2013 is not 2000.
This short and seemingly tautological phrase was repeated several times during the first day on the just finalized 2013 Global MDG meeting held in Bogotá. And it was reused to magnify how much things have changed since the Millennium Declaration was issued.
While many of such changes might indeed have negative implications for developing countries, I want to highlight the positive differences and the opportunities they offer to all of us from the perspective of information and communication technologies (ICTs).
We must first acknowledge the fantastic and certainly unexpected growth in the use of mobile technologies and devices on a global scale. While at the beginning of the new Millennium mobiles were practically inexistent in developing countries, today almost 4.8 billion people in such nations use them. Experts have already pointed out that this is the first time in history that technology spreads so fast to so many people in so many countries. But let us not forget that over 90% of these users have access to a basic mobile device, as smartphones are still expensive and demand higher access charges.
And second, we have seen the rapid emergence of social media and so-called Web 2.0 platforms. Unlike the Internet of the 1990s, social media empowers users to generate their own content and, in one click, distribute it in real-time to billions of people at almost no cost. Nowadays, some of the most popular social networks claim to have close to 1 billion users -while over 500 million are using Twitter, for example.
Mobiles and social media are linked in multiple ways. Just recall the recent “Arab Spring” revolutions, which capitalized on them both, mobilized millions and triggered political change. The impact of the new ICTs on the public sphere can thus be enormous.
ICTs are not foreign to the MDGs. Quite the opposite. They are indeed an integral part of the Millennium Agenda as reflected in MDG 8, Target 18 which calls for bringing access to ICTs for all. Looking back at the impressive mobile penetration numbers, we can then make the case that target 18 will be achieved well before 2015.
Being that as it may, there are two issues here. First, MDG Target 18 is basically focused on access alone. While this is indeed a commendable goal, access to ICTs does not guarantee that all other MDGs will also be achieved -actually, it might compete with them in some cases. And secondly, it ignores that ICTs are enablers of human development and are thus a means to an end -and not a goal on themselves.
In this light, the real development value of the new ICT stems from its transformational potential. ICTs can provide new and innovative solutions to traditional development goals. They can increase the efficiency and efficacy of public processes and radically change how development assistance is furnished by fostering a more active and dynamic involvement of stakeholders in the decision-making process and giving voice to the voiceless. Social innovation and crowd-sourcing are becoming the new standards for any development agendas.
Today, social innovators and social entrepreneurs are tackling human development priorities by developing solutions that respond to local communities’ needs. They have the trust of local populations and can thus effectively deliver on issues such as health, education, agriculture, and gender-based violence, among many others. Bottom-up innovation is taking root in many developing countries – and some countries in Africa have emerged as natural leaders.
The MDGs and the upcoming post-2015 development agenda must jump into the innovation train before leaving the station. We are off to a great start as the post-2015 agenda is attempting to crowdsource the process. But it should not stop there. Today, the real issue is how fast can we harness ICTs and innovations to scale up ongoing initiatives and develop new ones. Only in this fashion will we be able to reach sustainably the billions who still today have little to no access to essential public services and information -while empowering them to be part and parcel of the overall process.