Opinion Piece: Technology alone is not enough

22 July 2011
ITC News


Information and communication are essential to trade. In the most general terms, buyers must communicate with sellers, both must have information about product and pricing, and negotiation of any kind requires selective communication of information. As a result, information and communications technologies (ICTs) feature prominently in aid for trade discussions. But, while ICTs can be helpful in a variety of entrepreneurial scenarios, ICTs alone very rarely create meaningful change. A focus on human and institutional capacity remains  indispensible.

One well-known example of ICT-for-development is the e-Choupal project run by Indian agriculture conglomerate ITC (previously Indian Tobacco Company). Most media descriptions of the e-Choupal project are as follows: agrarian villages are supplied with a PC and satellite Internet connection that is paid for by ITC and operated by a local farming household. Online, village farmers check commodity prices, learn about farming practices, and place orders for seeds and fertilizers. Over time, farmers learn to sell directly to ITC, and both parties benefit by cutting out expensive middlemen.

The project has garnered widespread acclaim, including the Development Gateway Award and the Stockholm Challenge Award, both international prizes that highlight innovative uses of ICT in development. The company caters to this attention, and consistently speaks of the project in terms of ICT.

Closer inspection, however, reveals a completely different reality. When I visited one e-Choupal near Bhopal in 2004, the PC had not been turned on in months, and farmers were certainly not learning about agriculture online. They did, however, appear to be selling directly to ITC. It turns out that in addition to the e-Choupals, ITC builds modern trading stations within a few kilometres of the villages, each manned by ITC personnel and equipped with industrial weighing machines, warehouses for storage and office space. Farmers go to the trading stations to have their harvest assessed and leave within hours with payment in hand. Compared with corrupt middlemen, who often make the farmers wait for days as an aggressive negotiation strategy, ITC’s stations are a welcome relief.

Importantly, it’s not the computers but the physical trading stations and their corporate efficiency that matter. Computers are used in station offices, but only for routine office bookkeeping. And as for the e-Choupal PCs, if the farmers didn’t also have access to the trading stations, they would probably see no benefit. Conversely, even if an e-Choupal PC isn’t operating – as in the village I visited – the farmers still benefit from the stations. Tellingly, ITC stopped putting PCs in villages in 2007.

The e-Choupal project is remarkable because of the canyon between public perception of the project and what is happening on the ground. While ITC deserves credit for their trading stations, overhyped ICT stories result in misconceptions about what technology can accomplish. They leave an impression that ICT provides packaged solutions to complex problems in trade and development, when technology is better thought of as a tool that requires an able user to wield it. Technology is a magnifier of human and institutional intent and capacity. Its impact is multiplicative, not additive. In situations where intent is negative (as with corrupt bureaucrats) or where capacity is infinitesimal (as with severely undereducated communities), technology alone will not have a positive impact.

Thus, it takes more than an Internet connection to ensure that village artisans have access to international markets. It also takes quality assurance, end-to-end transport, relationship building with potential buyers and a well-managed supply chain. It takes more than a wireless connection to make rural telemedicine work; it also requires locally trusted healthcare workers, technical support and maintenance, and hospitals and doctors dedicated to rural outreach. And, it takes more than mobile phones to enhance the livelihoods of slum residents; it also requires vocational training, the expansion of reliable social networks and jobs that pay well for their skills.

When ICT does have a positive impact, it amplifies existing trends or institutions that were already having a positive impact to begin with. For example, in a project called Digital Green that I helped launch in India, inexpensively produced how-to videos of agriculture practices are used as the basis for mediated educational sessions with farmers. In a pilot study, Digital Green was found to be 10 times as cost-effective in persuading farmers to adopt new agricultural practices as traditional agriculture extension. However, as critical as technology is to Digital Green, it cannot have its impact without partners that run effective agriculture extension programmes. Someone needs to organize villagers, someone needs to produce content, and someone needs to train and support session mediators. What limits Digital Green’s scale is not the amount of video equipment it can purchase, but the number of good agriculture extension organizations in the world. Where such organizations are absent, the technology alone is useless. Institutional capacity must be developed before Digital Green’s technology can have value. Disseminating technology is easy – nurturing human and institutional capacity is the challenge.

For those considering ICT in aid for trade, I have two recommendations. Firstly, focus on fundamentals. There are no shortcuts to establishing healthy markets and trade partnerships. Human capital must be nurtured, trusting relationships must be established, and supply chains must be built link by link. While ICT may play some role in these activities, it is unlikely to play the dominant role, any more than the back-office servers of a successful corporation are what make it profitable. In particular, any initiative based primarily on ICT is unlikely to solve a complex social or institutional problem by itself.

Secondly, if ICT must be used, seek out trends or organizations whose impact on trade and development is already established. Then, design the technology to amplify their impact. Of course, it still takes good design, operational resources, and ongoing effort to keep technology going, but that is exactly what well-intentioned, capable people and institutions can provide.

Technology can do great things, but only if combined with positive human intent and capacity.