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Information and Communications Technologies for Development: The Case of Women in Colombia

Jessie Landerman wrote "Information and Communications Technologies for Development: The Case of Women in Colombia" as part of the 2014 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship. The research essay was first published in Transatlantic Perspectives on Diplomacy and Diversity (Humanity in Action Press 2015). The complete book is available for purchase on Amazon.  


World leaders have widely heralded information and communication technologies (ICTs) as tools to bridge digital divides, increase economic development and empower poor and disadvantaged groups. The essay examines the distribution of ICTs as part of governmental development programs in Colombia. Using a case study of ICT initiatives for Colombian women, this essay argues that unequal access to ICT tools and networks helps some individuals move forward into the digital age but leaves others further behind. The uneven access to ICTs often reflects and exacerbates existing inequalities along racial, class, gender and other dimensions. The essay also identifies the major factors that act as barriers and facilitators for Colombian women and girl’s access to ICTs.  

Section 1: Technology for Development

History of Information and Communications Technologies for Development

“In Colombia, everything is a challenge,” explained the tired-looking mother of two as she waited at an Internet café an hour outside of Bogotá, Colombia. “To have a home, children, study, good food. It's hard to get everything for them that they want.”

This woman, 28 years old, had traveled from the farm where she works milking cows to the nearest town with an Internet café in order to have the local staff type and print an official document for the sale of several cows. She is, in many respects, the epitome of what international development agencies and policymakers envision when they build Internet cafés throughout the developing world: a low-income head of family with limited education, heavy domestic responsibilities and no access to a computer or Internet at home. Like many in the developing world, she stands to gain a great deal from the connectivity, access to information and opportunities that technology can offer.

World leaders including former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan have exalted the potential of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to “help build digital bridges to the billions of people who are now trapped in extreme poverty, untouched by the digital revolution and beyond the reach of the global economy." (1) According to Annan, “One of the most pressing challenges in the new century is to harness this extraordinary force, spread it throughout the world, and make its benefits accessible and meaningful for all humanity, in particular the poor.”

Annan issued these statements in 2001, at the launch of the United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force. As Annan was creating the UN ICT Task Force, enthusiasm for using ICTs such as mobile phones, computers and the Internet for development purposes was taking off worldwide. (2) In July 2000, at the 28th G8 summit in Okinawa, Japan, leaders from Canada, the European Commission, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia the United Kingdom and the United States issued the Okinawa Charter on the Global Information Society, declaring that “everyone, everywhere should be enabled to participate in and no one should be excluded from the benefits of the global information society.” (3) Like the UN, the G8 recognized the potential revolutionary impact of ICTs for development. (4) The Okinawa Charter states that “countries that succeed in harnessing its potential can look forward to leapfrogging conventional obstacles of infrastructural development, to meeting more effectively their vital development goals, such as poverty reduction, health, sanitation, and education, and to benefiting from the rapid growth of global e-commerce.” (5)

In their book ICT4D Information Communication Technology for Development, Parveen Pannu and Yuki Azaad Tomar summarize the revolutionary potential of ICTs in the following ways:

  • In their capacities to instantaneously connect vast networks of individuals and organizations across great geographic distances at a very little cost
  • As key enablers of globalization, facilitating the worldwide flow of information, capital, ideas, people and products
  • Transforming business, markets and organizations
  • Revolutionizing learning and knowledge-sharing
  • Empowering citizens and communities
  • Creating significant economic growth in many countries. (6)
Recognizing a Digital Divide

In addition to their revolutionary potential, the G8 and the UN also recognized ICTs’ potential danger to generate a “digital divide,” a term first coined in 1995 by the United States Department of Commerce to describe the gap between those who have access to ICTs and the skills to use them, and those who do not. (7)

With the introduction of computers, the Internet, mobile phones and other digital tools, “a new form of inequality is added to all the existing forms of discrimination: an inequality in the power to communicate and to process information digitally.” (8)

In short, unequal access to ICT tools and networks among and within countries helps some individuals move forward into the digital age, leaving others even further behind. Researchers have noted that “distributing ICT without looking at inequality is a way to reinforce that inequality. ICT has such potential to empower its users that this uneven distribution of resources to get connected is very likely to increase inequality and to embed itself in the future.” (9)

