Category Archives: Caribbean

“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.

1.1

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.”

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Flora and fauna of Antigua


The opportunity to go for a long walk exploring the western coast of Antigua provided a chance to capture the magic of some of the flowers and birds of the island.  Many of the former are tiny, little more than a fingernail in size, but I do hope that the images below capture the magic of the island appropriately.

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Reflections on government-led infrastucture development in the ICT sector in the Caribbean


CTUI had the privilege of being invited to moderate the session on government-led infrastucture development at the Caribbean Telecommunications Union‘s 25th anniversary event held in Port of Spain, Trinidad, this week.  It provided an excellent opportunity to discuss in quite some detail the balance between private sector and state investment in the ICT sector, and ways through which infrastructure could be made available to some of the poorest and most marginal communities.  As a moderator, I always see my role primarily as being to facilitate some lively, and hopefully provocative, discussion, and so I tried to say very little myself during the session. Reflecting afterwards, though, particularly in the wider context of the Commonwealth as a whole, the following broad observations seem appropriate:

  1. There is very great diversity within the Caribbean, but nevertheless I did sense that there was much greater appetite here for the state to play a significant role in infrastructure development than is encountered in many other parts of the world.  It was very refreshing, for example, to hear the term “public utilities” spoken about almost with reverence.  The all-too-often accepted “development mantra” that privatisation of public utilities will ensure that they are much more efficient and thus deliver on the needs of poor people and communities, was not one that seemed to be widely accepted.  The belief that states have a clear duty to serve the interests of all of their people, and that this cannot be achieved through privatisation, was healthy and very different from the views that I all too often encounter.
  2. It was, though, clear that old business models are already failing to deliver sufficient profits for many of those involved in the sector, and that new models are required.  I find this particularly exciting, because I firmly believe that there are many exciting ways through which both public services and private benefit can be achieved, through a closer working relationship between companies and governments.
  3. The role of regulators is particularly important at this interface.  In particular, and recalling a session at the ITU’s Telecom World in Doha that I chaired last December, there is a need for regulators to think of themselves much more as “facilitators” than as “controllers”.  This applies not only in terms of providing the context through which the private sector can generate profits across all sectors of the economy, and thus enable governments to generate greater taxation revenues, but also through facilitating public awareness and understanding.  I was thus impressed by the way in which TATT (the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago) provides a considerable amount of information directly to consumers on such matters as “Cyberspace Dangers”, level of services expectations, and complaints procedures.
  4. Nevertheless, throughout the conference, I gained the impression that all too often conversations across the Caribbean have tended to happen in silos, and this was certainly the case  in the session on government-led infrastructure!  I was impressed that most panel sessions had speakers drawn from government, the private sector and civil society, but I got the feeling that the positions of each “sector” were often rather far apart.  There needs to be much more effective dialogue between the different sectors across the region (and indeed elsewhere in the world as well) if innovative solutions are to be developed to enable everyone to benefit from Internet connectivity.  To do this, there needs to be a cadre of well qualified and effective brokers who can facilitate such discussions.  This is one of the key roles that I believe the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation can play.
  5. Small Island Developing States (SIDS) face very problematic challenges, not least because of their small market size.  This reinforces the impression that I have previously gained from discussions at the UN’s SIDS conference in Samoa last year as well as work that I have done in the Pacific islands and elsewhere in the Caribbean.  In particular, I am convinced that traditional arguments about competition bringing the price of delivery down for consumers simply don’t apply in many such circumstances.   It really does not make sense to expect two or three operators to compete to deliver services in tiny islands.  Again, the precise business models need to be thought through very carefully, but where there is a social and political appetite for public utilities still to be delivered by governments, I see no logical reason why state-owned entities cannot provide value for money efficient ICT services in small island states.
  6. One of the most interesting discussions during the session was the ways through which existing government infrastructure can be used to reduce costs of rolling out ICT infrastructure, notably fibre.  In particular, the Puerta Rican El Zum initiative sounds especially interesting, in that it intends to deliver fibre connectivity through the sewers that link to most houses in the country.  Whilst this is not a solution that would suit every country, the idea of using the vast network of existing public infrastructure as a means through which to bring connectivity to the home is indeed appealing.  Likewise, I am more than ever convinced about the value of shared infrastructure solutions, and I see this as being one of the most significant things that governments can insist on in trying to reduce costs, especially in rural low-density contexts.
  7. This still, though, leaves the challenge of reaching the most remote, sparsely settled areas of any country, and few clear solutions or recommendations were received on how this could best be done. The debate over whether or not Universal Service/Access funds are effective continues apace, and I think that this increasingly reflects political dogma rather than actual practical reality! The reality is indeed often that money in such funds is either not used effectively, or sometimes not used at all, but the notion that taxation of some kind should be used to benefit the poor and marginalised is still a powerful one (the GSMA reports on such funds provide much helpful evidence).  The size of many Caribbean, and indeed Pacific, islands is nevertheless also one advantage for them, in that being small means that the distances required for roll out of fibre, or in provision of mobile broadband services, are not particularly large, and are thus relatively cheaper than those of large land-locked states.
  8. Finally, we had an interesting debate on the potential of mobile app development in the Caribbean and small island states more generally.  On balance, there seemed to be some agreement that the potential for app development to bring large numbers of people into the productive economy is very much less than some might advocate; thus 1.6% of app developers make more money than the remaining 98.4% combined (Financial Times).  (Incidentally, Mobile Vision has some useful statistics and data on the app sector).  There were, though, suggestions that there could be some potential in the Caribbean for local app developers to work on locally relevant e-government applications.

