Category Archives: Empowerment

On managerial control and the tyranny of digital technologies

I have written many times before about the changing balances of power enforced by most digital technologies, but three recent incidents have focused my mind yet again on the shifting relationships of control brought about by the use of such technologies.

Tales from a worker…

  • I was invited to be a speaker at an online event using a particular technology with which I was not very familiar (Streamyard). I tried both of the browsers that I usually use (Firefox and Safari), and although the former enabled me to use some of Streamyard’s functionality, I could not do everything that I had wanted to use (and usually do) when giving an online presentation. Streamyard recommends Chrome, but I limit my use of Google products as much as possible, and refused to download it just so I could give one short presentation. I fear that the organisers did not appreciate my obduracy, and were surprised that I kept receiving error messages when trying to use some of Streamyard’s functionality.
  • I also belong to a civil society organisation that has recently gone over to using a particular app for managing the activities of volunteers. Previously, the administrator used to circulate details of rotas directly to the e-mail boxes of volunteers, letting us know when we were required and also providing reminders nearer the time. We have just received a message saying that the new automated system has been set up, and I have to check “my rotas” periodically to see what I am scheduled to do, and if necessary arrange swaps with others. Now, that obviously makes life easier for the administrator, but adds greatly to my time load because I have to log on to the system, negotiate its far from perfect functionality, see what I am down to do, and then note this in my diary. This is many more clicks than just opening an e-mail sent to me! The centre benefits; the volunteers have more work to do!
  • I was likewise doing some work for an organisation that uses Microsoft Teams, and when I requested a document, rather than it being sent to me I had to got into Teams, find where it was located (often in a crazily obscure sub-folder), download it onto my device (which often took some considerable time), and only then was I able to open the file and read it. If only someone could simply have sent it to me, or even just sent me an accurate link so I could open it online.

All of these examples illustrate ways through which digital technologies are being used to shift the balance of work away from administrators/managers at the “centre” and towards the employees/volunteers at the periphery, whilst concentrating the actual power ever more at the centre. My hunch is that the net wastage of time within such systems has gone up, that inefficiency has increased, and that the extraction of labour power from human employees has likewise increased. Digital technologies rather than improving the efficiency of systems, have become a means through which work/labour has not only increased but has also become very much more dehumanised and exploited by those at the “centre”.

Changing the balance of power

There are many ways through which such dehumanisation and exploitation take place, but the following are some of the most prevalent:

“Papers” for meetings: a historical legacy

I am old enough to remember the days when staff were sent papers (even in manilla envelopes) sufficiently far in advance before a meeting so as to be able to read and annotate them by hand. As an employee I received them, but it was the management/administration team who actually printed and distributed them. From the early- to mid-1990s, with the introduction of MIME, attachments became possible, and very swiftly, papers for meetings (and everything else as well) started to be sent by e-mail. In the early days, employees were often even required to print them off themselves and bring them to the physical meeting (a ridiculous multiplication of effort and expense). The balance of direction had shifted. No longer could the employee just open the package; now they had to save, open and print the files themselves – and that was in the days before you could bring your laptop to a meeting. Today, as digital systems have become ever more complicated and sophisticated, all the administrators have to do is upload documents once onto a centralised digital administration or management system, and then all relevant employees or users each have to log on, find the file, download it (be it on Basecamp, Trello, Asana, Teams, Slack, SAP, Google Drive, DropBox or wherever), and then read it. All of these stages take additional time for employees, and many are problematic and frustrating to use. While such systems clearly benefit the central generators of content, the total amount of time spent by all of the users who need to access it has increased.

Multiple overlapping systems: who decides which system to use?

For people only working in a single organisation and trained to use a single main digital system or environment, the time wasted in accessing digital content is bad enough. For those working across organisations, each with different systems, it becomes a whole lot worse. Not only are users encouraged to leave all of their systems on all the time so that they know what is happening or required immediately, but they are frequently also expected to reply instantaneously. This is neither possible nor sensible. Moreover, leaving your systems on means that others can see if you are there and contactable, which is not always helpful!

Extending the working day

This is perhaps the most obvious and yet insidious “benefit” of digital technologies. I’m old enough to remember the notion of a working day being “9 to 5” – although confess that I have always tended to spend longer “in the office” than that! However, even before COVID-19 helped to create a 24 hour working day, digital technologies have been used by employers dramatically to extend the working day, whilst at the same time claiming it is in the employees’ interests. This is particularly seen, for example, in the expectation by many managers that employees are contactable all hours of the day and night by e-mail, or even worse now through invasive social media messages. Long gone are the days when London commuters locked their safes, finished the day at 5 pm and got on over-crowded smoke-filled trains for the long commute to the suburbs. The commute has often now become the time to respond to digital messages, and once home people are then also frequently expected to do online training in the comfort of their homes. Travel to work, and the sanctuary of the home – all times previously free from employment-related labour – have now been incorporated into normal work expectations.

The all-seeing eye

More concerning than the extension of the working day, though, are the many ways through which employers now monitor every aspect of an employee’s work – reflecting both a collapse in trust, and an intent yet further to maximise extraction of the labour power of employees. This goes far beyond the use of digital fingerprints or retinal scans that check when an employee enters an employer’s premises, to the spatial monitoring of their personal digital devices and their every use of the employer’s digital management system; some are already microchipping their employees, in the name of making life easier for them (see for example, Metz, 2018; Schwartz, 2019).

Wasting time in digital meetings – just because we can meet, doesn’t mean we should waste so much time online in them!

Most face-to-face management meetings are a waste of time for the majority of people attending them. Invariably they are held for the sake of holding them, for the performance, and as a way of “management” controlloing “staff”. The proliferation of online meetings during COVID-19 has dramatically exacerbated this problem, and the difficulty of picking up the sensuous physical indicators between people has actually also often caused damaging misunderstandings that would have been less likely during a physical meeting. Just because it is possible for many people to participate in online meetings at all hours of the day and night does not actully mean that this is a valuable use of time. Participating in online meetings is rarely productive work!

Digitally enabled co-production of content is not always a good use of time

The potential for many people to work together in creating a single document can be greatly facilitated by the use of digital authoring tools. However, this crafting process can actually take much longer for people to interact with, and the net outcome is not necessarily any better than traditional editorial commentary systems. Working with different colleagues in various ways to craft texts through COVID-19 has been fascinating, and has reignited concerns I have previously had that most such usage of digital technologies actually increases the total time spent on “writing” without necessarily producing a better outcome. Furthermore, so called more “democratic” digital systems actually usually still contain subtle power structures. The first person to comment on a shared document, for example, exerts great influence on the remaining respondents. In contrast, where colleagues each respond to a central editor without seeing the comments of other team members, this “first respondent” bias is not present.

Why on earth would you want to attend a Zoom webinar where you aren’t even allowed to speak?

One of the greatest recent forms of control – and time-wasting – has been the proliferation of Zoom webinars, where an audience is invited to a view-only platform without being able to see each other or participate interactively beyond a limited chat facility. What a power relationship! Almost every company, international organisation (especially UN agencies) and civil society organisation I know has got on the bandwagon of inviting people to join Zoom webinars. If I were to accept all of the invitations I have received, my diary would be full mutliple times over every hour of the day and night! But most of these are dreadfully presented, and a complete waste of time, quite simply because it is much quicker to read something than it is to listen to someone talking to the background of a shared overcrowded and poorly designed slide deck! This is not to suggest that we should not try to use digital technologies to interact at a distance, but we should try to do so in as open and democratic way as possible (this is at least what we tried to do successfully with the ICT4D2020 Non-Conference, as well as with the launch of the Education for the Most Marginalised report #emmpostcovid19, or which more than 350 people were registered).

In conclusion

These are but a few of the countless ways through which digital technologies are being used to impose new systems of control, and to shift that balance of work and time away from the “centre” (or employer/manager) to the “periphery” (worker, employee, volunteer). In the academic part of my like, I encounter this increasing everyday exploitation in so many ways:

  • through the increased amount of time that online marking takes;
  • through the time-consuming online grant application forms that need to be completed,
  • in having to submit ghastly unintelligible spreadsheets online to report on grant expenditure;
  • through being required to use the frequently dreadful journal online processes when asked to review papers for them;
  • in being required to process and provide comments on job applications online;
  • in reviewing online fellowship and grant applications…

The list could go on, but my essential points are that many of us who experienced pre-online life find the new systems much more time consuming than they were previously, and most of them represent increasingly centralised control of professional working life. In the name of efficiency and democracy, many digital “solutions” actually create sytstems that are much less efficient and much more centralised and controlling than they were previously.

This is also a call for change; a call for the wise to say enough is enough. It is a call for those designing these systems to make them serve the interests of the workers rather than the masters, a call for the overthrow of the tyrannical powers of the digital barons, and a challenge to those who seek digitally to enslave the masses. We, the people, have the power in our hands to reject such control – all we need to do is to determine our own digital boundaries (for a summary of mine, read here), and make those who wish to control us instead to serve us through them. Above all, we need to reclaim our own physical and sensuous experience of reality, unmediated by the powers of digital control.

