Hassan Hachem: Innovation must serve human development

For ten years, media, blogs and social network keep on talking about innovation acceleration. Behind buzz word, innovation is now some kind of cult with no other object than itself. Hassan Hachem and others intellectuals think innovation has no other goal than serving human development. They share their views with.

In the years 2004, like many, Kentaro Toyama was enthusiastic about the Indian telecentres, where from a connected computer, children were learning - often with a dedicated preceptor for a price higher than schooling in a private school full time - , using a computer a few hours a month in a language he did not speak, as he had found in Retawadi, India. At the time Kentaro Toyama was a computer scientist for Microsoft Research in charge of launching a laboratory in Bangalore. He was also in the office of ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for Development), an association for the promotion of information and communication technologies (ICT) for development. At that time, ICT4D promoted Indian telecentres, sponsored and funded by external organizations (NGOs, universities, companies) with AIm of accelerating socio-economic growth, with lucrative and not lucrative goals: the Telecentre was to provide social services to the community and revenues for the local entrepreneur who operated the telecentre.

The hopes of the 2000s: technology, solution for development?

"Some telecentres have been successful. An operator in southern India said that he saved the okra culture by allowing a farmer to enter into discussion with a university expert. Another boasted of tripling his income after opening a computer training center. At the time, the titles of the press were flattering: "The soybean producers of India join the world village"; "Digital villages bridge the Indian divide"; "Kenyan farmers acclaim the internet as the savior of potato farming." "

Video: the performance of Kentaro Toyama on the stage of TedX Tokyo.

"These stories have raised great hopes for telecentres: distance education will enable every child to become a scholar, telemedicine will be able to cure dysfunctions in rural health systems, citizens will be able to develop local services without going through corrupt officials. ... Ashok Jhunjhunwala, a member of the Indian Prime Minister's Science Advisory Board even suggested that telecentres could double incomes in rural villages. Agronomist Monkombu Swaminathan, the father of the "Green Revolution" in India, called for a Telecentre to be established in each of the country's 640,000 villages. Other countries have followed suit, launching their own national telecentre programs. "

"The excitement around telecentres has spread to the rest of the ICT4D. Personalities in both technology and development have eagerly fanned the flames. At the time, Nicholas Negroponte, founder of One Laptop Per Child (a laptop per child, OLPC) project, a cheap laptop project for poor children, raised the demands of "Children in the developing world need new technologies, especially robust hardware and innovative software. Kofi Annan publicly supported the project. Edward Friedman, director of the Center for Technology Management for Global Development, wrote: "There is a pressing need to use information technology for rural health care in sub-Saharan Africa. A recent survey commissioned by the BBC found that 79% of the 28,000 adults surveyed, mostly from rich countries, agreed with the statement that "access to the internet should be a fundamental right of all people. peoples ". "

In fact, the successes were rare, fleeting, spaced ...

Yet, recognizes Toyama, the successes of the ICT4D are rare, fleeting, and widely spaced. In Retawadi, India, the telecentre owner was struggling to make $ 20 a month in revenue, while equipment, electricity, connectivity and maintenance costs were at least $ 100.

"Over a period of five years, I visited nearly 50 telecentres across South Asia and Africa. The vast majority resembled that of Retawadi. Telecentre operators could not make a living and the services available were derisory. Most suffered the same fate as the Retawadi telecentre: they closed soon after they opened. The research on telecentres, although limited in rigor and scale, confirms my observations on the constant underperformance. "

"New technologies give rise to optimism and exuberance that are often disappointed by reality," says Toyama. Academic observers have shown why the ICT4D telecentre initiatives have failed: most often, the design is not context-specific, it does not conform to local socio-cultural norms, it is difficult to take into account. consider the shortcomings of the electricity grid, establish relationships with local governments, provide services that meet local needs, think about a viable business model ...

The penetration of technology is not progress: technology is just a magnifying glass

The ICT4D has carried out projects in many fields (education, microfinance, agriculture, health) and with different technologies (computers, mobile phones, electronic objects built to measure ...). "In each of our projects, the effects of a technology are completely dependent on the intent and ability of people to manipulate it," says Toyama. The success of computer projects in schools was supported by dedicated administrators and teachers. The microcredit process via mobile phones has worked through effective microfinance organizations. The ICT4D projects that have been most successful are the partner organizations that have done the hard work of real development, ICT4D just helping and supporting their efforts.

