On the representation of the poor in international ICT4D forums

I found myself writing today about the ways through which the poor and marginalised are represented in major global ICT4D forums.  What I wrote, shocked me, and I fear that when published it will shock most of the readers of my new book as well! I am therefore sharing it here to try to garner some feedback beforehand that can help me recraft and improve the chapter.  This short piece is only the beginning of the section, and it does go on to suggest ways through which the voices of poor people can indeed be articulated and listened to,  not least through innovative uses of ICTs.  However, I would be fascinated to receive any feedback, preferably polite, on my thoughts below:

WSIS+10 HL Panorama small

“… the voices of the poorest and most marginalised are rarely if ever directly present in international ICT4D forums.  There is therefore a very real challenge of representation in such meetings.  Few participants have anything other than a relatively shallow understanding of what poverty is really like, or have ever engaged deeply trying to understand the needs of the poor, and how these might be delivered through ICTs.  To be sure, much research has been undertaken on ICTs and poverty, and some policy makers may have read a little of this literature, but global ICT4D forums remain forums of the elite and the powerful.  Some civil society representatives, with their supposedly strong involvement with community groups, are most likely to be closest to understanding the needs of the poorest and the most marginalised, but even then their senior representatives at international meetings are often far removed from the grounded reality of poverty.  Theoretically, government officials, with their responsibility for all of their citizens, should be mindful of the needs of their poorest and most marginalised citizens, but all too often government representatives are drawn from ruling elites, in both rich and poor countries alike, and again do not necessarily understand how ICTs might be able to empower poor people.  Their interests are often primarily in being re-elected. Moreover, the increasingly close relationship between governments and the private sector mean that all too often governments favour the interests of the private sector over those of the most marginalised, in the mistaken belief that economic growth will necessarily eliminate poverty.  Additionally, many of the most capable young ICT Ministers in poor countries are themselves drawn from the private sector, thereby reinforcing this private sector view of how to reduce poverty through the use of ICTs.   The private sector itself, including the supposedly munificent founders of Foundations, is primarily interested in driving economic growth and profits, and tends to see the poor and the marginalised largely as customers or an enhanced market. Few representative of the private sector at international ICT4D forums can lay claim to being poor.  To be sure, it is inevitable that international forums are populated by elites, and many people who attend them do like to think that they have the interests of the marginalised at heart.  Nevertheless, it is important that further consideration is given to this issue, and innovative ways are indeed sought through which the balance of conversation and debate is changed.  This short section highlights challenges with three particular areas: the involvement of young people, the highly sexist male-dominated character of the ICT sector itself, and the voices of those with disabilities.”


Filed under Africa, Commonwealth, Development, ICT4D, Story-telling, Uncategorized

14 responses to “On the representation of the poor in international ICT4D forums

  1. Rakesh Luchmun

    Dear Tim,

    You have now touched on a very sensitive issue – the representative from the marginalised would probably never happen – how many of them can even afford to voice it or attend the forums – you have witness some of the forum where if you don’t pay your way in, you are denied entry – if they are – they will be dead scared to talk as the reprisal can vary from country to country.


    • unwin

      Thanks Rakesh – but it is something we need to consider – and to some extent we tried to make things happen in the CTO – at least in our Nigerian Annual Forum 40% of the speakers were women, we did involve some (privileged) youth in our events, and we had people wiht disabilities participating (albeit rarely). This chapter is turning into something much bigger than I had intended. Hope you’re well!

  2. Dear Tim,
    Trying to be both short and polite…
    In general, I don’t believe in trickle-down economics, but in the area of ICT I think it can be applied. In discussions about ICT and gender/poverty I think the focus is still too much on the I and the T of ICT, i.e. on the legacy computer side. With this limitation, I think your description is mostly correct. But if you instead focus on the C and T, I think you must agree that communication technology is already present among the poor around the globe, through mobile phones with voice and text. Now in 2016, the original (steam) 2G phones are disappearing from the market, and from now on all phones will be smart phones, or internet connected computers if you like. Grameen Phone has 10000 base stations, of which half are already 3G, and in the next 3 to 5 years hundreds of millions of poor people in poor countries will be using smart phones on a daily basis. What they will do with the interconnection nobody knows for sure, but a good guess is that they will use it like most other people – messaging, social media, using apps for thousands of practical things, for education and for entertainment.

