhelming, these concerns cannot undermine the potential power of a modern media and communication campaign. Not only can it plant the first seed of an idea to tackle a specific issue, but can also create the energy for an organic movement. And whether it is a drive against dictatorship or for female education, change that comes from within is change that lasts.