TECHNOLOGY AND COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT
KUMAH ERIC JUNIOR
In today’s world, technology has invaded many aspects of human life. From its gigantic influence on our education and professional development, to the more subtle presence of little gadgets littering our homes, technology is almost everywhere.
The reasons for such pervasiveness would boil down to some characteristics that technology by itself possesses. One such characteristic, which is of major interest to many scholars, is the seeming lack of barriers to the spread of technology. It easily penetrates societies and even to remote communities, and once it reaches its destination and catches on, it becomes seemingly difficult to stop its spread. As a result of this, consumer technology like cellular phones, computers, PDAs, radios and televisions have become commonplace in places like Africa, even with all the barriers one would have envisaged.
Sadly, it does not need much analysis to realize that even though technology usage is growing rapidly in Africa, we still have numerous developmental problems in our continent. This is a situation where advanced technology is coexisting with underdevelopment in Africa. With all the power that technology wields, it will be a useful exercise to study the ways in which it can be used to solve some of those very problems it has come to meet. In essence, using our little gadgets to solve our big problems.
This is the background against which this study is undertaken. Asking whether our problems can be solved at all, then enumerating instances where development projects that utilize technology have been put to work, and concluding by examining the cases and drawing lessons from them.
The limits to what the human mind can conceive and achieve are increasing. More discoveries have been made, more things have been created, more theories have been proved and disproved, more machines have been made and more problems have been created. Scientific technology has been the driving force behind all these. Science has indeed proved to be a powerful tool which has touched many people and has shaped many communities.
According to the Concise Oxford dictionary 10th edition, technology is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. Clearly from this definition we can see that scientific knowledge may exist theoretically but it only becomes technology when it is used in practical settings. For example we may say the knowledge of the rules of up-thrust and buoyancy is theoretical, however practical utilization of these rules to manufacture airplanes could be termed aircraft technology.
Again according to the Concise Oxford dictionary 10th edition, a community is the people of an area considered collectively, while development is explained to mean to grow or cause to grow and become larger or more advanced. By deduction, community development could be explained to be the growth or advancement of a group of people.
Today, the world has become highly technological, and things which in the seventies would have passed for science fiction are now so commonplace that they have almost become necessities. From every corner of the world, technology has global acceptance, it is ubiquitous and has the ability to dramatically change situations.
Any attempt to ascribe reasons for this pervasiveness of technology will have many suggestions, some of which are that machines have been proven more efficient than humans at some tasks, machines are less error prone, impartial and never get tired like humans. Another could be the increased sophistication of humans and the attendant need for equally complicated messengers to help us perform many tasks, which is linked to the interesting nature of technology that once a more advanced way of doing something is found, it becomes almost unthinkable to try to do it by “old fashioned” means.
With such large scale interplay of these and many more factors, there is little reason to be surprised by the sudden emergence of automatic machines to handle the little tasks of old; cleaning floors, washing clothes, cutting bread, mixing cake etc. the list goes on and on.
And that is far from all and the list of innovative possibilities is endless. In truth, some of these innovations have shaped the world and there are many examples to cite. The discovery of electricity and the radio wave both changed the world. Today, computers are changing the world even faster. Now with cellular phones, new opportunities have come and our imagination has become the only limiting factor. We can only wait for the next big thing to be created and who knows what it will be?
The picture of technological advancement is not a completely rosy one. Indeed, there are some minuses to science as well, such as the introduction of new forms of danger which come as a consequence of innovative forms of technology, for example the nuclear bomb came from nuclear technology, unforeseen genetic mutations are as the result of genetic engineering, and the numerous and little talked about chemicals which can destroy the ozone or warm the planet.
The seriousness of the disadvantages of technology have prompted some people to argue that technological advancement, which is an example of scientific development, is making us more of advanced entities but less of humans. In other words, we have become better scientists, bankers and professionals and worse human beings. Martin Luther King puts this argument succinctly when he said “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power, we have guided missiles and misguided men.”
The disadvantages that technology brings are issues which require serious examination to ascertain what can be done to eliminate them or at least minimize their effects since technology has definitely come to stay, and it would be to our advantage to learn how to work with it in ways that will be the most beneficial to us.
But despite the disadvantages listed here and the many more unnamed, we have seen that we can still derive many benefits from science and given that we live in, or at least come from, a part of the world where development is still a big headache, we should be the first to start a serious study of this phenomenon and see how best we can use it to our advantage. We may be surprised to see that there is a great viability in using our little gadgets to solve our big problems.