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Filed under digital technologies, Empowerment, ICT4D

Digital-political-economy in a post-Covid-19 world: implications for the most marginalised

Now is the time to be thinking seriously about the kind of world that we wish to live in once Covid-19 has finished its rampage across Europe and North America.[i] Although its potential direct health impact in Africa and South Asia remains uncertain at the time of writing, countries within these continents have already seen dramatic disruption and much hardship as well as numerous deaths having been caused by the measures introduced by governments to restrict its spread.  It is already clear that it is the poorest and most marginalised who suffer most, as witnessed, for example, by the impact of Modi’s lockdown in India on migrant workers.[ii]

This post highlights five likely global impacts that will be hastened by Covid-19, and argues that we need to use this disruption constructively to shape a better world in the future, rather than succumb to the potential and substantial damage that will be caused, especially to the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised.  It may be that for many countries in the world, the impact of Covid-19 will be even more significant than was the impact of the 1939-45 war.  Digital technologies are above all accelerators, and most of those leading the world’s major global corporations are already taking full advantage of Covid-19 to increase their reach and their profits.[iii]

The inexorable rise of China and the demise of the USA

http://hiram1555.com/2016/10/21/presidential-debates-indicate-end-of-us-empire-analyst/

Source: Hiram1555.com

I have written previously about the waxing of China and the waning of the USA; China is the global political-economic powerhouse of the present, not just of the future.[iv]  One very significant impact of Covid-19 will be to increase the speed of this major shift in global power.  Just as 1945 saw the beginning of the final end of the British Empire, so 2020 is likely to see the beginning of the end of the USA as the dominant global (imperial) power.  Already, even in influential USAn publications, there is now much more frequent support for the view that the US is a failing state.[v] This transition is likely to be painful, and it will require world leaders of great wisdom to ensure that it is less violent than may well be the case.

The differences between the ways in which the USA and China have responded to Covid-19 have been marked, and have very significant implications for the political, social and economic futures of these states.  Whilst little trust should be placed on the precise accuracy of reported Covid-19 mortality rate figures throughout the world, China has so far reported a loss of 3.2 people per million to the disease (as of 17 April, and thus including the 1290 uplift announced that day), whereas the USA has reported deaths of 8.38 per 100,000 (as of that date); moreover, China’s figures seem to have stabilised, whereas those for the USA continue to increase rapidly.[vi]  These differences are not only very significant in human terms, but they also reflect a fundamental challenge in the relative significance of the individual and the community in US and Chinese society.

Few apart from hardline Republicans in the USA now doubt the failure of the Trump regime politically, socially, economically and culturally. This has been exacerbated by the US government’s failure to manage Covid-19 effectively (even worse than the UK government’s performance), and its insistent antagonism towards China through its deeply problematic trade-war[vii] even before the outbreak of the present coronavirus. Anti-Chinese rhetoric in the USA is but a symptom of the realisation of the country’s fundamental economic and policial weaknesses in the 21st century.   President Trump’s persistent use of the term “Chinese virus” instead of Covid-19[viii] is also just a symptom of a far deeper malaise.   Trump is sadly not the problem; the problem is the people and system that enabled him to come to power and in whose interests he is trying to serve (alongside his own).  China seems likely to come out of the Covid-19 crisis much stronger than will the USA.[ix]

Whether people like it or not, and despite cries from the western bourgeoisie that it is unfair, and that the Chinese have lied about the extent of Covid-19 in their own country in its early stages, this is the reality.  China is the dominant world power today, let alone tomorrow.

An ever more digital world

https://www.forbes.com/sites/columbiabusinessschool/2020/04/21/how-covid-19-will-accelerate-a-digital-therapeutics-revolution/

Source: Forbes.com

The digital technology sector is already the biggest winner from Covid-19.  Everyone with access, knowledge and ability to pay for connectivity and digital devices has turned to digital technologies to continue with their work, maintain social contacts, and find entertainment during the lockdowns that have covered about one-third of the world’s population by mid-April.[x]  Those who previously rarely used such technologies, have overnight been forced to use them for everything from buying food online, to maintaining contacts with relatives and friends.

There is little evidence that the tech sector was prepared for such a windfall in the latter part of 2019,[xi] but major corporations and start-ups alike have all sought to exploit its benefits as quickly as possible in the first few months of 2020, as testified by the plethora of announcements claiming how various technologies can win the fight against Covid-19.[xii]

One particularly problematic outcome has been the way in which digital tech champions and activists have all sought to develop new solutions to combat Covid-19.  While sometimes this is indeed well intended, more often than not it is primarily so that they can benefit from funding that is made available for such activities by governments and donors, or primarily to raise the individual or corporate profile of those involved.  For them, Covid-19 is a wonderful business opportunity.  Sadly, many such initiatives will fail to deliver appropriate solutions, will be implemented after Covid-19 has dissipated, and on some occasions will even do more harm than good.[xiii]

There are many paradoxes and tensions in this dramatically increased role of digital technology after Covid-19. Two are of particular interest.  First, many people who are self-isolating or social distancing are beginning to crave real, physical human contact, and are realising that communicating only over the Internet is insufficiently fulfilling.  This might offer some hope for the future of those who still believe in the importance of non-digitally mediated human interaction, although I suspect that such concerns may only temporarily delay our demise into a world of cyborgs.[xiv] Second, despite the ultimate decline in the US economy and political power noted above, US corporations have been very well placed to benefit from the immediate impact of Covid-19, featuring in prominent initiatives such as UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition,[xv] or the coalition of pharmaceutical companies brought together by the Gates Foundation.[xvi]

Whatever the precise details, it is an absolute certainty that the dominance of digital technologies in everyone’s lives will increase very dramatically following Covid-19 and this will be exploited by those intent on reaping the profits from such expansion in their own interests.

Increasing acceptance of surveillance by states and companies: the end of privacy as we know it.

https://www.wired.com/story/phones-track-spread-covid19-good-idea/

Source: Wired.com

A third, related, global impact of Covid-19 will be widely increased global acceptance of the roles of states and companies in digital surveillance.  Already, before 2020, there was a growing, albeit insufficient, debate about the ethics of digital surveillance by states over issues such as crime and “terrorism”, and its implications for privacy.[xvii]  However, some states, such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Israel, have already used digital technologies and big data analytics extensively and apparently successfully in monitoring and tracking the spread of Covid-19,[xviii] and other coalitions of states and the private sector are planning to encourage citizens to sign up to having fundamental aspects of what has previously been considered to be their private and personal health information made available to unknown others.[xix]

One problem with such technologies is that they require substantial numbers of people to sign up to and then use them.  In more authoritarian states where governments can make such adherence obligatory by imposing severe penalties for failure to do so, they do indeed appear to be able to contribute to reduction in the spread of Covid-19 in the interests of the wider community.  However, in more liberal democratic societies, which place the individual about the community in importance, it seems less likely that they will be acceptable.

Despite such concerns, the growing evidence promoted by the companies that are developing them that such digital technologies can indeed contribute to enhanced public health will serve as an important factor in breaking down public resistance to the use of surveillance technologies and big data analytics.  Once again, this will ultimately serve the interest of those who already have greater political and economic power than it will the interests of the most marginalised.

Online shopping and the redesign of urban centres.

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/coronavirus-herd-immunity-meaning-definition-what-vaccine-immune-covid-19-a9397871.html

Source: Independent.co.uk

Self-isolation and social distancing have led to the dramatic emptying of towns and cities across the world.  Businesses that have been unable to adapt to online trading have overnight been pushed into a critical survival situation, with governments in many of the richer countries of the world being “forced” to offer them financial bail-outs to help them weather the storm.  Unfortunately, most of this money is going to be completely wasted and will merely create huge national debts for years into the future.  People who rarely before used online shopping are now doing so because they believe that no other method of purchasing goods is truly safe.

The new reality will be that most people will have become so used to online shopping that they are unlikely to return in the future to traditional shopping outlets. Companies that have been unable to adjust to the new reality will fail.  The character of our inner-city areas will change beyond recognition.  This is a huge opportunity for the re-design of urban areas in creative, safe and innovative ways.  Already, the environmental impact of a reduction in transport and pollution has been widely seen; wildlife is enjoying a bonanza; people are realising that their old working and socialising patterns may not have been as good as they once thought.[xx]  Unfortunately, it is likely that this opportunity may not be fully grasped, and instead governments that lack leadership and vision will instead seek to prop up backward-looking institutions, companies and organisations, intent on preserving infrastructure and economic activities that are unfit for purpose in the post-pandemic world.  Such a mentality will lead to urban decay and ghettoization, where people will fear to tread, and there is a real danger of a downward spiral of urban deprivation.

There are, though, many bright signs of innovation and creativity for those willing to do things differently.  Shops and restaurants that have been able to find efficient trustworthy drivers are now offering new delivery services; students are able to draw on the plethora of online courses now available; new forms of communal activity are flourishing; and most companies are realising that they don’t actually need to spend money on huge office spaces, but can exploit their labour even more effectively by enabling them to work from home.

We must see the changes brought about by responses to Covid-19 as important opportunities to build for the future, and to create human-centred urban places that are also sensitive to the natural environments in which they are located.

