Written by Shailja Mehta and Sucharita Iyer
Covid-19 has exposed the deep faultlines that hobble India’s transition towards a more digitally enabled society. During the pandemic, several essential services, ranging from access to healthcare services – including vaccines – to education, livelihoods, and rations — have felt the effects of unequal distribution of technology in the country. With increasing inequalities and the burden on systems, the need for digitally driven programmes is now more urgent than ever before.
In March last year, the first wave brought with it an immediate and urgent need for the development sector to shift towards technology, when faced by the inability to access communities remotely. A survey to better understand the scenario in June 2020 indicated that, of 111 respondents, only about half were aware of online classes being held in their communities. The consequences of these gaps are likely dire – an estimated 10 million girls could drop out of school.
Through the devastating second wave, urban Indians have consistently relied on social media platforms to seek life-saving medical supplies. Unequal access to the internet has also made accessing and registering for COVID-19 vaccines in India a challenge, leaving millions of Indians unable to even register for them. With the situation still evolving, it’s clear that the time to address India’s digital divide is now.
Recognising the essential role that digital tools, access and literacy will play in the months and years to come, the 10to19: Dasra Adolescents Collaborative sought to understand the shift within the development sector towards technology-driven programmes, to enable a more systematic and concerted transition. A report released by Dasra, titled Buffering Now, highlights key learnings and best practices from NGOs and social enterprises in India, focusing on what has worked and presenting key recommendations for various actors in the space.
Prior to the pandemic, India saw a staggered shift towards the use of digital tools. The education sector began using elements of online education; the health sector had begun exploring telemedicine and IVR systems; financial institutions had adopted online banking; local stores were opening up to cashless transactions post demonetisation; and instant messaging and social media platforms had already become popular avenues for mass messaging.
However, it’s apparent that a majority of Indian citizens lack digital literacy and online safety is an alien concept to many who may have digital literacy. Language and accessibility barriers and limited data and infrastructural systems further compound the scenario. Social barriers and systemic inequality also play a large role in this — even today, mobile ownership among women is significantly lower than their male counterparts. Similarly, communities continue to remain averse to mobile devices in the hands of young people, especially young women, to prevent them from disrupting existing patriarchal systems.
Stakeholders across the development ecosystem have struggled with these challenges, having often even misunderstood or miscalculated the role and versatility of technology in designing programmes. Even today, the perception of technology in the development sector is skewed: Many organisations use digital tools as a goal rather than a means to an end. This has a bearing on the effective utilisation of these technologies.
With digital services not being uniformly distributed, communities in remote areas often require on-ground staff to deploy and supplement digital tools. They may also face significant barriers in accessing funding for innovative and infrastructural digital solutions. This, in turn, poses challenges for CSOs.
The process of creating and implementing digital solutions is multi-layered and complex. According to many CSOs, the first step is to address the demands posed by technological interventions across a programme’s life cycle. This calls for customised digital interventions. The issue gets complicated because CSOs need to work with local communities who face digital challenges themselves. The success of technology-based programmes is ultimately contingent on the support for it on the ground, and community feedback is critical to driving successful and sustainable programmes. Programmes, therefore, need to integrate and account for inter-personal mediation and the last-mile “human touch”. Digital interventions have to factor in these imperatives.
To enable them to incorporate technology at scale, CSOs require more systematic partnerships with stakeholders across the development ecosystem. Collaboration with the government, funders, and other civil society partners is vital to normalising the use of technology-based interventions at scale. For example, the government and private sector service providers need to prioritise the availability of digital infrastructure and connectivity while civil society integrates programmatic responses into government priorities. Funders, too, play a vital role here, in supporting the development of innovation solutions.
There are no blanket solutions to the critical challenges that come with embracing technology in framing programmes for the development sector. Documenting their learnings, therefore, is an important first step in pushing for more open conversations with regard to digital interventions in India.
Mehta leads the 10to19 Dasra Adolescents Collaborative and Iyer works with the same organisation