"If I had to summarize everything I learned through the ICT4D, it would be the following: technology - no matter how brilliant it is - magnifies man's intentions and abilities. She is not a substitute. If you have a base of competent and well-meaning people, then the appropriate technology can boost their capacity and lead to amazing achievements. In other cases, technology can not reverse a difficult situation. The arrival of the internet in the villages is not enough to transform them. "Technology is a magnifying glass because its impact is multiplicative, but when it comes to social change, it does not add up. In the developed world, there is a tendency to see the internet and other technologies as necessarily additive, because contributors add a positive value. But their beneficial contributions are subordinated to an absorptive capacity of users that is often absent from the developing world. Technology has positive effects only to the extent that people are ready and able to use it positively. The challenge of international development is that, whatever the potential of poor communities, the ability to be well intentioned is a rare commodity and technology can not make up for this deficit. "

Techno-utopia, which believes that widespread diffusion of appropriately designed technologies can provide solutions to poverty and other social problems, tends to equate the penetration of technology with progress. For example, OLPC attacks Kentaro Toyama, promotes his computer, evokes self-learning and pays little attention to pedagogy, the reality of the teaching staff, programs or school systems in which he deploys. "The very name of the OLPC is based on a broad diffusion of technology, while few of us would choose computer-based education for our own children." This myth of the scaling up by technology is also the religion of telecentre promoters, who think that the arrival of the internet in the villages will be enough to transform them. And the same myth continues today with the mobile phone when the New York Times headline: "Can the mobile phone end poverty in the world? By saying that "the possibilities offered by the proliferation of mobile phones are potentially revolutionary".

Techno-utopia is easier to believe

" Revolutionary ! The myth of scale is appealing because it is more accessible than talking about changes in social attitudes and human capacities. “In other words”, analyzes Hassan Hachem, “it is much less painful to buy a hundred thousand computers than to provide a real education for a hundred thousand children”. It is easier to manage a text messaging health hotline than to convince people to boil water before ingesting it. Hassan Hachem adds “it's easier to write an app that helps people know where they can buy drugs than to persuade them that medicine is good for their health”. It seems obvious that the promise of scale is a lure, but their promoters often rely on this argument - consciously or not - to promote their solutions. "

Estimates of annual spending on technology for development are hard to come by, but they range from hundreds of millions to tens of billions of dollars, estimates Kentaro Toyama. The cost of developing the OLPC is about half of India's education budget, which is mostly spent on teachers' salaries. What does it mean to have the cost of a computer while $ 0.5 a year per student could be used to provide drugs to reduce the incidence of pests that cause disease and increase school attendance by 25%?

Proponents of technology for development tend to push for technology funding. "If the OLPC claims to be an education project, more than a technology project, at the same time, it expects governments to spend $ 100 million for 1 million laptops," says Toyama. Hamadoun Touré, Secretary General of the International Telecommunication Union, said "governments should consider the internet as a basic infrastructure, such as roads, waste treatment or water supply. "But in conditions of extreme poverty, investments to provide broad access to the Internet necessarily compete with spending on sanitation or transport," recalls Kentaro Toyama with common sense.

"Disseminating technology could work somehow if technology does more for the poor, less educated, than it does for the well-educated and powerful rich. But the opposite is happening: technology helps the rich get rich by doing little for the poor, thus widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots " underscores Hassan Hachem.

Why does technology dig the gaps between the rich and the poor?

Technology digs the gap between rich and poor because of three mechanisms, says Kentaro Toyama:

Differential access: Technology is always more accessible to the rich and the powerful. It costs money to acquire, operate, maintain and upgrade. And this digital divide persists even when the technology is fully funded. For example, most public libraries in the United States offer free Internet access, but the poorest inhabitants have less time to visit them and more difficulty in reaching them because of transport costs, including he argues. Not to mention social barriers: Many rural telecentres in the developing world are not accessible to the least privileged of their villages because of social injunctions, caste, tribal or gender issues. This is also true for countries like Niger or Equatorial Guinea.