Increasing global inequalities

https://gulfnews.com/photos/news/indian-migrants-forced-to-walk-home-amid-covid-19-lockdown-1.1585394226024?slide=2

Source: Gulfnews.com

The net outcome of the above four trends will lead inexorably to a fifth, and deeply concerning issue: the world will become an even more unequal place, where those who can adapt and survive will flourish, but where the most vulnerable and marginalised will become even more immiserated.

This is already all too visible.  Migrant workers are being ostracised, and further marginalised.[xxi]  In India, tens of thousands of labourers are reported to have left the cities, many of them walking home hundreds of kilometres to their villages.[xxii] In China, Africans are reported as being subjected to racist prejudice, being refused service in shops and evicted from their residences.[xxiii]  In the UK, many food banks have had to close and it is reported that about 1.5. million people a day are going without food.[xxiv]  The World Bank is reporting that an extra 40-50 million people across the world will be forced into poverty by Covid-19, especially in Africa.[xxv]  People with disabilities have become even more forgotten and isolated.[xxvi]  The list of immediate crises grows by the day.

More worrying still is that there is no certainty that these short-term impacts will immediately bounce-back once the pandemic has passed.  It seems at least as likely that many of the changes will have become so entrenched that aspects of living under Covid-19 will become the new norm.  Once again, those able to benefit from the changes will flourish, but the uneducated, those with disabilities, the ethnic minorities, people living in isolated areas, refugees, and women in patriarchal societies are all likely to find life much tougher in 2021 and 2022 even than they do at present.   Much of this rising inequality is being caused, as noted above, by the increasing role that digital technologies are playing in people’s lives.  Those who have access and can afford to use the Internet can use it for shopping, employment, entertainment, learning, and indeed most aspects of their lives.  Yet only 59% of the world’s population are active Internet users.[xxvii]

Looking positively to the future.

People will respond in different ways to these likely trends over the next few years, but we will all need to learn to live together in a world where:

  • China is the global political economic power,
  • Our lives will become ever more rapidly experienced and mediated through digital technology,
  • Our traditional views of privacy are replaced by a world of surveillance,
  • Our towns and cities have completely different functions and designs, and
  • There is very much greater inequality in terms of opportunities and life experiences.

In dealing with these changes, it is essential to remain positive; to see Covid-19 as an opportunity to make the world a better place for everyone to live in, rather than just as a threat of further pain, misery and death, or an opportunity for a few to gain unexpected windfall opportunities to become even richer.  Six elements would seem to be important in seeking to ensure that as many people as possible can indeed flourish once the immediate Covid-19 pandemic has dissipated:

  • First, these predictions should encourage all of us to prioritise more on enhancing the lives of the poorest and the most marginalised, than on ensuring economic growth that mainly benefits the rich and privileged. This applies at all scales, from designing national health and education services, to providing local, community level care provision.
  • This requires an increased focus on negotiating communal oriented initiatives and activities rather than letting the greed and selfishness of individualism continue to rule the roost.
  • Third, it is essential that we use this as an opportunity to regain our physical sentient humanity, and reject the aspirations of those who wish to create a world that is only experienced and mediated through digital technology. We need to regain our very real experiences of each other and the world in which we live through our tastes, smells, the sounds we hear, the touches we feel, and the sights we see.
  • Fourth, it seems incredibly important that we create a new global political order safely to manage a world in which China replaces the USA as the dominant global power. The emergence of new political counterbalances, at a regional level as with Europe, South Asia, Africa and Latin America seems to be a very important objective that remains to be realised.  Small states that choose to remain isolated, however arrogant they are about the “Great”ness of their country, will become ever more vulnerable to the vagaries of economic, political and demographic crisis.
  • Fifth, we need to capitalise on the environmental impact of Covid-19 rapidly to shape a world of which we are but a part, and in which we care for and co-operate with the rich diversity of plant and animal life that enjoys the physical richness of our planet. This will require a comprehensive and rigorous evaluation of the harm caused to our world by the design and use of digital technologies.[xxviii]
  • Finally, we need to agree communally on the extent to which individual privacy matters, and whether we are happy to live in a world of omnipresent surveillance by companies (enabling them to reap huge profits from our selves as data) and governments (to maintain their positions of power, authority and dominance). This must not be imposed on us by powerful others.  It is of paramount importance that there is widespread informed public and communal discussion about the future of surveillance in a post-Covid-19 era.

I trust that these comments will serve to provoke and challenge much accepted dogma and practice.  Above all, let’s try to think of others more than we do ourselves, let’s promote the reduction of inequality over increases in economic growth, and let’s enjoy  an integral, real and care-filled engagement with the non-human natural world.


Notes:

[i] For current figures see https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ and https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6, although all data related with this coronavirus must be treated with great caution; see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/04/11/data-and-the-scandal-of-the-uks-covid-19-survival-rate/

[ii] Modi’s hasty coronavirus lockdown of India leaves many fearful for what comes next, https://time.com/5812394/india-coronavirus-lockdown-modi/

[iii] Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter and Square, might well be an exception with his $1 billion donation to support Covid-19 relief and other charities; see https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/7/21212766/jack-dorsey-coronavirus-covid-19-donate-relief-fund-square-twitter

[iv] See, for example, discussion in Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  I appreciate that such arguments infuriate many people living in the USA,

[v] See, for example, George Parker’s, We Are Living in a Failed State: The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken, The Atlantic, June 2020 (preview) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/underlying-conditions/610261/.

[vi] Based on figures from https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ on 15th April 2020.  For comparison, Spain had 39.74 reported deaths per 100,000, Italy 35.80, and the UK 18.96.

[vii] There are many commentaries on this, but The Wall Street Journal’s account on 9 February 2020 https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-china-trade-war-reshaped-global-commerce-11581244201 is useful, as is the Pietersen Institute’s timeline https://www.piie.com/blogs/trade-investment-policy-watch/trump-trade-war-china-date-guide.

[viii] For a good account of his use of language see Eren Orbey’s comment in The New Yorker, Trump’s “Chinese virus” and what’s at stake in the coronovirus’s name,  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/whats-at-stake-in-a-viruss-name

[ix] China’s massive long-term strategic investments across the world, not least through its 一带一路 (Belt and Road) initiative, have placed it in an extremely strong position to reap the benefits of its revitalised economy from 2021 onwards (for a good summary of this initiative written in January 2020 see https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative)

[x] Kaplan, J., Frias, L. and McFall-Johnsen, M., A third of the global population is on coronavirus lockdown…, https://www.businessinsider.com/countries-on-lockdown-coronavirus-italy-2020-3?r=DE&IR=T

[xi] This is despite conspiracy theorists arguing that those who were going to gain most from Covid-19 especially in the digital tech and pharmaceutical industry had been active in promoting global fear of the coronavirus, or worse still had actually engineered it for their advantage.  See, for example, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/17/technology/bill-gates-virus-conspiracy-theories.html, or Thomas Ricker, Bill Gates is now the leading target for Coronavirus falsehoods, says report, https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/17/21224728/bill-gates-coronavirus-lies-5g-covid-19 .

[xii] See, for example, Shah, H. and Kumar, K., Ten digital technologies helping humans in the fight against Covid-19, Frost and Sullivan, https://ww2.frost.com/frost-perspectives/ten-digital-technologies-helping-humans-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, Gergios Petropolous, Artificial interlligence in the fight against COVID-19, Bruegel, https://www.bruegel.org/2020/03/artificial-intelligence-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, or Beech, P., These new gadgets were designed to fight COVID-19, World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-covid19-pandemic-gadgets-innovation-technology/. It is also important to note that the notion of “fighting” the coronavirus is also deeply problematic.

[xiii] For my much more detailed analysis of these issues, see Tim Unwin (26 March 2020), collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/03/26/collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response/

[xiv] For more on this see Tim Unwin (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press, and for a brief comment https://unwin.wordpress.com/2016/08/03/dehumanization-cyborgs-and-the-internet-of-things/.

[xv] Although, significantly, Chinese companies are also involved; see https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/globalcoalition

[xvi] For the work of the Gates Foundation and US pharmaceutical companies in fighting Covid-19 https://www.outsourcing-pharma.com/Article/2020/03/27/Bill-Gates-big-pharma-collaborate-on-COVID-19-treatments

[xvii] There is a huge literature, both academic and policy related, on this, but see for example OCHCR (2014) Online mass-surveillance: “Protect right to privacy even when countering terrorism” – UN expert, https://www.ohchr.org/SP/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15200&LangID=E; Privacy International, Scrutinising the global counter-terrorism agenda, https://privacyinternational.org/campaigns/scrutinising-global-counter-terrorism-agenda; Simon Hale-Ross (2018) Digital Privacy, Terrorism and Law Enforcement: the UK’s Response to Terrorist Communication, London: Routledge; and Lomas, N. (2020) Mass surveillance for national security does conflict with EU privacy rights, court advisor suggests, TechCrunch, https://techcrunch.com/2020/01/15/mass-surveillance-for-national-security-does-conflict-with-eu-privacy-rights-court-advisor-suggests/.

