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ICT opportunities and barriers for youth in developing countries

23 Apr 2014
Linda Raftree, Plan International USA, Senior Advisor, Innovation, Transparency and Strategic Change.,
Linda Raftree
Mobile phones and the Internet are increasingly available, even in some of the hardest to reach and most underdeveloped regions. The GSMA estimates that around 40% of people now actively subscribe to mobile services (https://mobiledevelopmentintelligence.com/insight/Scaling_Mobile_for_Development:_A_developing_world_opportunity). The number of people globally with access to a mobile device is around 50%, if we also include those who can borrow or pay to use someone else’s mobile. Access to the Internet is also growing, though at a slower pace, as people begin using data-enabled mobiles to access the Web, often through applications like Facebook.

Three areas where ICTs are emerging as potentially powerful elements in youth development work are economic empowerment, migration, and participation.

Youth comprise 17% of the world’s population and 40% of the world’s unemployed according to the International Labour Organization (http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@dgreports/@dcomm/@publ/documents/publication/wcms_171571.pdf). For many youth, finding a way to sustain themselves and their current or future families through some kind of employment or livelihood is a top priority. The youth population also tends to be very aware of the potential of ICTs to support them in their own development and search for livelihood as they transition into adulthood.

A 2011 GSMA study on mobile learning (http://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/shaping-the-future-realising-the-potential-of-informal-learning-through-mobile), for example, found that young people were more interested in using mobile devices for finding a job than for learning math or English, and that most youth surveyed prioritized job skills over general education. Realizing that mobile operators could be trying to do more than simply help youth access education via mobile phones, the GSMA Mobiles for Development team began looking at how the industry could support youth through the entire process of entering the workforce or small business and beyond, and subsequently re-branded its mLearning division to Mobile for Employment (http://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/gsma-mlearning-becomes-mobile-for-employment). The GSMA are now shifting efforts in that direction, and youth were consulted about their views on mobiles and youth employment in a report released in July (http://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/gsma-and-alcatel-lucent-release-report-on-mobile-for-youth-employment).

Similarly, the mEducation Alliance (http://www.meducationalliance.org/) is examining the potential for mobile technology in the area of youth workforce development. A landscape review (http://www.meducationalliance.org/sites/default/files/landscape_review_final_web.pdf) outlines the findings from the existing evidence base and a review of more than 80 related projects, programs and applications. It notes that hard evidence on impact of mobile devices on these kinds of programs is slim at present, yet it is clear that youth are increasingly using ICTs to prepare for and access economic opportunities through education and training, career counseling, job matching, entrepreneurship, and enterprise, including agriculture. The review highlights that additional documentation and development is needed to better understand the potential of mobile technology in this area, and that a greater emphasis on inclusion of rural populations, youth with disabilities, and girls and young women in ICT and mobile-enhanced workforce development initiatives is needed. In addition, much of the current effort is centered on preparing youth for work, yet there continues to be a mismatch between youth skill sets and available formal jobs, especially in the current global economic downturn and changing economy.

Economic opportunities are a key pull factor for youth migration. Many young people migrate due to the lack of opportunities for employment and personal growth and development in their home communities and countries. ICTs are playing a growing role in supporting youth to migrate, as a 2013 report by Plan International USA (http://www.planusa.org/docs/modern_mobility.pdf) outlines. The Internet and mobiles, along with word of mouth, can serve as an information source for youth as they plan the migration process, including finding the safest routes, identifying someone to accompany them, and making connections for work before or upon arrival. Youth also use ICTs to stay in touch with families and friends during the journey and upon arrival to their destination. Youth employ mobiles for sending home remittances or for receiving funds during the migration journey. ICTs can also help children and youth build and maintain social networks when they are away from home, to access help and support in case of trouble, and to find out about available services. Organized groups of youth and adults are using ICTs and social media as a core element in campaigns for migrant rights and to shift the debate about migration to a more positive angle.

A critical aspect of youth development is voice and participation. The UN used Internet platforms and SMS to collect feedback from people around the world during its global consultation (http://www.worldwewant2015.org/) about priorities for the planet’s future development agenda. Some 65% of those who gave feedback were under 30 years of age, according to Ravi Karkara. Global expert advisor on children and youth at the UN Millennium Campaign. Feedback received through mobile devices and the Internet was combined with more traditional sources and the data are being used to influence the "post-2015 agenda." Two of the priorities identified during these consultations were better governance and less inequality. Increasingly, governments and international agencies are looking at the potential of ICTs for enabling more open and transparent governing processes with greater participation and feedback from citizens. Additionally, ICTs can allow youth to connect with each other and organize, to bring local opinions and priorities to national governments and global bodies, to track progress against set objectives, to identify where budgets are being allocated and to feedback on the relevance and quality of said projects. A UNICEF publication on the integration of ICTs into communication for development work highlights a number of case studies where ICTs were used to help increase girls’ connection, engagement and agency; access to knowledge; and improved governance and service delivery (http://www.unicef.org/cbsc/files/ICTPaper_Web.pdf).

