Missing Letters: Why the SDGs Could Use a Bit More ICT

Purchase PDF
Sriganesh Lokanathan/ LIRNEasia
A mobile phone is used by a Sri Lankan man to capture the market price information for agricultural produce in real time.

The newly minted UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were released with much fanfare at the United Nations at the end of September. Among its many aims, the 17 goals seek to improve the quality of global education, reduce inequality, and take action on climate change with a seemingly endless arsenal of weapons: from public awareness campaigns; national, regional, and international policy briefings; social media blitzes; and celebrity endorsements.

But many feel that one incredibly important and useful weapon isn’t being utilized to its full extent. Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) practitioners have expressed concern that ICTs are not specifically mentioned in any of the SDGs and are found in only four of the 169 targets, such as Target 5.6b, to “enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women,” and Target 9.5c to “significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020.”1

Tim Unwin, the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D and the Director of the ICT4D Collective, noted in a recent blog post that, “there is widespread agreement that ICTs have been one of the major factors that have transformed the world over the 15 years of the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals)… They have driven extraordinary economic growth, opened up entirely new ways of delivering education, health, and rural development, transformed the relationships between governments and citizens, and created an interconnected world of communication and knowledge sharing. It is not an exaggeration to say that they have been one of the most significant changes to humanity over the last 20 years.”2

“Yet, those determining the SDG agenda for the next 15 years barely give them any recognition at all. This would not be so worrying if ICTs had not also created some of the greatest inequalities that the world has ever seen; the differences in life experience between someone connected through mobile broadband to a 4G network and someone with only 2G connectivity, let alone without a smartphone or equivalent digital device, is extraordinary.”

“Hence, those involved in crafting the SDGs should have paid very much greater attention to the transformative role of ICTs.”

In a world where more people have access to mobile phones than indoor plumbing,3 many in the ICT4D field see ICTs as critically important enablers of global economic, health, and social development. Gary Fowlie, Head of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Liaison Office in New York, noted in an April blog post that ICTs have the potential to integrate and accelerate all three pillars of sustainable development—economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability.4

“ICTs have an intrinsic value for long-term sustainable development beyond the four targets in the proposed post-2015 development framework,” wrote Fowlie. “The development of ICT infrastructures… creates an enabling environment required to implement the new sustainable development agenda. Making ICT universally available can deliver important cross-cutting synergies across different sectors.”

Per_Rawls_Figure2.jpg

Beyond Access
A Beyond Access project in the Philippines created a model for libraries – hubs for economic opportunity and information access – to provide ICT training to local communities.

The use of ICTs in development initiatives is limited only by the imagination of development practitioners. In Sri Lanka, SOS Children’s Villages- a children’s charity operating in over 125 countries- has created a mobile technology program to provide women with parenting tips, guidance on effective family communications, and even financial advice in order to help encourage safe and nurturing environments for children in the region. The program, called Mobile for Development, was started in November 2013 and uses mobile phone technology.5

The Urban Poor Consortium in Indonesia has established three radio stations to broadcast information on health, politics, and education to vulnerable members of the community.6 And the development of e-Choupal in India has allowed farmers there to check future and local prices around the world before going to market, increasing their ability to align their farm’s output to market demand while decreasing transaction costs to sell their goods.7

These cases provide examples of how ICTs are regarded by many as an important tool to leverage the SDGs and improve the effectiveness and reach of development projects overall. But implementing ICT4D projects are not without their challenges or limitations.

The lack of established collaboration between development and ICT professionals has led to ICT4D being inadequately utilized in large-scale development projects. Often, ICT4D practitioners are brought into development initiatives too late in the project implementation stage, causing their impact and capabilities to be significantly lessened. Effective and successful use of ICT can only be implemented if these technologies are part of every step of international development initiatives.

Other challenges to ICT4D implementation may be inadequate technical infrastructure within the country or region receiving the development assistance, a lack of literacy within the designated populations to receive aid, and basic access to ICT itself. Additionally, many organizations do not have the internal or structural knowledge of ICT and its myriad uses to be able to apply them usefully within the international development context.8 The ever changing and advancing nature of ICTs can also be an intimidating (and potentially costly) factor to development practitioners.

But technology professionals are looking at ways to address many of these challenges. In a recent report, the Earth Institute at Columbia University, in collaboration with the Ericsson telecommunications company, offered several ways that the use of ICTs can significantly increase the speed at which the SDGs and other development initiatives are implemented, including the following:9

  • ICTs can markedly reduce the cost of deploying new SDG-related services, for example in healthcare and education;
  • ICTs can dramatically speed up public awareness of new SDG-related services and technologies, thereby increasing their demand and readiness; and
  • ICTs can significantly improve the speed in which SDG-related technologies are understood and implemented as well as provide low-cost online platforms for training workers in these new technologies

Even UN agencies are spreading the word. As part of a growing campaign to re-evaluate the role of ICTs in the SDGs, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has spearheaded a “Call to Action” urging development stakeholders to “acknowledge the important contribution which broadband and ICT can make to delivering on the aspirational, transformational and universal targets of the post-2015 framework.”10 And at the 2015 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) attended by the ITU, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) called for increased ICT integration for development activities relevant to the SDGs.11

Per_Rawls_Figure3.jpg

Erik Hersman
A local man in Nairobi, Kenya, demonstrates a LiveQuotes mobile phone application that allows him to monitor the Nairobi Stock Exchange.

The SDGs have faced a symphony of criticism and praise alike with many suggesting that the goals are too vague, too unmeasurable, or too many. Others have worried that traditional means of international development may move too slowly to achieve the SDGs by the target date of 2030.

Many in the ICT4D field believe that comprehensive development strategies that fully incorporate ICT tools could significantly increase the chances of achieving the SDGs by their 2030 target date, providing profound impact on the world’s most vulnerable people as well as raising the profile of this relatively new and increasingly important development area.