[xviii] Kharpal, A. (26 March 2020) Use of surveillance to fight coronavirus raised c oncenrs about government power after pandemic ends, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/27/coronavirus-surveillance-used-by-governments-to-fight-pandemic-privacy-concerns.html; but see also more critical comments about the efficacy of such systems as by Vaughan, A. (17 April 2020) There are many reasons why Covid-19 contact-tracing apps may not work, NewScientist, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2241041-there-are-many-reasons-why-covid-19-contact-tracing-apps-may-not-work/

[xix] There are widely differing views as to the ethics of this.  See, for example, Article 19 (2 April 2020) Coronavirus: states use of digital surveillance technologies to fight pandemic must respect human rights, https://www.article19.org/resources/covid-19-states-use-of-digital-surveillance-technologies-to-fight-pandemic-must-respect-human-rights/ ; McDonald, S. (30 March 2020) The digital response to the outbreak of Covid-19, https://www.cigionline.org/articles/digital-response-outbreak-covid-19. See also useful piece by Arcila (2020) for ICT4Peace on “A human-centric framework to evaluate the risks raised by contact-tracing applications” https://mcusercontent.com/e58ea7be12fb998fa30bac7ac/files/07a9cd66-0689-44ff-8c4f-6251508e1e48/Beatriz_Botero_A_Human_Rights_Centric_Framework_to_Evaluate_the_Security_Risks_Raised_by_Contact_Tracing_Applications_FINAL_BUA_6.pdf.pdf

[xx] See, for example, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200326-covid-19-the-impact-of-coronavirus-on-the-environment, https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/the-environmental-impact-of-covid-19/ss-BB11JxGv?li=BBoPWjQ, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/life-after-coronavirus-pandemic-change-world, and https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-affecting-co2-emissions/.

[xxi] See The Guardian (23 April 2020) ‘We’re in a prison’: Singapore’s million migrant workers suffer as Covid-19 surges back, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/23/singapore-million-migrant-workers-suffer-as-covid-19-surges-back

[xxii] Al Jazeera (6 April 2020) India: Coronavirus lockdown sees exodus from cities, https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/newsfeed/2020/04/india-coronavirus-lockdown-sees-exodus-cities-200406104405477.html.

[xxiii] Financial Times (13th April) China-Africa relations rocked by alleged racism over Covid-19, https://www.ft.com/content/48f199b0-9054-4ab6-aaad-a326163c9285

[xxiv] Global Citizen (22 April 2020) Covid-19 Lockdowns are sparking a hunger crisis in the UK, https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/covid-19-food-poverty-rising-in-uk/

[xxv] Mahler, D.G., Lakner, C., Aguilar, R.A.C. and Wu, H. (20 April 2020) The impact of Covid-19 (Coronavirus) on global poverty: why Sub-Saharan Africa might be the region hardest hit, World Bank Blogs, https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/impact-covid-19-coronavirus-global-poverty-why-sub-saharan-africa-might-be-region-hardest

[xxvi] Bridging the Gap (2020) The impact of Covid-19 on persons with disabilities, https://bridgingthegap-project.eu/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-people-with-disabilities/

[xxvii] Statista (Januarv 2020) https://www.statista.com/statistics/269329/penetration-rate-of-the-internet-by-region/

[xxviii] For a wider discussion of the negative environmental impacts of climate change see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/digital-technologies-and-climate-change/.

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Collaboration and competition in Covid-19 response

A week ago, I wrote a post about the potential of crowdsourcing and the use of hashtags for gathering enhanced data on infection rates for Covid-19.  Things have moved rapidly since then as companies, civil society organisations, international organisations, academics and donors have all developed countless initiatives to try to respond.  Many of these initiatives seem to be more about the profile and profits of the organisations/entities involved than they do about making a real impact on the lives of those who will suffer most from Covid-19.  Yesterday, I wrote another post on my fears that donors and governments will waste huge amounts of money, time and effort on Covid-19 to little avail, since they have not yet learnt the lessons of past failures.

I still believe that crowdsourcing could have the potential, along with many other ways of gathering data, to enhance decision making at this critical time. However the dramatic increase in the number of such initiatives gives rise to huge concern.  Let us learn from past experience in the use of digital technologies in development, and work together in the interests of those who are likely to suffer the most.  Eight issues are paramount when designing a digital tech intervention to help reduce the impact of Covid-19, especially through crowdsourcing type initiatives:

  • Don’t duplicate what others are already doing
  • Treat privacy and security very carefully
  • Don’t detract from official and (hopefully) accurate information
  • Keep it simple
  • Ask questions that will be helpful to those trying to respond to the pandemic
  • Ensure that there are at least some questions that are the same in all surveys if there are multiple initiatives being done by different organisations
  • Work with a globally agreed set of terminology and hashtags (#)
  • Collaborate and share

Don’t duplicate what others are already doing

As the very partial list of recent initiatives at the end of this post indicates, many crowdsourcing projects have been created across the world to gather data from people about infections and behaviours relating to Covid-19.  Most of these are well-intentioned, although there will also be those that are using such means unscrupulously also to gather data for other purposes.  Many of these initiatives ask very similar questions.  Not only is it a waste of resources to design and build several competing platforms in a country (or globally), but individual citizens will also soon get bored of responding to multiple different platforms and surveys.  The value of each initiative will therefore go down, especially if there is no means of aggregating the data.  Competition between companies may well be an essential element of the global capitalist system enabling the fittest  to accrue huge profits, but it is inappropriate in the present circumstances where there are insufficient resources available to tackle the very immediate responses needed across the world.

Treat privacy and security very carefully

Most digital platforms claim to treat the security of their users very seriously.  Yet the reality is that many fail to protect the privacy of much personal information sufficiently, especially when software is developed rapidly by people who may not prioritise this issue and cut corners in their desire to get to market as quickly as possible.  Personal information about health status and location is especially sensitive.  It can therefore be hugely risky for people to provide information about whether they are infected with a virus that is as easily transmitted as Covid-19, while also providing their location so that this can then be mapped and others can see it.  Great care should be taken over the sort of information that is asked and the scale at which responses are expected.  It is not really necessary to know the postcode/zipcode of someone, if just the county or province will do.

Don’t detract from official and (hopefully) accurate information

Use of the Internet and digital technologies have led to a plethora of false information being propagated about Covid-19.  Not only is this confusing, but it can also be extremely dangerous.  Please don’t – even by accident – distract people from gaining the most important and reliable information that could help save their lives.  In some countries most people do not trust their governments; in others, governments may not have sufficient resources to provide the best information.  In these instances, it might be possible to work with the governments to ehance their capacity to deliver wise advice.  Whatever you do, try to point to the most reliable globally accepted infomation in the most appropriate languages (see below for some suggestions).

Keep it simple

Many of the crowdsourcing initiatives currently available or being planned seem to invite respondents to complete a fairly complex and detailed list of questions.  Even when people are healthy it could be tough for them to do so, and this could especially be the case for the elderly or digitally inexperienced who are often the most vulnerable.  Imagine what it would be like for someone who has a high fever or difficulty in breathing trying to fill it in.

Ask questions that will be helpful to those trying to respond to the pandemic

It is very difficult to ask clear and unambiguous questions.  It is even more difficult to ask questions about a field that you may not know much about.  Always work with people who might want to use the data that your initiative aims to generate.  If you are hoping, for example, to produce data that could be helpful in modelling the pandemic, then it is essential to learn from epidemiologists and those who have much experience in modelling infectious diseases.  It is also essential to ensure that the data are in a format that they can actually use.  It’s all very well producing beautful maps, but if they use different co-ordinate systems or boundaries from those used by government planners they won’t be much use to policy makers.

Ensure that there are at least some questions that are the same in all surveys if there are multiple initiatives being done by different organisations

When there are many competing surveys being undertaken by different organisations about Covid-19, it is important that they have some identical questions so that these can then be aggregated or compared with the results of other initiatives.   It is pointless having multiple initiatives the results of which cannot be combined or compared.

Work with a globally agreed set of terminology and hashtags (#)

The field of data analytics is becoming ever more sophisticated, but if those tackling Covid-19 are to be able readily to use social media data, it would be very helpful if there was some consistency in the use of terminology and hashtags.  There remains an important user-generated element to the creation of hashtags (despite the control imposed by those who create and own social media platforms), but it would be very helpful to those working in the field if some consistency could be encouraged or even recommended by global bodies and UN agencies such as the WHO and the ITU.

Collaborate and share

Above all, in these unprecendented times, it is essential for those wishing to make a difference to do so collaboratively rather than competitively.  Good practices should be shared rather than used to generate individual profit.  The scale of the potential impact, especially in the weakest contexts is immense.  As a recent report from the Imperial College MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis notes, without interventions Covid-19 “would have resulted in 7.0 billion infections and 40 million deaths globally this year. Mitigation strategies focussing on shielding the elderly (60% reduction in social contacts) and slowing but not interrupting transmission (40% reduction in social contacts for wider population) could reduce this burden by half, saving 20 million lives, but we predict that even in this scenario, health systems in all countries will be quickly overwhelmed. This effect is likely to be most severe in lower income settings where capacity is lowest: our mitigated scenarios lead to peak demand for critical care beds in a typical low-income setting outstripping supply by a factor of 25, in contrast to a typical high-income setting where this factor is 7. As a result, we anticipate that the true burden in low income settings pursuing mitigation strategies could be substantially higher than reflected in these estimates”.

