Canada to co-develop IT projects with developing nations

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The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) announced Wednesday a partnership that will see the agencies fund several alliances attempting to aid ICT implementation in developing nations.

At the beginning of 2007, the arms-length federal agencies IDRC and the SSHRC started looking at how to effectively collaborate on a project together that featured the SSHRC’s community-university research alliance (CURA) model and the IDRC’s focus on international outreach, according to Gisele Yasmeen, vice-president of partnerships with the SSHRC.

November is the deadline for the letters of intent from the research community. Two of the areas of research called for are ICT technologies for development and how science, technology, and innovation policies impact development.

ICT has always been a key part of the IDRC’s development strategies, according to Laurent Elder, the IDRC’s program leader for Pan-Asian networking. He said, “Our motto is ‘empowerment through knowledge,’ and the digital revolution is a means to empower even the poorest of the poor. By giving them access to digitization, it can help solve their development problems.”

Researchers can be either Canadian or international, according to Yasmeen. “To qualify, the researchers must have a non-university, non-academic partner…They can come from non-government organizations, common interest associations, or the government or private sector, as long as money isn’t involved,” she said.

The partners must come from the IDRC’s large roster of lower and middle income countries (LMIC), which includes countries in Africa (like Senegal, Uganda, Kenya, and Mozambique), Asia (such as Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Cambodia), and Latin America (including Peru, Colombia, and Chile).

The IDRC has had a good run in aiding and funding successful ICT implementations in LMICs, according to Elder, especially in establishing a baseline of Internet and wireless access. “It affords them a lot more opportunities and access to ICT, and different new innovations and applications,” he said.

Health, livelihood, education, and government are areas where the IDRC have found the most success with the implementation of ICT, said Elder.

In Uganda, for example, health workers in the field were able to use PDAs to more accurately and quickly convey rural disease levels, allowing for better medicine delivery and cost savings. Over in the Philippines, a hand-washing campaign worked well, courtesy of a mobile text message campaign.

Senegalese farmers had their livelihoods improved by the ability to receive SMS messages of food prices on a mobile phone, which reduced the middlemen’s chicanery and resulted in 10 to 15 per cent more profit.

Education received a boost in West Africa when schoolchildren’s grades skyrocketed after being given computers to use. “It was actual empowerment. They were using something they thought only geniuses had access to and it actually gave them confidence,” said Elder.

A Moroccan version of the birth certificate once required extremely long wait-times and was managed through a handwriting-based system. Governance was improved by digitizing the process.

The researchers’ partners in the LMICs can contribute everything from governance to design to specific questions or requests, and are key members of the research effort in the feedback they contribute about their specific situation. Said Elder: “There is a need for good research, not for an intervention, but to find the best method (to go about installing ICT). There needs to be research and research capacity, and it’s important to do it collaboratively. The partners figure out what should be done, and demonstrate that at the ground level.”

Nine applicants will be chosen and given $30,000 and almost a year to prepare a full research proposal. Out of those candidates, only three projects will be chosen. These recipients will get up to $400,000 annually for up to five years, for a total investment of $6.27 million, split between the IDRC and the SSHRC.

Elder said that the IDRC has had a good track record with improving telecommunications policy (ensuring that it is liberalized, privatized, and well-regulated), but there are some areas that he thinks would make a good fit for the new research projects.

“Disaster warning is important. We need better information to ‘the last mile.’ Censorship is also important. We’re working with the Toronto-based Citizen’s Lab on a project about censorship and surveillance in Asia,” said Elder. “And health issues: we need health systems and interoperability of these systems.”

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