This uneven access to ICTs often reflects and exacerbates existing inequalities along racial, class, gender and other dimensions, (10) and research has shown that ICT adoption patterns “are characterized by the same long established determinants of inequality as other aspects of social life, such as those related to income, education, skills, employment, geography, age and ethnicity and gender, among others.” (11)

Women and ICTs

Women in the developing world have been the subject of much debate and investigation with regards to ICT access and adoption. Few disagree that women stand to gain a great deal from ICTs: “Internet access enhances women’s economic empowerment, political participation and social inclusion through initiatives that support increased productivity and income generation, mobilization and accountability, as well as improved livelihoods and expansion of services,” declared Michelle Bachelet
, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, in the 2013 report Women and the Web. (12)

Data continue to show that in the developing world, women consistently access and use technology at lower rates than men. (13) The cause of this gap has been disputed. (14) Some claimed that women were simply “technophobic,” less interested in technology, or less tech savvy than men. (15) However, a 2011 study of 25 data sets from Latin America and Africa revealed that “the reason why fewer women access and use ICT is a direct result of their unfavorable conditions with respect to employment, education and income. When controlling for these variables, women turn out to be more active users of digital tools than men.” (16)

Based on this understanding, scholars and practitioners have identified the following as the key barriers that prevent women from realizing the potential benefits of the digital age: (17)

1. Infrastructure Access

Physical access to ICTs varies with the location and dependability of telephone lines, cellular and satellite networks, Internet services and public technology centers. In many developing countries, infrastructure is concentrated in urban areas, while large numbers of women live in rural areas. (18) Limited infrastructure prevents rural women from accessing ICTs in their homes and their communities, because the nearest Internet access point or cellular coverage area may be far away or inconvenient to visit.

In addition, many claim that “women, with their special responsibilities for children and the elderly, find it less easy than men to migrate to towns and cities. The urban bias in connectivity thus deprives women, more than men, of the universal right to communicate.” (19)

2. Social and Cultural Factors

Even when infrastructure is available, women still access and utilize ICTs less than men. (20) This is often due to gender-based roles and responsibilities, such as caring for the home, children and the elderly, which cause women to have less free time than men to experiment with and use technology.  In one ICT development project, librarians at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare noticed that males were dominating computer use. (21) Female students, when asked why they were not using the computers, “spoke about their duties as wives and mothers at home – which they had to fulfill exactly during the time at which the computers were free.” (22)

Women’s increased vulnerability to physical violence and intimidation can also be barriers to ICT utilization. In addition to the physical danger women may face traversing their own neighborhoods to access communications facilities, there are many well-known examples of women and girls being physically prevented from utilizing technologies. At the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, female students reported that “they ran the risk of being pushed out of the line by the male students.” (23) In India, when the National Institute of Information Technology installed computers with Internet in impoverished neighborhoods, boys allegedly pushed girls aside, causing girls to withdraw, fearful of physical threats. (24)

Traditional gender roles that render technology as a male domain can also hinder women’s access to ICTs, as women may be directly or indirectly discouraged from utilizing ICTs. In Peru, for example, at an IT training program for rural farmers, researchers reported that the men tended to mock the women, and “women reported that their greatest difficulty with the training courses was not the level or the specialization, but men’s attitudes towards their participation.” (25)  Gender norms may also be internalized. In a study in India and Egypt, one in five women believed the Internet was not “appropriate” for them. (26)

3. Education

Gender gaps in education are persistent throughout the developing world. Without basic literacy, ICTs are nearly impossible to utilize. In September 2013, UNESCO reported that 774 million adults worldwide lacked basic reading and writing skills – 64% of whom were women. (27) Worldwide, 79.9% of adult women were literate, compared to 88.6% of men. (28)

4. Financial Resources

Women, because of their high rates of poverty and domestic financial responsibilities, are less likely to have disposable income to spend on technological devices, service plans or visits to technology centers. In a 2009 case study of mobile phone usage in northern Nigeria, researchers found that women, more than men, would take care of immediate household needs before buying time to use their phones, reducing their use of mobile phones relative to men. (29) In a household survey in Africa, in some countries as many as 50% to 70% of respondents cited cost as the main reason they were not connected to the Internet. (30)

Given these significant barriers, it is not surprising that even after 13 years of heavy investment in ICT development projects, the global digital divide remains highly gendered. An international study published in 2013 by Intel estimated that 21% of women and girls in developing countries have access to the Internet, compared to 27% of men. (31) This represents 200 million fewer women and girls than men and boys.

