ICT4D, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
By: Saheer Al-Jaghoub
Al-Ahliyya Amman University, Amman, Jordan
Poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition and child mortality are only some of the problems faced by many countries around the world. For many years, different agencies have been searching for ways to decrease human suffering caused by these problems. A few years ago, a number of development agencies found a new answer for these problems – information communication technologies (ICTs). Since then a number of countries sought to achieve socio-economic development by harnessing the power of ICTs to help not only in achieving better income but also in improving people's lives. One of these countries is Jordan which has started a comprehensive ICT led development program ten years ago. I will use Jordan as an example to illustrate some of the issues related to ICT-led development (or e-development as termed by some), keeping in mind the differences and similarities among developing countries.
Jordan has started ICT initiatives in a number of areas including building an ICT industry, education, bridging the digital divide, and government. Today it has been 10 years since the whole initiative in Jordan has started with these initiatives facing mixed results and challenges. On the economic side, the ICT industry is argued to contribute approximately 10% of the DGP, which is seen as a success as it was almost non-existent. However, the question of where this income is concentrated and how it is being distributed remains without an answer. As for education, from the outset almost all government schools have access to the computers and the internet and many curricula are developed online, but did this access actually enhance education? Again this question remains to be answered. Bridging the digital divide is being done through a number of knowledge stations (about 170) which provide access to ICTs in remote areas, some of these stations have been successful in achieving their objectives and some were less successful. A number of components of the e-government initiative have been implemented but reality shows that awareness and usability are still below expectations and therefore, results are yet to be seen.
So what does this tell us? ICTs are in place now as opposed to 10 years ago where there were almost none, but their actual contribution to development has not yet been realized in some initiatives, especially those that are not directly related to producing income and the question is why? Although this short discussion has used Jordan as an example, it is safe to say that a number of countries are in the same situation, where initiatives have started, a number of years passed and mixed results are evident but no formal evaluation of these initiatives have been conducted.
Enough time has passed to make it worthwhile for developing countries that have invested valuable resources to implement ICT related initiatives (including Jordan) to evaluate what has been achieved and which initiatives were less successful and why. Such an evaluation is both a challenge and opportunity: it is a challenge because such it is a difficult yet necessary process and an opportunity because it could help in realizing the factors that contributed to the success of some initiatives and building upon these factors and finding the reasons for the failure of other initiatives. International development agencies (such as UNDP and the World Bank), which have been a major advocates of using ICTs for development should have an active role in helping developing countries in assessing their individual situations and in providing a high level evaluation of the ICT4D current situation in general. Otherwise many countries may be faced with either repeating mistakes of others which could have been avoided or abandoning initiatives which could have turned from failure to success by identifying the mistakes and taking some corrective measures.
For the future, lessons learnt from the past are very important for developing countries to realize their strengths and weaknesses and how to proceed so that resources are not wasted and the ICT initiatives can achieve the objectives of contributing to socio-economic development and all of its aspects, which was the major reason behind starting these initiatives to begin with.