Early last week I had a good meeting with OUP about the marketing of Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development – and hopefully copies will be ready in time for the WSIS Forum in Geneva in June! Then, at the end of the week, the final version of the revised page proofs appeared. I’ve never had to read so many versions of one of my manuscripts before, and am so grateful to the work of all those who have helped in the production process!
Having shared the cover, preface, index and contents page, as well as the introduction before, I thought it was timely also to share the final few paragraphs. I very much hope that people will enjoy, and indeed be challenged by, them. I hope too that those who consider these to be overly extreme, will indeed read the book and be convinced of the truth that lies within them. Although some will remain unconvinced, I hope that the book will encourage everyone working at the interface between technology and development to reflect on what they are doing and change their practices in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.
“The design of ICTs and their rapid deployment have been one of the main causes of increasing inequality in the world. One of the underlying themes of this book is that this has become exacerbated by the linkage between ICTs and development defined as economic growth. Indeed, advocacy that ICTs can contribute positively to economic growth, and that this will reduce or eliminate poverty, has actually served to increase inequality and thus further marginalize the poor. The idea of ‘development’ itself has become a vehicle through which the technological interests of the private sector in particular, but also those of governments and civil society, can be further propagated. Expansion in the use of ICTs has thus become the primary focus of attention (D4ICT), rather than the development outcomes that might be facilitated by ICTs in the interests of the poor and marginalized (ICT4D). This is scarcely surprising, given the long history of the use of technologies to serve and maintain the interests of the rich and powerful.
Many factors have influenced this state of affairs. In particular, the increasing power of the private sector in global governance, the dominance of an instrumental view of ICTs that sees them necessarily as being a force for good, the diminution in the role of governments in serving the interests of all their citizens, the symbolic power of modernity embodied in ICTs, and an emphasis on enhancing economic growth rather than reducing inequality, have all been very significant in shaping the current intersection between ICTs and development. To be sure, there are many instances where ICTs have been used to enhance the lives of groups of poor and marginalized people, but the overwhelming balance of evidence is that most such initiatives fail to go to scale or be sustainable. Moreover, there is also a growing body of evidence that the dark side of ICTs is seriously harming many poor people, and especially women and girls.
Paradoxically, the main ways through which the use of ICTs can be reclaimed for development that might empower poor and marginalized people have rather little to do with the technologies, but much more to do with attitudes and approaches adopted by all those engaged in serving the interests of the poor. First, the idea that ICTs in general, or the rollout of mobile broadband in particular, is some kind of panacea, or silver bullet, that can reduce poverty must be abandoned. This must be combined with a realization that policies designed purely to increase economic growth through the use of ICTs will necessarily continue to increase inequality. There needs to be a fundamental shift in thinking by governments, civil society and those who fund development interventions away from the economic growth agenda and instead toward the explicit use of ICTs to support the poor and the marginalized. The private sector will continue to serve as the engine of growth, and thereby drive the use of ICTs by the majority of people, but its profit-taking voracity needs to be tempered by a realisation that the technological Jinn that it releases may well eventually do more harm than good. This requires a fundamental reorientation of much research to focus primarily on the development of ICTs through which the very poorest might be empowered. This needs to begin with a humble realization that academics interested in ICT4D should become the servants of the poor and marginalized, learning from them, and using their skills and expertise to serve the interests of the poor rather than their own careers, or the interests of global ICT corporations. Research and practice should be with the poor rather than merely for the poor. Governments and regulators have a central role in facilitating such a shift, but it would be naïve to suggest that all governments are indeed benign and without self-interest. Politicians of all hues therefore need to be convinced that increasing inequality is ultimately a greater threat to stability and their own political futures than would be any reduction in economic growth. Likewise, private sector companies have much to contribute to this renewed vision of ICT4D. Those that can develop innovative new technologies and business models to deliver affordable services to the poorest ‘first billion’, for example, will necessarily be able to undercut companies still focusing on the ‘next billion’, and thereby make considerable gains in market share.
Above all, those who share my passion for technology, and the ways through which it can indeed be used to help empower the poorest and the most marginalized, the limbless beggars in Sierra Leone, the blind musicians playing on street corners in China, or the young women in Pakistan at threat of being murdered because of the images they post on social media, must begin by reflecting on their own practices. We need to change from being part of the problem to being part of the solution. Once we have begun to be enlightened ourselves about the role of technology in development, we may in turn be able to help empower others through crafting new ICTs and the strategies through which they can be implemented in the interests of the poorest and most marginalized.“