Gender gaps within the developing world vary greatly. In some developing countries, such as Honduras, Guyana and Thailand, Intel found that the share of women online exceeded that of men. (32) But overall, in every region studied (East Asia & Pacific, South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East and North Africa), an Internet gender gap of at least 10% was observed, with women lagging behind men. (33)

Section 2: A Case Study on Colombia


This study will examine the case women and ICTs in Colombia, looking at women and girls’ inclusion and empowerment through ICT programs sponsored by the Colombian Ministry of Information and Communications Technologies (MinTIC).(34) The study will evaluate common assumptions and theories about ICTs for development, and present lessons and insights from the field as they relate to leading research from international cases.

Data for this study was collected in the following ways:

1. Participant observation

As an intern and consultant with MinTIC in July and August of 2014, I attended planning meetings and events with members of the appropriations and digital culture teams, which focus on ICT use and adoption in Colombia. I also attended ICT and gender related events around Bogotá, such as the annual digital culture summit Colmbia3.0, a conference hosted by the Presidential Office for Women’s Equality, and an IT summer camp for Colombian youth.

2. Interviews

I conducted formal interviews with 12 professionals working on ICTs and social change in Colombia, including MinTIC employees, local Internet café administrators, non-profit leaders, technology education specialists, engineering professors, entrepreneurs and an elected official who focuses on women’s issues.

3. Documents

In addition to reviewing articles, journals and cases, I had access to MinTIC reports, documents and data.

Colombia: Poverty and Potential

In 2012, Colombia ranked 91 out of 187 countries on the UN Human Development Index, a summary measure that takes into account life expectancy, education and Gross National Income per capita. (35) This places Colombia in the “high” human development category, but below the average for countries in the high human development group, and below the average for countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. (36) Around 34% of Colombians live in poverty, (37) which disproportionately affects women, children, Afro-Colombians, indigenous groups and displaced persons. (38) Poverty is particularly profound in rural Colombia, where 46.5% of the population lives in poverty. (39) In addition, Colombians face ongoing violent conflict and forced displacement, notorious illegal drug trade and extreme income inequality – the seventh highest in the world. (40)

In spite of the challenges mentioned above, Colombia shows promise and achievement in terms of ICT access and utilization. In 2009, the Colombian Ministry of Communications was transformed into the Ministry of Information and Communications Technologies (MinTIC), whose objectives are to create an ICT regulatory framework and promote access and use of ICTs. (41) In 2010, under the leadership of ICT Minister Diego Molano Vega, MinTIC launched the Plan Vive Digital 2010-2014, with the principal objective of promoting mass use of the Internet. (42) The Plan Vive Digital states: 

“We believe that through the mass use of the Internet, the appropriation of technology and the creation of direct and indirect ICT jobs, we will reduce unemployment, reduce poverty, increase the competitiveness of the country and take a leap toward democratic prosperity.” (43)

Following a model developed by the World Bank, the Plan Vive Digital sought to generate and strengthen a digital ecosystem that connects ICT supply and demand via infrastructure, services, applications and users. (44)

While developing the digital ecosystem between 2010 and 2014, MinTIC focused heavily on the supply side of the model (infrastructure and services). MinTIC’s three main goals were to increase (1) the number of Internet connections countrywide, (2) the number of municipalities connected to fiber-optic Internet and (3) the number of homes and small businesses connected to the Internet. (45) In defining factors for success, four out of five elements – shared public-private vision, regulation, finance and infrastructure – focused on supply, (46) while only the fifth, “stimulate demand,” referred directly to citizens themselves.

