“Reclaiming ICT4D” – in the beginning

It is always exciting submitting a book manuscript to a publisher, and today is no exception!  I have at last finished with my editing and revisions, and sent the manuscript of Reclaiming ICT4D off to Oxford University Press.  I just hope that they like it as much as I do!  It is by no means perfect, but it is what I have been wanting to write for almost a decade now.

This is how it begins – I hope you like it:

“Chapter 1

A critical reflection on ICTs and ‘Development’

This book is about the ways through which Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have become entwined with both the theory and the practice of ‘development’.  Its central argument is that although the design and introduction of such technologies has immense potential to do good, all too often this potential has had negative outcomes for poor and marginalized people, sometime intended but more often than not unintended.  Over the last twenty years, rather than reducing poverty, ICTs have actually increased inequality, and if ‘development’ is seen as being about the relative differences between people and between communities, then it has had an overwhelming negative impact on development.  Despite the evidence to the contrary, I nevertheless retain a deep belief in the potential for ICTs to be used to transform the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalized for the better.  The challenge is that this requires a fundamental change in the ways that all stakeholders think about and implement ICT policies and practices.  This book is intended to convince these stakeholders of the need to change their approaches.

It has its origins in the mid-1970s, when I learnt to program in Fortran, and also had the privilege of undertaking field research in rural India.  The conjuncture of these two experiences laid the foundations for my later career, which over the last twenty years has become increasingly focused on the interface between Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) on the one hand, and the idea of ‘development’ on the other.  The book tells personal stories and anecdotes (shown in a separate font).  It draws on large empirical data sets, but also on the personal qualitative accounts of others.  It tries to make the complex theoretical arguments upon which it is based easy to understand.  Above all, it has a practical intent in reversing the inequalities that the transformative impacts of ICTs have led to across the world.

I still remember the enjoyment, but also the frustrations, of using punch cards, with 80 columns, each of which had 12 punch locations, to write my simple programs in Fortran.  The frustration was obvious.  If you made just one tiny mistake in punching a card, the program would not run, and you would have to take your deck of cards away, make the changes, and then submit the revised deck for processing the next day.  However, there was also something exciting about doing this.  We were using machines to generate new knowledge.  They were modern.  They were the future, and we dreamt that they might be able to change the world, to make it a better place.  Furthermore, there was something very pleasing in the purity and accuracy that they required.  It was my fault if I made a mistake; the machine would always be precise and correct.  These self-same comments also apply to the use of ICTs today.  Yes, they can be frustrating, as when one’s immensely powerful laptop or mobile ‘phone crashes, or the tedium of receiving unwanted e-mails extends the working day far into time better spent doing other things, but at the same time the interface between machines and modernity conjures up a belief that we can use them to do great things – such as reducing poverty.

Figure 1.1 Modernity and the machine: Cambridge University Computer Laboratory in the early 1970s.


Source: University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory (1999)

In 1976 and 1977 I had the immense privilege of undertaking field research in the Singbhum District of what was then South Bihar, now Jharkhand, with an amazing Indian scholar, Sudhir Wanmali, who was undertaking his PhD about the ‘hats’, or periodic markets, where rural trade and exchange occurred in different places on each day of the week (Figure 1.2).  Being ‘in the field’ with him taught me so much: the haze and smell of the woodsmoke in the evenings; the intense colours of rural India; the rice beer served in leaf cups at the edges of the markets towards the end of the day; the palpable tensions caused by the ongoing Naxalite rising (Singh, 1995); the profits made by mainly Muslim traders from the labour of Adivasi, tribal villagers, in the beautiful forests and fields of Singbhum; the creaking oxcarts; and the wonderful names of the towns and villages such as Hat Gamharia, Chakradharpur, Jagannathpur, and Sonua.  Most of all, though, it taught me that ‘development’ had something powerful to do with inequality.  I still vividly recall seeing rich people picnicking in the lush green gardens of the steel town of Jamshedpur nearby, coming in their smart cars from their plush houses, and then a short distance away watching and smelling blind beggars shuffling along the streets in the hope of receiving some pittance to appease their hunger.  The ever so smart, neatly pressed, clothes of the urban elite at the weekends contrasted markedly with the mainly white saris, trimmed with bright colours, that scarcely covered the frail bodies of the old rural women in the villages where we worked during the week.  Any development that would take place here had to be about reducing the inequalities that existed between these two different worlds within the world of South Bihar.  This made me look at my own country, at the rich countries of Europe, and it made me all the more aware of two things: not only that inequality and poverty were also in the midst of our rich societies; but also that the connections between different countries in the world had something to do with the depth of poverty, however defined, in places such as the village of Sonua, or the town of Ranchi in South Bihar.

