The funny thing about ICTs and Development (and mostly everything else in this world) is that just when you think things are plugging along, you get the rug pulled out from under you and have to re-think everything.
A couple of weeks ago, I was heading off to the ICT for Rural Development (ICT4RD) Conference in Johannesburg. Before I left, I got an invitation from Ken Banks to participate in an ”ICT4D Postcard” project, which I thought was a nice idea. I took a moment to find a photo and pen a few lines and went on my merry way to Joburg.
Little did I know that several of the key thinkers and writers in the ”ICT4D” space were going to deconstruct the concept over the next fortnight in a flurry of sometimes harsh and pointed, always thoughtful posts.
“…the future is going to be a surprise and tying the notion of development to a particular mode of technology [eg., the mobile phone] is as bad an idea now as it was in 1999” and “Mobile operators have entrenched themselves with development agencies as the saviours of access … what the mobile operators have achieved through this embrace is the effective sidetracking of debates about competition and affordability.”
Then Ken’s ICT4D Postcards post goes up, and no more do I look at it and have a think about the photos and captions, then Erik Hersman (White African) throws up his rant on The Subtle Condescension of ICT4D, which gets the whole ICT4D-slash-anti-ICT4D world in a tizzy and which has a lot of good, strong points, like:
”I was recently discussing this term with one of my Kenyan tech friends, where he stated, ’I always picture a team from the UN putting up toilets in Uganda when I hear of ICT4D’” and ”It also feels like [ICT4D] is how international NGOs are trying to stay relevant, by creating a new department and new initiatives that the big funders will buy into and support (themselves to stay relevant). Ask yourself, how many ICT4D projects in Africa are more than pilot projects? How many are just Westerner organizations parachuting in, which have no hope of staying alive beyond the time and funds put in by their organization? Sounds like the same old ’aid story’ to me.”
Erik closes with “We have to thinking less of ICT as something that’s about development, and more of it as a commercial venture. We need more focus on ICT4$ than ICT4D.”
And I am left thinking, well very much yes! …and also, sort of no…. But I can’t get straight in my mind what makes me hesitate. Maybe it’s that in my experience, not all ’development’ initiatives are the stereotypical foreigners parachuting in with new gadgets? Or maybe it’s because I am super wary of the trickle-down economic growth model and I think that the world needs something different?
”I don’t think we’re going to move off ICT4D as the default compound term, at least for a while. But I like these discussions and think it is important for the community to have them from time to time…probably quite frequently since the field/ community of practice is increasingly methodologically diverse, and growing. The conversations are not easy as some might like them to be, but that is because they are about a “compound” community. Regular bouts of reflection are not just navel gazing – they should help us remain reflective, careful, and precise in the use of the terms we use to describe what we do and why we do it.”
Followed by Wayan Vota who pops in with the Challenge of Defining ICT4D or Why Erik Hersman is ICT4$, whereby he defines ICT4D and ICT4$ as two wholly different industries. Projects can be ICT4D and ICT4$, neither approach is perfect and there is plenty of failure in both, and the 2 should be symbiotic, he says.
“Let us not confuse two whole different uses of ICT. In the tech start up world, ICT is a means to make money. Software developers code products like MXit or M-PESA and hope to sell them at a profit to to venture capital funders and people that are currently under served by the market place. The focus is on $. This is ICT4$ and they should be proud of their efforts.
In the international development world, ICT is used to deliver education, healthcare, etc more efficiently. We have great products like FrontlineSMS, ChildCount+, and Ushahidi, and sell them to donor funders so we can deliver them free or subsidized to those under served by government or in market failure situations. The focus is on impact versus $. This is ICT4D, and I am proud to use the term.
Notice the different focus. In no way should a tech startup and its funders seeking to maximize profit seek to work in ICT4D, just like it would be laughable for a development organization (funder or implementer) to run a tech startup to be the next Facebook.”
Not to be left out, one of the top critics of ICT4D, the ICT4D Jester, pipes in on the stupidity of any acronym that sounds like a Prince Song [I wholeheartedly agree!]. He gets to the political heart of the discussion about ICT4D and ICT4$ in his post ICT *or* Development, Part 3: The Jester Meets the White African:
”The underlying issue is a deep one that goes straight to the heart of economic development. To compress the last century of economic history into a nutshell,* countries that attempted centralized socialism lost to capitalist countries in the contest to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible.…
In the last few decades, however, countries like the United States have been running the experiment of rampant free-market capitalism. Among other things, this led to the dramatic financial crash of 2007-2008, a population unable to wean itself off of resource consumption, and increased inequality, not only economically but also in terms of health, education, and well-being. If that’s what happens under what could be argued is the closest thing to a “pure” free-market capitalism, any reasonable person should be reconsidering the lesson of the Cold War victory.”
