Making money from meeting the SDGs? An overarching approach to sustainable development

I am delighted to have been asked to moderate the session on “Making money from meeting the SDGs?” at ITU Telecom World in Bangkok on Monday 14th November (4:45 PM – 6:00 PM, Jupiter 10), although I wonder a little why I have been chosen for this task given my past criticisms of the SDGs!  Perhaps the “?” in the session title will give me a little freedom to explore some of the many challenges and complexities in this theme.  Following in the footsteps of the Millennium Development Goals (2000), the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) still generally focus on the idea that economic growth will eliminate poverty; indeed, they assert that poverty can truly be ended.  This is a myth, and a dangerous one. For those who define poverty in a relative sense, poverty will always be with us.  It can certainly be reduced, but never ended.   It is therefore good to see the SDGs also focusing on social inclusion, with SDG 10 explicitly addressing inequality.  We need to pay much more attention to ways through which ICTs can thus reduce inequality, rather than primarily focusing on their contribution to economic growth, which has often actually led to increasing inequality.

This session will explore the implications of such tensions specifically for the role of ICT businesses in delivering the SDGs.  Key questions to be examined include:

  • How can the ICT sector contribute to accelerating the achievement of the SDGs by providing ICT-enabled solutions and building feasible business models?
  • Is the SDG agenda relevant for the ICT industry?
  • What roles should the ICT industry, and its corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments in particular, play in working towards the SDGs?
  • Can the SDG framework provide an opportunity to accelerate transformative ICT-enabled solutions around new solutions like big data or IoT?

Underlying these are difficult issues about the ethics of making money from development, and the extent to which the ICT sector is indeed sustainable.  All too often, the private sector, governments and even civil society are now using the idea of “development” to build their ICT interests, rather than actually using ICTs to contribute to development understood as reducing inequalities; we increasingly have “development for ICTs” (D4ICT) rather than “ICTs for development” (ICT4D).  To be sure, businesses have a fundamentally important role in contributing to economic growth, but there is still little agreement, for example, on how best to deliver connectivity to the poorest and most marginalized, so that inequality can be reduced. As my forthcoming book argues, we need to reclaim ICTs truly for development in the interests of the poorest and most marginalized.

We have a great panel with whom to explore these difficult questions.  Following opening remarks by Chaesub Lee (Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, ITU), we will dive straight into addressing the above questions with the following panelists (listed in alphabetical order of first names):

  • Astrid Tuminez (Senior Director, Government Affairs. Microsoft)
  • Lawrence Yanovitch (President of GSMA Foundation)
  • Luis Neves (Chairman Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), and Climate Change and Sustainability Officer, Executive Vice President, at Deutsche Telekom Group)
  • Mai Oldgard (Head of Sustainability, Telenor)
  • Tomas Lamanauskas (Group Director Public Policy, VimpelCom).

Magic happens when people from different backgrounds are brought together to discuss challenging issues.  This session will therefore not have any formal presentations, but will instead seek to engage the panelists in discussion amongst themselves and with the audience.  We will generate new ideas that participants will be able to take away and apply in their everyday practices.  Looking forward to seeing you on the Monday afternoon of Telecom World in Bangkok!

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Filed under Conferences, Development, ICT4D, SDGs, Sustainability

Information and communication technologies: resolving inequalities?

It was great to be invited to give a lecture in the Societat Catalana de Geografia in Barcelona on the subject of “Information and Communication Technologies: resolving inequalities?” on Tuesday 4th October in the Ciclo de Conferencias Programa Jean Monnet convened by my great friend Prof. Jordi Marti Henneberg on the theme of Los Desafîos de lintegración Europea.  This was such an honour, especially since I had the privilege of following the former President of the European Union Josep Borrell’s excellent lecture earlier in the day on El Brexit y sus consequencias en la goberabilidad de la Unión Europea.

lectureThis was an opportunity for me to explore the relevance to the European context of some of my ideas about ICTs and inequality gleaned from research and practice in Africa and Asia.  In essence, my argument was that we need to balance the economic growth agenda with much greater focus on using ICTs to reduce inequalities if we are truly to use ICTs to support greater European integration.  To do this, I concluded by suggesting  that we need to concentrate on seven key actions:

  • working with the poor rather than for the poor
  • pro-poor technological innovation – not the “next billion” but the “first” billion
  • governments have a  key role to play through the use of regulation as facilitation in the interests of the poor and marginalised
  • crafting of appropriate multi-sector partnerships
  • managing security and resilience against the dark side
  • enhancing learning and understanding, both within governments and by individuals
  • working with the most disadvantaged, people with disabilities, street children, and women in patriarchal societies


Filed under Europe, ICT4D, ICTs, Inequality, Uncategorized

Pitarra Restaurant, Barcelona

It was so good to return today to one of my favourite restaurants – Pitarra in Barcelona (on Carrer d’Avinyó) – for lunch.  It is full of atmosphere (of the theatre), the food is really excellent, it is typically Catalan, the wines are great, and the service is very friendly and helpful.  I thoroughly recommend it to anyone looking for a lovely restaurant in a quiet, rather hidden away part of Barcelona, just on the south-east edge of the Gothic Quarter.

