Communications and ICTs in Human Development

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Tonight I had the privilege of attending a talk hosted by the Berkman Center and IDRC on the role of technology in human development. The panelists included two Nobel Laureates: Amartya Sen, Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, and Michael Spence. They were accompanied by Clotilde Fonseca, Founding Director of the Costa Rican Program of Educational Informatics, and Yochai Benkler, Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard.

The discussion started off on a high note, with moderator, Michael L. Best, asking tough questions about whether mobile phones are truly good for human development, or whether they create more problems than they solve.  He even staged a mock phone call from his mother, exclaiming afterwards, “This is tyranny, not freedom!”  Sen, who is as endearing as he is brilliant, answered with the analogy that although better nutrition may make men better able to commit domestic violence, we still believe that nutrition is a good thing.  In the same way, despite complications, expansion of information technology is essentially positive.  Spence followed by stating that the mobile phone is providing the inputs that allow people to participate in aspects of development, such as finance, which they had not been able to before, and Fonseca noted that they provided the possibility of solving problems immediate to you and your community. However, there is no proof yet that this is sufficient for knowledge acquisition or learning, which are at the heart of the development process.

The key takeaway, I believe, was that the mobile phone is not a panacea and that we cannot view it isolation to other development goals.  As Spence pointed out, if you want to empower people in the rural areas, build roads for them. Unfortunately, this meant that the end of the conversation was focused on environment, energy, gender, infrastructure, and entrepreneurship…all of which are important, but diversions from the topic at hand.  I would have preferred to hear more about the risks of promoting technology as a strategy for human development, and how social change organizations might mitigate these risks and best utilize new technologies. That being said, the panelists offered important and honest insight, and reminded all listeners, whether they were watching in the room or in cyberspace, that although there is no silver bullet to development, new technology can work to positively influence issues from corruption to microfinance.  Mobile phones may have come a long way, but we are not there yet.  Innovation must continue, telecommunications companies must lower costs, and data must become more widely available.

It is also worth mentioning that Fletcher alum Joshua Goldstein ’09, helped to moderate the event by fielding questions from the Twittersphere.  More coverage of the event can be found on Twitter with the tag #idrc09.

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