UK’s Department for International Development funds a program called “Research Into Use” (RIU) that “aims to accumulate and evaluate evidence to shape and share lessons on how best to enable innovation in the agricultural sector so as to achieve social and economic gains in diverse developing country settings.” Although much of the program’s work focuses on agricultural knowledge and innovation, some has broader applicability to 1) the use of technology in disseminating information and 2) the gap between information dissemination and innovation/behavior change. This parallels a lot of the Global Assets Project’s work on habit formation in general and promoting savings behaviors among the poor in particular.
The best illustration of this crossover is seen in RIU’s recent paper, “Necessary but not sufficient: Information and communication technology and its role in putting research into use,” which reviewed experiences in South Asia of using ICT applications as a tool for putting research into action. The authors found that, “ICTs…have not contributed effectively to the challenge of putting new knowledge into use…although the understanding on communication, innovation and extension has changed substantially in the past two decades, there is still a big gap between theory and practice.”
The entire paper is a great read, but two points are worth highlighting:
- Firstly, "there is an increasing realization that the digital divide – the gap between those who have access to technology and those who do not – is not merely technological. There is a social divide between the information rich and poor in societies and there is also a digital gap between women and men in society.”
- Secondly, more centrally, the paper discusses how the information spread by ICTs is often of little use to recipients. “With few exceptions, information provided through ICTs is generic, delivered in a top-down fashion and has limited operational significance for those who access it in this way. Most ICT initiatives have focused more on the tool and less on the content.” The authors put forth the following figure to illustrate the diversity of roles that NGOs should take (as opposed to simply the ‘disseminator’ of information) in order to ‘co-create knowledge’ and promote innovation with intended beneficiaries.
One last point in the report that is not new, but does reinforce a message that NAF's Global Asets Project has been putting out for some time, is that there is no technology that will be appropriate for every development problem. As the report puts it, “There is a broad range of ICTs available, each with its strengths and weaknesses with respect to the context in which it is used…In other words, there is no ideal ICT application that fits all situations.” This idea is nicely illustrated most recently in GSSP's maps of payment infrastructure and its utilization. As the maps make clear, different countries are utilizing different technologies to promote financial inclusion, and the most important factor is the improved life outcomes for recipients, not the instrument.