Category Archives: ICT4D

Why we don’t really know very much about the influence of ICTs on learning and education


Exploring the future of the interface between ICTs and education for UNICEF recently provided a valuable opportunity to reflect on the conflicting evidence about the influence of ICTs on education.  Despite all of the research and evidence gathering about the use of ICTs in education, it still remains extremely difficult to know what their real impact is, and how best to deliver on the potential that they offer, especially among the poorest and most marginalised.  There are at least seven main reasons for this.

1. The time for educational change to have an outcome

Learning and education are cumulative; they take a lifetime.  Measuring the impact of education interventions is therefore fundamentally different from measuring, for example, most health-related impacts.  It is possible to inoculate populations with a vaccine, and to measure its impact almost immediately in terms of the health outcomes.  However, it is impossible to inoculate against ignorance; there is no vaccine that can guarantee successful learning.

It is therefore extremely difficult to measure the long-term significant outcome of a relatively short and novel educational intervention, such as the introduction of tablets into schools for a couple of years, without there being a consistent and long-term method of actually measuring those outcomes.  Some things can certainly be measured in the short-term, but these may not actually be the most important and significant long-term learning outcomes.  Moreover, it is extremely difficult over a long period of time to assess the precise impacts of any one intervention.  Many factors influence educational change over time, and it may be that observed learning outcomes are not necessarily caused by the specific technological intervention being studied.  Determining real causality in education is extremely difficult, especially in longitudinal studies.

Linked with this, many ICT for education interventions are specifically initially planned for a relatively short periods of 3-5 years.  This is usually the sort of duration of research grants and donor-funded projects, but it is far too short a term to enable real impacts fully to be grasped.  The pressure of reporting, and the need to show success within a short time, to seek to guarantee further funding, also has a significant impact on the types of evidence used and the ways through which it is gained.

2. Diversity of research methods: you can show almost anything that you want to

Different kinds of research lead to different types of conclusion.  Research results also depend fundamentally on what the aims of the research are.  Two pieces of perfectly good research, that are well designed within their own fields and published in peer-reviewed journals, can thus show very different results. Three particular challenges are relevant.

First, there are often very different results from short-term quantitative and long-term qualitative research.  It is relatively easy to go into a number of schools for a short period, gather quantitative data about inputs and outputs, and find the evidence to write a glowing report about the positive outcomes of an ICT for education intervention.  However, most such accounts are based on self-reporting, schools can prepare to show off their best attributes for the day of the visit, and researchers can be beguiled into believing what they hear.  In contrast, long term qualitative immersion in a small group of schools for several months can show much more clearly exactly what is going on in them, and usually leads to very differing types of conclusions with respect to ICT in education. Moreover, there is a systemic bias in much evidence-based policy making, especially by governments and international organisations, whereby they prefer large scale quantitative studies, which have apparently representative samples, to the insights gained from in-depth hermeneutic and qualitative approaches.  This tends to lead to a focus on inputs rather than outcomes.

Second, biases are introduced because of the interests of the people doing the research or monitoring and evaluation.  Many ICT for education initiatives have begun as pilot projects, either by companies eager to show the success of their technologies, or by researchers eager to prove that their innovation works.  It is perfectly natural that the ways through which they design their research, and the indicators that they choose to assess will seek to highlight the intended positive outcomes.  All too often, though, unintended consequences are ignored or simply not looked for, despite the fact that these frequently provide the most interesting insights.  Very little research on the use of ICTs in schools to date, for example, has explored the impact that this might have on online child sexual abuse, or other forms of harassment and bullying.

Third, much depends on the aims of the research.  Tightly constrained experimental design to explore, for example, how the use of a particular device influences activity in certain parts of the brain, can indeed show apparent causality.  Linking that, though, to wider conclusions about children’s learning and the desirability of incorporating a specific technology into schools is much more difficult. Much of the good quality research to date has tended to focus on relatively closed systems, where it is indeed possible to undertake more rigorous experimental design.  Much less research has been undertaken on the more holistic and systemic interventions that are required to ensure the successful adoption of new technologies.  In part, this is because of the different approaches that exist in the academic community between the physical sciences and the social sciences.  The aims of research in computer science or mathematics are, for example, often very different from those in sociology or the humanities.  This reinforces the need for there to be much more emphasis on multi-disciplinary research for there to be clearer conclusions drawn about the overall impact of ICTs in education.  Moreover, much of the experimental research, for example using Randomised Control Trials, has been undertaken in the richer countries of the world, and all too often conclusions from this are then also applied to poorer contexts where they may well not be appropriate.

