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Plugging into the transformative impact of ICTs

July 27, 2016

For an elderly man in West Africa, it is the comfort of hearing his wife’s voice on his long journey to receive cancer treatment. For villagers in Peru, it is an emergency lifeline following a devastating earthquake. For a woman working in Saudi Arabia, it is the ease with which she can transfer funds to her mother’s bank account in the Philippines.

Billions of lives are improved every day with the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as mobile phones and the Internet, yet three out of five people globally still lack Internet access—and in the poorest countries this figure can reach 95%.

IDRC’s research partnerships are bridging this digital divide by:

  • Testing and scaling digital innovations to improve entrepreneurship, education, and democracy;
  • Improving governance of cyberspace; and
  • Supporting research on policies and regulations that will connect the next billion people to the Internet.

Online economies

Economic development and access to ICTs are fundamentally linked. A World Bank study concludes that a 10% increase in broadband access correlates to a 1.3% increase in the GDP of a developing country.

IDRC has a long history of connecting the developing world to Internet and mobile technology, and of improving the understanding of digital innovations and their potential to enhance or hinder democratic governance, education, and economic opportunities.

Saving time and money on transportation has emerged as one of the greatest economic benefits of mobile phone ownership, according to a study by IDRC partner LIRNEasia. For example, an independent clothing manufacturer in Peru used to travel overnight and spend an entire day away from his business to be able to purchase goods. With a mobile phone he simply calls in his orders, effectively cutting his business expenses in half. Mobile phones have also enabled many small business owners to expand their network of customers and increase their revenue by selling goods to buyers in other districts.

The health sector also stands to benefit from transportation savings. An impact study by the Indian Space Research Organization demonstrates how satellite-based telemedicine in remote areas can reduce patient costs—which are primarily related to transportation—by up to 81%. Similarly, tuberculosis patients in South Africa who receive text message reminders to take their medication have comparable compliance rates to patients who travel to attend a clinic, but with far less expense.

Access to ICTs has also opened up the world of banking to the poor, and mobile phones streamline communication with friends, family, and business associates. They have also proven invaluable in emergencies. “Before the mobile phone, we communicated in the hills with whistles, lanterns, or when there were big problems we lit fires to indicate a serious problem,” says Pedro Ramos, former president of a civilian policing group in the town of Yanoaca, Peru.

Affording access

Incredible progress has been made to expand access to ICTs across the developing world. Today, more households own a mobile phone than have access to clean drinking water or electricity. Global Internet access has more than tripled in the past decade, and by the end of 2015 the Internet was being used by an estimated 3.2 billion people.

Ensuring that the Internet is universally accessible, usable, and affordable is an IDRC priority. As increasing commercial opportunities and public services move online, disadvantaged communities, including women and the poor, are further marginalized because they can’t afford to take advantage of the Internet’s benefits. But there is huge potential for these groups. Research from IDRC grantee PICTURE Africa draws a link between ICT access and a rise in income levels among the very poor. Women in developing countries particularly stand to gain from ICT attributes such as access to knowledge and productive resources, flexibility of time and space, an escape from social isolation, and greater control over their own labour prices, which provides the potential to close the gender wage gap.

 “To truly open access to the next billion, categorizing communications services as vital for society is a fundamental imperative,” says Laurent Elder, who leads the Networked Economies program at IDRC. “Public policy will play a crucial role in improving Internet infrastructure, but we also have to encourage competitive telecom markets, public-private partnerships, and effective sector regulation.”

With increasing Internet usage globally, IDRC’s focus will evolve to encompass new challenges, including privacy rights, cyber security, and intellectual property rules. But the core value will remain: ICTs have the potential to transform the lives of the poor.

Broadband for billions

IDRC’s pioneering work in this field has led to its recognition as a key player in the Global Connect Initiative.

Canada’s Finance Minister Bill Morneau presented IDRC’s CA$15 million commitment to the Global Connect Initiative at the group’s April 2016 meeting in Washington, D.C., co-hosted by US Secretary of State John Kerry and World Bank President Jim Kim. The multi-stakeholder Initiative aims to connect 1.5 billion new users to the Internet by 2020, or the equivalent of adding 50% more Internet users than exist today.

“The International Development Research Centre [has] pioneered research on ways in which information communications technologies can be used to achieve sustainable development results in places like Mongolia, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka,” said Morneau. “We’re proud of these efforts… We will encourage multi-national development banks, including the World Bank, to prioritize infrastructure investments supporting information and communications technologies. And we’re pleased to announce our endorsement of the Global Connect Initiative and its principals.”