This week, I met Professor Iqbal Quadir, the founder of Grameenphone, at Net Change—a week-long event in Toronto that explores the exciting intersection between technology and social change. Professor Quadir’s well-known quip, “connectivity is productivity” is perhaps most relevant to youth in developing countries because they are early adopters of technology. Connectivity has great potential for promoting youth education, entrepreneurship and social innovation.

From Nairobi to Dakar to the West Bank, young people have grasped the power of connectivity. They are adept at using mobile phones and computers to access information, develop ideas and engage their peers. Technology is helping youth develop 21st century skills and enter the job market. For example, Souktel is connecting employers and job seekers in the Middle East through a mobile platform that matches SMS versions of job postings and CVs. iEARN is enabling young people worldwide to engage in peer-to-peer learning. 

Young African entrepreneurs are also leveraging the collaborative nature of Web 2.0 to develop and disseminate knowledge. For example, Timbuktu Chronicles showcases innovations created by Africans who are applying entrepreneurship, technology and science to promote development for the continent. Ushahidi, a website originally created to map post-election violence in Kenya in 2008, has evolved into a global platform to collect and display information, especially during crisis situations. Examples such as these demonstrate how young people are using technology to build social capital and solve problems in their communities.

Despite its potential, investment in technology in developing countries is sometimes derided as a distraction from the real problems of poverty alleviation. Clearly, technology in of itself is not a solution. It facilitates knowledge and innovation to advance social progress. At our foundation, we examine how technology enables people living in poverty, especially youth, to participate in their local economy and communities.

In order to be effective, technology must be relevant. Does it support the learning and earning needs of young people? Is it user-friendly? Does it address the gender digital divide? Although costs of connectivity are decreasing, issues of affordability and access in poor communities still need to be overcome.

“Digital citizenship” and connectivity are opening up new avenues to tap into the creativity, inventiveness and enterprise of youth to address the major issues of their time—namely the creation of educational and economic opportunities. And after all, it is youth themselves who will be making it happen.