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Creating a Development Dynamic: Final Report of the Digital Opportunity Initiative

Accenture, Markle Foundation, United Nations Development Programme, July 2001, 125 pages
Review by Madanmohan Rao (

Despite many steps forward in social and economic conditions around the world in recent decades, there remain huge disparities in the quality of human existence. Unprecedented global flows in information, products, people, capital and ideas offer great potential for radical improvements in human development -- but left unabated, they may also serve to worsen and entrench the spiral of poverty.

The Digital Opportunity Initiative (DOI) - a unique public-private partnership between Accenture, the Markle Foundation and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) - has put together a comprehensive report which reveals ample evidence that, used in the right way and for the right purposes, ICT can have a dramatic impact on achieving specific development goals as well as play a key role in broader national development strategies. The real benefits lie not in the provision of technology per se, but rather in its application to create powerful socio-economic networks by dramatically improving communication and the exchange of information.

Accenture is a global management and technology consulting organization, with 70,000 people in 48 countries. The Markle Foundation Markle ( is the largest U.S. philanthropy devoted exclusively to promoting the development and use of communications technologies in the public interest. UNDP has offices in 132 countries, helping countries in their efforts to achieve sustainable human development.

The report covers ICT applications in health, education, participatory democracy and environmental movements. ICT is identified as both a production sector as well as an enabler of development, and informative case studies are drawn of specific projects in action (Pride Africa microfinance, Grameen village payphones, Infocentros telecentres) as well as notable national ICT strategies (from Brazil, Costa Rica, Estonia, India, Malaysia, South Africa, Tanzania).

These findings, at both the micro and national level, highlight the need for a framework for a country's ICT strategy that should focus on infrastructure, human capacity, enterprise culture, and local content and applications. Solutions should also be realistic, flexible and sensitive to local conditions, should have local participation, and must be backed by political will at the highest level. These can then ignite a virtuous circle of sustainable social and economic development-"a development dynamic."

I. ICT for Specific Development Goals

The recent United Nations Millennium Summit achieved consensus on the key development goals for the next decade: reducing poverty, raising levels of education, improving standards of health, enhancing empowerment, and reversing the loss of environmental resources.

Within this context, ICT can be a powerful tool for development, both because of ICT's inherent characteristics (such as global nature of the Internet and low marginal costs of distribution and communication) and the mounting empirical evidence at both the micro and national level (in areas like healthcare, education and environment).

ICT initiatives should be explicit about their development goals and how they will directly impact the target population. Initiatives should be driven by user demands, identified and realized through direct participation and ownership. ICT solutions should be scaleable and "built to last." The clearly-defined goals and interests of key stakeholders must be broadly aligned with each other and with the goals of the intervention to create "win-win" situations.

1. ICT in Healthcare

In Gambia, digital cameras are used by nurses to capture images of symptoms onto a PC and transfer them to nearby towns for examination by doctors, and from there via the Net to other experts. In West Africa, malaria researchers use a network of satellites and ground stations to submit data for clinical trials conducted at tropical disease research facilities in London and Geneva.

SatelLife's HealthNet ( communications network is used by 19,500 health care workers in more than 150 countries worldwide, for varying uses like surgical training in Mozambique, physician consultations in Ethiopia, and malaria data analysis in Gambia.

Challenges for such projects arise in lack of reliable and affordable telecommunications and power infrastructure; unfavorable regulatory, and poor organizational design.

2. ICT for Education

ICT can improve the efficiency, accessibility and quality of the learning process in developing countries for schools, research, academic collaboration and vocational training. Distance learning is well suited to tertiary education where the motivation and commitment of students is high.

The six largest distance-learning universities in the world are located in developing countries: Turkey, Indonesia, China, India, Thailand and Korea. In Chile, the Enlaces Project wired 50 percent of the primary schools for collaboration between teachers and students. The African Virtual University encourages shared research efforts among both academics and students.

The World Links for Development (WorLD) program's mission is to establish global on-line communities for secondary school students and teachers around the world. Indian IT company NIIT's Hole-in-the-Wall experiment aims to educate underprivileged children in the use of ICT. StarMedia has launched a training program for underprivileged youth in Latin America and the Caribbean.

3. ICT for Economic Opportunity

There are a number of ways ICT is enhancing rural productivity and increasing access to markets outside local boundaries. In Chile, an Internet network among farmer organizations has dramatically increased farmers' incomes by providing information about crop status, weather, global market prices and training. The financial and information service network provided by Pride Africa offers micro-finance opportunities for local people and small enterprises.

Utilities Afrique Exchange provides an e-trading platform to utilities companies in Africa and helps both sellers and buyers simplify their procurement processes and reduce costs. USAID's Global Technology Network helps find comparable small and medium-sized U.S. companies to share business solutions that satisfy their existing technological needs.