3. Transferability and context

There is considerable pressure to identify solutions that can work universally, and it is a natural tendency for people to hear of something that has appeared to work in one context and then try to apply it to another.  All too often, though, they do not realise that it may have been something very specific about the original context of the intervention that made it successful.  The pressure for universal solutions has in large part been driven by the interests of the private sector in wishing to manufacture products for a global market, and also by donors and international organisations eager to find universal solutions that work and can be applied globally.  All too often the reality is that they cannot be applied in this way.

4. The diversity of technologies

Many contrasting ICTs are being used in education and learning in different contexts, and it is therefore not easy to make generalisations about the overall effectiveness of such technologies.  The use of an assistive technology mobile app, for example, is very different from using a tablet to access the internet.  Determining exactly what the critical intervention is that can benefit, or indeed harm, learning is thus far from easy.  Indeed, because of this diversity, it is actually rather meaningless to talk about the overall impact of technology on learning.

5. The focus on inputs

Inputs are much easier to measure than are real learning outcomes.  Indeed, performance in examinations or tests, which is the most widespread measure of educational success, is only one measure of the learning achievements of children, and may often not be a particularly good one.  Most studies of the application of ICTs in education therefore focus mainly on the inputs, such as numbers of computers or tablets, hours of connectivity, amount of content, and hours of access to the resources, that have been implemented.   They show what the funding has been spent on, and they are relatively easy to measure.  Using such data, it is possible to write convincing reports on how resources are being used on “improving” schools and other learning environments.  This is one reason why governments often prefer quantitative studies that measure and represent such expenditure, since it reflects well on what they have done in their term of office.

However, it is extremely difficult to link this directly and exclusively to the actual learning achievements of the children, not least because of the multiple factors influencing learning, and the great difficulty in actually proving causality.  All too often a dangerous assumption is made.  This is that just because something is new, and indeed modern, it will be of benefit to education.  There have been far too few studies that seek to explore what might have happened if the large amounts of money spent by governments on new ICTs had actually been spent on some other kind of novel intervention, such as improving the quality of teachers, redesigning school classrooms, or event putting toilets in schools.  What evidence that does exist suggests that almost any well-intentioned intervention can improve the learning experiences of teachers and pupils, primarily because they feel that attention is being given to them, and they therefore want to respond enthusiastically and positively.

6. Success motives

One advantage that ICTs have in this context is that they are seen by most people as being new, modern, and an essential part of life in the 21st century.  Parents and children across the world are therefore increasingly viewing them as an integral and “natural” part of any good education system, regardless of whether they actually are or not. The myth of modernity has been carefully constructed.  The motives for success of those advocating their adoption in education, may not, though, be strictly to do with enhancing education.  The need to show that ICTs contribute positively to education, and thus the results achieved, may not actually be driven primarily by educational objectives.  Politicians who give laptops with their party’s logos on to schoolchildren are often more interested in getting re-elected than in actually making an educational impact; technology companies involved in educational partnerships are at least as likely to be involved because of the opportunity they offer to network with government officials and donors as they are because of any educational outcomes.  The key point to emphasise here is that monitoring and evaluation studies in such instances may not actually be primarily concerned with the educational outcomes, but rather with the success anticipated by those with powerful interests, and should therefore be treated with considerable caution.

7. Monitoring and evaluation: a failure of funding, and reinventing the wheel

A final reason why it is so difficult to interpret the evidence about the impact of ICTs on education concerns the general process of monitoring and evaluation of such initiatives.  All too often, insufficient funding is given to monitoring and evaluation, regular self-enhancing monitoring is not undertaken, and any thinking about evaluation is left until the very end of a project.    A general rule of thumb is that the amount spent on monitoring and evaluation should be around 10% of total project costs, but those seeking to use ICTs for education, particularly civil society organisations, often argue that this is far too high a figure, and that they want to spend as much as possible of their limited resources on delivering better education to the most needy.  All too often, monitoring and evaluation is left as an afterthought near the end of a project at the time when reports are necessary to convince funding agencies to continue their support. If good baseline data were not gathered at the beginning of a project, particularly about learning attainment levels, then it is not possible to obtain accurate evidence about the real impact of a specific piece of technology.

