Harnessing digital technology for health and education: Digital technologies can play a vital role in helping Africa to improve its education and health services, but only if policymakers pay far greater attention to the systems necessary for delivering them.

Author:Ndulu, Benno
Position:Perspective
 
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As digital technologies develop at lightning speed, it becomes possible to imagine new kinds of health and education services in Africa.

In this vision, health workers use intelligently gathered data to pinpoint the most vulnerable people and deliver personalised preventative care and treatment. Teachers can track whether and how students are learning. This smart system is cost effective, efficient and inclusive.

In this narrative, technology can help us to re-imagine health and education as key drivers of human capital, creating the healthy, tech-savvy workforce for the jobs of tomorrow. But can this vision really become a reality?

It is well known that sub-Saharan Africa lags well behind on its health and education investments, as evidenced in the World Bank's Human Capital Index. The result is that, despite making progress--in reducing deaths of children under five, for example--improvements are still far too slow. Africa still accounts for more than half the global deaths of children under five. Similarly, one in every 183 African mothers die in pregnancy or childbirth, compared to one in 10,000 in OECD countries.

Bridging these gaps--and the wide inequalities within African countries--is critical if we are to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is also a key focus of the African Union's Agenda 2063 that aims to transform Africa into "the powerhouse of the future".

But turning around our struggling public health and education systems will take much more than just throwing money at the problem. Studies show that countries can spend wildly varying amounts on health care and yet achieve the same results. Child mortality rates in Madagascar and South Africa are about the same, although health expenditure per capita in South Africa is 19 times higher than in Madagascar.

Much hope--and money--is being invested in the promise of digital technologies. The continent is replete with launches and pilots of impressive sounding startups that promise to transform schooling and healthcare. The trouble is, few of them have actually proven they can deliver impact at scale.

Costly fixes

A new report from the Pathways for Prosperity Com mission explores the potential for the use of technology to cause positive disruption in health and education. It concludes that policymakers are too easily dazzled by the allure of costly technological fixes when they would do better to look at the entire delivery systems needed to support...

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