In examining potential barriers to demand, MinTIC identified two main challenges: cost of services and devices and lack of interest. (47) To address the cost barrier, MinTIC worked to reduce the cost of Internet service and lower the costs of computers, tablets and mobile phones. (48) To address lack of interest, MinTIC proposed developing new applications as a solution.(49) According to the Plan Vive Digital, of the many reasons homes and small businesses are not connected to the Internet, “one of the most important is the lack of applications and local content.” (50)

By 2014, MinTIC achieved all three of its primary goals, which reflect increases in both supply and demand of Internet services. (51) However, this does not mean that all Colombians have benefitted equally, or even at all, from the Plan Vive Digital. The ICT access and utilization divide between urban and rural Colombians continues to be significant. In a 2013 government-sponsored survey, 62% of urban Colombians reported having Internet service of some kind, compared to only 38% of rural Colombians. (52) 38% of urban Colombians owned a laptop computer, and 41% owned a desktop computer, compared to 19% of rural Colombians. (53) Women in cities lag behind men in every area of use and ownership with regards to ICTs, and in rural districts, data is not even available to document access and use with regards to gender. (54)

The Digital Landscape

Throughout Colombia, access to and use of the Internet and other ICT tools and services varies greatly. Initial research questions for this study framed digital access as a binary – those who were “plugged in” had Internet, computers or mobile devices at their disposal, and others remained “unplugged.” But as research progressed, it was clear that this framework was an oversimplification, and that ICT access and use resemble messy continuums, rather than clean, binary divisions between “haves” and “have-nots.” (55)

Access can vary by platform – whether users connect from a computer, cell phone or tablet. A 2013 study of digital culture in Colombia found that 25% of respondents accessed the Internet on a cell phone or tablet, 51% had Internet of some kind in their home and 10% had mobile Internet via a USB connected to a computer. (56) Mobile, smartphone and tablet connections are growing in number, and interviews and observations revealed that mobile phones with data plans are, for many, a replacement for a computer and Internet access at home. Cell phone Internet plans are available for a reduced cost if users agree to access social networks only (Facebook, Instagram Twitter, Email, etc.). This type of service means that many users connect to the Internet exclusively within social networks, and do not have access to search engines or the wealth of material available online. These plans are growing in popularity, particularly among low-income Colombians, and the implications of this trend remain to be seen.

Observations demonstrated that in addition to types of service, access varies in quality. In Guasca, an agricultural town an hour outside of Bogotá, residents complained of regular Internet outages, and at least one cyber café was offline due to an Internet failure on the day of a research visit.

Accessibility also varies in location and convenience – whether a user can connect from home or at a public center. There is a big difference between being able to use a phone, a computer or the Internet at the moment and place one chooses versus having to travel to a public access point and compete with others for time online. (57)

International research has shown that factors such as the number of platforms available and the locations of access points affect the kinds of benefits reported by women. (58) For example, Intel’s Women and the Web study found that women who access the Internet across multiple platforms (such as computers and mobile phones) were more likely to say that Internet use had brought them benefits such as additional income, job and networking opportunities and help with their studies. (59)

Imagine a female entrepreneur in Bogotá who has high-speed Internet at her fingertips and then rural woman whose village has a government-sponsored Internet kiosk – this helps to illustrate the insufficiency of a binary framework for the “digital divide” with regards to access. (60) 

And access is just one part of the digital landscape. Between 2010 and 2014, MinTIC reportedly increased Internet connections from 2.2 million to 8.8 million nationwide, and donated 669,000 computers and more than 1 million tablets. (61) But in order to evaluate the impact and benefits of this investment, we need to know how citizens used the new infrastructure and devices – who went online, and what did they do? Assessing whether the “revolutionary potential” of ICTs is being fulfilled requires looking at use, not just access.

The 2013 study of digital culture commissioned by MinTIC revealed that 68% of non-Internet users reported that they do not use Internet because they do not know how. (62) At a government-sponsored Equal Opportunity Center for Women in Bogotá, community dialogues revealed that ICT training and education was the second highest priority for local women. Together, these facts illustrate the need for digital education alongside physical access, and that physical access alone does not guarantee use.

In addition to lack of knowledge, lack of interest can be a significant barrier to ICT use. The aforementioned digital culture study also revealed that 29% of survey respondents who don’t use the Internet said that “they don’t need it, they don’t see the utility, or it doesn’t serve them.” (63) According to Intel’s 2013 Women and the Web study, a third of female non-users worldwide have a desktop computer in their home. (64) This demonstrates, as many have noted, that the issue of access is becoming secondary to the issue of use and motivation. (65) 

The model below helps illustrate how access, capacity, motivation and use interact in order for the benefits of ICTs to be realized: once individuals have access to ICTs, they must be motivated and have the capacity to use them.  