A second main challenge with monitoring and evaluation is that practitioners and researchers often seem to reinvent the wheel and develop their own approaches to identifying successes and failures of a particular intervention, rather than drawing on tried and tested good practices.  As a result, they frequently miss important aspects of the rather different processes of monitoring and of evaluation, and their work may also not be directly comparable to the evidence from other studies.

Implications

One obvious implication of the above is that we need more independent, multi-disciplinary, cross-sectoral and longitudinal research on the use of technology in education.  However, all research will represent the interests of those involved in its commissioning and implementation, and needs to be treated with the circumspection that it deserves.

A second important conclusion is to question the validity of much so-called evidence-based policy making in the field of technology and education.  If research evidence is based upon a particular set of interests, then it is logical to suggest that any policy based on it will in turn also reflect those interests.  Such policies can never be purely “objective” or “right”, just because they claim to be based on evidence.  Indeed, a strong argument can be made that policies should be based upon visions of what should be (the normative) and not just what is (the positive).

 

This is the second of a series of short summaries of aspects of the use of ICTs in children’s education across the world based on my work for UNICEF (the first was on Interesting practices in the use of ICTs for education).  I must stress that these contain my own opinions, and do not in any way reflect official UNICEF policy or practice.  I very much hope that they will be of use and interest to practitioners in the field.  The original report for UNICEF contains a wealth of references upon which the above arguments were based, and will be available should the report be published in full.

 

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Interesting practices in the use of ICTs for education


I have all too frequently been asked to suggest examples of “best practice” in the use of ICTs for education, and have always so far resisted.  “Best practices” tend to be promoted by those who wish to assert their pre-eminence in a field, or make considerable sums of money by selling their “solutions”!  I strongly believe that there is no such thing as “one-size-fits-all” in education, and instead I argue that there are numerous good practices from which people can learn and develop their own local and contextualised educational activities using ICTs.

The opportunity recently to do some forward thinking with colleagues in UNICEF about the future use of ICTs in education, especially amongst some of the poorest and most marginalised children in the world, nevertheless provided the chance to reflect on the diversity of different dimensions of education in which ICTs are used, and also to identify examples of each from which we can all learn. The list below is a very attenuated summary of these case studies, drawing explicitly from different parts of the world and in different languages (although English dominates).  They were chosen in part based on the recommendations of colleagues with a wealth of experience working in the field, but the final choice of examples is my own.  Readers might like to add their own favourites as comments!

Visually impaired girl with BrailleEducational content and skills development

The development of different ICTs over the last two decades has led to an explosion of new types of content, and new ways of delivering it, increasingly through the plethora of apps on mobile devices.  Such content varies hugely in quality, in cost, and in the level of learning for which it is intended.

  • The power of multimedia One of the greatest strengths of ICTs is to bring learning to life through a diversity of multimedia resources.  In particular, games, videos and audio can enliven learning, and provide real world examples of how things work that cannot be experienced in schools.  Examples of multimedia include:
  • Re-versioning and localising content One of the benefits of open content is the opportunity that it provides for re-versioning existing content into local contexts.  Examples include:
  • Local content development Demand for local content in schools can also provide the basis for local economic growth in poorer countries of the world.  Examples include
  • Learning platforms for content and skills Content needs to be delivered in an appropriate and appealing format, that is also flexible and easily searchable.  Numerous such platforms have been developed, both for students and teachers.  Examples include:
  • Open and Proprietary Content  Many of the above initiatives are Open, but there are many Proprietary solution also available, especially for richer children.  One example where a government has chosen to purchase licences for proprietary content and make it available for free to its citizens is:
  • Teaching the skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity  Some ICT-based initiatives have focused on new ways to develop the basic skills such as literacy and numeracy that are required building blocks for the more advanced skills of communication and creativity.  Examples include:
  • Assistive technologies enabling children with disabilities and special needs to access content About half of the world’s children with disabilities are out of school.  These are some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged children in the world, and yet have the most to gain from assistive technologies.  Examples include:

Pedagogy and the practice of teaching

Shuang Bai TTS computer labThe role of the private sector has been substantial in disseminating new ICT-based teaching practices. For many years, ICT corporations such as Microsoft and Intel have provided basic courses and training for teachers in how to use digital skills in the classroom.  These have traditionally tended to emphasise training in basic “Office” skills software that can be applied to an educational context.  There are few convincing examples of successful teaching training initiatives that have really inculcated a comprehensive understanding of how the balanced use of ICTs can enhance the delivery of education in the poorest countries of the world.

