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Is ICT the panacea for global development?

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In 2015 Bill and Melinda Gates published their annual letter on poverty, in which they claim that the lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any previous time in history. They stated that breakthroughs in health, education, food, etc, will be driven by innovation and technology.

Now obviously those comments are close to my heart, particularly given my position as an adviser to the UN Broadband Commission. We recently had our 11th meeting of the Broadband Commission in Paris and, of course, many of these issues were discussed there as well.

Obviously it is great to see that we are making progress in many of the areas that Bill and Melinda Gates are talking about and I most certainly admire their passion, and the fantastic work that they are doing. Their contributions will help in making further improvements to the world we live in and in particular to the poorest people.

However, an assessment by Professor Chris Blattman – a specialist in the field of poverty – made me think about these issues from a different perspective. I have certainly made statements like this myself – but is it really ICT that is driving these developments?

The reality, however is that the biggest achievements are made in those countries that already are on the rise anyway. Certainly ICT is helping them but perhaps far more importantly over the past 50 years or so it has been possible to create a society where it is possible for ICT developments to be embraced – and indeed to be used as tools to make progress. Over those decades they have slowly but surely been able to build structures that have generated improvements in healthcare, education, agriculture and so on. Once in place, you can build on that.

These developing countries have been able to move on from agriculture into manufacturing and services. Perhaps the best examples can be seen in SE Asia, where enormous social and economic progress has been taking place, with some countries being able to lift themselves out of poverty within two generations. Many people in South Korea, for example, will tell you that their parents and/or grandparents lived in poverty, in their living memory.

It is the countries where civil stability has taken a stronghold that will see the most progress; and ICT will indeed be a key driver there. It will be those countries where poverty will, in fact, decrease further.

But countries without a stable society will not see any of that progress among the majority of their people. They will lack the conditions and institutions that would allow for ICT and other developments to create long-lasting change.

What we see in these countries is that whatever is achieved by ICT, or by other means, disappears after the next war, military coup, extortion, terrorist attack. These are the countries where civil stability has not yet taken hold and where groups such as ISIS, Al Qaeda or corrupt military and politicians have free rein to terrorise the population and prevent any form of civilisation from flourishing.

It would be impossible for ICT to do anything here to lift the population out of poverty. All that can be provided are bandages to stop the heaviest bleeding. These are the stateless countries and failed states where there are no systems in place that allow the people to prevent the next natural disaster – disasters that will only increase with climate change. These are the countries where whatever they have been able to build will be bombed, often through foreign intervention – for whatever reason – and often by well-meaning western countries (Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Pakistan, Palestine).

After the previous UN meeting I wrote an article on the difficulty of addressing the Ebola issue in Liberia, where any form of basic infrastructure simply does not exist. Without that in place ICT and any other development disappears as soon as the foreign assistance disappears after the crisis is over.

It is most unlikely that people living in those countries will see the same progress that is being foreshadowed by Bill and Melinda Gates. With poverty slowly disappearing elsewhere the majority of the poor will live in these stateless societies. If we want to assist them we need to work out how civil stability can be established – firstly to enable systems and structures to evolve. And once they are in place we will also be able to assist further development with the help of ICT.

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