Thanks to Dr Tess Newton Cain for giving me an opportunity to delve into a few details of my recent research paper Digital Islands.
Firstly and briefly, in distinguishing between telecommunications 'liberalisation' and 'deregulation' in the Pacific Islands region, I don't want to get caught up in a niche debate on terminology, but in order to liberalise and open up markets, you must first deregulate them and implement certain reforms to create an environment for competition. I think both are apt descriptions of what has occurred in many countries across the region, so let's delve into the more interesting points of Dr Newton Cain's post.
Dr Newton Cain emphasises 'that the use of ICTs (information and communications technologies) is a tool to enable policy responses; it is not a policy response in itself.' True, digital technologies are only as effective as the people using them, and Dr Newton Cain points out, it is important to manage expectations about the limitations of ICTs. A mobile application that connects patients with doctors over SMS text, no matter how innovative, is not a silver bullet. In no way can such a tool replace or duplicate good quality health care provided by a functioning hospital.
But such mobile applications, and timely health advice provided via SMS, remain powerful enablers. Experience from developing countries around the world, particularly in Africa and Asia, is that they are benefiting from widespread use of digital development tools, even in challenging environments where supporting infrastructure is lacking. Waiting for all the elements to line up for a perfect development environment can take years. The power in digital technologies lies in their potential to overcome obstacles in the way of the development process.
Dr Newton Cain asks whether a regional ICT-for-development strategy is appropriate for international donors and businesses. I recommend in my paper that the Australian Government, as the region's largest donor, commit to a regional strategy. This certainly doesn't preclude country-tailored mobile application and crowdsourcing programs. In fact, most mobile applications and crowdsourcing programs will have to be tailored to each Pacific Island country, and in many circumstances, to certain provinces and to local communities, for them to be effective. Nevertheless, a regional strategy would ensure a commitment to explore opportunities in all Pacific Islands countries so that both large and small countries can benefit.
I think it is fair to say that, so far, the region has not seen the organic emergence of a locally-led ICT-for-development sector. And this likely won't happen without support, training and the provision of resources from government and business. But, the Pacific Islands region is in the unique position of being able to cherry pick the digital development tools and applications that have worked in countries facing similar development challenges.
So far, few organisations have capitalised on the Pacific's growing ICT infrastructure to enhance development and social outcomes. It wouldn't take a lot of effort or resources from the region's key donors and businesses to collaborate directly with Pacific Island governments in creating and supporting the types of digital tools (such as mobile applications, mobile-based projects and crowdsourcing) that would benefit Pacific populations.
It is abundantly clear that the Pacific Islands region is suffering from an under-use of digital development tools and I think the greatest concern lies in the opportunities being missed. These tools help get the right information to the right people at the right time. And the power of timely information, in a region as dispersed and remote as the Pacific, should not be underestimated.
Photo by Flickr user US Pacific Fleet.