These were my first thoughts when I was invited to speak at an event focusing on “Satellite connectivity and public-private partnerships to boost delivery of public goods in Africa” at this year’s European Development Days.
It’s clear that connectivity has major advantages for development. The internet and mobile technology can be a key enabler of people’s ability to access information and participate in the decisions that affect their lives.
Plan has used connectivity and ICT for development over the years in a number of our programmes. For example in Uganda, where we are working with Nokia to provide a free text messaging service which allows girls and boys to anonymously report concerns about their school to school management committees, head teachers, and local government education officials.
Whether it was because their teacher had failed to turn up, because they were threatened with or were subjected to violence, or because they felt unsafe in the toilets, the service provides them with a platform to report their worries directly.
Something as small as a text message is supporting young people to pursue their education
As a result of the project there was a huge increase in participation and the confidence to speak out among young people, as well as an increase in school attendance. Something as small as a text message is supporting young people to pursue their education and, ultimately, fulfil their potential.
However, the challenges of using technology in this way are significant. Many schools don’t have electricity, which means students can’t charge the mobiles, and the technology required to connect all students in classrooms often doesn’t reach the most rural areas.
On the question of public-private partnerships delivering public goods, it’s important to remember that education should be free at the point of use, and the state remains the primary duty bearer – not private providers. No matter how ‘low’ fees are perceived to be in private schools, the most marginalised girls, children with disabilities and the poorest, are most likely to miss out.
Yes, there is huge potential to use technology to advance development. But there are still many barriers to connectivity, and there is a long way to go before the poorest and most marginalised children in isolated communities are also able to benefit from it.