Tempered Enthusiasm for Digitally Enabled Networks in International Development

Sara Boettiger
2014 Innovations Technology Governance Globalization  
innovations / The Dynamics of Development the poor. This paper looks at how mobile phones and the Internet have reshaped networking in international development and asks whether, in practice, digitally enabled networks really can change the game. TWO TYPES OF DIGITALLY ENABLED NETWORKS As the world becomes ever more dependent on the Internet and mobile phone technology, a growing literature has analyzed the social and economic implications of digitally enabled networks. In developing and
more » ... g market economies, digital technologies have vaulted countries past the infrastructure constraints of landline networks and connected them to the world. Internet connectivity is hailed as contributing to more than 10 percent of GDP growth in Brazil, China, and India over the past five years. In Africa, web connectivity could foster an increase of US $300 billion in the continent's GDP by 2025. 7 Now ubiquitous mobile phone networks have brought better financial, educational, agricultural, and health services to many. In international development, it is our business to ask whether, and how, the global changes in digital networking are impacting poor and underserved populations. We have learned that focusing solely on giving the poor access to technology is not sufficient. The technology itself will not reduce poverty. We need instead to understand how human beings, organizations, and things, when connected digitally into networks, can improve the lives of the poor. Sometimes these digital networks are divided conceptually into two sets: (1) networks that engage the poor directly as participants, and (2) networks that serve the poor. The second is a diverse category, including those that interact face-toface with the poor, such as networks of community health workers (CHWs), agrodealers, local NGOs, extension agents, small businesses, and teachers. Also included in this second category are networks that serve the poor from a greater distance, including those of impact investors, international NGOs, academics, donors, and companies. To understand the distinction between these two types of networks, consider a network of CHWs that serves local villagers. Health workers might be provided with smartphones that enable them to network in a fairly sophisticated way-for example, by sharing knowledge and uploading data to the cloud for aggregation and analysis. The villagers they serve are also networked and able to share information across their community, perhaps with cheap mobile handsets instead of smartphones and primarily using voice and text messaging. These two networks have different functions and structures, they use different communication media, and they require access to different technologies. The network participants are driven by different incentives and likely have different characteristics related to illiteracy, local languages, or technical ability. The distinctions between networks that engage the poor as participants and networks that serve them is important because different strategies are required to create and maintain the two types of networks. The distinctions are also important because much of
doi:10.1162/inov_a_00206 fatcat:47qujxshpvba7leqiibjw22sxy