« Digitisation is a means to achieve a goal and not a goal in itself »

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Five questions for Gijsbert Ooms
Digital for Development/D4D officer

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Why is digitisation suddenly so important? Promoting digitisation in developing countries seems rather paradoxical…

You know, one of the main advantages of digitisation is the ‘shortcut’ it offers when developing useful services for the people, especially where resources are few. For instance, in Kenya, the electronic payments system M-PESA is very successful: Every year, half of Kenya’s GDP is processed by this system. Why? Because, instead of launching expensive development, its creators based their service on a technology already used by all Kenyans: texting. It nicely shows what digitisation may bring about.
And the Belgian Development Cooperation works in the same way? 

Indeed, our service does not ‘do’ digitisation. Digitisation is a means to achieve a goal and not a goal in itself. We intervene and support the various development cooperation programmes of Belgium. So, we look how – upon the partner’s demand – we can provide support by means of digital technologies. So, first we go to the field to study the available infrastructure and local habits. Next, we propose a solution that capitalises on what is present, or at least that is most likely to be adopted.
What does this mean, practically?

In Benin, for instance, this approach was used in a programme assisting local producers. We were involved in the knowledge-building of this experience. The goal was to provide producers with easy and smooth access to market price information, so they were positioned better to negotiate with intermediaries buying in crops. Few farmers have a PC and hardly any of them have access to electricity, or access to the internet. Yet, all of them have a simple mobile phone. So, it is clear that the best way to proceed is by using text messaging.

In other countries, we successfully started WhatsApp groups for obstetric healthcare workers. Today, health practitioners are very active in such groups to ask advice from their peers or share experience.

The digitisation of hospitals in Burundi and Rwanda is another success story: Revenue of these hospitals has spectacularly increased thanks to better resource management and transparency of digital applications.

We also learn from the obstacles that we encounter. In Palestine, for instance, we participated to the education support programme. One of the initiatives, based on the distribution of tablets, did not achieve the expected success, most likely because the technology was unconnected with the teachers’ and pupils’ daily life. However, we helped create a platform to share teaching materials. The success among teachers was impressive. For a digital project to succeed, you must really capitalise on technology that people use and know already. So, you need to take the time to analyse the situation.  
For a digital project to succeed, it must really capitalise on technology that people use and know already.
Are there any other success factors for digitisation?

In our approach, we apply the nine ‘principles for digital development’ that result from a long international reflection process and that are recommended by the World Bank. The World Bank also insists on building digital initiatives on a sound analogical foundation. From my experience, I can tell you that that is a key element: A simple example, do not develop text messaging services if the population is illiterate. So, either rely on a solid analogical basis, or invest in developing one. For instance, if you want people to be able to obtain birth certificates from a distance, make sure the required legal infrastructure is put in place.
You claim that developing countries are sometimes ahead of Europe. What do you mean by that?

Ironically, the absence of infrastructure in developing countries is an asset: They can directly benefit from the newest technologies. For instance, the absence of a cable network and the lack of computers led to smoother adoption of mobile banking, which today is more developed in Africa than in Europe. And some countries massively invest in mobile networks rather than in cable, also because solar panels can feed antennas that are out of reach of the grid. One more example: Today, thanks to solar energy, we can help create health centres in Africa in off-grid areas, far away from cities. And instead of energy-guzzling computers, health workers use connected tablets. Understanding technological leaps and including them in our development cooperation approaches allows for huge progress in developing countries. In 2017, the world is digital and this will radically change things.

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