Ammar Khalid is a first-year International Development student at SAIS. He is a member of the editorial team at SAIS Perspectives. He tweets @paharibakra.

As my foundational course in international development was nearing completion last semester, smack in the middle of the U.S. election season, a classmate of mine noted, poignantly, how some of his friends working as international development professionals in developing countries were contemplating moving back home. For them—my classmate is a U.S. citizen as are, I assume, his friends—the election saga had exposed grave chasms in U.S. society. For them, these divides across rural and urban areas, racial lines, sex, and age groups need to be addressed.

A similar chord was struck at an informal roundtable organized recently in Washington, D.C. by the Technology Salon, entitled “How to Use our ICT4D Expertise to Change America?” A diverse group of ICT practitioners participated, not just those from the international development field but also those with experience working in political campaigns and the media. I was struck by how much their conversation resonated with the material I had studied in my course in development—particularly with Robert Chambers’ seminal work on rural development. As a student of development, I am not used to viewing the U.S. as a case study, but the roundtable raised some interesting points about the extent to which conditions in the U.S. mirror what development practitioners face in less prosperous parts of the world.  

For instance, a theme that underlined much of the discussion was an emphasis on understanding and acknowledging the presence of the “other.” Considering the inherent tribalism in U.S. society that has come to the fore over the last year, perhaps the U.S. should not be treated as one nation, but instead as a collection of disparate groups, much like numerous nations in Africa and Asia. The discussants disagreed on the causes of this tribalism—one posited that economic insecurity was the root cause, while another cited racism—but opined that such a situation required humility and a thorough understanding of the “other,” as well as acknowledging the possibility of being a “foreigner” in one’s own country.

The participants at the roundtable agreed, however, that technology could play a role in facilitating communication across tribal boundaries and geographies—perhaps uniting these groups in a way that civil society and the media have so far failed to do. For example, apps might be able to facilitate communication between diverse groups. However, the roundtable participants emphasized that ICT professionals must first understand these “other” groups and their problems, and then design apps to help solve those problems—rather than developing the apps first. The discussants agreed that in their efforts to facilitate communication, they should use language that could be understood by all groups and tribes and acknowledge that technology, particularly social media, can sometimes reinforce the silos that people are increasingly communicating within and therefore exacerbate divisions. Technology professionals must strive to prevent this.

Not only is the language of messages important, but the messengers themselves are also crucial. Time and again it was reiterated, very much in line with Chambers’ advice on rural development, that the use of local agents with established networks in the locale was key. In this regard, one of the participants, who had vast experience of working with veterans, put forth using veterans as a possible conduit of improving communication between disparate groups.

Reaching such an audience is another issue. A discussant mentioned how her organization, while working on a project in New Orleans, spent a considerable amount of time understanding the ‘information ecosystem context,’ or how the locals receive their information. While interaction with neighbors and chats at the barber shop were possible options, they decided to use the local radio to reach out to the community.

In fact, radio was mentioned multiple times that morning as a highly effective means of communication, especially since many people spend roughly 45 minutes daily listening to the radio. The broader point that was made here was to use non-traditional modes of ICT as part of a push to increase the variety of communication methods.

Non-traditional modes of ICT are particularly important in light of the still far-from-universal reach of technology. A telling stat that was shared by one of the speakers was that almost 40% of people in rural America lack access to reliable broadband connections. In light of this, a discussant, who had worked on the election campaigns in the U.S. last year, regretted the over-reliance on data and the internet as a communications tool, as opposed to face-to-face feedback from the ground. Practically all U.S. residents have a postage address, and so it was also argued that regular mail should also be used more. On the other hand, traditional modes of ICT, like cell phones, still have a role to play. For example, SMS-based communications have been successful in Kenya to galvanize voters across tribal lines.

Still, nothing beats talking to a person face-to-face. Using the neighborhood church, football game screenings on Friday nights, and town hall meetings are all possible ways of effectively communicating at the grassroots level. After all, one participant pointed out, despite having access to all kinds of technology, the world’s best military intelligence networks still depend significantly on feedback from agents on the ground who interact face-to-face with people.

Lastly, more work needs to be done to bridge the gap between lawmakers in Washington, D.C. and the rest of the population. For example, one roundtable discussant lamented, based on her frequent visits to King George County (located a mere 80 miles from the capital), that to many people, the workings of the federal government seem convoluted. She felt people were more aware of local problems and, in many cases, more willing to prioritize local issues over problems at the state and federal level. Therefore, while there should still be an emphasis on local problems, people should be more aware of ways to address state and national problems as well.

Gaps in U.S. society are aplenty. In what to me seems like a jab at my classmate’s friends and others of their ilk, Dani Rodrik, in this recent piece, argues that those claiming to espouse a global outlook that emphasizes how humanity should unite us all, are often guilty of shirking their responsibility towards domestic issues because they are unwilling to confront groups at home who think differently than them.

My classmate’s friends, however, need not move back home to the U.S.—technology can help them overcome both political and geographic differences in the U.S., as they decide to learn more about local problems and think about ways to solve them. The use of technology can certainly provide an effective bridging tool here. However, technology should not—and cannot—be an end in and of itself. It should complement human interactions, not replace them.

PHOTO CREDIT: "Union Workers" by Ryan O'Hara from Flickr Creative Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0.