The growing role that fast-changing media and technology play in developing countries around the globe was discussed this morning by a panel organized by the School of Public Affairs.
Dean Paul Teske introduced the panel members, who offered expertise about technological advancement efforts in far-flung nations, especially those in the Third World. The group included Steve Gutterman, president of Mobile Accord Inc.; John Etherton, founder of Etherton Technologies; Chris Spence, chief technology officer for the National Democratic Institute; Revi Sterling, Ph.D., director of the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) for Development Program at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The program, “Media, Technology and International Development,” was moderated by Susan Abbott, senior program development advisor at Internews, a nonprofit organization that empowers local media worldwide to give people the news and information they need.
Abbott noted that telecommuting allows work in democracy, innovation and transparency to take place anywhere in the world.
“We’re at a wonderful moment in our history where we can really use technology, media and communications for improving our societies and understanding how we can work together toward better solutions on many things,” Abbott said. “This panel is a representation, I think, of the different pieces of what this new and innovative environment looks like.”
Mobile Accord conducts mobile-user surveys in emerging countries, collecting information about food programs, health initiatives, gender-based violence and other subjects. He noted that in Africa, for instance, penetration of land-line phones and Internet is each only about 5 percent of the population. But cell phones are used by 75 percent of people on the continent.
“There’s something about reaching people that have not traditionally had voices,” Gutterman said. “There’s also something pretty interesting about the anonymity of cell phones. People might not feel comfortable telling a person with a pen and pad, ‘Yes, I’ve been a victim of gender-based violence.’ But with a cell phone, they will respond.”
Etherton founded Etherton Technologies, which offers social network and online technology services in emerging nations, aiming to close the digital divide. In Liberia, for example, the company has helped modernize health facility accreditation and shown young people how they can use social networks to find jobs.
“Our big push is to expose people to those kinds of technologies and new ways of thinking about information,” Etherton said. “Then they can, as their infrastructure evolves, can take advantage of that.”
The National Democratic Institute helps countries in transition move to a more democratic form of governance. The NDI doesn’t necessarily push American-style democracy, Spence said, noting that parliamentary structures are often the preferred system.
Twenty years ago “nobody thought technology had a role to play in democracy — it was about politics, cigars and back-room deals,” Spence said. “I was able to convince (NDI) around the late ’90s that technology is changing the way the world is organized and it’s changing the way politics happen and the way government works.”
Political parties in other nations still lag far behind the tech-savvy parties in American politics, Spence said.
Sterling noted that technology in itself won’t solve issues of poverty, health care and distribution of resources. “Hopefully, we can fix the technology to be much more appropriate, sustainable and equitable,” she said. “… We’re looking at ways that technology and society can better interface.”
The panelists continued their discussion with questions from the audience.
(Photo: Panelists included, from left, Chris Spence, National Democratic Institute; John Etherton, Etherton Technologies; and Steve Gutterman, Mobile Accord. Other panelists (not pictured) were Revi Sterling, University of Colorado Boulder; and Susan Abbott, Internews).