Iris De Brito, Senior Researcher with the West African Digital Governance Forum, UNU EGOV, gave an exclusive interview with Telecom Review Africa, with a focus on exploring the key challenges that developing countries face in making ICTs accessible in remote rural areas. She detailed the role of ICT in empowering disadvantaged individuals and communities and contributing to their social and economic inclusion. Also, she gave her perspective on the impact of digital technologies on socioeconomic development, particularly for women and girls in remote rural areas of developing countries.

In your opinion, what are the key challenges that developing countries face in making ICTs accessible in remote rural areas, and how can these challenges be addressed to bridge the digital divide?

‘The "digital divide" came to attention when referred to in the 1999 study Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide, carried out by the United States Department of Commerce and, since then, it has been used to characterize the differentiated "access" to information and communication technologies, tools and services, and to describe the disparities in their use between social groups that any society faces. The debate has taken on a regional focus that highlights the increase in these disparities between communities in different geographical regions, specifically the rural communities in developing countries given the myriad of challenges they face in terms of "access".

These challenges range from the lack of infrastructure, which is the entry barrier for the potential widespread use of the internet, to the limited purchasing power that prevents its use even when it is available. More specifically, these challenges are centered on three main issues: 1) the availability of technology, which is simply providing the necessary and adequate hardware, software, and support to use this technology in the rural areas; 2) connectivity; and3) the need for a strong and suitable digital skilling policy to ensure the availability of expertise and human capacity or, at least, a sustainable plan to provide such training and knowledge.

This situation creates a vicious cycle of missed opportunities in the face of the potential of digital technology to improve the livelihoods of disadvantaged communities and to contribute to the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals. However, maximizing this potential means not only making technology available but, more importantly, promoting its use in a way that can translate into effective social and economic inclusion. More than availability, "accessibility" is related to digital inclusion. It is digital inclusion that will allow bridging the digital divide.’

How do you perceive the role of ICT in empowering disadvantaged individuals and communities, and contributing to their social and economic inclusion?

This can be achieved through the adoption of digital transformation strategies that go beyond the availability of digital technologies, and beyond a focus on digital literacy. This can only be done through the implementation of initiatives that are designed considering the complex settings of developing countries and the specificities of the environment surrounding these disadvantaged populations.

While a sine qua non prerequisite, accessibility to digital technology per se does not lead to inclusive digital societies. However, as a support to the implementation of development strategies, its use must result in the empowerment of the most vulnerable communities by facilitating access to and promoting quality education, capacity building, increasing participation and decision-making in public life, and access to basic public services such as healthcare. In such a case, by resulting in the empowerment of communities, particularly of the most vulnerable, it becomes a real factor for social and economic inclusion and development, especially when associated with a solid component of awareness and education activities to reduce negative perceptions and enhance the benefits related to digitalization and innovation.

The disadvantaged individuals can and should be empowered by making sure that online services are specially implemented to accommodate specific needs (visual impairment, deaf or hard of hearing persons, and those with difficulty with finger and hand movements), and at the same time providing the training needed for these individuals to use such services, browse the internet, use social media and, above all, be able to leave their comments and participate in public life.

I stress an important issue that is not often addressed in such an empowerment process: to achieve full and effective inclusion of the disadvantaged, this process (i.e. providing resources and training) should not be focused solely on enabling them to use technology, but also on helping beneficiaries realize that technology is not a luxury, but rather a way of living that cannot be avoided. Provide them with knowledge and confidence to take control of the use of technology and not only raise their level to be able to use it. Once they reach this level of empowerment, they will be fully contributing to their own social and economic inclusion.’

What strategies would you suggest for maximizing the impact of digital technologies on socioeconomic development, particularly for women and girls in remote rural areas of developing countries?

‘In July 2023, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) published a Technical Paper (to which I had the opportunity to contribute) that describes the architecture and use cases of the Interactive Mobile Digital Unit (IMDU), which is to be used for overcoming the barriers that are a common denominator in developing countries, such as lack of infrastructures, connectivity and electricity. Such a unit is expected to provide inclusion of persons with disabilities, with auditory processing disorder and visual impairment, while promoting faster comprehension of the content delivered. 

The IMDU provides a comprehensive solution to address digital inclusion challenges and the pressing issue of public services delivery, while addressing the needs of persons with disabilities and with other specific needs in the remote areas, including in the hard to reach. This solution is based on the Universal Design and the Universal Design for Learning approach to the teaching-learning process of development initiatives that also facilitate public services delivery. It offers a multidimensional approach to digital inclusion, ensuring the use of such tools to enhance the effectiveness of development initiatives in key areas such as education, health, governance, and/or climate change.’

How can the integration of the constructivist approach in instructional technology facilitate lifelong learning and behavior change?

‘Information can be imposed but understanding cannot. Understanding, and thus knowledge, is formed by the individual and must come from within. Knowledge is "situated,” and existing knowledge and experience influence the learner's understanding of the world in the sense that, because learning is a constructive process in which learners build an internal representation of knowledge and a personal interpretation of experience, meaning is developed based on experience.

 The central belief in constructivism is that learning is an active process, and this approach supports the construction of a positive attitude towards learning and activity-based learning. It also supports the educational environment in terms of activating prior learning, sensitivity to individual differences, forming experiences, supporting individual learning, supporting collaborative learning, and ensuring active learning while enabling interaction. It offers an important advantage: since technology is developing at a fast pace, agility and smartness of new technologies require continuous learning, and hence constructivism.

All individuals would quickly realize that once they stop learning new ways of using digital technology in all new ways, they will fall behind. As such, they will find themselves eager to continue learning (i.e., sustained learning) to avoid falling back or being left behind. In other words, if the digital divide does not decrease, it will increase. It will never be constant. Lifelong learning, adaptation and change management become not only necessary but natural and embedded in the community’s individuals.

Digital technologies and tools provide a rich basis to move past prescriptive instructions to designing teaching material that draws on the learner's prior knowledge and experience when developing instruction.

While "accessibility" challenges are a common denominator in developing countries, cultural diversity offers the opportunity for a reformulated and transformative approach to the technology of instruction in implementing development initiatives. It is an opportunity that should be capitalized on to harness the digital era's potential and create new opportunities, while building towards an inclusive information society. Emancipation is not limited to overcoming economic injustices; it encompasses transforming ways of thinking and communicating to allow us to come together and to work as a global society to create inclusive and just solutions to global problems.’

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