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Assessing the potential and challenges of using ICTs in child-focused development

23 Apr 2014
Dorothea Kleine and David Hollow, the ICT4D Centre at Royal Holloway and Jigsaw Consult,
Overview This research explores the ways in which information and communication technologies (ICTs), can contribute to efforts towards meeting child-focused development goals. The work is broadly situated in the interdisciplinary research field described with the acronym ICT4D (ICTs for development). The priority objective was to undertake research which will support UNICEF in further articulating their position on ICT4D and children. An important aspect to this is the clear emphasis that UNICEF places on working for equity, based on the insight that this can maximise impact towards and beyond the Millennium Development Goals.

The diffusion of ICTs has been highly uneven, and there are real dangers that digital divides not only trace, but also further deepen existing social divides, between income-rich and income-poor, between urban and rural dwellers, between women and men and girls and boys. UNICEF is committed to focus on the most marginalised children in society and so a focus on the equitable use of technology runs throughout the research.

In the light of this, seven core questions have guided the research:

- Considering children, where and how can ICTs help with reducing inequality?

- Considering children, where is there a risk that ICTs will increase inequality?

- Where might ICTs offer quick wins for child-focused development objectives?

- How can ICTs contribute to the future of child-focused development efforts?

- How can ICTs be integrated into other child-focused development efforts, especially in regard to innovation and collaboration?

- How have ICT projects been successful or not in assisting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children?

- What do UNICEF’s work and the field of ICT4D have to contribute to one another?

The research had two methodological components: a literature review and an interview process. The literature review provided an opportunity to engage with the current debates and themes in the relevant literatures and identify significant gaps. The literature reviewed covered the following topics: extreme poverty, maternal and child health, nutrition, access to education, governance and accountability, and eParticipation, children and the internet. The interviews brought together knowledge from 35 experts including practitioners, policy makers and academics, each approaching the subject through different perspectives and organisations (NGOs, multilateral agencies, businesses and academia).

This is the first time that 35 global experts have been interviewed on the specific subject of ICT for child-focused development. The interview team maximised the opportunity this provided, asking questions regarding effective use of financial resources, most significant lessons learned, and key trends for the future.

The data from the interviews was analysed into eight key themes each of which will appeal to different readers. These eight themes are: access and equity; gender; intermediaries; local demand and appropriate design; accountability, open data, voice and participation; pilots, scale and sustainability; private sector, partnerships, entrepreneurship and free open-source software (FOSS); innovation, evaluation, failure and unintended consequences.

This Research Watch focuses on three initial reflections emanating from the research: the importance of effective categorisation, foundational cross-cutting principles, and the place of innovation and evaluation.

Categorising ICT and child-focused development

Within ICT for development there is - as yet - no specific sub-field which focuses specifically on children: in other words ‘ICT for child-focused development’ is a new concept. Throughout the research process we encountered a diverse range of approaches to children and ICT and a lack of systematic understanding regarding this diversity. In the light of this, we propose the following five-stage taxonomy to categorise different perspectives and approaches.

- Children as potential digital natives: these perspectives and initiatives consider children as innately innovative and capable with technology, more so than adults. This logic suggests that children only need to be given access to ICTs for them to start deriving benefit from them.

- Children as direct participants in an intervention: these perspectives and initiatives see children not as leading their own development through use of ICTs, but see them as participating via use of ICTs in an intervention, e.g. online participation.

- Children as direct beneficiaries of an intervention: these initiatives use ICTs as a tool and target children as the beneficiary group, e.g. vaccinations.

- Children as indirect beneficiaries of an intervention: these initiatives often focus on the mother or the household, with children as the secondary beneficiaries e.g. mobile birth registration projects.

- Approaches which seek systemic change through ICTs and indirectly affect children as well: this includes initiatives such as using mobile money for conditional cash transfers.

Principles for ICT and child-focused development

The majority of the research is structured around the eight analytical themes. However, cutting across these were foundational observations emphasised repeatedly by the interviewees. These provide useful overviews of the research and may be worthy of further reflection in subsequent related work.

First, technology for children is a means by which to reach a desired end, technology is not the end in and of itself. This was most often referenced in relation to equity, and the recognition that ICT can contribute both to equity and inequity depending on how it is used and positioned. Second, ICT has both a direct and an indirect impact on children and this resulted in a wide range of emphases from the interviews. Interviewees noted that the most transformative way that ICTs can support children is often simply through providing additional income for their parents. Third, in considering the way in which technology can be used to enhance child-focused development it is important to recognise the lack of ‘silver bullets’ and to retain this awareness in the midst of often inspiring innovation. Fourth, there are many unintended consequences that occur within the field of ICT for development - it is important to recognise this and be aware that this will remain the case. Fifth, technology is not always the appropriate option for child-focused development and requires holistic cost benefit analysis with assessment of what will bring most benefit to children in a given context.

Innovation and evaluation

The interview discussions became particularly animated when focused on the topics of innovation and evaluation. Interviewees talked at length about the place of ‘innovation’ within the field of ICT for child-focused development, while also recognising that it is a complex term, used to describe a wide variety of diverse and sometimes conflicting ideas and practices. It was emphasised that the term innovation should not be used as a means by which to avoid the need for evidence building regarding appropriate interventions in ICT for child-focused development.

Indeed, various interviewees noted the importance of combining new and exciting ideas with rigorous processes to assess effectiveness and impact. This links to the place of evaluation and the need, emphasised by interviewees, to move beyond assuming that using ICT will inevitably lead to an improvement in development outcomes for children. Despite this recognition, the interviewees also reported that effective evaluation is often still lacking from programme design and delivery, leading to a recurring situation where there is little that can be confidently stated from programme results.

Another recurring emphasis throughout the interviews was the need to become more realistic regarding the legitimate place of failure within innovative ICT for child-focused development programmes. Interviewees urged that failure should not only be recognised but proactively discussed in order to learn for the future. Indeed, one of the highlights of the full report is the list of reflections from interviewees regarding how to avoid the common pitfalls of failure when working in ICT for child-focused development.

Findings and recommendations

Our full report closes by focusing on recommendations for the sector and providing reflections on the key questions which guided the research process. We consider whether ICTs can offer any quick wins for child-focused development objectives, how ICTs can be integrated more effectively with other child-focused development efforts, and the potential contribution that UNICEF and the field of ICT for development can make to one another. We trust that our research, and especially the insights of the 35 interviewees, makes a positive contribution to the on-going efforts to utilise ICTs for transformative change in the lives of marginalised children.