Landerman Image 1

To complicate matters further, not all use is created equal. Some users are online for hours a day, feel a mastery of technology and feel confident searching, leveraging networks, acquiring information and accessing services. Some users conduct banking, get degrees and run businesses online. It would be inaccurate to equate these users with individuals who have highly limited digital literacy and experience, or those who simply sign into Facebook or check sports scores occasionally.

Some researchers have proposed a scale that distinguishes between recreational use (such as emailing or entertainment) and use that increase one’s capital – either their economic welfare (e.g., skill-enhancement, learning about employment opportunities, consumer information or education) or political or social capital (using the Internet to follow the news, gather information relevant to electoral decision-making, learn about public issues, engage in civic dialogue or take part in social-movement activities). (66)

The lines between these categories can be blurry: emailing itself can be a capital-enhancing activity if one’s future job relies on email ability. Similarly, searching for music online for entertainment can give one a level of comfort and confidence with online searches that translates into a job skill, or helps one later search for political information or health services. Studies have also found evidence to suggest that computer games, generally considered a recreational activity, can be a source of informal learning about ICTs and motivate innovation in using technology. (67)

In general, when touting the “revolutionary potential” of ICTs for development, advocates and policymakers specifically mention health, political participation and business-related activities, and thus it makes sense to pay special attention to these activities.

In Colombia, surveys revealed that instant messaging, emailing and viewing and sharing photos, videos, profiles and comments were the most common activities among Internet users. (68) Only 9% of Internet users reported having looked for work-related information in the past 24 hours, and 37% had done it ever. (69)

Women were behind men in every category of online use, and rural Colombians were behind their urban counterparts by up to 19 percentage points. (70)

Barriers and Facilitators of Success

In moving from access to benefits, the following factors were identified as barriers or facilitators for Colombian women and girls:


The following factors created barriers to Colombian women and girls’ progression from access to benefits.

Barrier 1: Infrastructure Access

Despite the progress made by MinTIC over the last four years, including connecting the vast majority of Colombia to the Internet, many citizens, particularly in rural, Indigenous and conflict-affected zones, continue to lack access to the Internet, consistent service and even basic electricity. One Colombian volunteer from Engineers Without Borders commented that, in a program for small municipalities to win a sustainable-energy source for their town, all towns that applied – more than 20 total – had previously received free computers from Computadores para Educar, a MinTIC-sponsored initiative, but none had electricity with which to run them. This example illustrates not only the ongoing need for infrastructure, but also the challenge government agencies face in coordinating with each other to provide public services and utilities that are fundamental to ICT access and use.

Even in urban capitals like Bogotá, infrastructure can still be an issue. For women living in the parts of the city where sidewalks and highways suddenly give way to dirt paths and mountainous ravines, even traveling to the nearest Equal Opportunity Center for Women to use a computer is inconvenient and unrealistic. And the lack of security and shortage of public space in those women’s neighborhoods combined to make it impossible to install a neighborhood access point nearby.

Barrier 2: Cultural and Social Factors

Traditional gender roles that render women responsible for domestic duties create barriers to women’s ICT utilization in Colombia. According to the Colombian Ministry of Labor, in addition to working between 30 and 40 hours per week outside the home, Colombian women work five to eight hours a day within the home, caring for children, the elderly, cooking, cleaning and doing other uncompensated domestic work. (71)

Olga Paz, Administrative Coordinator of Colnodo, a digital education non-profit arm of MinTIC, explained that Colombian women fill a triple role: “we are moms, caretakers of the elderly and workers – we lead public life and community life.” On average, this leaves Colombian women with 18 to 25 fewer hours of free time per week. This shortage of free time can diminish women’s motivation to learn, experiment with and utilize ICTs. “We could say that women, we had noticed, excluded themselves from technology and in most telecenters,” said Paz.

In addition to quantifiable responsibilities, cultural attitudes also impede women’s ability to access and meaningfully use ICTs. “Cultural issues, the issues of sexism, are very strong, so women themselves – I think we are victims of it and don’t even realize the extent of it,” explained Maria Fernanda Ardila Lopez, MinTIC’s subdirector of digital culture. Latent sexist attitudes not only shape women’s motivation and capacities for ICT, but can also contribute to hostile environments and physical threats.