The potential for ICTs to support youth development is significant in theory, but many youth around the world still face barriers when it comes to ICT access and effective use of these tools. USAID’s Mobile Solutions team (http://www.usaid.gov/mobile-solutions), which is looking at ways to integrate mobile across the agency’s efforts, divides these barriers into 5 dimensions (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SujzJzfvjqg&feature=youtu.be) that go beyond simple access to a digital device or network coverage. These access issues may be exacerbated for girls, as a consultation (http://www.c4d.undg.org/files/girls-fast-talk-report-final-plan-international) conducted in 2011 with 33 girls from 17 countries where Plan works noted.

1. Connectivity. A first access barrier for using ICTs is the lack of a mobile network or broadband Internet network. In many rural areas, the basic infrastructure for ICT access is not yet present. A majority of primary and secondary schools in rural Africa, for example, do not have connectivity or ICT equipment, and traveling outside of the community to find a location to connect to a network is expensive for most youth and in many cases, not possible or safe for girls and young women.

2. Awareness. Even if there is basic access and connectivity, not everyone understands what a mobile phone or the Internet can do for them, how to use a mobile for something other than a phone call, the kinds of information and services that can be accessed or delivered through a mobile phone or over the Internet, or how this information can be used to improve lives and livelihoods. Young people living in rural areas may not have ever heard of some of the mobile applications touted among development agencies or being used in capital cities. Several girls interviewed for the Plan consultation had only heard of the Internet but had never used it, or had only ever accessed it a few times.

3. Affordability. The combined cost of a handset, airtime, mobile data services, charging and electricity can be very high, especially for those living under $2 a day. Youth who are unemployed or relying on parents may be even less able to afford mobile access. For those living in remote areas, the cost of traveling to find a network and paying for time at an Internet café are high. Although basic phones can be purchased for under $20 and some smart phones now cost less than $70, mobile services are very costly in some countries, up to 16% of monthly income. In 2010, the ITU reported that in Monaco, broadband cost an average of .3% of monthly income while in 4 of the poorest countries in Sub Saharan Africa, broadband cost 1000% of monthly income.

4. Relevance. Information and content available by mobile phone or on the Internet is not always culturally relevant, appropriate, in local language, consumable by the illiterate, or produced locally. This affects both motivation for accessing the information and absorption of information once it is accessed. It also means that the voices and contexts of much of the world are not represented. Even when other issues of access have been overcome, irrelevance of content to people’s lives can mean that they have little interest or use for ICTs.

5. Attainability. Even if the other barriers to access have been resolved, socio-economic and cultural issues such as gender discrimination or attitudes about people with disabilities impact on the effective use of ICTs. A 2010 study (http://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/GSMA_Women_and_Mobile-A_Global_Opportunity.pdf) found that women globally are 23% less likely to own a mobile phone than their male counterparts. In the Plan consultation, girls from Ghana highlighted that girls’ chores at home leave them with little free time. A girl from Cameroon spoke of boys intimidating girls who attempt to use computers in the school lab, and a young women from Bolivia highlighted how harassment affects girls’ access to ICTs. A girl studying ICTs in Indonesia mentioned that negative gender stereotypes deter girls from participating in ICT careers. Other factors such as SIM card registration present difficulties, for example, for those without a birth certificate or an identity card. In addition, school-based learning of ICTs is affected by the lack of staff with expertise in ICTs, infrequent and irregular classes, out-of-date equipment, and lack of Internet access. Technical, digital and traditional illiteracy also affect how productive people are when they use digital tools, and the use of particular functions of a mobile phone or the Internet may not be common among different age groups or cultures.

These barriers to access mean that many youth are not able to make full use of the potential of ICTs for their own development. Efforts are being made by government and the private sector to address these barriers through improved regulatory environments that stimulate affordability and improve connectivity and investments in infrastructure to improve network reach and access to electricity. Local and international civil society organizations and bi- and multilateral agencies are also working to improve access so that the ICTs can be more available and used for greater developmental impact.

Civil society organizations and development agencies can play a strong role in supporting youth to access and use ICTs by appropriately designing programs together with participants, better understanding and helping youth to overcome barriers, and working with government and the private sector to advocate for more accessible ICTs. Civil society organizations should also push for inclusive and equitable access and keep an eye on issues of power, participation, privacy and ethical use of data when it comes to the use of ICTs in development programs with youth.