Digital skills

laptopIn a world increasingly dominated by technology, the successful acquisition of digital skills by young people has become a high priority for many governments and companies.  It is important to differentiate between three broad types of digital skills: the basic skills necessary to use digital technologies; advanced skills specifically in areas such as coding and programming, often linked to an emphasis on the perceived importance of increasing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education; and the skills associated with knowing how to live in an increasingly digital world and to negotiate the challenges of digital technologies as well as their benefits.

Monitoring and evaluation

Unless high quality and appropriate monitoring and Girls school teamevaluation is undertaken on the impact of ICTs on educational outcomes, existing systems will not improve, and the real effects of new interventions will not be known.

Administration

It is widely recognised that the successful use of ICTs in education programmes is heavily dependent on the enthusiasm of head teachers, principals and school administrators.  An integral part of the success of such initiatives has been the design and use of appropriate Educational Management Information Systems (EMISs) that provide for digital collection, processing, analysis and reporting of school data.

Assessment

It is important to differentiate between the use of ICTs for formative and summative assessment

  • ICTs in formative assessment Many of the platforms and content delivery mechanisms through ICTs described above also contain quizzes and tests that can provide an important element of formative assessment for children.  Examples include:
  • ICTS in summative assessment ICTs are also increasingly being used for summative assessment, especially since more sophisticated systems are now available that enable securer communications and reduce the ability of students to cheat.

Access to the potential benefits of ICTs in education in low-resource environments

1Providing ICT for education connectivity and content in low-resource environments remains challenging.  The following examples illustrate some of the ways in which infrastructure, devices and content have been made available in these circumstances.

 

This is the first of a series of short summaries of aspects of the use of ICTs in children’s education across the world based on my work for UNICEF (the second is on Why we don’t really know very much about the influence of ICTs on learning and education).  I must stress that these contain my own opinions, and do not in any way reflect official UNICEF policy or practice.  I very much hope that they will be of use and interest to practitioners in the field.

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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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ICTs and the failure of the SDGs


Back in 2015 I wrote a short post about the role of ICTs in what I saw as being the probable failure of the SDGs.  Having attended far too many recent international meetings, all of which have focused to varying extents on how ICTs will contribute positively to the SDGs, I am now even more convinced that they have already failed, and will do very little to serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

My 2015 post focused on five main issues.  In summary, these were:

  • There are far too many goals (17) and targets (169).  This has already led to diffusion of effort and lack of focus, not only within the ‘global system’, but also in individual countries.
  • Target setting is hugely problematic.  It tends to lead to resources being directed too much towards delivering measurable targets and not enough to the factors that will actually reduce inequalities and empower the poorest.
  • The SDGs remain largely concerned with absolute poverty rather than relative poverty.  The SDGs will do little fundamentally to change the structural conditions upon which the present world system is based, which remain primarily concerned with economic growth.  Although SDG 10 (on inequality) is a welcome addition, it is all too often ignored, or relegated to a minor priority.
  • These goals and targets represent the interests of those organisations driving the SDG agenda, rather than the poorest and most marginalised.  I suggested in 2015 that these were primarily the UN agencies who would use them to try to show their continued relevance in an ever-changing world, but they also included private sector corporations and civil society organisations
  • The need to monitor progress against the goals/targets will further expand the “development industry”, and consultants and organisations involved in such monitoring and evaluation will benefit hugely.

