Literacy and Mobiles in Poor Populations: What Do We Call ‘Success’?

Many of the current ICT for Development (ICT4D) initiatives have not included a sufficiently pro-poor perspective. This is obvious from a variety of perspectives. For example, we may simply observe the following: The vast majority of software/web content (mainly in major languages such as English, Chinese, French, Spanish) is of little use to the many millions of marginalized people for reasons of literacy, language or culture. The private sector produces, in large part, for the most lucrative markets – with limited positive consequences for the poor. Yet, it is increasingly clear that user-friendly (and often multilingual) ICT-based products that are mobile can satisfy the needs of the poor to a much greater extent than heretofore believed. Providing such tools and developing the human resources capacity to support the local development and distribution of relevant content is one important way to help initiate a positive spiral of sustainable development. While such claims are relatively easy to make, it is not clear what “success” using mobiles would look like.

Among development agencies and donors, success is often not well defined. Indeed, a review of recent research suggests that success may be defined variously as: the distribution of hardware (such as mobiles); the reduction of ‘digital divide’ in access to the internet (say, between boys and girls); skills learned about computers or the internet (‘digital literacy’), impact on learning or literacy outcomes, or employment outcomes. Each of these and other outcomes has been used by ICT projects (mobiles and otherwise), but most of these also utilize little of what we know about adequate monitoring and evaluation (M&E), and in particular, for poor populations.

Here we propose a pro-poor approach to M&E for mobiles that has three main goals: First, it should engage in data collection with transparency as to who comprises the target population, and where this population fits into the national and social fabric as well as a policy of poverty reduction. For example, what is the demographic breakdown of the intervention sample by literacy level, gender, language, ethnicity, age, location, and income relative to the rest of the national population? While typical M&E can capture some of the same diversity in the population, the usual tendency is towards the average individual in a country, usually leading to an under-sampling of (and less of an understanding of) the most disadvantaged poor populations. Second, pro-poor M&E activities should provide greater detail for policy formation and program implementation that can affect the most disadvantaged. For example, evaluation results should prepared in a manner that allows expansion of the program to additional marginalized groups (by caste, gender location and other language groups). Third, when mobiles are part of the proposed solution matrix, it is crucial to determine the degree to which those who are most in need have operational access to mobiles, in particular in contexts where there may be competition for usage time of the device.

Pro-poor interventions using mobiles are part of the search to reduce social and economic inequities around the world. In the near term, we will need to apply the best of the M&E approaches so we will truly know “success” when we see it.

Dan Wagner

Dan Wagner is the UNESCO Chair in Learning and Literacy, and Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. He is Director of the International Literacy Institute, co-founded by UNESCO and the University of Pennsylvania, and Director of Penn’s International Educational Development Program (IEDP) in graduate study. After an undergraduate degree in Engineering at Cornell University, and voluntary service in the Peace Corps (Morocco), he received his Ph.D. in Psychology at the University of Michigan, was a two-year postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, a Visiting Fellow (twice) at the International Institute of Education Planning in Paris, a Visiting Professor at the University of Geneva (Switzerland), and a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Paris. Dr. Wagner has extensive experience in national and international educational issues, and has served as an advisor to UNESCO, UNICEF, World Bank, USAID, DFID, and others on international development issues. He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Anthropological Association, and the American Educational Research Association. His most recent multi-year projects have been in India, South Africa, and Morocco. He is currently Chair of the Brookings Global Research Task Force on Learning. In addition to over 140 professional publications, Dr. Wagner has written/edited over 20 books, including: Literacy: Developing the future (in 5 languages); Literacy: An international handbook; Learning to bridge the digital divide; New technologies for literacy and adult education: A global review; Monitoring and evaluation of ICT for education in developing countries; and Smaller, quicker, cheaper: Improving learning assessments for developing countries.

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