Communication Technologies: Five Myths and Five Lessons from History


Mobile phones in the developing world have myriad uses: banking services, reminders for medicine regimens, e-governance, and more. This is a far cry from a generation ago when 99 percent of the people in low-income countries lacked POTS, or “plain old telephone service.”

Information and communications technologies are now indispensible for development, prioritized through varying levels of market-driven measures and participatory politics.  From international organizations to local administrations, the importance given to these technologies for development today is a counterpoint to the immediate post-colonial era when telephones were considered a luxury and nationalized radio broadcasting was used for bringing “modern” ideas to populations. Along with policy changes, the move toward market forms works to ensure that people have phones and access to communication infrastructures, in turn providing incentives for entrepreneurs and political brokers to develop applications for delivery of social services and provide alternatives to users who in an earlier era lacked even basic access to these technologies.

Information technology diffusion rates can be quite spectacular. Only one in a thousand people had a mobile phone in 1995 in low-income countries. Now more than 25 in a thousand people do.  Social media and the Internet have revolutionized political participation globally and provided voice and solidarity to communities. In January 2008, a 33-year-old civil engineer from Bogotá used a Facebook page to organize a protest in 40 countries against the paramilitary group FARC, gathering over 12 million people. The digital divide is not fully bridged, but the exponential growth rates of political voice and telephony promise a bright future.

What lessons can policymakers learn from the last 60 years of deploying communication technologies for development? Looking beyond the growth rate numbers suggests processes that either need to be continued or encouraged, but also fine-tuned at micro levels to address demands.

  • Encouraging Markets: Ensure regulatory independence and market incentives for providing access to infrastructures. Problems remain with corruption among officials and private firms, which calls for independence of regulatory agencies and dispute resolution, as well as smart policies to incentivize delivery in underserved areas.
  • Developing Polycentric Policymaking: Direct, top-down development interventions do not work effectively. International civil-society and international governmental organizations are best served as knowledge brokers and facilitators of information exchanges.
  • Allowing Participation and Voice: Locate political spaces for participation and voice.  Development interventions tend to be expertise driven and top-down; however, it is not difficult to provide synergies between development aspirations and local contexts.
  • Understanding Representation:  Allow people to represent themselves over various forms of audio-visual media. Old paternalistic habits are still too controlling, even as new social media defy this logic.
  • Prompting Ingenuity: Encourage technological and business entrepreneurship that enables political voices, social services delivery and micro-level efforts.