Let us make it clear that the aim of this paper is not to present technology as the magic cure that will clear our multitude of problems in a whiff, technology alone will not solve Africa’s problems because our problems are too complex, too deep and too overwhelming for any simplistic scheme to be successful. We can only achieve success when if have a more comprehensive approach to the problem, to include solid commitment to serious research, establishment of the appropriate structures, and the taking of required initiatives. It will be incorrect to assume that technology in itself is inherently good, and just implementing it alone will be enough to achieve any good result3. Though technology may be able to do anything, people must have the vision to drive it in the right direction.
Only with this knowledge can we make any meaningful gains in the development agenda.
In our particular context, Africa has proved that advanced technology could coexist with underdevelopment. People have satellite televisions whilst there are no teachers in the classrooms, we have mobile devices and pocket PCs and devices but our streets are still not named properly, there is still a large number of illiterates among the people who own and use cell phones, spreading of healthcare information is still a challenge even though a lot of people have access to radio and TV. This sorry list is endless.
CAN TECHNOLOGY REALLY ADDRESS OUR PROBLEMS?
From healthcare, access to water and life expectancy, to governance, industrialization and even the quality of human life, there are numerous problems confronting African communities.
Today we are said to be living in the information age, an era where access to information is the new driving force of the world. The proliferation of the Internet and World Wide Web has reduced the whole world to a massive audience with unprecedented access to vast quantities of information. This communication is unencumbered and the formation of alliances is unhindered by physical distance, national or political borders4. With all the dynamics that this modernity brings, technology stands tall as a favourite to achieve any meaningful sustainable development for many reasons.
Principal among such reasons is the fact that there is improved awareness of underdevelopment among Africans themselves, which could be due to the information age, and an improved belief that our situations can be turned around. This is markedly different from decades ago when there was a lot of resignation and despair among black professionals. Evidence to support this would be the observation that much more thought is being directed at the Africa integration agenda and greater attention being paid to the Economic partnership agreements (EU- ECOWAS).
Another positive indicator is the growing number of trained and competent technological professionals on the face of the continent. Granted, the improved numbers by themselves will not be a good indicator, but with the holistic approach talked about earlier, one can see a sign of hope which shows that there is very high potential for success in a well though out scheme to utilize technology to solve our developmental problems.
Another good point is the individual work that is being carried out by different groups using different approaches (studies of the indigenous chieftaincy system for e.g.) at trying to solve the same problems. This is clear evidence to state that beyond the level of commitment, there have been actual attempts at problem solving. Even if some of such attempts have not been successful due to the numerous challenges in the way, the experiences have been gained and lessons have been drawn from them which would be utilized for future use.
Finally there are areas where major strides have already been made in Africa. Statistics show for example that there have been remarkable improvements in girl student enrollments in places like Nigeria, Kenya and Zambia5. This is definitely a feather in our cap and such areas may serve as boosters to face the remaining dark spots.
All these imply that we might be closer than ever to solving our problems, and all that may be left will be a few giant pushes forward.
This is where technology comes into the picture. It is the one thing that seems to know no barriers, catches on easily and has the power to transform even the most remotely inaccessible locations on earth to budding business towns. It is ubiquitous. Its innovations accelerate by the month. As a result, it is the most probable tool to achieve anything meaningful.
In the early 90’s, scholars described Africa as being left in a technological apartheid 6. Today however, with increased globalization perhaps a slightly better picture can be painted. Even though Africa is not in the league of the innovators of the most novel initiatives and we may not be making as good use of technologies as we ought to, or as some others are, we would still have something positive to report. For example, in some cases, Africa actually has comparable human and hardware resources. Therefore, “apartheid” would no longer be a precise definition of the situation as it stands.
As stated earlier in this paper, technology alone will not solve our problems. But with very serious considerations using active participation, a comprehensive and well though out scheme that incorporates technology will be a very viable solution.
However taking a look at all the attempts made so far and their attendant challenges and effects if any, one may say confidently that will all the proper accompanying compliments, technology will made very significant gains in spurring the development agenda on.
HOW IS TECHNOLOGY BEING USED TO SOLVE PROBLEMS?
Across many countries around the world, people have made serious strides at utilizing technological knowledge to solve all manner of problems. Many issues have arisen out of such attempts, and below are very brief summaries of some of those places where practical scientific knowledge has been utilized for the growth of the community.
In Africa’s recent governance history, elections have always been a challenge. It is hard to find a totally free and fair voting exercise, whilst contested elections, unfair processes, non transparent irregularities and simple ineffectiveness are commonplace. With a background of poverty, it is not too difficult to understand why the stakes are so high in African politics and why power is very lucrative in this part of the world. This not withstanding however, there is a good number of unrests that could have been avoided if any election is proven to be fair, free and transparent to an appreciable degree.