Subsequently, in 2017 I was part of the ITU’s collective book venture published as ICT-centric economic growth, innovation and job creation, in which I led on the second chapter entitled “ICTs, sustainability and development: critical elements”.  This chapter argued that serious issues need to be addressed before there can be any validity in the claim that ICTs can indeed contribute to sustainable development.  The present post seeks to clarify some of the arguments, and to summarise why the SDGs and Agenda 2030 have already failed.  There are in essence five main propositions:

  • Inherent within the SDGs is a fundamental tension between SDG 10 (to reduce inequality within and among countries) and the remaining goals which seek to enhance “development” by increasing economic growth. Most of the evidence indicates that the MDGs, which were almost exclusively focused on economic growth as the solution to poverty, substantially increased inequality, and ICTs played a very significant role in this.  The SDGs are likewise fundamentally focused on economic growth, in the belief that this will reduce absolute poverty, while quietly ignoring that such growth is actually increasing inequality, not only between countries but within them.
  • There is also a fundamental tension between the notions of “sustainability” (focusing on maintaining and sustaining certain things) and “development” (which is fundamentally about change). Although there has long been a belief that there can indeed be such a notion as “sustainable development”, this tension at its heart has been insufficiently addressed.  What is it that we want to maintain; what is it that we want to change?  ICTs are fundamentally about change (not always for the better), rather than sustaining things that are valued by many people across the world.
  • The business models upon which many ICT companies are built are fundamentally based on “unsustainability” rather than “sustainability”. Hardware is designed explicitly not to last; mobile ‘phones are expected to be replaced every 2-3 years; hardware upgrades often require software upgrades, and software upgrades likewise often need hardware enhancements, leading to a spiral of obsolescence. (For an alternative vision of the ICT sector, see the work of the Restart Project)
  • The ICT industry itself has had significant climatic and environmental impacts as well as giving rise to moral concerns: satellite debris is polluting space; electricity demand for servers, air conditioning, and battery charging is very significant; and mining for the rare minerals required in devices scars the landscape and often exploits child labour. We have not yet had a comprehensive environmental audit of the entire ICT sector; it would make much grimmer reading than most would hope for or expect!  In 2017, the World Economic Forum even posted an article that suggested that “by 2020, Bitcoin mining could be consuming the same amount of electricity every year as is currently used by the entire world”.
  • Finally, the SDGs have already failed. In their original conceptualisation, each country was meant to decide on, and set, the targets that were most relevant to their needs and priorities.  As some of us predicted at the time, the number of goals and targets was always going to be a challenge for countries, especially those with limited resources and capacities to make these decisions.  Few, if any countries have actually treated the targets seriously.  Instead, the development industry has blossomed, and various organisations have set up monitoring programmes to try to do this for them (see, for example, UN Stats, OECD,  Our World in Data).  If countries haven’t actually established targets, and do not have the baseline data to measure them, then it will be impossible to be able to say whether many targets have actually been reached.

The SDGs serve the interests of UN agencies, and those who make huge amounts of money from the “development industry” that seeks to support them.  Private sector companies and civil society see the Goals as a lucrative source of profits since governments and international organisation are prioritising spending in these areas.  This is why the original choice of goals and targets for the SDGs was so important; people and organisations can make money out of them.

There is much debate over whether target setting, as in the MDGs and SDGs, serves any value at all.  Despite many claims otherwise, the MDGs failed comprehensively to eliminate poverty.  It must therefore be asked once again why the UN system decided to create a much more complex and convoluted system of goals and targets that was even more likely to fail.  The main reason for this has to be because it served the interests of those involved in shaping them.  They do not and will not serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.  We are already nearly one-fifth of the way from 2015 to 2030, and the SDGs have not yet properly got started.  They have therefore already failed.  It is high time that governments of poor countries stopped even thinking about the SDGs and instead got on and simply served the interests of their poorest and most marginalised citizens.  They could begin to do so simply by spending wisely for their poorest citizens the money that they waste on attending the endless sequence of international meetings focusing on how ICTs can be used to deliver the SDGs and eliminate poverty!  ICTs can indeed help empower poor people, but to date they have failed to do so, and have instead substantially increased inequality, both between countries and within them.  We need to reclaim ICTs so that they can truly be used to empower poor people.

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Chipping children at birth – seen on social media in 2025


Having just received a note from Thames Valley Police about chipping dogs, I just thought I would share this post from 2025:

“Having your child microchipped can make a lot of difference when looking for and trying to identify a missing child. Since April 2025 it has been a legal requirement for all children to be microchipped by 8 weeks of age. In 2020, the Children’s Trust recorded that 9,000 lost children were reunited with their parents due to having a microchip with up-to-date details.

Each microchip has a unique number that must be registered on a Government approved database along with information about your child and you as its parent. If your child is not registered on one of these databases you can be fined. It is important that the information is kept up-to-date so that if your child does go missing, you can be contacted at the correct phone number or address.

