When I first began learning about digital development, I thought of it as a new frontier that could push international development out of its modus operandi. New digital tools could provide individuals, communities, governments, and organizations with new sources of information at rapid speeds—enabling new means of collaboration to propel development objectives.
Digital technology is unique for two reasons. First, digital is informative—providing users with increased access to new information and opportunities at their fingertips. Second, digital is informed—enabling users to input information that will conceivably be used by industries and governments to tailor and update their products and benefit their business and economies to improve customer experiences.
An example of a new frontier is the Coffee Cloud, an application DAI developed in collaboration with coffee producers, government institutions, and research institutes in response to a decline in coffee production in Central America. Coffee producers input specific details about their crops into the app (digital informed) and receive customized advice on how to improve crop management; this information is shared with other coffee farmers as well as the government coffee institute and meteorological services (digital informative), which in return use the information for predictive modeling that can then be shared back to coffee producers.
The Realities of Digital
While digital has the potential to transform industries such as coffee, the more I engage with digital the more I’ve come to see it as an instrument of global development. Digital cannot magically leapfrog all the underlying economic dynamics, social norms, and barriers preventing people in developing countries from accessing vital services or improving their economic situation, but it can be a great starting point.
The Haiti Health Information Systems project works to digitize the healthcare system. Photo: DAI.
Take gender inclusion, or lack thereof, as an example where digital tools could make a significant difference. When you look at global levels of mobile phone access, a common metric for measuring digital inclusion worldwide, it’s clear that women have less access to mobile phones than men. According to the GSMA 2019 Mobile Gender Gap Report, women are 10 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone (28 percent less in South Asia where the gender gap is the highest) and 23 percent less likely than men to use the mobile internet. Furthermore, the report cites the largest barriers for women are affordability, digital literacy, and perceived lack of relevance, meaning that information is not targeted to their needs and thus they are not compelled to digitally engage. All this is to say, as the world shifts increasingly into the digital space, so too have the gender barriers that have prevented women from contributing to their households, communities, and economies for centuries.
I recently visited DAI’s project team working to digitize Haiti’s health systems through the National Unified Health Information System (SISNU). They work directly with the Ministry of Public Health and Population to digitize public and private clinics across the country, enabling them to input patient information, track and monitor instances of tuberculosis, HIV, and other noncommunicable diseases, while improving treatment and care. When considering the project’s goals, I was intrigued by the possibilities of gender inclusion: How does the project disaggregate the data? Can the data help analyze how women and men are treated by location? Can disease prevalence, treatment, or visit frequency be broken out and analyzed by gender? And, what is done with the information?
In conversations with the team, I learned that the project has several indicators included in their annual monitoring and evaluation plan focused on gender integration and many of them are indeed disaggregated by sex. This data is critical to getting buy-in from governments and institutions to implement gender-inclusive activities, which can be challenging. Even though digital technologies empower the Ministry to access and centralize information from health clinics across Haiti—*which is momentous in its own right—*it is our job to encourage them to prioritize inclusive practices and move away from age-old social norms that can hinder progress.
So, what can be done when social norms are historically complex? Digital development provides us with access to new means of communication and sources of data that can help us tell a deeper story. What we choose to learn from and do with that information is powerful and can inform how we develop new technologies, implement policies, distribute resources, and engender inclusive platforms. In the case of Haiti, beginning by disaggregating and reporting on the data, to understand how a woman’s healthcare experience compares to men’s, can be a first step to changing the norm.
Ariel Magid is an Associate Health Practice Specialist for DAI Global Health. She holds a joint master’s degree in sustainable international development and women and gender studies from Brandeis University.