Attaining this ideal degree has proved difficult for reasons of the complex interplay of some factors including, a government founded electoral commission, a winner takes all setting, and no motivation to commit to the right virtues. Knowing that power is so lucrative when you come from this winner takes all setting, it is really hard to let go of control of the electoral process. This is one motivation for the dishonourable acts that unfortunately we see quite often.
Because elections are highly involving and they require elaborate programs that span a series of locations (from a voter’s home to the polling station, the collation center, the electoral commission headquarters, the public domain and back to the voter’s home), It follows that unless you are trying to make public exhibition of your nefarious activity, you would need to be tactical to be successful at such dishonorable acts. The tactics employed may vary but they invariably entail series of acts that are designed to prevent information from getting into the public domain. So that for example, figures could be changed anytime so long as the original and authentic ones do not get into the hands of the public.
If democratic leadership were genuinely understood, there will be no attempt at election rigging. But since we are currently not in that ideal stage, election monitoring is one tool we can exploit to at least cut the ability for cheating.
Mobile phone technology is being used in election monitoring in some African countries under a new system of election monitoring called “parallel reporting”. Parallel reporting is simply an approach to election monitoring whereby independent observers spread news of the votes counted at the basic level, which is the polling station. The figures are then relayed to an independent center where they are collated and cross checked with official figures announced by the electoral commission.
One advantage of this scheme is seen that it will make it increasingly difficult for an electoral commission to attempt to fraudulently sway the results in the favour of any of the contesting parties. The spreading or relaying of the results figures are done largely with mobile phones. Senegal is an example of a country where this project has been successful.
The statistics obtained from healthcare research are interesting. Figures show that a large number of the world’s HIVAIDS afflicted people live in Africa. At the same time, one of the growing markets for consumer electronics such as mobile devices, handheld PC etc may be found here in Africa. This represents a population overlap, and it is only prudent that some amount of research has been directed towards attempting to find ways to incorporating technology in the treatment of the numerous diseases on the face of the continent7.
Tuberculosis (TB) has long been known to be one of the deadliest diseases known to man. Apart from the threat that this highly infectious bacterial disease presents to human life, it also enjoys some additional notoriety for lowering the sufferer’s immune system to make it easy for other diseases, which may have various degrees of harmfulness, to attack the sufferer.
As if that were not enough, TB has a deadly habit of mutating at the least case of drug non adherence. Therefore any TB caregiver knows that a patient who demonstrates non compliance with drug rules is clearly not interested in getting healed. As a result of this, over the years, ways to enforce religious adherence of medication have been tried but success has largely eluded caregivers.
In South Africa, there is a very laudable project, the SimPill’s award-winning Adherence System project, which uses a real-time management system to increase adherence to medications prescribed to treat chronic illnesses – particularly tuberculosis, which is a significant cause of death of people living with HIV.
3.3 SOCIAL ISSUES
Serious projects that utilize technology to address social issues have been implemented in South Africa. One such idea named Fahamu’s Umn Yango (meaning ‘doorway’ in isiZulu) has been implemented to curb domestic violence by equipping people with cell phones as tools to monitor and report abuse. Under this scheme, victims use cell phones to call a predefined and popular number and give details of the abuse.
The fear of being victimized has always made it difficult for victims, witnesses or relatives to step up and lodge complaints to the relevant authorities. There are examples of places where people had reported abuses and had been picked upon by the abuser. We have had friends of a victim reporting an abuse of their friend only to go home to be abused themselves by their spouses as punishment for “poking their noses in other people’s business”. These good citizens were made to pay the price for exposing a wrong thing.
This fear has been totally eliminated under this project because of the provision of anonymity, the telephone call could be made in secret, and even the details of the reporter are not always required. This is a sharp contrast to the situation in the past where victims, neighbours, or witnesses were required to walk into a police station to make a formal report.
Apart from successes chalked in the number of reports that are received, there has also been a reduction in the numbers of abuse cases. This may be partly due to the deterring feeling among would-be abusers that, any passerby holding a mobile phone might just make sure they get a visit from a police detective for spouse battering.
3.4 ANIMAL FARMING
Technology has also been put to good use in farming.
Farmers who rear cattle in small herds, over time, develop a personal relationship with the animals, the farmer knows all of them and can notice a missing animal or a sick one with just a glance. However, because it takes months of careful observation of the behaviour of every cow to know every animal well enough to take note when there is an infection or when an animal does not ruminate properly, this task would be ineffective if it were performed by a human shepherd with a large herd.