Violence against women is a top concern in Colombia, where, in 2010, 37% of women reported intimate partner violence, and 6% reported rape by someone other than their partner. (72) In Bogotá, gender-based violence was identified as the number one priority of women at one Equal Opportunity Center for Women. Gender-based violence prevents women from leaving their homes, pursuing their education and generally participating fully in society. It is a barrier to access, capacity and motivation with regards to reaping the benefits of ICTs.

Barrier 3: Education

Overall, national statistics do not suggest a significant gender gap with regards to education in Colombia. According to 2012 UNICEF data, 98.7% of females age 15-24 are literate, compared to 97.8% of males. (73) Females are as likely or more likely to attend secondary school, and female adult literacy rates are on par with those of males. (74) However, this does not mean that gender and education do not intersect in ways that inhibit women’s realization of the benefits of ICTs. Lack of free time, as demonstrated above, can inhibit digital education because it reduces time that could be spent on learning. And stories from the field demonstrate that women do not always possess the same digital capacity or literacy as men.

For example, one project manager for Inalambria, a mobile technology company that partnered with the Colombian Ministry of Agriculture, encountered important differences in literacy and digital literacy between men and women. In a survey of agricultural producers participating in the project, the manager learned that female participants, more so than men,  often struggled to access and read the text messages they received as part of the program. These rural women often relied on their husbands or children to relay information about crop prices and climate conditions that arrived via text message courtesy of Inalambria and the Ministry of Agriculture. This difference in literacy and digital literacy created barriers for female agricultural producers when participating in the text messaging program.

MinTIC’s Ardila Lopez has no doubt that low levels of digital literacy do in fact limit the extent to which Colombian women can realize the potential benefits of ICTs. “We’ve come a long way, we’ve trained a lot of women in digital literacy. But there’s a lot of hard work to be done, and it has to be done, we have to teach women to manage technology.”

Ardila Lopez explained that in 2012, a highly successful social media campaign in response to a violent murder helped female leaders recognize the importance of technology for scaling their campaigns. “With regards to gender, a switch was flipped. Women's organizations realized the importance of social media networks in violence prevention.”

However, Ardila Lopez lamented that overall, digital literacy remains a major barrier. “The fact that they are on social networks does not mean they are digitally literate. They are on Facebook, but we must teach them every chance they can have on social networks, all the impact that they may have.”

Barrier 4: Financial Resources

In the Colombian Digital Culture survey, 55% of non-Internet users reported not using the Internet because they do not  have a device. (75) 26% said they cannot afford Internet service. According to the Tech Tracker survey, 25.5% of those without Internet at home say it is because it is expensive, and 16% say they cannot afford it. (76) Data was not available on whether women responded with cost-related concerns with equal frequency as men. However, economic class intersects with gender in ways that are relevant to the cost of Internet access and technology ownership. In Colombia, women’s salaries are lower than men’s by 7% to 11%. (77) This means that women have fewer resources to spend on ICTs. In addition, global trends suggest women are less likely to spend their incomes on things for themselves, due to their high familial responsibilities. All of these financial factors impede women’s ability to access the benefits of ICTs.

Barrier 5: Motivation

“Me, what am I going to use it for? I’m very old. It’s not going to serve my housework. This is going to add one more task to the multitasking I already have to do.” These were just some of Colombian women’s explanations for not using technology, according to research workshops conducted by MinTIC via Colnodo. This sentiment was further validated in Colombia’s 2013 digital culture study, which revealed that 29% of survey respondents who don’t use the Internet said that “they don’t need it, they don’t see the utility, or it doesn’t serve them.” This data clearly demonstrated lack of motivation to utilize technology.

While some Colombians demonstrate lack of motivation to use technology whatsoever, others revealed motivation to use technology for a very narrow set of purposes. “We struggled a lot to show the beneficial uses women and men could make of technology, because they had a very strong stereotypes – that women were entering technology and the Internet searching for gossip or to find boyfriends, and men were looking for porn or finding football. So we tried to knock those stereotypes and say, ‘no, see all the things we can do with the Internet, and all the economic, social, educational opportunities we can get through technology?’” 

This limited conception of the utility of ICTs does not align with the vision of revolutionary potential espoused by international policymakers and the objectives set out by MinTIC, and could have a great deal to do with the lack of interest and utility 29% of Colombians express with regards to ICTs. Studies have shown that limited perceptions of the use of ICTs can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: people tend to utilize technology based on how they perceive potential benefits. 

