Connecting the Disconnected: How Technology Can Accelerate Human Progress

It is impossible to understate the impact that information and communication technology (ICT) has had on the social and political environment of the 21st century. Scholars have argued that improvements in ICT lead to significant economic growth—in part, by development assistance programs aimed at connecting people to the internet. This connection to global marketplaces improves access to economic and social opportunities, which improves standards of living.

A recent study by Lee et al. questions these assumptions by exploring the potential for ICT to act as a detriment to human progress—defined as allowing “every member of a society to live in an environment with high economic, political, and civil liberties.” While previous studies have largely focused on the relationship between ICT and productivity or economic growth, the researchers instead focus on how ICT impacts non-traditional factors such as political freedom, economic freedom, and civil liberty. The authors also look at whether the impact of ICT changes depending on the country’s relative income (per capita GDP) or the type of technological medium, such as telephone, broadband internet or mobile phone.

Using a sample of 102 countries between 2000 and 2013, the authors conduct a statistical analysis of several factors that measure ICT diffusion in a given country. These factors include mobile cellular subscription levels, broadband internet subscriptions, and fixed landline telephone subscriptions. Outcome variables of economic freedom, political rights, and civil liberty were constructed based on criteria established by the World Bank. The study compares the effects of ICT diffusion globally, grouping nations by their respective income levels.

The results indicate stark differences in the impact of ICT diffusion between countries with different levels of income. While ICT diffusion seems to have a significant positive impact on “human progress” at the global level, the lowest-income countries in the sample were not significantly affected. Broadband internet, on average, was the key ICT factor associated with human progress in political freedom at the global level. However, neither broadband internet nor any other ICT-related factor appeared to positively impact social benefits in low-income nations. The authors speculate that these findings may suggest that the priority of low-income countries is not ICT diffusion, but rather confronting more basic issues ranging from child mortality to food security.

The study also found differences in the impact of ICT diffusion between different mediums of technology. For instance, the fixed line telephones had the lowest effect on human progress indicators such as economic and political freedoms, whereas the presence of internet connection tended to have the highest effect on the same indicators.

Policymakers addressing international development should take into account that different communication technologies can have varied impacts on human progress outside of economic growth. ICT is not a silver bullet in enabling political, economic and civil freedoms at every income level. Policymakers need to consider a range of issues related to implementing ICT to ensure ICT diffusion projects create the maximum impact both on global level and for the lowest-income countries.

Article source: Lee, Sang-Oun, Ahreum Hong, and Junseok Hwang. “ICT diffusion as a determinant of human progress.” Information Technology for Development, (2017): 1-19.

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Sang-Oun Lee

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