To remedy this situation, the technology of vocal tags has been developed in Europe. This project employs a tag, which is a belt fitted with sensors and worn around each animal’s neck. These sensors monitor several indicators such as the animal’s rate of rumination, voice clarity, digestion and breathing and send the data collected to a central computer.
Over time the computer knows what is normal for every cow and will notify the shepherd when something goes wrong with a cow.
The advantage of this project is that a farmer can take quick and specific action like giving treatment to the particular animal involved. This removes the need to give general treatments to the whole herd, which is both time and money wasting.
These are some of the ways that technology is being used towards increased development.
WHAT LESSONS HAVE BEEN LEARNT?
No matter how promising an idea or project sounds, there are bound to be problems encountered in the deployment of the project. In achieving the above projects, following are some of the problems one is likely to be faced with:
In the election monitoring program, misinformation has been identified to be one of the problems starring the program in the face. It is true that when all the information is not localized in the hands of government, then a lot more transparency will be achieved, but it is also true that mass misinformation remains an unpleasant possibility.
Another problem could arise when there is a situation where people do not necessarily trust the degree of independence of the so called independent observers. It may lead to a problem where parties could cast a slur on the reputation of the observers so as to use the resulting mistrust to set the stage for a possible rejection of the results.
Overall this is a laudable idea and if a means of verification were added, the figures would mean much more to a lot of people.
Whilst celebrating the successes chalked, it is important to note that a number of other factors needed to progress before a state could move towards a more democratic model of governance. According to African political expert, Sheldon Gellar, these changes include: strengthening independent media, growing and ensuring freedom of civil society, decentralizing power, ceding more control to local governments, empowering women and improving judicial systems to ensure independence and power to punish.
Governance is one area that is set to reap some benefits of this phenomenon when used judiciously, unilateral rule and arbitrary action may be reduced towards a more participatory approach to leadership in Ghana
Technology could help achieve those goals to some extent, as communication was the key to overcoming oppression.
In some of the cases, such as the election monitoring or domestic violence reporting, the internet could be used to provide communities with means to communicate, to organize and obtain good information which is not controlled by the government. However, this is not practical in Africa since only a tiny percentage of Africans have affordable access to internet.
In the healthcare project, basic mismanagement has been identified as one of the reasons why many projects seem to skid to halt after being piloted. Needed funds are not always available to those who need them.
Another problem observed was that the people who will be using the project are not always consulted in the designing and planning of the ideas, so there is a lack of communication between beneficiaries, health professionals, technologists, and managers.
Another problem was the theft of cell phones. Although cell phones are a relatively low-cost technology, they still hold considerable value in poverty-stricken areas, and are commonly stolen. And, such theft is likely to rise as these devices become more and more complex. However this is quite debatable since some analysts argue that losing a cell phone to a thief is less of a financial loss than losing a more costly machine.
In the domestic violence project one stumbling block was the communication gap between the various parties involved in the system. Feedback was largely missing and people could not tell whether their input was useful – or received, and in some cases, police officers who receive messages reporting violence against women may not be prepared to respond.
Another problem was the unfortunate situation where some unscrupulous people made the work more difficult for the authorities by raising false alarms. This could be addressed by education and the incorporation of punitive measures.
However to use effective punitive measures, even more advanced technology will be required, for example to pinpoint a particular cell phone subscriber, and take action against them like blocking their Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) Cards etc.
And the usual problem of financing in many projects is ever present as well, and it is the more predominant one in the animal rearing project.
Granted, there are challenges that exist in using technology to achieve development goals, but such efforts still hold great potential and the costs of any obstacle will not stand in comparison to the threat of underdevelopment and poverty. So we can only strive to work harder at such solutions.
Our development attempts and efforts should think more seriously about sustainability and scalability. One important consideration in this direction is the affordability of the programmes we plan and develop. The more affordable options have a higher chance of success, so the fact that most of the development projects do not require any extraordinarily complex or new gadgets is indeed pleasant to note.
Also throughout the creation and deploying of any project, enough consultation should be carried out to ensure that there is a general buy-in into the idea from the creators to the beneficiaries. This will make an idea command a common sense of ownership.
The quality of the management should also be improved and measures should be put in place to ensure the right things are done.
Identifying the problem is half the solution. We already now have greater awareness and we have made some attempts at solving them. Putting our acts together to draw the lessons and re-strategizing with a new approach -technology, is definitely the way to go. I am confident of the viability of this new approach.
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