From the 80s to Present: A Brief History of ICT4D and Digital Development

Last updated April 11, 2023

The early days of information and communications technologies for development (ICT4D)

Technologies always played a role in development all around the world. The UNESCO defines Information and communication technologies (ICT) as a “diverse set of technological tools and resources used to transmit, store, create, share or exchange information.”

The earliest ICT was the radio, broadcasting information to even the most remote corners of the world, long before the internet. Even today, it remains a popular and crucial channel for disseminating information.

Photo by jkebbie -

Photo by jkebbie -

Richard Heeks describes the time before the 1990s as the pre-digital paradigm, stating, "ICTs were increasingly available but initially ignored by the development mainstream." One reason was the significant imbalance in access to new technologies and high costs during the '80s and '90s. While some larger organizations experimented with management information systems, personal computers were introduced at a slow pace. However, there were some early developments, such as the “The Pan African Development Information System (PADIS)”, a cooperative regional development information system established in January 1980. PADIS achieved email connections in over 10 countries during the '80s. In 1982, Mike Jensen established one of the first online messaging systems in Africa, but it wasn't until 1993 that the first dial-up connection by the French research agency ORSTOM enabled African countries to join the internet.

Maitland Report - Missing Link report ITU

For David Souter the Maitland Report by the ITU titled the “Missing Link” could be seen as the origin of ICT4D. The report showed how access to telecommunications correlates with economic growth, but also drew international attention to the huge imbalance around access between developed and developing countries. Souter also sees the 80s as an “indifference phase”, where ICTs were not playing any role.

Geoff Walsham examines ICT4D research to identify its inception. Early beginnings can be traced back to the mid-1980s, with initial evidence of ICT4D research in the form of substantial amounts of formal research published in peer-reviewed journals or conferences. For instance, the journal Information Technology for Development (ITD) published its inaugural volume in 1986. Back then, the commonly used term was "information systems."

For Walsham, a significant milestone was a conference in 1988 in Delhi, titled "Social Implications of Information Systems in Developing Countries." Most notable were the three main themes of the conference, which remain highly relevant topics today:

  • The emphasis on indigenous development (The high importance of local knowledge and a multilingual internet)
  • Recognizing IT as just one component of change efforts (ICTs as a means to an end)

In South America, Tadao Takahashi initiated one of the earliest academic networks in Brazil in 1989, which became a driving force in building a backbone as the foundation of the Brazilian internet. In 1990, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) was founded. Over the past decades, APC has been an influential civil society player, particularly in the area of internet governance.

ICT4D - the 90s until the mid 2000s

Global Internet Connectivity 1995

Source: [Internetology](

A breakthrough for ICT4D occurred with the invention of the World Wide Web in 1990. In 1993, Egypt became one of the first African countries to gain full internet access. Throughout the 1990s, all African countries obtained full internet access. Early organizations, such as the World Bank, engaged with the topic, as demonstrated by the 1998 World Development Report titled "Knowledge for Development." During this time, the World Bank also launched the African Virtual University. The report highlights the significance of knowledge for development, as well as the risks and opportunities presented by the information revolution for developing countries. In 1996, DFID held its first meeting to discuss "whether information technology was relevant for development" (Source: Souter). Around the same time, the first organizations focusing on ICTs were established, such as the IICD in the Netherlands.

The nineties and early 2000s were marked by immense enthusiasm for the internet. "This new enthusiasm reached a climax in the World Summit on the Information Society (2003-2005), when the ICT industry and ICT4D advocates joined to promote their new technologies as core solutions to developmental challenges," (Souter). To this day, WSIS serves as an important platform for discussing frequently overlooked topics related to internet participation, digital rights, and broader discussions about the global policy of the digital society. However, despite the enthusiasm, internet access remained a significant challenge during these years, with the first subsea cable connecting Western Africa to the global internet only in 2001.

ICT4D Publication over time

Despite WSIS and the enthusiasm, many organizations still did not view the internet as strategically relevant. For instance, the Web2fordev conference in 2007 remained a niche event, attended solely by early pioneers experimenting with new digital methods for collaboration and participatory innovation. "Development professionals outside ICT4D remained wary of technology-led 'solutions' to deep-seated, complex human, economic, social, and environmental challenges they'd spent decades learning to understand and address," (Souter). However, at least three developments would alter this perception:

  1. The exponential growth of mobile phones
  2. The emergence and proliferation of social media platforms
  3. The Arab Spring revolution, which also played out online

Information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) have been the predominant term since the beginning, and they remain relevant to this day, as evidenced by published research documents. From the outset, the term ICT4D has been used by only a minority of practitioners. One reason for this is that ICTs are always a means to an end. In most development projects, the use of ICTs is not specifically labeled as ICT4D. This could be one reason why the term ICT4D has been declining in popularity over time, at least in terms of Google search queries. Instead a variety of alternative terms have emerged, including ICTD, M4D (Mobile for Development), ICT4Health, ICT4Ag, Web2ForDev, and edtech, among others. These terms represent the diverse range of applications for technology within development contexts.