Through PEOPLink's global artisans trading exchange, local craftspeople can now receive up to 95 percent of the selling price for their produce where previously they received only 10 percent.

Village Pay Phones, an initiative of the Grameen Bank, lets phone owners in over a thousand villages in Bangladesh rent mobile phones out to village farmers and other community members for a fee and also provide messaging and incoming call services.

But the wireless technology chosen by Grameen is expensive and not optimal for rural areas.

4. ICT for participatory democracy

ICT can contribute to fostering empowerment and participation and making government processes more efficient and transparent by encouraging communication and information-sharing among people and organizations, and within government.

In the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, the government is introducing an experimental intranet computer network for government services and local information, allowing farmers to get copies of land titles for 10 cents that previously cost as much as US$100 from corrupt officials.

The Infocentros Association plans to to provide 2 million Salvadorians-one third of the population-with access to the Internet within 2 years through a chain of 100 telecenters with local content and services for business and education. It is an example of a development-centered ICT strategy based on a unique partnership between government and civil society.

5. ICT and the Environment

ICT can make a valuable contribution to sustainable environmental management by improving monitoring and response systems, facilitating environmental activism and enabling more efficient resource use.

SIDSNet provides a medium for sharing information and good practices among the forty-three Small Island Developing States (SIDS) on common issues such as biodiversity, climate change, coastal and marine management and energy sources. In Nepal, computer imaging has been used to build a land resource database for the Arun River basin which helped in designing and implementing the land management program for the area.

Global Forest Watch (, an international network of more than 90 local forest groups linked by the Internet, tracks forest coverage via satellite and compares the activity to forest leases to identify illegal cutting. These maps are posted on the Internet, naming specific companies that fail to comply with environmental policies.

II. National Approaches to ICT

From the early 1980s, developing countries began adopting national ICT policies. The emergence of the global network economy in the 1990s, fueled by the digitalization of telecommunications and later by the rapid expansion of the Internet, created additional impetus for a wider variety and number of developing countries to adopt national ICT policy frameworks.

The role assigned to ICT can be broadly characterized in one of two ways: ICT as a production sector (growth of computer hardware, software, telecommunications equipment and ICT-enabled services) and ICT as an enabler of socio-economic development (harnessing ICT to accelerate a wider development process).

Adding an orientation of domestic/global focus, national policies can thus target the export market, national capacity/domestic market focus, global positioning, and development goals focus.

Although not all countries can benefit from a focus on developing ICT as a sector, all can benefit from using ICT as an enabler. Making development goals the primary focus has greater impact than any of the other three strategies in isolation because it ensures that the latter are aligned with meeting development goals.

An export focus can produce economic growth, improve balance of payments and reduce dependence on traditional commodity exports - but tends to have a limited impact on the development of national infrastructure and capacity. A national capacity focus may lead to the ICT sector developing without being subject to competitive pressures, incentives for the adoption of cutting edge technologies can be lost. A global positioning focus is essential to the long-term economic success of developing countries.

1. Costa Rica: Focusing on ICT as an Engine of Export Growth

Instead of concentrating in labor-intensive industries for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) like some of its neighbors, Costa Rica focused its attention on the high-tech sector. Thanks to strong IT education and an investor-friendly marketing push, Costa Rica successfully attracted Intel to set up its second largest plant for final assembly and testing of computer microprocessor chips; other companies have followed suit, like medical devices manufacturer Abbott Laboratories. In 2000, computer products accounted for 37 percent of Costa Rica's exports. This is higher than bananas at 10 percent and coffee at 5 percent.

2. Brazil: Building National IT Capacity for Domestic Market Development

Brazil was among the first developing countries to put in place policies promoting the development of a national ICT industry, followed by liberalization in the 1990sIn 1997, the Brazilian PC industry produced over 1.2 million systems worth US$2.5 billion, or 37 percent of the Latin American market. Opening up the market has also led to rapid growth of contract manufacturing in Brazil. Compaq and Epson are outsourcing their production of integrated circuit boards to Brazil. HP does the same for its printers.

3. Malaysia: Positioning as a Competitive Economy

The Malaysian government was one of the first to attempt to replicate the Silicon Valley model in a developing country. The US$40 billion Multimedia Super Corridor initiative is supported by a high-speed link (10Gb/s network), which connects the MSC to Japan, ASEAN, the US and Europe. It has launched actions to provide a well-educated work force via the National Institute of Public Administration (NIPA) and the Multimedia University. In 1999, GNP rose by 5.4 percent, much faster than initially forecasted. However, the level of social development has not progressed at an equivalent rate.

