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Transformative Effects of Women, Youth and Technological Innovation


By Gregor Young
Management Systems International

Today, May 1st, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars will host a conference entitled African Women and Youth as Agents of Change through Technology and Innovation. This conference, co-hosted by the African Technology Policy Studies Network, will present examples of technology innovation by women and youth in Africa, as well as discuss the critical role of leadership and innovation mentorship for sustaining future generations on the continent, enabling a brighter future.

Additional discussion on the role of technology and innovation relating not only to development, but to the status and participation of women and youth, is timely. The past decade has seen exponential growth in adoption of increasingly available and context-specific ICT solutions across the African continent. Many citizens and civil society groups have begun to demonstrate the vast potential of technology to improve several key sectors and daily realities of life in developing countries. Early targeted innovations in ICT have started to foster improvements in the accountability of government, generated new areas of economic opportunity, facilitated more savvy participation in local markets, and advancement of gender equity. Locally-developed models for future engagement of people and markets through technology in the developing world abound; these should have of attention of the development community, to provide evaluation and investment in the most promising models. Local technology innovators have the potential to create beneficial systems for their users, installing predictability and accountability into areas which previously were undermanaged or not available to common citizens (the success of M-Pesa in Kenya, and a recent new business offering, comes to mind). Perhaps most critically, extant and emergent uses of ICT are creating fissures in long-standing traditional political and social power dynamics, empowering economic participation and vast numbers women and youth to have their voices and concerns heard. The upcoming conference at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars seeks to examine how to and with what resources, women and youth can become effective change agents in their own communities and continue to strive towards social equity and economic well-being.

In the context of both political and economic participation, increasing access and literacy in ICT presents unique opportunities for civil society to transform power dynamics. A principal feature of ICT applications is that they can facilitate a break from structures of traditional authority, class systems, patronage and patriarchy, as related to increasing access to information and communicating needs outside of communities. Informational asymmetries in economics, politics, and civil society pose substantial problems, particularly for rural citizens whose physical distance from centers of power and relative diffusion often characterize weak relationships to those in positions of authority and economic influence. For those whose principal livelihoods depend on agricultural production and markets, access to timely information has substantial consequences. Informational asymmetries are a critical component to explaining how rural agricultural producers in many developing countries struggle to compete in local markets, and fail to present their needs to their respective governments in a unified way. An absence of interest groups and the means to communicate interests means that government can operate without being accountable to many of its citizens. ICT tailored for rural users helps to mitigate these problems, making information more accessible and linking people and groups to participate more effectively.

Mentoring young people and women to take an active role in ICT-facilitated change is essential to the broadly participatory ideal of open-source information, communication, and innovation. Research recently published by the International Center for Research on Women suggests a strong correlation between women's access to training and appropriate technology to better outcomes in family economic status, child nutrition, entrepreneurship, and other economic development and public health indicators. It is often cited that societies which grant women economic and social agency produce stronger, more economically stable families, and healthier, better educated children. It is also a widely accepted principle of development economics that technical change leads to growth through efficiency and productivity gains, and ICRW's work has linked this phenomenon specifically to women versus men in society, demonstrating that measurable positive change can be achieved by empowering women with the same technological resources and knowledge to which men in their communities are significantly more likely to have access.

Investment in technology and innovation must include women and youth to reach its full potential to improve social equity, economic stability, and growth. The transformative effects of technological innovation have perhaps no greater potential for positive change than in Africa, and the development community should continue to prioritize research, investment, and training in support of Africa's innovation thought leaders.

Related Program

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more