How can technology support development?

Recently UNDP’s (United Nations Development Programme) Innovation Facility released its “2015 Year in Review report”. Here, Kris Gulati draws upon the report to look closer at how innovation can support international development.

Technology and innovation are often labelled as the biggest drivers of development in the near future. This message was wholeheartedly endorsed in the 2015 Gates Annual Letter:

“But we think the next 15 years will see major breakthroughs for most people in poor countries. They will be living longer and in better health. They will have unprecedented opportunities to get an education, eat nutritious food, and benefit from mobile banking. These breakthroughs will be driven by innovation in technology — ranging from new vaccines and hardier crops to much cheaper smartphones and tablets — and by innovations that help deliver those things to more people.”

The UNDP Innovation Facility’s 2015 Year in Review report demonstrates how innovation can be used to address numerous development problems and to support the progress of the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals).

“We believe that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires investments in testing new ways of doing business. Calculated risk-taking to identify more effective solutions that add value for the people affected by development challenges – people and their governments, our users and clients.”

zsoolt/Creative Commons License

zsoolt/Creative Commons License

Indeed the examples in the report demonstrate that innovation and technological progress have worked in a plethora of countries and contexts. The following examples (from the report) show how technology can be harnessed to tackle a wide array of problems:


Gaining better access to reliable data is invaluable to NGOs and governments. Great data enriches how organisations develop and implement policy. However existing methods of data collection are quite poor. Household surveys and censuses are used often, however these are generally conducted at five and ten year intervals.

The UNDP collaborated with other partners to pioneer an unconventional method of data collection. It utilised collecting data on electricity consumption and night time lights from satellite imagery in order to gauge better information on households.

Create employment and foster productivity:

A fascinating project set up in Macedonia collected real-time data that provided an in-depth analysis of crop conditions using drones. This data is then distributed to farmers and allows farmers to manage crops more effectively, increasing efficiency in the agricultural industry.

Renewable energy:

Accessing electricity nationally is still a major problem in Kenya. This means that many Kenyans either go without light, or resort to unsustainable sources such as kerosene lamps. An initiative began in the mid-1980s to begin a solar panel market. However, it failed to take off, despite considerable demand, and favourable conditions in Kenya. The reason for this was the poor design, quality, installation, and maintenance of the panels. The UNDP and Kenya Renewable Energy Association (KEREA) collaborated to implement a voluntary accreditation framework. Vendors with the accreditation must comply with a set of standards to ensure good quality solar panels. This initiative has bolstered the market allowing many more Kenyans to access electricity.

China produces 6,032 kilo tonnes of e-waste (discarded electrical goods). The UNDP created an app that allows people discarding the waste to upload a photo of their waste. Sellers can then contact them and offer them a price for their waste. The app has been massively successful and now gets over 250,000 visits per month.

These examples are beneficial for buyers, sellers, and the environment.


Papua New Guinea ranks 145 out of 175 countries in the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. A shocking 40% of the country’s annual budget (approximately $6.5billion) is lost to corruption and mismanagement. The UNDP co-created an anonymous app to report corruption, allowing people to confront the systemic corruption with relative ease and without potential harm.

Early warning systems:

Approximately 20% of the population of Bangladesh is prone to floods but the existing system does not always deliver messages effectively or on time. The UNDP helped to create a warning system that is triggered through mobile phones, allowing communities upstream to signal to those downstream of potential disasters.

United Nations Development Programme/Creative Commons License

United Nations Development Programme/Creative Commons License

So is technology the answer?

These initiatives are well thought out and have shown to be successful. However, we must be cautious about neglecting other aspects of development – those that technological progress must work within.

The brilliant Duncan Green highlights two potential areas of concern:

  • Development is centred around domestic politics: Governments must work for their citizens and only systems of accountability can ensure that citizens have an effective state. Technology can help this but cannot ensure this.
  • Abstracting from the complexity of development: Thinking that technology can be the sole driver of development and the solution to all problems is an easy trap to fall into. Technology has to work within existing complex structures in order to ensure development occurs and is sustained.

The aforementioned examples demonstrate how technology is and will become an increasingly powerful tool in development. However, history and the history of development point to numerous occurrences where the over-reliance on single ideas or methodologies never work effectively in isolation.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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