The contrast between attending a series of side events around the UN General Assembly in New York immediately following a marvellous two weeks in India has made me reflect again on the rhetoric and reality of using ICTs for development, especially in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.
My latest book, Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development (OUP, 2017) provides an overview of the interests underlying the use of ICTs for “development”, and what needs to be done so that the poorest and most marginalised can indeed benefit from ICTs. However, working in India, and then listening to the rhetoric of the rich and famous in New York makes me wonder whether I was sufficiently vehement in what I wrote in that book. It also makes me return to thinking about the research I did 30 years ago on innovation adoption by farmers. This convinced me that Rogers’ well accepted theoretical arguments around innovation adoption, the S-shaped curve (see below), and the classification of people into categories (innovators, early adopters, really majority, late majority and laggards) is fundamentally flawed.
There was very widespread agreement amongst the world’s leaders meeting in New York last week – and most other people as well – that ICTs can contribute very significantly to delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and that these will eliminate poverty. The challenge, according to them, is how to connect the “next billion” to the Internet (mobile broadband), or in Rogers’ terminology the “late majority”. As I have argued elsewhere, this will actually further increase global inequality, and most attention should instead be paid to connecting the “first” (because they are most important) billion, or what Rogers termed the “laggards”.
The interests underlying connecting the next billion
The global focus on rolling out broadband to deliver the SDGs (even if that was possible) is not primarily in the interest of the world’s poorest people. Instead it is mainly driven by:
- private sector corporations and companies, from ISPs and mobile operators to the powerful multi-service giants such as Facebook and Google, who are all primarily interested in expanding their markets and profits;
- national governments, eager to reduce costs through the use of digital technologies (although this is often a flawed assumption), as well as to control “their” citizens;
- UN agencies, keen to have a role to play in delivering the SDGS; and
- NGOs, wanting to publicise their work more widely, and continue to receive project funding for their ICT-based initiatives.
These have little to do with the real interests and needs of the poorest and most marginalised. The language of global corporations and governments is nearly always about providing access and creating demand for digital services. But why should poor people necessarily want to go online?
Reasons not to be online…
I recall a wonderful conversation a couple of years ago with a Maasai chief in Tanzania. He was speaking with a group of techies about the use of mobile devices, and they were trying to persuade him of the value of mobile phones, even just to call his friends in a village the other side of the hills. He, wisely, remained unconvinced. For him, walking across the hills, enjoying the landscape, spending time experiencing the physicality of nature, and just thinking about life, were a crucial part of going to, and speaking with, his friend in the next village.
For the wise poor and marginalised, there are many reasons for not being connected:
- they remain outside a world where increasingly all human actions are monetised by profit seeking corporations who use digital technologies to track their users and generate profit from selling such information;
- they remain free from the prying eyes of governments, whose actions may not be in their interests;
- there is little of interest to them in solving their real needs on the Internet;
- they do not have to spend large amounts of their very limited cash on paying for digital services that they do not really need;
- they do not suffer from the increasing amount of online abuse and harassment from trolls and others seeking to make them suffer;
- their small amounts of cash are not subject to online theft from hackers of mobile money systems;
- they do not become entrapped in a social media world, where every tweet or blog can adversely influence their thoughts and senses of well-being;
- they do not suffer from endless messages or e-mails, the senders of which increasingly expect an immediate response; and
- they can enjoy being truly human in the analogue physical world (of all the senses), rather than trading this for the synthetic, and much less adequate digital virtual world (of mainly the two senses of sight and sound).
To be sure, there are many advantages of being connected, but the above list (and there are numerous other reasons that could be added) emphasises that there are also many negative aspects of Internet use, especially for the poor and marginalised.
The poor are not ignorant laggards who need to be convinced to go online…
One of the fundamental flaws of the widely accepted innovation adoption model proposed by Rogers is that it classifies people into “heroic” innovators and “ignorant” laggards; it is something about the people that influences whether or not they adopt an innovation, such as mobile broadband. Such a view is held by many of those who seek to promote the global roll-out of the Internet: those who use the latest technologies are seen as being wise, whereas those who do not are seen as being lazy, ignorant laggards.
Rogers’ formulation is fundamentally problematic because it suggests that it is something about the people themselves that determine whether or not they are leaders or laggards. This largely ignores the structural factors that determine whether people adopt something new. With the adoption of agricultural innovations, for example, many poor people act perfectly rationally, and choose the option that they consider suits them best. Poor people often make very rational, wise decisions not to adopt an innovation, often because the innovation increases the risks of crop failure, and they cannot afford this risk. Moreover, if they do not have access to innovations it is scarcely surprising that they do not adopt them; the spatial distribution of outlets for herbicides, hybrid seeds or inorganic fertilizers is the main factor influencing whether people adopt them, rather than something about their propensity to innovate. In the ICT sector, it is hardly surprising that people living in areas without electricity, let alone connectivity, do not see the need to have the latest generation of smartphone connected to the Internet.
If progress is to be made in helping poor and marginalised people benefit from the Internet, it is essential to do away with this flawed model of innovation adoption, and understand instead the structural factors and interests underlying why wise poor people, who know the contexts of their poverty very well, do not choose to adopt such technologies. The rich elites of the world could begin by trying to understand the real conditions of poverty, rather than simply believing that ICTs can eliminate poverty through the SDGs.
Development in the interests of the poor
ICTs will never deliver on reducing inequalities in the world unless there is a fundamental sea-change in the attitudes of those leading the global private sector corporations that currently shape the world of the Internet. It is perfectly logical for them to sign up to the SDGs formulated by the UN system, and to seek to show that expanding their digital empires will necessarily deliver the SDGs. This is a powerful additional weapon in their armoury of market expansion and profit generation. The problem is that these agendas will continue to increase inequality, and as yet remarkably little attention has been paid to how ICTs might actually help deliver SDG10. Until corporations and governments really treat the link between ICTs and inequality seriously, peoples of the world will become every more divided, and if poverty is defined in a relative sense then poverty will actually increase rather than decrease as a result of roll out of the Internet.
3 responses to “Reflections on ICTs, the SDGs and innovation adoption”
Thanks for the article! Could you elaborate on why / how you think connectivity will increase poverty? I’ve had similar conversations in India, and frequently hear that connectivity is worth pursuing because it has immense potential (etc, etc), and at worst, will neither help nor hinder development. My own fear is that this opens the door to projects like Facebook’s Free Basics, which will act as a government-sanctioned walled-garden competing with other projects (such as 3G / 4G rollouts in rural areas) which have much more potential, but even there I’m arguing between two different kinds of connectivity, not connectivity vs. no connectivity.
Quick typo correction: *even
In your closing line:
“…will become every more divided, and if poverty is defined in a relative sense then poverty will actually increase rather than decrease as a result of roll out of the Internet.”
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