The Jester goes on to explain that ”progressive activity” is necessary to counterbalance capitalism and mitigate the inequality caused by capitalism and that ICT4D in practice tends to embrace this progressive side of things.
“ICT4$ is needed, but someone also needs to focus on D. (The Jester, of course, does not necessarily say that D should proceed via ICT4D!)”
He sums up with, “Yes, ICT4D is a four-letter word (with a number), but wear it proudly in your progressive technology activities, and cast it off – way,way off – for your for-profit ones. Meanwhile, don’t forget that the world needs both types of activity. Of course, the one thing you can’t do is split yourself in two. And, that, perhaps, is another reason why it’s so difficult to make a profit and serve a poor population simultaneously.”
David Kobia continues in his post ICT4D Cont (first acknowledging that he’s ’whipping a dead horse’) that ”ICT4D and indeed then [sic] term ICT in general in this breakneck environment has come to symbolize access to technology at the lowest rung – basically a booster seat at the table with the adults. He asks, ”Is there a very remote chance that the role of technology in development has been slightly overemphasized?”
And Tony Roberts chimes in with his own Rant In Defense of ICT4D, where he joins the Jester in pointing out that the ’free’ market hasn’t done anyone [eg., the 99%] any favors in the ”developed” or the “developing” world.
”The problem with relying on commerce is that the ‘free’ market is fundamentally flawed; for 300 years it has abjectly failed to meet the needs of millions of people at the periphery. Whilst elites in capital cities enjoy relative opulence, marginalised communities are unable to secure adequate nutrition, basic healthcare or human rights. These divides continue to widen. In response people form not-for-profit organisations to have their voices heard and their community development needs addressed; sometimes employing ICT for these Developmental ends. Not-for-profits exist because of the failure of markets.
ICT4$ alone is not capable of fixing this problem….
When communities refuse to accept injustice and deprivation and form associations of solidarity with those at risk we should give them our respect. If they seek practical assistance in applying ICT for Development we should offer whatever assistance we are able. There will often be a positive role for ICT in community development.
ICT4D alone, of course, is not capable of fixing the system.”
In addition to all the blog posts that Erik’s provocative post spawned, there are some great points made in the comments section:
For example, Paul comments (and I summarize)
”Left to its own devices, ’ICT4$’ will mostly chase the same set of rich urban market users, just as the bulk of SV consumer startups chase the same demographics…. So, yeah, make these things follow commercial logic and thereby sustainable, but the answer is not to deprecate the ’D’ in favor of the ’$’. Both need to be kept in mind because a rising tide raises all Gini coefficients…. Local capacity, sure, but that isn’t always the cheapest/fastest way to do it (which is what commercial logic would dictate). Again, to care about advanced capacity building, you have to care about the ’D’.”
(@hapee) Hapee says ”To me the container ICT4D is useful as a hashtag for twitter, as a common ground for research and practitioners, social movements and ngos still play a role as do active citizens, open source is still an alternative used to prevent closed source standards and the market is still something to be very careful about because the driving force of profit is not the same as creating change.”
So. Much. To. Think. About.
It’s a really messy world out there and the field [formerly known as?] ”ICT4D” is no exception. The issues being wrestled with are much broader than ICT and D. I’ve picked out points and angles that resonated with me from the various posts. I can’t say that any one of the authors is 100% right (nor, probably, would any of them claim to be). Or maybe they are 100% right in certain situations, but not all.
Should International NGOs stop creating dependencies and killing local initiatives? Yes.
Does the ’free’ market allow for dignity and well-being for all? No.
Maybe that is the heart of the question – how to operate in a way that does not create dependency or stifle economic growth but that also does not exclude or marginalize a large part of the population. Maybe it always comes down to that ’capitalist’ vs ’some other kind of inclusive and sustainable growth model’ discussion… And maybe a clearer divide between ICT as a growth sector and ICT-enabled development programs that aim to reach the most marginalized (where the market does not reach) is needed. Or maybe not, if you believe ethical business models can achieve both. (I’m still waiting for those models to become the widespread norm and don’t see it happening any time soon, anywhere).
And what about ICTs as tools to improve civic participation, voice, access to information, transparency, accountability and good governance so that [ideally] exclusion is reduced and resources generated by economic growth (and/or resources allocated to fill the gap where the market fails to reach, or resources designated toward improving services that are/should be provided by government) are better and more honestly allocated… And what about new technologies that support more transparent political and decision making processes? (What is the acronym for those kinds of ICT uses?) Oh, so messy….