Reporting it to the police as soon as possible is also important, including making us aware of the microchip number so we can record this on our database. This will make it easier for us to identify any children that are found, dead or alive, and check to see if they have been reported as missing or attacked.

It is also recommended to record the loss or theft of your child online using sites dedicated to finding lost and stolen children. Often these sites work with police and other organisations, such as local Neighbourhood Watch Groups, hospitals, prisons and General Practitioners, to try and find them.

More information on microchipping your child can be found on the Government website.”

More about the arguments that will be made for chipping children at birth are in my exciting forthcoming report for UNICEF on ICT for education…

[Just to be clear about the genesis of this note, I replaced the word “dog” with “child”, and made one or two other minor changes to the flow of the text from Thames Valley Police so that it made sense – but the vast bulk of this “report” is word-for-word taken from their helpful advice relating to dogs.  I have written this post to make us all think about what the future will hold, whether we want a future like this, and what we should do about the seemingly inevitable path towards all humans becoming cyborgs].

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The UNESCO Chair in ICT4D is not the same as the UNESCO Chair in ICTD


Geo.tv in Pakistan has recently run the following headline “Pakistani computer scientist Dr Umar Saif appointed UNESCO chair for ICTD”, and in the article that follows has claimed that “World-renowned Pakistani computer scientist Dr Umar Saif has been appointed as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Chair for using Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICTD). This is the first international UNESCO Chair in the field of ICTD and will help Pakistan become a centre of excellence in using Information Technology for development, especially use of technology to address the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), said a press release issued earlier.”  Other Pakistani media has run similar headlines, such as the Daily Pakistan Global’s “UNESCO appoints Pakistan’s Dr. Umar Saif as first international chair for ICTD”

Umar Saif has himself posted the following on Facebook to wide acclaim, stating that “Dear friends I have been awarded the UNESCO Chair for using ICT for development.  This is a moment of pride for Pakistan and a recognition of our work in the past 10 years”.

Following several comments and enquiries from colleagues in the field of ICT4D who have questioned the veracity of these claims, I write here just to clarify not only the nature of UNESCO Chairs, but also to make it very clear that the first UNESCO Chair in ICT4D was created at Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2007, long before the university that Umar Saif founded in Punjab in 2013 was even created; interestingly that university is named the ITU University (Information Technology University), which itself raises confusion with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).  It is also important here to note that ICT4D and ICTD are very different!

UNESCO Chairs are created as an agreement between a university and UNESCO, and they are the term given for a community of researchers working in a particular academic field.  This can be confusing, because no individual is actually a UNESCO Chair, but rather they are appointed as a Chairholder.  While there are no restrictions on the number of Chairs in any one field, it is usual practice for chairs to be clearly differentiated, so that the majority do not have the same names.

In the light of this, when I was approached by staff at the International Technology University in Pakistan about the procedure for acquiring the status of a UNESCO Chair in 2017, I was happy to offer them some advice about how to proceed.  I had no idea that they would be applying for a Chair in exactly the same name to our own.  On discovering that such a duplicate application had been made to UNESCO, I wrote to colleagues at the Information Technology University in Pakistan suggesting that it might be useful to change the proposed name of their new Chair from ICT4D to something else, so that there would not be confusion.  They wrote back accepting a very minor change from ICT4D to ICTD.

It is up to readers of this post to judge the motives of those involved in applying for a UNESCO Chair in such a similar name to that of a long-established Chair, those on the National Committee in Pakistan who nominated such an application to UNESCO, and those who supported such an application.

To summarise and clarify for the record:

  • The first UNESCO Chair in ICT4D was established at Royal Holloway, University of London, more than a decade ago in 2007; and
  • Umar Saif has recently been appointed as the Chairholder of a UNESCO Chair at the Information Technology University in Pakistan, and is not the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D, or in ICTD.

I fear that this confusion sadly does not reflect well either on the political establishment in Pakistan who approved this nomination, nor on the professionalism of those involved in the nomination itself.  I would hope that the Pakistani press and those on social media will recognise this and respond accordingly.  I am sure they will agree that this is not a matter of pride for Pakistan, but actually sadly reflects rather badly on them.