Observations in Colombia supported this theory: computer browser histories showed that computers were primarily used for homework assignments, fact-finding and recreational activities like sports and entertainment searches.

Many Colombians at one research site café reported believing that computers and ICTs are primarily for students to do their homework, and observations supported this idea. “They come to study, review the Internet for their homework, copy what they need, and if they can’t finish copying the information down, they print it,” reported one telecenter employee of the majority of traffic at her workplace. This would suggest that many Colombians do not use ICTs for the capital-enhancing activities envisioned by MinTIC because they assume computers are only for students.


The following factors helped facilitate Colombian women and girls’ progression from access to benefits.

Facilitator 1: Trained Digital Educators

As with traditional education, quality instructors can make a huge difference in motivation and capacity to learn and utilize ICTs. For this reason, MinTIC and Colnodo have made large-scale efforts to train and prepare administrators of government-sponsored telecenters to educate and inspire users. “We found ourselves with telecenter managers who didn’t even know how to attach a file to an email because no one had given them the expertise, the guidance,” recounted Olga Paz from Colnodo. “So in addition to installing the centers, we had to first strengthen the people administering them.”

In many cases, the intensive training has paid off: government telecenter emlpoyees often exhibit enthusiam and dedication beyond private internet café staff, and that energy is, at times, contagious. At one of Bogotá’s Equal Opportunity Centers for Women, the computer lab was being used by a diverse collection of women who were actively engaged in learning. This was in great contrast to many private Internet cafes where staff displayed bored or annoyed expressions. In general, many private Internet cafés employ administrative staff whose primary responsible is to manage business operations and provide basic explanations, and do not actively engage in educating users. 

Facilitator 2: Empowered Intermediaries

It is  not just formal educators who fill the important role of teaching and motivating new ICT users: according to Colombian survey data, only 41% of Colombians learned to use the Internet at an educational institution, and 32% learned from a friend or family member. (78) In addition, 63% of Colombians reported having taught someone else to use the Internet or applications. (79) For this reason, supporting regular citizens as intermediaries to help facilitate ICT learning and use holds enormous potential for impact.

One of MinTIC’s most successful projects, Redvolución (a play on the Spanish words for web and revolution), capitalized on this potential. The campaign provided limited training for high school students and average citizens to help introduce other Colombians to the Internet for the first time, and succeeded in bringing nearly 30,000 first-time users online. (80) Learning from organizations or individuals from one’s own community has been shown to be more effective than learning from outsiders and is  encouraged by the UN as a best practice in using ICT for development. (81) In 2014, Redvolución was recognized as an international example of success at the World Summit on the Information Society.

Facilitator 3: Focusing on Users’ Individual Needs and Interests (82)

A large part of the success of the Redvolución campaign lays in the fact that it uses an individual’s interests, hobbies and motivations as the basis of online exploration. Through an easy-to-use online portal, first-time users explore videos and websites on topics like art, beauty and sports. The guiding questions that volunteers pose to users are “What do you like? What are you interested in? What do you do for fun?” While this meant online navigation for many involved recreational, rather than capital-enhancing activities, this does not mean there was not  overlap. One manicurist, for example, used the Internet to look up new nail designs. This activity was both recreational and work-related, as it helped her enhance the quality of her services. By focusing on existing individual interests, the Redvolución campaign tapped into users’ motivations and leveraged them in the online space.

In addition to users’ interests, successful projects were ones that were adapted to address a variety of distinct user needs. Olga Paz for Colnodo commented that “we have worked hard in recent years to produce educational content according to the needs of each population, and very oriented towards the uses and adoption that each population might have for technology.” They’ve also adapted educational training schedules to the needs of local women, recognizing the many demands on women’s time. As a result, Colnodo has greatly increased the impact of its centers on women’s lives: “we realize that, yes, they have changed the lives of many women who can, for example, access an employment opportunity that they did not have, an educational opportunity through a virtual training course, or a chance to generate their own business.” According to Paz, without focusing on the individual needs of women, these results would not have been possible.