In any case, I think the discussion is helpful in raising issues and making us all think more about the terms we use, and the processes and products we support, drive and promote.
If there is one thing the field [formerly know as?] ’ICT4D’ does do, it’s bring together good people who think deeply and who honestly care about how they are contributing to making the world a better place.
Take some time to visit the links and read the full posts if you haven’t yet, they are very much worth it!
16 Nov 2011:
RT @kiwanja: Check out the #BBCClickRadio podcast for a slightly extended debate on the merits of ”#ICT4D” terminology. http://is.gd/HUK37e
David Barnard notes that “there is also more than one real “White African” serious about making a contribution to the future of this continent.”
“These two issues represent different sides to the same coin – but often require very different approaches, and different roleplayers, to achieve the desirable objectives…. Whatever you prefer to call technology is irrelevant – IT / ICT / ICT4D / ICT4RD / M4D/ Tech4Dev, etc. What really matters is the intent, the objectives and the motivation for using it.
But, technology for technology’s stake is downright stupid. Too many technology for development projects and interventions fail because of the emphasis on the technology without understanding the development issue/s and/or what it would take to ensure the implementation of the technology will ultimately achieve success and impact. Too many technology competitions, awards and challenges place too much focus on the development of “more new tools” rather on what has been achieved.”
17 Nov 2011:
RT @mtotowajirani: New blog post: #OccupyTech: Take the money out of tech…and put the impact back in! http://bit.ly/tTAogC #occupy (Wherein Simeon Oriko takes on #ICT4$ with a new slogan – suggested by @noniemg – Take the SH out of IT… ” He says:
“Here’s the bottom line….Unless you are directly making an impact in someone’s life with you apps and all the hustle around them, you’re really doing nothing meaningful. … Money is driving people in totally wrong directions! Sober up and think about it for a second. What’s more meaningful and worth your hustle? Money or impact?”
“The ’4′ places an emphasis on “giving it to you”, and all the issues that brings up regarding donation. I hadn’t really thought about it in that way before, coming from the perspective nicely described by Kleine and Unwin (2009):
Our preferred terminology is ICT4D, in part because it is the most widespread term, but also especially because it places explicit attention on the ‘4’, or what kind of development is being addressed. Rather than the ‘and’ of ICTD, the ‘for’ of ICT4D forces users of the term to confront the moral and political agendas associated with ‘development’. By focusing on the ‘4’ we are forced to make explicit what we mean by ‘development’. The interplay between ‘information’, ‘communication’ and ‘technologies’ for ‘development’ is one that offers considerable intellectual and practical challenges, and it is these that this paper seeks to explore.
Hence, the ’4′ for me is a challenge to think about the nature of inclusivity in my work, the power relations embedded within any intervention and the appropriateness of the technologies used or being developed.”
22 Nov, 2011
kdiga’s reply on ICTDJester’s blog: says we need to ask 4 questions and agree on some principles when invoking ICT4D:
1) Are we attempting to see the reduction of poverty (in all its multiple dimensions?) from the use of ICTD?
2) Are we attempting to see the reduction of inequality?
3) Are we seeing lower numbers in child mortality, an improvement through healthier families, or more student graduating Grade 12 as a result of ICT usage, less environmental degradation – how are we measuring?
4) Are we able to see less lives lost?
23 Nov, 2011
Ian Thorpe’s post “ICT4What” says part of the issue here is that ICT4D is a huge field (and a subset of “technology” which is an even bigger field, and which has absolutely everything to do with “development” – eg, read Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel) and people are talking at cross-purposes and using all different definitions. ‘The development, spread and use of technology is a huge field with lots of actors each playing their part, with plenty of room for different motives and philosophical or empirical approaches – even contradictory ones – since in the end they will all contribute to the change that takes place through collaboration, competition and even contradiction. In short it’s a complex adaptive system. Past technological spread has always resulted from the actions of multiple actors often with very different motives and philosophies: Inventors, entrepreneurs, governments, consumers, academics, not for profits and others have all helped shape the way technology is currently used both consciously and unconsciously. Using technology to make money is a key component of spreading technology that improves lives, but it’s only part of the story.”
Ian concludes that ”it doesn’t matter that we don’t agree, in fact it’s a good thing. A diverse approach involving multiple actors and friction between them is in the best interests of the field because it allows different models to co-exist, compete and learn from each other, and it allows then to be judged in the market and the marketplace of ideas.”