I am somewhat saddened by this and only write to clarify the confusion that has already arisen and has been pointed out to me by colleagues.  It will not make the slightest difference to the ongoing work that my colleagues continue to do in this field.   I should also emphasise that I have many dear friends in Pakistan, and it is a wonderful and beautiful country.  I like and respect very many people in Pakistan, ranging from senior government officials to the many Commonwealth Scholarship Commission alumni who it has been my privilege to know.  The UNESCO Chair in ICT4D has worked with long established research-led universities in Pakistan, such as COMSATS IIT which has a world-renowned reputation unlike some other provincial universities in the country, and it has been an honour to undertake research with them and to promote the effective use of ICTs to support and empower the poorest and least privileged in the world.

Tim Unwin (Chairholder, UNESCO Chair in ICT4D)

 

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ITU and UNESCO Chair in ICT4D session at WSIS Forum 2018: International decision-making in ICT – where are the women?


The ITU is strongly committed to achieving gender equality across its organisational structures, and has been one of the driving forces for achieving gender equality in and through ICTs across the world, not least through its involvement in creating the EQUALS initiative.

One of the key international gatherings convened by the ITU has been the series of World Radiocommunication Conferences held periodically to reach international agreements on Radio Regulations, with new and revised Resolutions and Recommendations.  Traditionally, these have been very male dominated, and the ITU has therefore taken steps to encourage greater involvement of women at all levels in its decision-making processes.  One aspect of this has been the creation of the Network of Women for WRC-19 (NOW4WRC19), led by Dr. Hanane Naciri, which aims to encourage increased participation of women in the conference being held in 2019.  Its main objectives are to have a better gender balance among delegates, to prepare women for key roles in WRC-19, and to grow the women’s community capacity and contribution.

As part of this process, the ITU and the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D convened Session 113 at the WSIS Forum 2018.  This began with a lively panel discussion, opened by Dr Hanane Naciri (Radiocommunication and Software Engineer, Radiocommunication Bureau, ITU), with Sahiba Hasanova (Vice-Chairman, ITU-R Study Group 4 / Leading Adviser, Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies, the Republic of Azerbaijan), Caitlin Kraft-Buchman (CEO/Founder Women@theTable, Geneva, Switzerland) and Brigitte Mantilleri (Director of the Equal opportunities office of the University of Geneva).  The speakers shared some of their experiences of leadership in the field of ICT, commented on the challenges facing women who wish to participate in such events, and suggesting what needs to be done to involve more women at all levels in such processes (summary).

workshop

Building on these inspirational introductions, participants then shared their experiences, insights and suggestions for what still needs to be done to ensure that women contribute fully and appropriately to international ICT decision making, and especially to WRC-19.  Twelve themes were identified, and these were captured in a mind map which is available on the ITU and UNESCO Chair for ICT4D sites:

  • Top leadership and champions: it is essential that top leadership supports the increased participation of women, and that champions are identified who can promote such participation;
  • Ensuring that women are in powerful positions: women need to be supported throughout their lives, and particularly encouraged to take leadership roles;
  • Building and promoting networks: it is essential that we work together in intergenerational networks that can support and advise women participating in such decision-making activities;
  • Involving men: we must have male feminists as well as female ones who are willing to help change attitudes and cultures of oppression;
  • Training: more effective training programmes are necessary, particularly ones that help men to understand the relevant issues;
  • Organisational structures: addressing elements of organizational culture is key, and it is important to equip women to survive and flourish in the environments where they work;
  • Awareness and communication: the need to provide much more information about how women can contribute to such decision-making gatherings, and to confront people who have negative behaviours;
  • Changing norms: the need to address and revisit many underlying assumptions;
  • Incentivisation: the need to provide incentives to organisations and individual women to participate in such events;
  • The role of recruitment: recruitment agents can play a key role in ensuring balanced interview panels and processes, and in supporting a charter code of practice on gender;
  • Remember that inclusion is not the same as diversity: diversity is not enough and we need to be inclusive to ensure that women feel comfortable in whatever environment they find themselves; and finally
  • Recognising it may not happen overnight: given how slow change has been so far, we need to recognize it may not happen swiftly, but we must develop the momentum so that it will happen as quickly as possible.

Participants were committed to supporting EQUALS and working with the ITU to ensure that there is much greater involvement of women at all levels in WRC-19.

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