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ICTs for the SDGs: economic agendas

group-smallThe ITU is preparing a new book, provisionally to be entitled “ICT4SDGs: Economic Growth, Innovation and
Job Creation” in advance of the WTDC meeting in Buenos Aires in October 2017… . This has been explored in some detail over the last two days at a fascinating discussion convened in Geneva.

sdg-groupI have been invited to lead on a 6,000 word chapter, provisionally entitled “Sustainability in Development: Critical Elements” that has an initial summary as follows: “the chapter identifies how ICTs engage with the sustainability agenda and the various elements of the ecosystem (such as: education, finance/capital, infrastructure, policy, market, culture/environment, opportunities) and the stakeholders that are indispensable for ensuring resilient and sustainable development activities in developing countries in spite of some chronic shortages coupled with fast changing and fluid situations that can negatively hamper the efforts”.

I want this chapter very much to be a collective, bottom-up effort, and am exploring various collective ways of generating content – although this is hugely difficult given the tight word limit! At this stage, it would be great to receive suggestions as to (a) what content the chapter should focus on, and (b) examples of case studies of successes and failures with respect to the use of ICTs for sustainable development. Please share any thoughts with me – before the end of September!

For those who may be unfamiliar with my own critical comments on the linkages between ICTs and the SDG agenda do see…/icts-and-the-failure-of-the-…/, and on the abuse of the term ecosystem . Rest assured, though, that the chapter for the ITU will reflect very different perspectives, and I hope that it will indeed represent the interests and concerns of the wider ICT4D community.


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Dubai in 1980

Continuing the digitization of some of my early slide collections, I post below a selection of pictures from Dubai in 1980.  I remember it then undergoing a building boom, but that was of a completely different scale from what has subsequently happened over the last 30 years or so.  I wish I had been there in the 1960s, when by all reports it was a small, sleepy town built around the harbour! However, my pictures do still capture something of the old character of the city, and the busy waterfront.  I loved wandering around the Bastakiya quarter, and remember being fascinated by the wind towers and architecture. It is good to see the sympathetic restoration that has taken place in the quarter in recent years, but it does not have quite the same atmosphere that it did then!  It was good to wander in the suq and see all of the glittering gold that i could never afford! I also loved just watching the small boats and dhows plying their trade along the creek. My favourite hotel was undoubtedly the Meridien, a quiet oasis where I could escape from the business of the city, but surprisingly I never took a photograph if it!

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Abu Dhabi in 1980

I first visited Abu Dhabi in 1980; there was construction everywhere and part of me wished I had been there 20 years earlier!   The changes since then, though, have been enormous, and it is very hard to recognise any of what I experienced then in the modern city of today.  As part of my ongoing project of digitsing my slides from  30-40 years ago, I hope that the selection below captures something of the city as it was at that time: the juxtaposition of small new mosques with high-rise buildings; the contrasts between the greenness of the agricultural projects at Al Ain, and the urban concrete of Abu Dhabi city itself; the differences in wealth between local citizens and immigrant labourers who were mainly from South Asia; the belief that pumping oil could create cities, whereas pumping water from the underground aquifers could turn the desert green; the rather sleepy atmosphere that pervaded the place; the beauty and colours of the dhows on the blue, blue sea; the markets on the streets where one could buy everything from animals to all sorts of imported goods from containers; the mysteries of the suq…

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Filed under agriculture, Markets, Photographs, Rural, UAE, Urban

Against “EdTech”…

Sitting in on a recent donor-stakeholder discussion about the use of ICTs to support education for poor people in developing countries, inspired me to formalize my critical thoughts on the increasingly common usage of the term “EdTech”.   There are three main reasons why this terminology is so problematic:

  • children-in-malawi-schoolFirst, the term EdTech places the emphasis on the technology rather than the educational and learning outcomes. Far too many initiatives that have sought to introduce technology systematically into education have failed because they have focused on the technology rather than on the the education.  The use of the term EdTech therefore places emphasis on a failed way of thinking.  Technology will only be of benefit for poor and marginalized people if it is used to deliver real learning outcomes, and this is the core intended outcome of any initiative. It is the learning that matters, rather than the technology.
  • jica-stm-ptc-computersSecond, it implies that there is such a thing as Educational Technology. The reality is that most technology that is used in schools or for education more widely has very little to do specifically with education or learning.  Word processing and presentational software, spreadsheets, and networking software are nothing specifically to do with education, although they are usually what is taught to teachers in terms of IT skills! Such software is, after all, usually called Office software, as in Microsoft Office, or Open Office. Likewise, on the hardware side, computers, mobile phones and electronic whiteboards are not specifically educational but are rather more general pieces of technology that companies produce to generate a profit.  Learning content, be it open or proprietary, is perhaps the nearest specifically educational technology that there is, but people rarely even think of this when they use the term EdTech!
  • intel-classmate-zambia-2010Third, it is fascinating to consider why the term EdTech has been introduced to replace others such as e-learning or ICT for education (ICT4E) which clearly place the emphasis on the learning and the education.  The main reason for this is that the terminology largely reflects the interests of private sector technology companies, and especially those from the US. The interests underlying the terminology are a fundamental part of the problem.  EdTech is being used and sold as a concept primarily so that companies can sell technology that has little specifically to do with education, and indeed so that researchers can be funded to study its impact!


Those who use the term EdTech are all conspiring to place the emphasis on the technology rather than on the education.  This is often deliberate, but always misguided!  Many of those who use the term are also concerned primarily in generating profits from education rather than delivering effective, life-changing opportunities for people to learn.  If you ever use the word again, please think twice about it, and preferably use something more appropriate!


Filed under Development, Education, ICT4D