Overall, it was a fascinating discussion that raised many interesting ideas.

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Scarlet Ibis in the Caroni marshes, Trinidad


Participating in the Caribbean Telecommunications Union‘s 25th anniversary celebrations has provided an opportunity to explore parts of Trinidad (Panorama, Asa Wright Centre) and Tobago that I have not previously visited.  Many people had suggested that I should go to visit the Caroni marshes to see the Scarlet Ibis (the national bird of Trindidad), and so I took time out to see them return to their roosting sites just before sunset yesterday.  Although born dark in colour, the ibis’s diet of crustaceans turns them vivid scarlet as they grow older.  The flocks of egrets and ibis coming in to roost is truly memorable, and I hope that the pictures below give some sense of the birds and the marshes (as well as the snakes).  The boat had to moor a long way from the actual roosting sites, and its movement as well as the low light conditions made photography quite a challenge!

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Beyond the Digital Divide: Developing Local Capacity to Deliver Local Content


Below is a slightly revised text of the interview that the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU) did with me on the occasion of the CTU’s 25th Anniversary (photo with SG Bernadette Lewis of the CTU when signing a mutual co-operation agreement with the CTO a while back) 

CTO CTUBy 2016, one per cent of the world’s population will own more than half of its wealth. The staggering projection, from a recent study by anti-poverty group Oxfam, made headlines just as the World Economic Forum was getting started in Davos last month.

One concern for Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) Professor Tim Unwin, who was at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, is that the rapid spread of information and communications technologies is not helping to reduce that growing gap between poor and rich.

“The difference between the least developed and the most developed is getting greater. In that way, you can say that ICTs are actually increasing inequality,” he said, in a telephone interview from the annual gathering of top political and business leaders in Switzerland.

As head of a body bringing together perspectives of telecoms stakeholders from across the 53 countries of the Commonwealth—about one-third of the world’s population—Unwin is deeply concerned about that growing digital divide, and the dual impact of technology development on the world’s poorest.

Developing Caribbean capacity

“One of the things that always strikes me when I visit the Caribbean is how much more advanced and successful and connected it is than many other parts of the Commonwealth,” he said.

While the islands’ size is a source of some economic challenges, it also provides some advantages.

“The islands are relatively small, so it is not so problematic to get universal connectivity, as compared with, say, Nigeria or Pakistan,” Unwin said.

But Internet access and connectivity alone won’t reduce the gap between poor and rich. For Unwin, the real priority is not simply to increase the quantity of Internet users but to improve the overall quality of Internet usage. Two major issues affecting quality, he said, are bandwidth and cost, which is where Internet service providers and industry regulators play such a critical role in the region’s Internet system.

“What you can do with large bandwidth compared with low bandwidth is incredibly different, particulary with the rapid increase in applications that use video and large amounts of data. And the second variable is cost. That’s where regulators play a crucial role in helping to ensure that markets operate as effectively as possible.”

Delivering Caribbean content

The point of developing local capacity, Unwin was quick to point out, is to deliver local content. The potential of the underlying technology is only realised if it is used to facilitate the delivery of other services, such as digital banking, online education, mobile health or e-government. But that is easier said than done.

“Content development is quite expensive and resources aren’t always put into that. It’s much easier to lay a bit of fibre than it is to develop the content that is going to go over it,” said Unwin, who also sits on the advisory board of the m-Powering Development Initiative of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

One obstacle to developing local content, he said, is the lack of functional relationships between government ministries or even ministerial departments, which would need to harmonise their operations in order to produce high-quality local content.

So significant is the difficulty involved in developing relevant local content that there is a great temptation to simply import content from abroad, and sidestep the growing pains of building local capacity. But shortcuts are dangerous, Unwin said, citing the example of MOOCs, or massive open online courses, which are web-based courses aimed at unlimited participation through open access.