 

Resources

This concluding section provides quick links to generally agreed reliable and simple recommendations relating to Covid-19 that could be included in any crowdsourcing platform (in the appropriate language), and a listing of just a few of the crowdsourcing initiatives that have recently been developed.

Recommended reliable information on Covid-19

Remember the key WHO advice adopted in various forms by different governments:

  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Maintain social distancing
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth
  • If you have fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical care early

A sample of crowdsourcing initiatives

Some of the many initiatives using crowdsourcing and similar methods to generate data relating to Covid-19 (many of which have very little usage):

Lists by others of relevant initiatives:

 

Global Covid-19 mapping and recording initiatives

The following are currently three of the best sourcs for global information about Covid-19 – although I do wish that they clarified that “infections” are only “recorded infections”, and that data around deaths should be shown as “deaths per 1000 people” (or similar density measures) and depicted on choropleth maps.

 

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Crowdsourcing Covid-19 infection rates

Covid-19, 19 March 2020, Source: https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/

Covid-19, 19 March 2020, Source: https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/

I have become increasingly frustrated by the continued global reporting of highly misleading figures for the number of Covid-19 infections in different countries.  Such “official” figures are collected in very different ways by governments and can therefore not simply be compared with each other.  Moreover, when they are used to calculate death rates they become much more problematic.  At the very least, everyone who cites such figures should refer to them as “Officially reported Infections”

As I write (19th March 2020, 17.10 UK time), the otherwise excellent thebaselab‘s documentation of the coronavirus’s evolution and spread gives mortality rates (based on deaths as a percentage of infected cases) for China as 4.01%, Italy as 8.34% and the UK as 5.09%.  However, as countries are being overwhelmed by Covid-19, most no longer have the capacity to test all those who fear that they might be infected.  Hence, as the numbers of tests as a percentage of total cases go down, the death rates will appear to go up.  It is fortunately widely suggested that most people who become infected with Covid-19 will only have a mild illness (and they are not being tested in most countries), but the numbers of deaths become staggering if these mortality rates are extrapolated.  Even if only 50% of people are infected (UK estimates are currently between 60% and 80% – see the Imperial College Report of 16th March that estimates that 81% of the UK and US populations will be infected), and such mortality rates are used, the figures (at present rates) become frightening:

  • In Italy, with a total population of 60.48 m, this would mean that 30.24 m people would be infected, which with a mortality rate of 8.34% would imply that 2.52 m people would die;
  • In the UK, with a total population of 66.34 m, this would mean that 33.17 m people would be infected, which with a mortality rate of 5.09% would imply that 1.69 m people would die.

These figures are unrealistic, because only a fraction of the total number of infected people are being tested, and so the reported infection rates are much lower than in reality.  In order to stop such speculations, and to reduce widespread panic, it is essential that all reporting of “Infected Cases” is therefore clarified, or preferably stopped.  Nevertheless, the most likely impact of Covid-19 is still much greater than most people realise or can fully appreciate.  The Imperial College Report (p.16) thus suggests that even if all patients were to be treated, there would still be around 250,000 deaths in Great Britain and 1.1-1.2 m in the USA; doing nothing, means that more than half a million people might die in the UK.

Having accurate data on infection rates is essential for effective policy making and disease management.  Globally, there are simply not enough testing kits or expertise to be able to get even an approximately accurate figure for real infections rates.  Hence, many surrogate measures have been used, all of which have to make complex assumptions about the sample populations from which they are drawn.  An alternative that is fortunately beginning to be considered is the use of digital technologies and social media.  Whilst by no means everyone has access to digital technologies or Internet connectivity, very large samples can be generated.  It is estimated that on average 2.26 billion people use one of the Facebook family of services every day; 30% of the world’s population is a large sample.  Existing crowdsourcing and social media platforms could therefore be used to provide valuable data that might help improve the modelling, and thus the management of this pandemic.

Crowdsourcing

[Great to see that since I first wrote this, Liquid Telecom has used Ushahidi to develop a crowd sourced Covid-19 data gathering initiative]

The violence in Kenya following the disputed Presidential elections in 2007, provided the cradle for the development of the Open Source crowdmapping platform, Ushahidi, which has subsequently been used in responding to disasters such as the earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal, and valuable lessons have been learnt from these experiences.  While there are many challenges in using such technologies, the announcement on 18th March that Ushahidi is waiving its Basic Plan fees for 90 days is very much to be welcomed, and provides an excellent opportunity to use such technologies better to understand (and therefore hopefully help to control) the spread of Covid-19.  However, there is a huge danger that such an opportunity may be missed.

The following (at a bare minimum) would seem to be necessary to maximise the opportunity for such crowdsourcing to be successful:

  • We must act urgently. The failure of countries across the world to act in January, once the likely impact of events in Wuhan unravelled was staggering. If we are to do anything, we have to act now, not least to help protect the poorest countries in the world with the weakest medical services.  Waiting even a fortnight will be too late.
  • Some kind of co-ordination and sharing of good practices is necessary. Whilst a global initiative might be feasible, it would seem more practicable for national initiatives to be created, led and inspired by local activists.  However, for data to be comparable (thereby enabling better modelling to take place) it is crucial for these national initiatives to co-operate and use similar methods and approaches.  There must also be close collaboration with the leading researchers in global infectious disease analysis to identify what the most meaningful indicators might be, as well as international organisations such as the WHO to help disseminate practical findings..
  • An agreed classification. For this to be effective there needs to be a simple agreed classification that people across the world could easily enter into a platform.  Perhaps something along these lines might be appropriate: #CovidS (I think I might have symptoms), #Covid7 (I have had symptoms for 7 days), #Covid14 (I have had symptoms for 14 days), #CovidT (I have been tested and I have it), #Covid0 (I have been tested and I don’t have it), #CovidH (I have been hospitalised), #CovidX (a person has died from it).
  • Practical dissemination.  Were such a platform (or national platforms) to be created, there would need to be widespread publicity, preferably by governments and mobile operators, to encourage as many people as possible to enter their information.  Mutiple languages would need to be incorporated, and the interfaces would have to be as appealing and simple as possible so as to encourage maximum submission of information.

Ushahidi as a platform is particularly appealing, since it enables people to submit information in multiple ways, not only using the internet (such as e-mail and Twitter), but also through SMS messages.  These data can then readily be displayed spatially in real time, so that planners and modellers can see the visual spread of the coronavirus.  There are certainly problems with such an approach, not least concerning how many people would use it and thus how large a sample would be generated, but it is definitely something that we should be exploring collectively further.

Social media

An alternative approach that is hopefully also already being explored by global corporations (but I have not yet read of any such definite projects underway) could be the use of existing social media platforms, such as Facebook/WhatsApp, WeChat or Twitter to collate information about people’s infection with Covid-19. Indeed, I hope that these major corporations have already been exploring innovative and beneficial uses to which their technologies could be put.  However, if this if going to be of any real practical use we must act very quickly.

In essence, all that would be needed would be for there to be an agreed global classification of hashtags (as tentatively suggested above), and then a very widespread marketing programme to encourage everyone who uses these platforms simply to post their status, and any subsequent changes.  The data would need to be released to those undertaking the modelling, and carefully curated information shared with the public.

Whilst such suggestions are not intended to replace existing methods of estimating the spread of infectious diseases, they could provide a valuable additional source of data that could enable modelling to be more accurate.  Not only could this reduce the number of deaths from Covid-19, but it could also help reassure the billions of people who will live through the pandemic.  Of course, such methods also have their sampling challenges, and the data would still need to be carefully interpreted, but this could indeed be a worthwhile initiative that would not be particularly difficult or expensive to initiate if global corporations had the will to do so.

Some final reflections

Already there are numerous new initiatives being set up across the world to find ways through which the latest digital technologies might be used in efforts to minimise the impact of Covid-19. The usual suspects are already there as headlines such as these attest: Blockchain Cures COVID-19 Related Issues in China, AI vs. Coronavirus: How artificial intelligence is now helping in the fight against COVID-19, or Using the Internet of Things To Fight Virus Outbreaks. While some of these may have potential in the future when the next pandemic strikes, it is unlikely that they will have much significant impact  on Covid-19.  If we are going to do anything about it, we must act now with existing well known, easy to use, and reliable digital technologies.

I fear that this will not happen.  I fear that we will see numerous companies and civil society organisations approaching donors with brilliant new innovative “solutions” that will require much funding and will take a year to implement.  By then it will be too late, and they will be forgotten and out of date by the time the next pandemic arrives.  Donors should resist the temptation to fund these.  We need to learn from what happened in West Africa with the spread of Ebola in 2014, when more than 200 digital initiatives seeking to provide information relating to the virus were initiated and funded (see my post On the contribution of ICTs to overcoming the impact of Ebola).  Most (although not all) failed to make any significant impact on the lives and deaths of those affected, and the only people who really benefitted were the companies and the staff working in the civil society organisations who proposed the “innovations”.