Figure 1.2: hat, or rural periodic market at Hat Gamharia, in what was then South Bihar, 1977 1.2 Source: Author

            Between the mid-1970s and the mid-2010s my interests in ICTs, on the one hand, and ‘development’ on the other, have increasingly fascinated and preoccupied me.  This book is about that fascination.  It shares stories about how they are connected, how they impinge on and shape each other.  I have been fortunate to have been involved in many initiatives that have sought to involve ICTs in various aspects of ‘development’.  In the first instance, my love of computing and engineering, even though I am a geographer, has always led me to explore the latest technological developments, from electronic typewriters that could store a limited number of words, through the first Apple computers, to the Acorn BBC micro school and home computer launched in 1981, using its Basic BASIC programming language, and now more recently to the use of mobile ‘phones for development.  I was fascinated by the potential for computers to be used in schools and universities, and I learnt much from being involved with the innovative Computers in Teaching initiative Centre for Geography in the 1990s (see Unwin and Maguire, 1990).  During the 2000s, I then had the privilege of leading two challenging international initiatives that built on these experiences.  First, between 2001 and 2004 I led the UK Prime Minister’s Imfundo: Partnership for IT in Education initiative, based within the Department for International Development (UK Government Web Archive 2007), which created a partnership of some 40 governments, private sector and civil society organisations committed to using ICTs to enhance the quality and quantity of education in Africa, particularly in Kenya, South Africa and Ghana.  Then in the latter 2000s, I led the World Economic Forum’s Partnerships for Education initiative with UNESCO, which sought to draw out and extend the experiences gained through the Forum’s Global Education Initiative’s work on creating ICT-based educational partnerships in Jordan, Egypt, Rajasthan and Palestine (Unwin and Wong, 2012).  Meanwhile, between these I created the ICT4D (ICT for Development) Collective, based primarily at Royal Holloway, University of London, which was specifically designed to encourage the highest possible quality of research in support of the poorest and most marginalized.  Typical of the work we encouraged was another partnership-based initiative, this time to develop collaborative research and teaching in European and African universities both on and through the use of ICTs.  More recently, between 2011 and 2015 I had the privilege of being Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation, which is the membership organisation of governments and people in the 53 countries of the Commonwealth, enhancing the use of ICTs for development.

Two things have been central to all of these initiatives: first a passionate belief in the practical role of academics and universities in the societies of which they are a part, at all scales from the local to the international; and second, recognition of the need for governments, the private sector and civil society to work collaboratively together in partnerships to help deliver effective development impacts.  The first of these builds fundamentally on the notion of Critical Theory developed by the Frankfurt School (Held, 1980), and particularly the work of Jürgen Habermas (1974, 1978) concerning the notion of knowledge constitutive interests and the complex inter-relationships between theory and practice.  The next section therefore explores why this book explicitly draws on Critical Theory in seeking to understand the complex role and potential of ICTs in and for development.  Section 1.2 thereafter then draws on the account above about rural life in India in the 1970s to explore in further detail some of the many ways in which the term ‘development’ has been, and indeed still is, used in association with technology.”



Filed under 'phones, Accessibility, Africa, Caribbean, Commonwealth, Communication, Ethics, ICT4D, ICT4D general, India, Radio, Story-telling, Uncategorized

4 responses to ““Reclaiming ICT4D” – in the beginning

  1. rodwhd

    Well done Tim, a major milestone! Take a day off….

  2. pamelamclean

    What a great read.

    It got me wandering down memory lane as well. I came to ICT4D via education, so had been on a very different journey by the time our paths crossed when you were at Imfundo.

    Back in the 1970s and 1980s I was being introduced to computers via the Open University, writing BASIC programs to use in my infant class (on an Exidy Sorceror) learning about UNIX and AI from Prof Max Clewes, active in MUSE (MIcro Users in Secondary Education) and MAPE (Micros and Primary Education) and in other ways (under my then name of Pam Fiddy).

    I completely related to your comments about “They were the future, and we dreamt that they might be able to change the world, to make it a better place. Furthermore, there was something very pleasing in the purity and accuracy that they required. It was my fault if I made a mistake; the machine would always be precise and correct. ” Exciting times indeed.

    I so enjoyed reading this chapter Tim. When do we get to see more of it?

    • unwin

      Thanks so much – so glad you liked it – the manuscript went to OUP today – so it is unlikely to appear for about six months – and a bit depends on how many revisions they might want! As you can (hopefully) detect, it is quite controversial, and so let’s see what happens! I have been allowed to share some of it online, and so will be doing so over the months ahead to whet people’s appetites!

  3. Pingback: Reclaiming ICT4D: the Conclusion | Tim Unwin's Blog

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