“I’d like to challenge some of those who think that things like MOOCs are the solution for the education of small-island states. I completely disagree because MOOCs can be a form of cultural or intellectual imperialism. The fact that people can get access to courses from richer countries is problematic, to me. What we want to have is locally developed, locally produced content, that is indigenous to users in Caribbean countries.”

The challenge for Caribbean societies, therefore, is to define and produce content that is appropriate and relevant, to enable solutions that align with development priorities.

“You have to make sure you have the right content in the right formats for the right people. If you’re just importing content from outside, you’re not building the knowledge-base of your own countries.”

Beyond the Divide

One of the CTO’s key partners in helping the region to face up to this challenge is the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU). The two work together on policy development, and have collaborated closely at significant international gatherings, including meetings held by the International Telecommunication Union.

“We believe, as does the CTU, in the real importance of avoiding duplication and overlap. One of the things we respect about the CTU is their openness to working collaboratively,” Unwin said.

The CTU was established in 1989 by the heads of Caricom governments, to support its members in leveraging telecommunications for social and economic development. Unwin explained the importance of the CTO in helping the CTU pursue that mission in a globalised environment.

“Across the world, there are different regional telecommunications unions, sometimes working in isolation and therefore unable to learn from each other. So, what’s happening in Africa may not be known in Asia. Or what’s happening in the Caribbean may not be as well known to people in the Pacific. One of the things that the CTO can do is bring together perspectives from people from many different parts of the Commonwealth, so that together we can do far more than any one of us could do by ourselves.”

Several Caribbean ministers were among 30 official delegates from across the Commonwealth who signed an agreement outlining shared principles for the development of broadband, at the CTO’s first-ever Commonwealth ICT Ministers in London in March of last year. The CTO is working with the Organisation of American States and the CTU to help Caribbean states seeking to take that commitment forward, Unwin said.

At one upcoming workshop, organised in partnership with the Antigua and Barbuda government, Unwin will focus on how technology can help improve quality of life for people with disabilities.

“Last time I was in Port of Spain,” he said, “we ran a workshop for young people on how they can use technology to build their entrepreneurial skills and contribute to the economy.”

Partnering with Success

Unwin returned to Trinidad and Tobago this month to speak in the CTU’s 25th Anniversary ICT Week, from February 2nd to 6th, at the Hyatt Regency.

The high-level event is a forum for government ministers, regional policy makers and other stakeholders to share perspectives on the importance of ICTs to Caribbean development. Prime Ministers of Trinidad and Tobago and Grenada will attend. Mr Irwin LaRocque, Secretary General of Caricom Secretariat, and Mr Brahima Sanou, Director of the ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, are also expected to speak.

The event will celebrate the achievements of CTU members and the contribution of strategic partnerships, like the one with the CTO, drawn from within and beyond the region. The last two days will feature workshops organised in partnership with the Internet Society, the Latin American and Caribbean Internet Addresses Registry, the International Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers, the Organisation of American States, the University of the West Indies, The American Registry of Internet Numbers, the Caricom Implementation Agency for Crime and Security, and Arkitechs.

Among the highlights of the five-day event will be the signing of new agreements between the CTU and the International Telecommunications Satellite Organisation and the ITU.

Inter-organisational relationships clearly account for a big part of the past achievements of organisations like the CTO and the CTU, and form the fabric of their future success. If the partnership between the CTO and the CTU is a pattern for success, then strengthening those relationships may well be the key to the future of all regional development.

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Trinidad Panorama 2015


I was very fortunate to be invited to attend the 2015 Panorama in Port of Spain this afternoon, as a guest of iGovTT – and part of the iPOSSE.  Despite the mud, it was an amazingly vibrant and energetic event – that made me feel both very old and very white!  Panorama is the annual steelpan competition in Trinidad and Tobago, and for the semi-finals held in Queen’s Park Savannah in the centre of Port of Spain, there are many side events in a separate location just to the west of the main stands.  Companies and organisations pitch their ‘tents’, and each have their own posses, many replete with T-shirts personalised by people cutting them into all sorts of patterns. The DJs compete with the steelpan bands, booming out the loudest possible music, and as the alcohol levels rise the dancing becomes much more explicit!  I hope that the images below do justice to some of the vibrancy of the event!

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Trinidad’s bird life


I had been to the Asa Wright Centre, high in the Arima valley in Trinidad’s Northern Range, briefly once before in 2011.  It was therefore great to be able to spend some time there yesterday once again, absorbing the atmosphere, and seeing some of the richness of the island’s bird life.  I hope that the pictures below capture some of their beauty, although the tiny humming birds, flitting from one flower to another, are so difficult to capture with a hand-held camera!  If ever you are in Trinidad, this is definitely a place to visit!

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