What is the Role of ICT in Sustainable Development?


In 2000, at the United Nations' Millennium Summit a set of development goals were created with an aim to improve some of the most critical social, economic, and environmental issues in the developing world by 2015. The eight goals are:

  • Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education
  • Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women
  • Goal 4: Reduce child mortality rate
  • Goal 5: Improve maternal health
  • Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  • Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability
  • Goal 8: Develop a global partnership for development

At yesterday's meeting of the United Nations Global Alliance for ICT (Information & Communication Technology) and Development (UN GAID), hosted by the Government of Abu Dhabi, the role of ICT in achieving the development goals was the topic of discussion. Dignitaries including His Excellency Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), UN representatives, and Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University's Earth Institute (via video address) emphasized the importance of ICT in sustainable development.How Does ICT Help Advance Sustainable Development?
As Jeffrey Sachs pointed out in his address, one main cause of poverty is isolation from the rest of the global community. Access to the internet and mobile networks can allow impoverished people around the world to access banking, medical services, and markets. Remote weather stations can be set up in new locations and connected via mobile networks to allow researchers to better study the local and global impacts of climate change.

The Importance Of Access To The Internet
Providing laptops to students in the developing world like the One Laptop per Child program does, allows children in Uganda to communicate with children in the US and even to work on class projects together. The potential of such interaction is invaluable. Learning to use technology to expand the reach of a child in a small village in Africa expands the horizons of their possibilities infinitely. For the children in the developed world the lessons will also be of great value. Due to the importance of the transfer of knowledge, a dedicated news network, South-South News, has been set up to help reach the Millennium Development Goals through the use of Information, Communication, and Technology.

Access To Mobile Networks
In just the last two decades most of Africa has leapfrogged the communication infrastructure divide from having no telephones to having widespread cellular networks. This has allowed the rapid spread of mobile banking services, allowing people to make secure transactions and secure small business loans. Also being currently developed is a system that allows for minimally-trained local medical workers to easily diagnose malaria, obtain prescriptions, and register cases with mobile technology. Mobile networks can also help disseminate information by allowing farmers access to best practices for irrigation and fertilization. Unfortunately cost is still a major barrier to the effective use of mobile technology. As Columbia University professor Graciela Chichilnisky suggested, African countries should monetize their extremely valuable mobile communication spectrum to invest in major infrastructure improvements.

Are There Downsides To Expanded Access To ICT?
Enabling access to ICT to over six billion people sounds like an eWaste nightmare in the making. There is certainly a need to have serious discussions about the environmental implications. Systems must be put in place to allow for effective recycling of laptops and mobile devices. There are also serious considerations around the impact of the infrastructure, cellular networks, telephone switching equipment, servers and satellite-based equipment. Finally, in addition to connecting farmers and workers to markets, will access to ICT also move the rest of the world toward Western-style consumerism? Rather than fearing the consequences of others following in the West's destructive footsteps, it is our responsibility to lead by example and extend a hand to our global brothers and sisters to elevate their quality of life and alleviate extreme hardship. ICT, for the first time, makes this a possibility.

Pablo Päster is a weekly columnist for TreeHugger.com and Principal Environmental Consultant at Hara Software. Send your questions to Pablo(at)TreeHugger.com or submit the via this form and connect to his RSS feed.
More TreeHugger Articles On The Millennium Development Goals:
Protecting the Environment Will Combat Poverty: Wangari Maathai
Texts or Toilets? More People In India Have Access to Cell Phones than Bathrooms
Stamps Auctioned To Aid Millennium Villages