    This change is happening within the private sector, because no governments are capable of running commercial networks. In most of Africa, mobile companies and VAT on airtime provide massive tax revenues also in places where most rich people can escape paying taxes. For 15 years now, mobile operators’ high operating profits have been reinvested in ever larger and better networks, for the simple reason that more revenues are waiting around the corner. The investments in future LTE networks are accelerating, creating huge increases in network capacity.

    My two bits of contribution to your discussion is simply that poor people do share in the ICT revolution, but one must look att all three letters in the ICT acronym.

    Best regards,

    Olof Hesselmark

    • unwin

      Thanks Olof – indeed – I don’t think we disagree! Perhaps I had not made it clear – in this section I am just referring to the international meetings in which governments, the private sector and civil society gather in far too many forums, repeating the same discussions over and over again, and make little progress! Interestingly I have also just written a piece that makes exactly the point you do about the importance of the C!

      • Hello again,
        13 years ago, at the first WSIS conference the overall theme was the “Digital Divide”, a now long forgotten concept. I think you are right to bring it up again, even after considering the fantastic development in the “C” area. But the divide persists of course, in a different context. Here is an article (in Portuguese; Google Translate can help) about the large divide in fixed broadband access in Brazil. In that country 2G GSM reaches everyone, but mobile broadband is still limited to larger towns. Fixed ADSL broadband is available to people with fixed lines, but at very slow data rates in smaller towns. Many of Brazil’s poor live in large cities with good 4G coverage, but in the huge countryside they have no access at all. And ICT without access isn’t worth much these days.

  3. The poor and marginalised need to be consulted and better represented as do actual techies from and/or with experience working in these environments – iPad pilots in ed are becoming a thing – how/ why does this happen? What you have written is accurate – looking forward to reading the book!

  4. lenandlar

    Thanks for taking on this important topic. Looking forward to reading the book and of course have it as part of the reading for our new ict4d course.

  5. Very well said, Tim. I grew up in Fiji and now live in Australia and teach at a university. I set up the SEE Project (https://theseeproject.org/) about five years ago. The primary objective of the is to support: (1) rural, and remote schools in developing countries with basic technologies and (2) support teachers develop their skills to teach with technologies. I have also led some outreach projects with university students. Based on my experienes of this project, I agree with the points you have raised – the elite and the stakeholders in ICT4D forums have little knowledge and experience of these environments. More importantly, those with the power in these countries lack the will to make a difference. Those who can make a difference are never given a chance because they do not tick the right boxes. Happy to talk more. Keep up the good work – we need more voices like yours.

  6. Very interesting submission right there, Tim! Having attended several ICT4D forums myself and coming from a developing country, I do agree with you that what you present in this chapter is to a large extent true. I have a number of submissions to make about this specific challenge and some possible solutions around it.

    1. Many of the extremely poor people rarely see IT as a solution to any of their problems. Most of the problem are around hunger and health and once these are taken care of ICT is a luxury to them and in fact some see it as useful to the rich only. As long as they can interact freely with their neighbours and community, many barely do not see beyond that. This implies there is a real need to sensitive the rural poor on how ICTs can be beneficial to them. Unless they see the need for ICTs in their lives, many will keep ignoring it and as such we may keep seeing no real representation of the poor at such forums.

    2. When I was part of the eLearning Africa organizing committee, I noticed that many scholars and practitioners from the poor settings were sponsored to come to the conference. From my personal observations, many of the attendees from these settings fail to see how the opportunity presented to them can benefit the greater community they coming from but rather make it personal and only focus on how only them can benefit from it and attend more such fora. This microscopic view of such opportunities frustrates efforts being made by some organizations to get more people from poor settings to such forums.

    These are my two cents to this discussion.

    • unwin

      Thanks so much! Great also to have a reminder of e-Learning Africa!!!! I wonder if poor people new more about how ICTs could power them they might take more control of the agendas – just an idea!

  7. Great point, and reality check Tim. Well worth including in your book.

    Not sure what the solution is though. Option 1 would be to move those global ict4d meetings to places where the “4d” stakeholders actually live and work, and include the locals at the top table. Would the sponsors come?

    Option 2 would be to sponsor costs of the 4d stakeholders to join the discussions happening in Paris/NY etc. How many regions could you afford to include?

    Maybe the entire ecosystem of funders, papers and meetings are unconsciously reinforcing the very same privilege and class structure it is trying to act against.

    If I spent my life running a small, grassroots community initiative in a developing nation, I’d be quite bemused at the disconnect from my reality of the entire global ict4d scene!

  8. Pingback: Bei #allmalepanels geht es um mehr als um (nicht) redende Frauen | Claire Grauer

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