ICT4D Searches over time

However, many challenges still remain in this field. One of the biggest challenges is the lack of internet access. Despite 95% of people worldwide living in an area that is in reach of at least mobile internet, more than 3 billion people still have no access to the internet. This lack of access can limit opportunities for education, employment, and other essential services that rely on the internet. On the bright side, there is a trend of more people coming online every day. On average, there were 640,000 people online for the first time each day in the last five years. This is an encouraging trend, but there is still a long way to go to bridge the digital divide.

Another challenge is the high cost of data rates and smartphones essential for internet access, relative to income in many parts of the world. Furthermore, digital literacy remains a critical issue, particularly given the speed at which new technologies emerge, and the potential use cases. Moreover, the gender digital divide is also a concern. Women have less access to the internet than men and are less likely to be able to use critical services such as mobile banking.

Timeline Digital Development

  1. 1980

    First International Conference on Computers and Development

    Held in India, marking the beginning of the ICT4D movement in developing countries.

  2. 1981

    First World Bank-funded ICT project

    Investigating the potential of using computers in developing countries.

  3. 1983

    First connection to the Internet in Indonesia

    The first connection to the Internet in Indonesia was established.

  4. 1986

    First telecenter established

    Providing public access to computers in Brazil.

  5. 1991

    World Wide Web launched

    Making the internet accessible to a wider audience.

  6. 1996

    Digital Opportunity Task Force established

    By the United Nations to address the digital divide the global digital divide.

  7. 1996

    First mobile network launched in South Africa

    Marking the beginning of the mobile telecommunications industry in Africa.

  8. 1997

    Launch of the African Virtual University

    Providing online courses in 17 African countries.

  9. 1998

    Free Software and Open Source Foundation

    The Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA) is founded, with the aim of promoting the use of open source software.

  10. 1999

    MercadoLibre launched

    An e-commerce platform in Argentina, becoming one of the largest online retailers in Latin America.

  11. 2000

    First submarine fiber optic cable installed

    Along the west coast of Africa, providing high-speed internet connectivity for the continent.

  12. 2000

    First 3G network launched

    In Japan, which enabled faster mobile internet access.

  13. 2002

    World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Geneva

    The first phase aimed to establish foundations for an inclusive Information Society by fostering political will and taking concrete steps that reflect all interests.

  14. 2002

    Controversial One Laptop Per Child initiative launched

    Providing low-cost laptops to children in developing countries with the goal of increasing digital access and education.

  15. 2004

    Orkut launched in India

    Orkut, a social networking site, was launched in India and became very popular in the country.

  16. 2004

    GCASH in the Philippines

    Introduction of a mobile money service for digital remittances.

  17. 2005

    World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Tunis

    The objective of the second phase was to put Geneva's Plan of Action into motion as well as to find solutions and reach agreements in the fields of Internet governance and financing mechanisms.

  18. 2005


    The popular Ubuntu operating system, based on the Debian Linux distribution, is launched.

  19. 2007

    Ushahidi launched

    A non-profit technology company in Kenya to create an open source platform for crowdsourced crisis mapping.

  20. 2007

    MXit launched

    A mobile social network in South Africa, becoming one of the most popular social media platforms in the country.

  21. 2007

    Reuters Market Light (RML) launched

    A mobile market information system in India.

  22. 2007

    iPhone introduced

    Revolutionizing the smartphone market and starting the mobile web revolution.

  23. 2008

    Despegar launched

    An online travel agency in Argentina, becoming one of the largest travel platforms in Latin America.

  24. 2008

    M-Pesa launched

    The first mobile money transfer service in Kenya, providing a new financial service for those who did not have access to traditional banks.

  25. 2010

    Indonesia's first unicorn company founded

    Gojek, Indonesia's first unicorn company, was founded as a ride-hailing and logistics platform.

  26. 2010

    The Arab Spring

    a series of uprisings and protests across the Middle East, were partially organized through social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, demonstrating the power of social media in developing countries.

  27. 2010


    a digital bank, was launched in Brazil, providing an alternative to traditional banks in the country.

  28. 2012


    a streaming platform for Nollywood movies, was launched in Nigeria, becoming a popular source of entertainment in Africa.

  29. 2013

    Facebook reaches 1 billion users

    demonstrating the widespread use of social media also in the global South.

  30. 2014

    Mobile Money

    The number of mobile money accounts worldwide surpassed one billion, according to the GSM Association.

  31. 2014


    an e-commerce platform, was launched in Nigeria, becoming one of the largest online retailers in Africa.

  32. 2014


    a delivery and logistics platform, was launched in Colombia, becoming one of the most successful startups in the country.

  33. 2015


    a payments infrastructure company, was launched in Nigeria to help businesses process online payments in Africa.

  34. 2016


    a drone delivery startup, was launched in Rwanda to provide medical supplies to remote areas of the country.

  35. 2016

    World Bank Digital Dividends report

    The World Bank released the report Digital Dividends report analyzing the far reaching effects of the digital transformation.

  36. 2017

    Reliance Jio launches in India

    Reliance Jio, a mobile network operator in India, launches and disrupts the telecommunications industry in the country with its low-priced data plans.

  37. 2018

    OPay starts in Nigeria

    founded by Opera Software, is a mobile payments and ride-hailing platform.

  38. 2019

    Digital divide

    continued to be a challenge, with over 3 billion people still lacking access to the internet, most of whom reside in developing countries.

  39. 2019

    Africa-focused venture capital firms

    raised over $2 billion for investment in African startups.