Leveraging ICT in Global Health and Development

By Maggie Nelsen

In recent years information communication technology (ICT) has come to the forefront of the development conversation. Generally, ICT is seen as an efficient, low-cost alternative for disseminating and receiving information and making transactions, but it is also revolutionizing how governments procure public services and institutionalize transparency and accountability. E-governance is already replacing traditional public institutions, such as banks and tax administration systems, which typically provide fundamental public goods and services. ICT has gradually been integrated into almost every major industry—finance, agribusiness, health, and education—and will inevitably play a major role in the post-2015 sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Most recently, E-health services and applications have successfully coordinated health emergency response structures in Ebola-affected countries. From the onset of the outbreak, mobile delivery of vital health information and local updates became a significant resource for citizens and health workers in affected areas. Apps and SMS messages allowed citizens to receive information about symptoms, local resources, and clinic locations. Health administrators and aid organizations utilized e-health technologies to map the spread of Ebola cases in real time, and maintain a database to better understand the transmission of the disease. In several of these cases, e-health services were critical in closing gaps in human capacity and other resource deficiencies, especially in rural areas where the nearest full-service clinic or lab is one hundred miles away. According to the International Telecommunications Union, the UN Specialized Agency for ICTs, there will be almost 7 billion mobile subscriptions by the end of this year. With mobile phone subscriptions likely to exceed the global population in the near-future, m-health could be a major tool in building capacity.

A GSM antenna supporting mobile technology in Gambia.

A GSM antenna supporting mobile technology in Gambia.  Photo obtained from Wikimedia user Ikiwaner under a creative commons license.

Beyond the singular context of the current Ebola outbreak, ICT is fast-becoming as an integral component of the global health agenda. On December 2 and 3, the World Health Organization, the Asian Development Bank, and the Asia e-Health Information Network hosted the 3rd Conference on Measuring and Achieving Universal Healthcare (UHC) with ICT in Asia-Pacific, in Manila. As international bodies recognize the strategic utility of ICT in health management and prevention, global e-health frameworks should be integrated into building healthcare capacity and national healthcare infrastructures.

With the imminent transition to the post-2015 development agenda, the development community must take stock of the best strategies and tools available to advance the incoming SDGs. ICT is emphasized more than once in the SDGs draft. In addition to measuring the progress of SDGs with ICT, increasing ICT and internet access to least developed countries by 2020 is also one of the targets. To achieve this goal, the SDG framework calls for technology and innovation capacity building in least developed countries, to better implement ICT solutions.

Despite the immense implications of ICT in development, 60 percent of the global population continues to lack access to the internet, with Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia among the least connected regions in the world. In 2011, only 5.3 percent of Ghanaians living in Accra had access to broadband internet. Moreover, areas with internet connectivity may not have basic electricity infrastructure. In some cases, communities have mobile broadband via satellite, and therein ‘leapfrog’ over the need for development of traditional telecommunications infrastructure—such as landlines or fiber optics. Thus, various important development goals which need infrastructure are delayed. While m-health systems connect remote areas with resources, for continued development, m-health cannot indefinitely supplant necessary healthcare infrastructure.

As the global middle class and global urban populations continue to grow, ICT will continue to be a driver of development. This is particularly relevant in the healthcare industry where ICT systems are widely applied. Now is the time for donors to work with private sector partners to promote innovation and broader applications and bring healthcare services to scale. ICT will undoubtedly be a major module in that process.

Maggie Nelsen is a researcher with the Project for Prosperity and Development at CSIS.

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