This is just a plea for those of us interested in these things to work together collaboratively, collectively and quickly to use what technologies we have at our fingertips to begin to make an impact.  Next week it will probably be too late…

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Ten tips for working at home and self-isolating

I have always worked in part from home, on the road overseas in hotels, alone in strange places…  However, when I left full-time salaried work in 2015, and shifted primarily to working from home, I swiftly discovered the need substantially to readjust my habits.  For those without such experiences, who are being forced to self-isolate or work at home as a result of Covid-19 there are likely to be many challenges – but there are now plenty of guides available for things to do to help manage the rapid change of lifestyle (see below). Most of these are very sensible, but do not necessarily coincide with my own experiences.  So here are just a few tips that might be useful (in approximate order of importance):

1. Be positive and treat it as an adventure

positiveIt is much easier to enjoy change if you treat it in a positive way.  Think about all the good things: no need to travel to work; spending time with those you love (hopefully); doing things at home that you have always wanted to!  Treat the next few weeks or months as an opportunity to do new and exciting things.  Discover your home again! (Although this highlights the huge challenges facing the homeless).

2. Try to keep your  work place separate from your sleeping place

Clipart of woman sleeping at work image in Cliparts category at pixy.orgIf at all possible, it is absolutely essential to have separate sleeping and working places so that you remain sane.  There is much evidence that trying to sleep in the same place in which you work can confuse the mind, and may tend to make it continue to work when you want to go to sleep – even subconsciously – rather than enabling you to rest.  You are likely to be worried about the implications of Covid-19, and so it is essential that you do all you can to ensure a good night’s sleep.  This may not be easy for many people, but you should still try not to work in your bedroom!  And don’t continue working too late – give your body the time it needs to relax and rest.

3. Take as much exercise as possible

stairs-stairs-clipart_500-500It is incredibly easy to put on weight when working at home, even if you think you are not doing so!  This is bad for your health, and bad for morale.  It’s easy to understand why this happens: many people commute to work, and even if not cycling, they walk from their transport node to their office; homes are smaller than offices, and so you generally walk more at work than at home; and often you will go out of the office during the daytime, perhaps for lunch, but you can’t do this if you are self-isolating.  There are lots of things, though, that you can do to rectify this: walk up and down stairs several times a day (never take the lift); ensure that you go for a short walk every hour (even if it is just 20 times around your home); if you have some outdoor space, take up gardening (it uses lots of muscles you never thought you had!); and even if you don’t decide to buy a stationary bike (actually much cheaper than joining a gym), you can still exercise with a resistance band, or even use bags of sugar as weights!

4. Let everyone in the household have their own nest for working in

nestYou may well already have done this!  However, if not, remember that we all construct different kinds of places for working in.  I know I am one of the most antisocial people in the world when I am thinking and writing;  my home office looks a complete mess, but I know exactly where everything is, and woe betide anyone who moves something!  So, if there are several of you working at home, try to create your own spaces for working in.  Your husband, wife, partner, or children will all work in different ways, so try to ensure that everyone has a separate working place.  You will all be more productive – and get on better after you’ve finished working!

5. Plan your day – and give yourself treats

PLanWhen you don’t have to catch public transport, or cycle/drive/walk to work it is terribly easy to be lazy, and let time slip by without focusing on the tasks in hand.  Most people like to feel they have achieved something positive every day.  One way to ensure this is to plan each day carefully.  And don’t forget to give yourself treats when you have achieved something – whatever it is that you enjoy!

6. Keep a balance to your life

balanceThis is closely linked to planning – but don’t just spend all your time relaxing, or doing nothing but work!  It’s important to maintain diversity in life.  If your boss expects you to work a 10 hour day, then make sure that you do (hopefully s/he won’t).   But even then you  have 14 hours each day to do other things (please try and get 7 hours of sleep – it will help to keep you fit and well)!  I find that having a colour coded diary with a clear schedule helps me manage my life – even though I tend to work far too much!  The trouble is I enjoy my work!

7. Create agreed ground rules and expectations to reduce tensions

rulesMany people who now have to work at home because of Covid-19 will not have had much experience previously at doing this.  It can come as a shock getting to see other aspects of a loved one’s life.  Tensions are bound to arise, especially if you are trying to work when your children are at home because school has been closed.  It can help to have a thorough and transparent discussion between all members of a household (including the children) to set some ground rules for how you are going to manage the next few weeks and months.  This can indeed be challenging, and will frequently require revisiting, but having some shared expectations can help reduce the tensions that are bound to arise.  Listening (however difficult it is) often helps to lower tension.

8. Wear different clothes just as you would if you went out to work (and play)

Man and Woman Collection, Vector IllustrationThe clothes we wear represent how we feel, but can also help shape those feelings.  It is amazing what an effect it can have if you get dressed smartly when you are feeling low.  Likewise, most people like to dress in more relaxed clothing when they stop working, and we don’t usually sleep in the same clothes that we have worn during the day.  Just because you are working at home, doesn’t necessarily mean that you will work well in your pyjamas (and imagine if you are suddenly asked to join a conference call without time to change!).  The simple message is that we should continue to take care of ourselves, just as if we were going out to work or to a party!

9. Switch off your digital devices (at least some of the time)

digitalEnjoy the physicality of life.  Don’t always feel you have to be online in case “work” wants to get in touch.  None of us are that important.  The world will get by perfectly well without us!  There is a lot of evidence that being online late at night can also disturb our sleep patterns. Remember that although we are increasingly being programmed to believe that digital technology gives us much more freedom in how we work,  it is actually mainly used by the owners of capital further to exploit their workforces by making them work longer hours for no extra pay!

10. Use the time creatively to do something that you have always wanted to do

veg-vegetables-clipart-8-clipart-station_650-400Being self-isolated at home will mean that you have vastly more time on your hands than you can ever imagine (as long as you don’t work all day and night).  Use it creatively to do something that you have always thought about doing,  but never had the time before.  Read those books that you always wanted to. Learn a musical instrument.  Learn to speak a new language (Python or Mandarin).  Take up painting.  Discover how to cook delicious meals with limited resources.  Photograph the wildlife in your garden. Grow your own vegetables.  Make beer.  Even just plan your next (or first) holiday.

Other useful resources (with a mainly UK focus) include:

I very much hope that some of these ideas will help to get you through the next few months, and that we will all emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic as being more considerate for others, and less concerned about ourselves.  Thinking more about how you can help others rather than what you want yourself is a good way to start planning for self-isolation.

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Servants of the poor – WSIS TalkX

TalkXIt was a great honour to have been invited – a few hours beforehand – to give one of the inaugural WSIS TalkX presentations last Thursday evening as WSIS 2019 drew towards its close.  Seven of us had been asked if we would like to talk about our lives in technology for around 5 minutes. I opted to go last – just before the closing cocktail party.  Several colleagues had to leave before the end to get to other commitments and so they spoke first; I knew I would be remaining to enjoy the wine.  Before me there were some amazing, inspirational speakers: Stephenie Rodriguez, Joel Radvanyi, Gloria Kimbwala, Ayanna T Samuels, Sebastian Behaghel and Ted Chen

With little time to prepare it was difficult to know quite what to say.  We had been asked to tell our own stories, and so I chose five images as five “scenes” around which to tell my tale.  Posting the images on social media, I had hoped that people might be able to see them as I spoke…

1 2 3 4 5

 

In reality, I’m not sure that many people actually saw the pictures, and I know many were rather confused when I began and introduced myself in the persona of one of my aliases.  I had, though, been introduced by the Master of Ceremonies as someone learning from the life of Hassan-i Sabbah…

Screenshot 2019-04-15 at 20.29.34

To see and hear what I had to say, click on the image above (or here).  Fully to understand it, though, you would need to listen to the other six talks, because I tried hard to link it to what the speakers had to say – especially, for example, about the best university in the world, and the SDGs!

The basic message is simple – if we really believe in empowering the poor and the marginalised through digital technologies we must become their servants…

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Brexit and the failure of British politicians

TimFrom the beginning, Brexit was more about the internal politics of British political parties than it was about serving the interests of the British people.  As we approach the endgame, this farce continues.  Some MPs, such as Chuka Umunna (Independent Group, formerly Labour), David Lammy (Labour), and Caroline Lucas (Green) have indeed stood up for the people, and for what is right, but sadly they are a small minority.  The chaos of last week’s votes in the House of Commons,  and the pathetic spectacle of Prime Minister May still trying to get MPs to support “her deal” after two defeats already by calling for an “honourable compromise“, only serve to reinforce the failure of the UK’s current political system.  Our system of so-called democracy is unfit for purpose, and it is time that it was replaced.

Tim 2I have often been asked by friends from oversease how we could possibly have arrived at such a situation, where 12 days before we are due to leave the EU, we have no idea of what will actually happen.    I have written extensively about the half-truths upon which the original referendum was based, the voice of the 700,000 who marched on 20th October 2018 in London, and the need to use use powerful arguments that combine emotion and logic if we are indeed to convince people about the benefits of remaining.  I have tweeted ad nauseam (much to the chagrin of some of my friends) about Brexit, and likewise shared my increasingly frustrated opinions on Facebook.  As we rapidly approach the abyss of Brexit, let me just briefly share some of the most important failures that our Parliament (and by that I mean both Corbyn and May as leaders, as well as politicians on all sides who have failed to serve the interests of the people) have made.