Facilitator 4: Keeping the Focus Local

Initiatives aiming to boost access, capacity and motivation were more successful when they focused on a well-defined local population, rather than trying to be a universal catch-all. The previously mentioned collaboration between Inalambria, a technology company in Bogotá, and the Colombian Ministry of Agriculture provides key insight into the importance of local focus in ICT development projects. In the first phase of the project, Colombian farmers received daily information on agricultural prices and local climate conditions via text message , based on their geographic location and agricultural production profile. But when the pilot project was scaled up to the national level, many of the elements that made it successful at the local level were lost: for example, users received monthly text messages, rather than daily ones. This greatly reduced the utility of the information, especially with regards to climate, since monthly messages could offer very little, if any, precise information. When the project lost its local focus, it also lost its user perspective, and with it the bulk of its utility. (83)

Facilitator 5: Participatory Methods

Colnodo was able to increase the women’s utilization of government telecenters after a highly participatory gender evaluation that included a two-way dialogue with communities, after which community feedback became the basis of future interventions. (84) “We were doing interviews, we did focus groups, and we worked to identify which uses were men and women making of the Internet,” said Paz. Paz also emphasized the importance of  women’s participation in all phases of projects, including designing projects to promote the presence of women in both team coordination and implementation. This community participation heightens the relevance of ICT projects, because target populations take ownership of and invest in ICT initiatives and increase the odds of positive results.

Facilitator 6: Weaving High-Tech and Low-Tech Solutions (85)

The initially successful collaboration between the Ministry of Agriculture and Inalambria also sheds light on the importance of weaving high-tech and low-tech tools to help citizens access the benefits of ICTs. In the initial phase of the project, the list of recipients for the informational text messages was drawn from contact databases of small, local organizations that serve agricultural producers. This low-cost, simple outreach strategy helped the Ministry reach the right people, and effectively blended offline networks into the technology project.

However, when the project was scaled up to a national level, a more high-tech enrollment strategy was used: online registry. While this tactic may have seemed more efficient to some, it actually had the opposite of the desired effect, because much of the target population did not have Internet access or high levels of digital literacy. In short, very few potential users became part of the program, and the most vulnerable and isolated – those who could potentially benefit the most from the informational program – were the least engaged. By shifting to a higher tech option, the national project chose a technology strategy that was not appropriate for its context. It could have been more successful if it continued to weave high-tech and low-tech methods, both online and offline.


ICTs are, by definition, information tools, and access to information is just one part of empowerment. (86) It is critical to keep in mind that ICTs are embedded into existing social, economic, political and cultural systems, and that information tools alone cannot do all of the work. We should not let the means – digital technology – overshadow the goal of social and economic development.

Scholars like Mark Warschauer have argued that the digital divide framework itself overemphasizes the presence of computers and connectivity, to the exclusion of the social factors that they are intended to address. (87) Warschauer reminds us that “from a policy standpoint, the goal of using ICT with marginalized groups is not to overcome a digital divide, but rather to further a process of social inclusion. To accomplish this, it is necessary to focus on the transformation, not the technology.” (88) As Warschauer and others point out, the road to transformation requires a restructuring of power and of relationships. 

Writer Evgeny Morozov has warned of the dangers of “technological solutionism,” that “in promising almost immediate and much cheaper results, [technological solutions] can easily undermine support for more ambitious, more intellectually stimulating, but also more demanding reform projects.” (89)

We can heed Warschauer and Morozov’s advice while still incorporating ICTs into development solutions. Technology alone cannot fix Colombia’s education system, its gender disparities or its extreme income inequality. Those problems require hard work on a number of fronts. But technology can help. Access, capacity, motivation and meaningful use are critical steps in the road towards transformation. But to truly empower women on Colombia, MinTIC must work together with other Ministries to ensure that women not only have access to ICTs themselves, but to the avenues in which to use them to transform their own lives. Only then will the revolutionary potential of ICTs truly be realized.


 •     •     • 

About the Author

Jessie Landerman is a master in public policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She serves as the Chair of the Student-Faculty Diversity Committee and the Chair of Media Advocacy for the Human Rights Professional Interest Council. Jessie has also worked as a documentary filmmaker and a human rights advocate in Argentina, Nicaragua and the United States. She is a Humanity in Action Senior Fellow (Diplomacy and Diversity 2014).


Landerman, Jessie. "Information and Communications Technologies for Development: The Case of Women in Colombia." In Transatlantic Perspectives on Diplomacy and Diversity, edited by Anthony Chase, 153-169. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2015.


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