4. South Africa: Using ICT for Economic and Social Development

South Africa's challenge after the first democratic transition was to balance sustainable economic growth with social empowerment. The South Africa IT Strategy Project (SAITIS) was developed in consultation with the private sector and other stakeholders. To leverage cross-sector benefits of ICT, a number of ministerial clusters were organised: Efficient Governance, Investment and Employment, Human Resource Development, Poverty Eradication and International Affairs. Software production grew by about 20 percent in 2000. But progress is slowed due to skills, access and regulatory constraints.

5. Estonia: Using ICT for Economic and Social Development

Estonia is attempting to leverage people and knowledge capital as key assets in its pursuit of economic development. The telecommunications market in Estonia was fully liberalized from January 2001. Rural telecottages supported by local and state governments help to promote economic development, education and scientific research in rural areas. Estonia has become a country where mobile phones are manufactured, not just used. The government has also initiated the innovative Tiger Leap Program to increase computer literacy in schools. Associated with Tiger Leap is the annual "Tiger Roadshow" aimed at people who have not had a chance to use computers.

6. India

A spate of reforms-post-1991 economic crisis-have given impetus to the Indian economy, particularly to the ICT sector. But it has yet to result in the distribution of ICT benefits across a broader base of the population. Thanks to government initiatives like the Software Technology Parks of India, the Indian software industry grew from a mere US$150 million in 1991-1992 to a staggering US$5.7 billion (including over US$4 billion worth of software exports) in 1999-2000. In spite of relatively low literacy rates among the general population, India has a large English-speaking population and world-class education institutions. A joint effort by the Indian Institute of Science and a Bangalore-based private company have developed a low cost Net device called Simputer.

7. Tanzania

Despite having very low per capita income, Tanzania is preparing to reposition itself in the global network economy. Tanzania hopes to illustrate that starting off on the right foot is the key to leapfrogging or "antelope-jumping" many stages of ICT development. Particularly notable are its e-Secretariat and e-ThinkTank.

III. Creating A Development Dynamic

The unique characteristics inherent in ICT and the evidence from both the above micro-level initiatives and national ICT approaches point to five important interrelated areas for strategic intervention: policy, infrastructure, enterprise, human capacity, and content and applications.

The need to provide infrastructure access to key economic sectors should be accompanied by a push for relative ubiquity. Privatization, liberalization and policies aimed at increasing competition in the sector are desirable. Basic literacy is of crucial importance for development, as well as a force of knowledge workers and motivated entrepreneurs.

Transparent and inclusive government processes are useful for both the expansion of ICT, and also an area that the use of ICT can facilitate. For example, the Internet can be used to ensure access to legislation, taxation codes and government services, and thereby facilitate consumer and citizen input into governance processes. A basic level of institutional capacity is required for regulators, with adequate training, resources, and motivation to implement it.

Access to credit and financing is fundamental for the smooth functioning of the development dynamic. Although the venture capital sector is a key engine of enterprise growth in developed countries, this is not yet the case in most developing countries and transitional economies. As major consumers of ICT products and services, governments can also lead by way of example in the use of ICT and can also implement best organizational practices.

ICTs cannot be effectively leveraged without content that is responsive to user needs and local conditions, in a language that is commonly understood, and with technical specifications that are sensitive to the actual use and working environment of users. Partnerships between community networks and the private sector are key in this area.

A new form of collaboration and coordinated action between public, private, civil society and international organizations is needed-a strategic compact, built on vision and leadership, strategic alignment and collaborative partnerships (such as South Africa's ICT taskforces and councils, Tanzania's eSecretariat and national eThink Tank, the G8 Digital Opportunity Task Force (Dot Force) and the UN ICT Task Force).

A key message of the report is that strategies for the use of ICT are not universal. Countries face different circumstances, priorities and financial means, and should therefore adopt different strategies accordingly. Implementing a framework for action involves creating processes to build consensus about national priorities and addressing barriers in the different areas through some combination of advocacy, consultation, incentives, reforms, transitional mechanisms and the formation of strategic compacts.


Two of the most powerful forces in the world today are the spread of ICT and the global effort to achieve more widespread social and economic development. With the right policies and practical actions, ICT can be a powerful enabler of development. This is not mere theory-it is already starting to happen in practice.

Initiatives that are properly conceived and implemented can have an impact that extends beyond the individual communities they are designed to serve. Model initiatives can be scaled nationally or even regionally, contributing to the critical mass and the threshold levels needed to ignite a virtuous cycle of development.

The development dynamic framework aims to help in this effort. It provides a focused yet flexible basis on which ICT can be used to achieve real change for people living in developing economies-even those that have yet to harness the ICT revolution.

(with kind permission of the author)



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