Mira Cole-Wijaya looks into the technology transforming development, from financial inclusion to education to connectivity.

Technology has radically transformed people’s lives and livelihoods across the globe. Within humanitarian and international development contexts, technology has the potential to massively change the way aid is delivered, to find solutions to development bottlenecks, and to provide alternative ways to spur economic growth. The UN sees technology as one of the key pillars crucial in helping achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, while DiFD’s digital development strategy believes “digital technologies have the potential to revolutionise the lives of the poor, unlock development and prosperity, and accelerate progress towards the Global Goals”. Though we must not be over zealous in seeing technology as the “silver bullet” set to disentangle all international development challenges, in many cases technology does have the unique ability to help countries leapfrog certain stages in traditional development trajectories or provide innovative solutions to distinctive regional obstacles.

So what types of technologies are really making a difference?

International development is a vast and all encompassing concept, touching on all facets of society within developing countries, from service delivery to humanitarian responses to economic growth. Furthermore, the impact of these many of these technologies are expansive and crosscutting with technology working at the intersection of multiple sectors. This makes it very difficult to define exactly what we would consider an international development technology. Roughly, however, we can set out 8 categories where technology is increasingly disrupting the developmental ecosystem.

Financial inclusion: Technology plays an important role in propelling inclusive growth. M-Pesa is perhaps the most talked about and successful example of technology being used as a tool for financial inclusion by allowing mobile phone owners to securely and quickly transfer money via their phones. This has provided a banking system for the previously unbanked and lifted 2% of Kenyan households out of extreme poverty. Similarly Tala has provided credit to the informal sector empowering a new generation of business owners. Technology has the power to revolutionise the financial system for those who would traditionally be marginalised and in the process lift many vulnerable populations out of poverty.

The Collaborative Economy: Collaborative economy tools are changing the way citizens access assets and services they previously could not afford. Hello Tractor is an ‘uber style’ service that allows African farmers to access low cost tractors, while WeFarm is a farmer to farmer knowledge sharing platform that allows farmers to ask questions or share tips via SMS (for those without internet access) or online. Both technologies have led to an increase in farmers yield and efficiency. Meanwhile, GO-JEK in Indonesia has spun out from a platform connecting low-end taxi and motorbike taxis to include at home delivery of services, such as spa treatments, as well as food delivery. What is especially interesting about Go-Jek has been its role in stimulating growth and inclusion in Indonesia, providing a slothe of new job opportunities, connecting low-productive sectors of the economy, while moving jobs previously part of the informal economy into the formal economy and thereby increasing the potential tax base.

Utilities: With 780 million people worldwide lacking access to clean water and just under one billion people without access to electricity, the UN’s millennium development goals have a strong focus on providing access to these vital utilities. There are a myriad of technologies working to tackle the challenges of clean water scarcity such as Zero Mass Water, which uses solar panels to pull drinking water out of the air, and LifeStraw, who create portable filtered straws which has given millions of people access to clean water. Lack of infrastructure, hostile terrain and remoteness of many regions in developing countries also make providing electricity off the grid essential. Companies like as BuffaloGrid and Standard Microgrid are finding innovative ways, using renewable energy to provide power to those who are often marginalised by lack of traditional infrastructure while using the resources they have copious amounts of – sunlight.  

Transportation and logistics: The geography and lack of formal infrastructure is one of the greatest challenges for developing countries. With the emergence of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), however, remote areas previously inaccessible using conventional transport are becoming reachable. Windhorse Aerospace uses UAVs to deliver aid to communities in restricted locations, while Altigator uses multi-sensory drones for search and rescue after natural disasters and for digitally mapping remote regions. New ways of providing addresses and locations to regions which lack formal street addresses are also appearing, including What3Words – which encodes geographical coordinates into three words – and OkHi, which provides locations with an “OkHi address” comprising of a web link that points to a GPS tag and photo of the house’s gate. While Where Is My Transport is making public transport in emerging cities easier to use by collating data on both formal and informal modes of transport to provide a journey planning platform.

Education: Globally there has been a rise in literacy rates and numbers of children attending both primary and secondary school, however there are still many countries who are lagging behind. New types of technology are entering the market in attempts to find novel ways to provide better educational outputs in a sustainable format. From durable and cost-effective tablets for primary schools in Africa, to educational platforms that use gamification and ai technology to make learning fun and easily to access across South-East Asia (Solve Education) the educational sector in developing countries are becoming more tech savvy. Platforms like Funzi are also working with development organisations and the UN to develop bespoke mobile learning services that easily and effectively target specific groups.

Health: There are numerous new technologies out there finding pioneering ways to provide healthcare in challenging environments.  Simprints are using biometric fingerprint scanners to overcome identification bottlenecks and build medical records for pregnant women in Bangladesh as well as improving vaccination coverage in other countries. Flare is changing Nairobi’s emergency service landscape by creating an ‘uber-style’ consumer facing app which allows patients or hospitals see available ambulance options to request help as quickly as possible. While Zipline is using drones in Tanzania and Rwanda to parachute deliver important medical supplies to remote regions.

Governance and accountability: Developing countries governments are often critiqued for their lack of transparency, especially when it comes to the expenditure of aid. Aid.Tech is set to revolutionise this process by using blockchain technology to instantly send money around the world with complete traceability, reducing the amount of money that is lost through corruption or fraud. Beneficiaries are provided with a digital identity, that cannot be replicated, through which they can receive entitlements via digital vouchers. Further systems of digital identification are also be rolled out across many countries, including India’s use of Aadhaar biometric digital identification for public service provision and Nigeria’s E-ID system.

Connectivity: With many of these pioneering technologies, what sits behind them is the massive increase in mobile phone use and access to the internet. While internet access is burgeoning in many urban areas, the price is less affordable than in developed countries, furthermore there are huge obstacles in expanding affordable internet access to remote areas due to the need for new or upgraded infrastructure. This has lead to large corporations such as Google, SpaceX, Facebook and Oneweb investing in the development or aerial infrastructure innovations in efforts to overcome these challenges. Examples include Google’s Project Loon which is a network of stratospheric balloons providing internet to remote locations.

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