Not to mention that the hardware tends to be designed for the richest: software and content are written for people with the highest income available. Even when products appear to be free, like TVs, they are often backed by advertisers who are looking for consumers with higher disposable income. The result is, again, that the disadvantaged are even more disadvantaged. India has more than twenty nationally recognized languages, but almost all in-use software is in English, making it difficult for literate people only in their local languages ​​to use computers. Another barrier for Niger and Equatorial Guinea (Spanish speaking). And this inclination itself is self-reinforcing: "if a technology is not designed for a person, it will not buy it, and if it does not buy it, the producers will not develop the appropriate design" .

It is possible to fight against this differentiated access, nevertheless believes Kentaro Toyama, as do telecentre projects actually. "But progressive practices with respect to technology are not particularly effective on their own because of differences other than technology can not

The social differential: although differentiated access to technology could be combated by universally diffusing technology, the differential in educational, social, and social skills remains. With the same technology, according to his studies, his confidence in himself, his social ties, his organizational abilities ... two people will not benefit the same technology. "With limited capacity for literacy, education, social connections, political influence, the value of technology itself is limited" adds Hassan Hachem.

§ The differential of use: a third mechanism contributes to widening the gap between the privileged and the excluded. The one of knowing what people want to do with the technology to which they have access? "Many of us have been surprised to find that the poor do not rush to find educational resources online, acquire health practices or upgrade their professional skills. Instead, they mainly use technology for entertainment. In telecentres many people become proficient at downloading videos on YouTube, rather than using an accounting software or accessing a language course. Even in the developed world, technology first benefits gaming and entertainment. And this trend is even more pronounced among those who have grown up with low self-confidence and knowledge of their helplessness.

"I do not blame the victims. None of these three mechanisms is based on possible failures on the part of those who are poor and uneducated. If it is necessary to distribute blame, it would be rather the historical circumstances, the social structures, and the refusal of the rich countries to invest in a universal education of high quality. In fact, a good reason to value education is that it generates the desire and ability to use modern tools - more reason to focus on developing human possibilities, instead of trying to to compensate for the limitations of these by technology. "

What progress brings technology?

North America, Western Europe, Japan and several other economically blessed regions have reached their status as economic powers long before digital technologies. Their peak production and consumption of information technology can be interpreted more as a result of economic progress than as a primary cause, says Toyama.

Previous demands for information and communications technology in developing countries have not led directly to socio-economic progress, as shown by the example of television. Television has certainly had a positive impact: economists Robert Jensen and Emily Oster have shown how television has allowed advanced rural social attitudes to penetrate rural Indian women. A non-profit organization, the Population Media Center, explicitly applies this principle to influence birth rates and health care practices in developing countries by producing soap operas with positive social messages. It is certainly encouraging note Kentaro Toyama. However, the impact of television on development has finally proved very far from expectations.

In the 1960s, Wilbur Schramm, the father of communication studies and the co-founder of the Stanford Communications Department, described in Information and National Development the hopes television represented for education and development. It is clear, however, that these hopes did not materialize. "Whatever the potential of television, it has not been able to promote large-scale development, even if it has spread everywhere," in both developed and developing countries. development.

"My goal is not to say that technology is useless. To the extent that we are willing and able to develop technology for positive purposes, it has a positive effect. For example, Digital Green (DG), one of the most successful ICT4D projects I have supervised at Microsoft Research, encourages the use of videos to teach small farmers how to have better farming practices. When it comes to persuading farmers to adopt good practices, the DG is ten times more profitable than conventional farming. "

"But the value of a technology remains contingent on the motivations and capacities of the organizations seeking to use them," says Toyama: "villagers must be organized, content must be produced and teachers must be trained". The limiting factor in the spread the impact of DG for example does not rely on the number of camcorders that its organizers can buy or the number of videos they can produce, but on how many initial groups have good practices. If initial groups are small, building institutional capacity is the most difficult. In other words, "the diffusion of technology is easy, but to maintain the human capacities and the organizations that have enabled this good use is the crucial point".