  • The 2016 referendum was advisory – and yet Parliament chose to see it as being definitive.  A wise leader would have listened to the advice of the people, and then gone back to discuss what options there might be for a new deal in Europe before simply saying we would leave the EU.  A wise leader would have led the people to do what is right, and in the interests of the country as a whole.
  • In any case, the majority of British people did not vote to leave the EU.  Yes, 52% of those who voted did indeed state they wanted to leave, yet this only represented 27% of the total British population.  We should never have had a referendum that would permit such a tiny majority of those who voted in favour of leaving to determine the future.
  • The leave campaign was corrupt and based on lies, and yet there have been long delays in bringing those involved to justice.  In October 2018 Open Democracy reported that “Police (are) still not invesitgating Leave campaigns, citing ‘political sensitivies'”.  The full extent of illegal funding, penalties for the blatant untruths promulgated during the campaign, breach of data laws, and dubious use of social media still remain unknown.
  • Most MPs voted to remain in the 2016 referendum, including Theresa May, and yet they are now persisting in supporting some kind of Brexit.  They knew what was right in 2016, and yet they have changed their minds in order to try to survive as elected politicians.  Surely, we elect our MPs to do what is right for the country?  If they believe deep down we should remain, then they should make this happen.
  • Theresa May has been unbelievably hypocritical in not supporting a second referendum.  She wanted to remain in the EU, and yet for two years has been championing “her deal” to leave, claiming that “the people have spoken” and another referendum would “damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy“.  If she can change her mind, surely the people sbould also be allowed to change their minds?  In the name of democracy, May is being undemocratic.
  • Theresa May and her lead negotiating team  failed to understand the European Union and its leadership.  I have huge admiration for many of the UK civil servants who tried to deal with the complete failure of our politicians to understand the “European position”, but sadly they are not in able to tell the truth of what has been happening.  It was therefore great to read the former UK ambassador to the EU, Ivan Rogers’ comments that May’s strategy was bound to fail because she did not understand the EU!
  • Theresa May’s arrogance.  Over and over again, May sought to dictate to the EU, telling the Union’s leaders what to do.  As a Daily Telegraph headline in September 2018 read, “Defiant Theresa May tells EU ‘show us some respect'”.  This arrogance is simply unbelievable, and I have great admiration for those in the EU who did not respond in a like for like manner, but instead still sought to negotiate on a consensus basis.
  • The Labour leadership is as much to blame as the Tories for the situation in which we find ourselves.  It has long been clear that Jeremy Corbyn has seen the EU as mainly serving the interests of the rich rather than poor.  He thus suspects that the EU would resist the radical changes that he would like to make were he to be elected.  Moreover, he has consistently argued that he would prefer to have a General Election, rather than a second referendum. His recent willingness even to consider another referendum appears only to have been driven by the dramatic loss of members of the party, and polls showing that his stance over Brexit is largely to blame.  It is quite remarkable that despite the appalling performance of the Conservative goverment, most recent polls suggest that Labour remains behind in the polls.  If, as seems likely, we do indeed leave the European Union, Corbyn will be as guilty as May for the long-term damage that will be done.
  • May’s attempted bribery of MPs to support “her” deal.  In an effort to persuade MPs to support “her deal”,  May was accused of trying to bribe Labour MPs by announcing a £1.6 billion fund targeting Leave-voting constituencies; she has also been accused of trying to bribe DUP MPs to support her, both in the 2017 elections and also over the latest Brexit deals.  Such behaviour is unsurprising for May, but is clearly unscrupulous and lacking in moral rectitiude.  Apart from anything else, with the decliing UK economy it is very unclear how she will have the resources to pay her bribes.
  • Leaving it until the last minute.  May has sought to delay and delay, so that those who wanted a no-deal Brexit would have no choice but to vote for “her deal”.  However, this has already had a devastating effect on the British economy, and means that we are quite unprepared for what might happen in 12 days time.  The EU should call her bluff and not permit any extension.

1I live in hope that we may somehow remain.  My European friends, and apparently most wise European politicians do not want us to leave.  However, remarkably, despite all of the evidence, many people in the UK still wish to leave the EU.  That having been said, almost every poll in the UK since the summer of 2017 has indicated that a majority of people would now vote to remain in the EU.  If most MPs originally voted to remain, and most people now want to remain, how can it be that our Parliament will not enable us to do so?  They, and our parliamentary dmocracy are failing the people of Britain.

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The half-truths and mis-representations that won Brexit

The Electoral Commission has clearly stated (17 July 2018) that the Vote Leave campaign broke electoral law, and it has been referred to the police.  To the chagrin of “remainers”, such illegal activities during the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016 do not seem to be sufficient by themselves to annul the referendum, and justify a new one.

One of the main vehicles through which the leave campaign built support was through an impressive and effective social media campaign.  Much of this was built on half-truths and emotive mis-representations.  Rather than its illegality, the much more remarkable observation is that so many people were influenced by this campaign and apparently believed the claims being made.  In part, this was because it resonated with their own concerns, but exaggerated them, making people much more fearful of remaining in the EU than they need actually have been.  It is also undoubtedly the case that those supporting Remain ran a desperately poor and unimaginative campaign.

In seeking to unravel and understand why so many people accepted these half-truths and mis-representations, I have categorized some of the images used in the Vote Leave Twitter campaign (https://twitter.com/vote_leave) into the following themes, many of which undoubtedly intersect, thus reinforcing each other.   I hope this encourages debate and discussion over the reasons why the UK has embarked on this desperately uninformed and misguided foray into apparent “independence” as its citizens sleepwalk into a Brexit catastrophe.

Immigration

A fear of continued mass immigration was one of the most powerful projections of the campaign, especially from countries such as Turkey which the campaigners implied was imminently about to join the EU.  Such immigration was primarily seen as being damaging to employment and the NHS.

 

Economic factors, including employment and tax

The UK economy was portrayed as being much stronger outside the EU, and the voices of apparently “trusted” senior figures in industry and government who supported Brexit (largely for their own interests) were used to support such arguments.

 

The NHS

The financial savings from Brexit were portrayed as bringing a much needed fillip to the beleaguered National Health Service.  One of the most believed assertions in the campaign was that Brexit would enable the UK to spend an additional £350 million a week, or £50 million a day, on the NHS.

 

Control of our own future

A powerful emotion conjured up by the Brexit campaign was that once the UK leaves the EU its citizens would have much greater control over their own future.

 

Support of the military

The Leave campaign also sought out the opinions of leading military figures who advocated that the UK would have greater political independence, and control over its own future, once it had left.  This was widely supported by the Veterans for Britain campaign as highlighted below.

B5

 

The wastage of EU bureaucracy

This was a favourite theme represented in many images, supporting the suggestion that we would be able to use all of the money that we had previously sent to the EU for our own direct benefit.

 

The Labour factor and Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn was widely cited as being critical of the EU in the hope of bringing out Labour supporters in favour of Brexit.  Corbyn’s continue reticence to be critical of Brexit remains one of the largest factors likely to prevent the success of those demanding a second referendum on the terms of Brexit, and the aspirations of “remainers” that the first referendum will be overthrown.

 

Trustworthy personalities

The use of images of, and statements from, politicians who were considered to be trustworthy, such as Gove, Johnson, and indeed Corbyn above, was also a powerful element of the Leave campaign.

 

Get out and vote!

Finally, the Leave campaign was also active and successful in persuading its followers to get out and vote.

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“Development for ICTs”, bilateral donors and the “beltway bandits”

AfricaOne of the strong claims of my book Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development (OUP, 2017) is that we now have “Development for ICTs” (D4ICT) rather than “ICT for Development” (ICT4D).  In other words, the private sector, governments and civil society are all using the notion of “development” to serve their own ICT interests. This has been reinforced by the 2030 agenda, and an increased emphasis on the ways through which ICTs can indeed contribute to delivering the SDGs, which I have also challenged in my chapter in the ITU’s book ICT-centric economic growth, innovation and job creation (ITU, 2017), as well as in a recent blog post on ICTs and the failure of the SDGs.

My frustrations with much civil society work in the field of ICT4D came to the fore in a short Tweet that I wrote on 5th May: “Challenging question: do most international development civil society organisations serve the interests of those who want to try to do good, or the interests of the poorest and most marginalised? How many poor people create such organisations to empower themselves?.

This was shortly before I headed to Lusaka for the ICT4D Conference held there on 8-10 May, the lead partner of which is Catholic Relief Services (the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States), and for which the two strategic partners are Nethope (a collaboration between the 50 leading international nonprofit organizations SYt_JrNrand the technology sector) and The Norwegian Refugee Council (an independent humanitarian organization helping people forced to flee).  I was delighted that the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D at Royal Holloway, University of London, had also been invited as one of the content partners, and it was great to work with colleagues from other content partners to co-lead the education and livelihoods tracks.

Nothing that I write below is intended to denigrate the commitment and interests of many of the people organising and attending this conference.  Some very close friends were participating, and I made many other new friends.  However, the conference forced me to reflect further on my Tweet, and to challenge once again much contemporary ICT4D practice.  The conversations that I participated in and overheard (over breakfast, at dinners, and on the shuttle buses) at the conference very much reinforced my view that the arguments of Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development are indeed important, and that those of us committed to helping the poorest and most marginalised to empower themselves through the use of ICTs still have a  very, very touch challenge ahead of us.

In short, it seems to me that many of us involved in ICT4D are primarily in it for our companies, our organisations and ourselves, rather than for the people that we claim to serve.

To justify this claim, I focus here on three issues: the funding policies and interests of donors, the practices and interests of many of the companies and civil society organisations involved in delivering aid, and the commitment and interests of many individuals involved in these organisations to do good.

The funding policies and interests of donors

It is widely accepted that much international aid is a form of neo-imperialism; a way through which donor countries can influence, if not entirely control, poorer recipient countries.  At best, aid is a relatively benign, self-centred, form of bourgeois apologetics, through which rich and middle-class people seek to provide support for the poor and marginalised, without necessarily realising that their affluence is in part a direct result of the policies of their states and companies which create such poverty in the first place.  At worst, it is a means through which states on behalf of companies, seek to create the conditions through which those companies can extract greater profits; this is done in the name of economic growth, as represented and formalised through the SDGs.  It has to be more widely understood that economic growth, largely fueled by ICTs, is leading to considerably increased inequality in the world, and if poverty is defined in relative ways, it is actually therefore leading to an increase in poverty.

Participating in the ICT4D conference forced me to go back and look at the levels of funding provided by international donors to major private sector corporations.  In 2001, the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD recommended that aid to the Least Developed Countries should be untied, meaning in effect that those countries should be able to choose where to spend the aid that they were given; it should not have to be spent on companies and organisations from the countries that provide the aid.  As a result, the percentage of tied aid has decreased considerably over the last 15 years or so.  However, recently the tide has turned the other way.  As a recent DAC report has commented, “In 2014, the share of ODA covered by the Recommendation that was reported as untied stood at 87.1%. This marks a drop of 2.4 percentage points, from 89.5%, in 2013. After a further drop of 3.6 percentage points, the share stood at 83.5% in 2015. The share remains high by historical standards, but represents the lowest figure since 2009”.

Not all countries have untied their aid, with the USA being one of the main countries still actively encouraging their companies to benefit from aid spending.  A recent report on the Devex platform thus notes that USAID “continues to award the bulk of its contracts to American firms. In 2015, the top 20 recipients of USAID funding were all U.S.-based organizations. Combined, these transactions account for 70 percent of the total USAID spending for obligated contracts for the year, up slightly from 67 percent in 2014”.  Several of these top-20 companies sponsored, were partners, and were present at, the ICT4D Conference: Chemonics (ranked 2nd), Tetra Tech (ranked 4th), DAI (ranked 5th), and FHI 360 (ranked 11th) featured prominently.

Yet, even those countries that claim to have their aid untied often have very close relationships with large corporations and consultancy companies which gain a surprisingly large percentage of their funding.  According to a 2017 UK House of Commons International Development Committee report, the percentage of the total aid budget spent by DFID through contractors operating on a for-profit basis (not necessarily headquartered in the UK), has thus risen from 12% to 22% between 2010/11 and 2015/16.  This report  goes on to say that “We are also greatly concerned about the appalling conduct of some contractors who have behaved in a way that is entirely misaligned with the Department’s purpose”.  Moreover, the UK’s cross-government Prosperity Fund, which “aims to remove barriers to economic growth and promote the economic reform and development needed to reduce poverty in partner countries” is specifically designed to support initiatives that will generate direct benefit to UK companies and organisations. Claiming to have untied aid need not therefore mean that many of the direct benefits of such funding are not within the grasp of companies or other entities based within the donor countries.

The ICT sector is strong in many donor countries, and their support for ICT4D initiatives in poorer states is thus but one of the many means through which donor governments directly enhance the competitiveness and profits of their consultancy and ICT companies.  This was sadly all too evident from listening to the conversations at the Lusaka conference.

The practices and interests of ICT4D companies, consultancies and civil society organisations

The majority of participants at the 2018 ICT4D Conference were from the private sector and NGOs, most of whom live and work outside Zambia. This is scarcely surprising, since the purpose of the conference was primarily to serve their interests.  On the platforms, in the workshops, in the corridors, over dinner and on the buses – although perhaps not on 3the dance floor – the conversations were dominated by concerns over maintaining the viability of such organisations and companies, through enhancing the ways through which ICTs could contribute positively to development in general, and to the SDGs in particular.  Where poor people and marginalised communities were mentioned, it was usually merely as “beneficiaries” of the largesse, wisdom and technological expertise of those delivering the ICT4D interventions.  Scarcely ever did anyone dare to suggest that these technologies might have a darker side.

Three inter-related issues seemed to be particularly apparent, and for me at least worrying, about their claimed practice of ICT4D:

  • First, the core interest of many of the participants seemed to be to represent their companies in the best possible light, and thus to gain respectability and prestige that will subsequently enable them to gain more contracts and thus greater profits.  If they are honest, the majority of people say that they learn more from their mistakes than their successes. Yet, there was little discussion of mistakes, or even of how the problems associated with ICTs for development can be mitigated.  Consequently, generation after generation of people working in ICT4D keep on making the same old mistakes that we made more than two decades ago. This is desperately depressing, especially for the poorest and most marginalised who such interventions are supposedly intended for.  Perhaps this version of ICT4D, though, is not actually interested in the needs of the poorest and most marginalised at all, but instead the pay packages of the senior executives of the companies and organisations marketing their wares.
  • Second, the self-assuredness of many of the senior executives of companies and civil society organisations involved in ICT4D was remarkable to behold.  For the first time in my life I was told by a speaker from one of the top-20 company recipients of USAID in a session that I was meant to be moderating that he was an experienced speaker and had no need of a moderator!  To be sure, I might not be a very good moderator, but neither was he a real expert in ICT4D, at least not as I understand it – but I simply stood aside and let him take the floor on his own.  So many of these so-called experts had nothing new to say, and the way that they gave their presentations focused primarily on how wonderful their organisations were in implementing ICT4D programmes, rather than on whether these really made a substantive impact to the empowerment of poor people and marginalised communities.  Rarely did I hear anyone talking about what they had learned from  listening to the voices and needs of the poorest, and how they sought to deliver on these needs.
  • Third, it was fascinating listening to the conversations of staff within many of these organisations, about the key importance  of gaining contracts to build their companies, social enterprises or civil society organisations; it was actually hard to avoid listening to them given the tendency of people from some countries seemingly to shout at the tops of their voices in restaurants or other public spaces!  These conveyed overwhelmingly the impression that ICT4D was being used above all else as a vehicle to build their organisations rather than serving the needs of the poorest.

The interests of individuals in doing good

Understanding the real interests of individuals involved in delivering international development, particularly through the use of ICTs, is one of the hardest things to do. We all make mistakes that we try to cover up.  We all like to be seen to be successful.  Most of us like to be seen to be doing good.  It was fascinating, though, just listening to the conversations, particularly among many of the brilliantly able young people participating.  Most people, but definitely not everyone, participating in the conference, were there because they truly wanted to do good, and they believed that they were indeed doing so.  Again, the failure to look sufficiently at the dark side, and the actual harm that many ICT4D initiatives have done, was cause for concern.  If only more people could focus on the challenges in using such technologies, then perhaps things could be different. To be sure, there were also plenty of people who made no real claim to do good, but rather focused explicitly on the business models of their organisations and how they could ensure greater profitability.  However, I suspect that many of  even them began their careers thinking that they could indeed do good for others as well as for themselves.

Much more worrying was that all too often the conversations degenerated into discussions about sources of funding for their next projects, or how to gain financial support from particular donors. Rarely did after-dinner conversations focus down on such issues as listening to the voices of the poor and marginalised, and truly trying to understand how we can design and implement technologies that will indeed serve their interests.  Of course there were some such discussions, but they seemed to be in a small minority.  The pressure of career success, following the “logics” of the organisation employing you, seeking to build its success, and wanting to gain promotion by doing the “right” thing, all mean that it is the interests of the companies and organisations delivering ICT4D that seem to prevail, rather than those of the poorest and most marginalised.

Concluding reflections

There were many great moments in the conference, and I learnt a lot – perhaps not so much about how ICTs can indeed empower poor people, but certainly about the power of the beltway bandits in delivering USAID projects.  I share these reflections with constructive intent, primarily to encourage wider debate on the interests underlying ICT4D initiatives across the world.  I hope I am wrong, and that these do not primarily serve neo-imperialist governments and the companies that they seek to empower that are headquartered within their territories.  Most people attending the ICT4D Conference in Lusaka were there in the belief that they were indeed doing good to others.  Few, I imagine, ever thought that they were there primarily to do good to themselves and their organisations.  I hope that by sharing these thoughts I will encourage greater reflection, and thus the enlightenment and empowerment about which I wrote in Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development .

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