Category Archives: Communication

“Reclaiming ICT4D” – in the beginning


It is always exciting submitting a book manuscript to a publisher, and today is no exception!  I have at last finished with my editing and revisions, and sent the manuscript of Reclaiming ICT4D off to Oxford University Press.  I just hope that they like it as much as I do!  It is by no means perfect, but it is what I have been wanting to write for almost a decade now.

This is how it begins – I hope you like it:

“Chapter 1

A critical reflection on ICTs and ‘Development’

This book is about the ways through which Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have become entwined with both the theory and the practice of ‘development’.  Its central argument is that although the design and introduction of such technologies has immense potential to do good, all too often this potential has had negative outcomes for poor and marginalized people, sometime intended but more often than not unintended.  Over the last twenty years, rather than reducing poverty, ICTs have actually increased inequality, and if ‘development’ is seen as being about the relative differences between people and between communities, then it has had an overwhelming negative impact on development.  Despite the evidence to the contrary, I nevertheless retain a deep belief in the potential for ICTs to be used to transform the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalized for the better.  The challenge is that this requires a fundamental change in the ways that all stakeholders think about and implement ICT policies and practices.  This book is intended to convince these stakeholders of the need to change their approaches.

It has its origins in the mid-1970s, when I learnt to program in Fortran, and also had the privilege of undertaking field research in rural India.  The conjuncture of these two experiences laid the foundations for my later career, which over the last twenty years has become increasingly focused on the interface between Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) on the one hand, and the idea of ‘development’ on the other.  The book tells personal stories and anecdotes (shown in a separate font).  It draws on large empirical data sets, but also on the personal qualitative accounts of others.  It tries to make the complex theoretical arguments upon which it is based easy to understand.  Above all, it has a practical intent in reversing the inequalities that the transformative impacts of ICTs have led to across the world.

I still remember the enjoyment, but also the frustrations, of using punch cards, with 80 columns, each of which had 12 punch locations, to write my simple programs in Fortran.  The frustration was obvious.  If you made just one tiny mistake in punching a card, the program would not run, and you would have to take your deck of cards away, make the changes, and then submit the revised deck for processing the next day.  However, there was also something exciting about doing this.  We were using machines to generate new knowledge.  They were modern.  They were the future, and we dreamt that they might be able to change the world, to make it a better place.  Furthermore, there was something very pleasing in the purity and accuracy that they required.  It was my fault if I made a mistake; the machine would always be precise and correct.  These self-same comments also apply to the use of ICTs today.  Yes, they can be frustrating, as when one’s immensely powerful laptop or mobile ‘phone crashes, or the tedium of receiving unwanted e-mails extends the working day far into time better spent doing other things, but at the same time the interface between machines and modernity conjures up a belief that we can use them to do great things – such as reducing poverty.

Figure 1.1 Modernity and the machine: Cambridge University Computer Laboratory in the early 1970s.

1.1

Source: University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory (1999)

In 1976 and 1977 I had the immense privilege of undertaking field research in the Singbhum District of what was then South Bihar, now Jharkhand, with an amazing Indian scholar, Sudhir Wanmali, who was undertaking his PhD about the ‘hats’, or periodic markets, where rural trade and exchange occurred in different places on each day of the week (Figure 1.2).  Being ‘in the field’ with him taught me so much: the haze and smell of the woodsmoke in the evenings; the intense colours of rural India; the rice beer served in leaf cups at the edges of the markets towards the end of the day; the palpable tensions caused by the ongoing Naxalite rising (Singh, 1995); the profits made by mainly Muslim traders from the labour of Adivasi, tribal villagers, in the beautiful forests and fields of Singbhum; the creaking oxcarts; and the wonderful names of the towns and villages such as Hat Gamharia, Chakradharpur, Jagannathpur, and Sonua.  Most of all, though, it taught me that ‘development’ had something powerful to do with inequality.  I still vividly recall seeing rich people picnicking in the lush green gardens of the steel town of Jamshedpur nearby, coming in their smart cars from their plush houses, and then a short distance away watching and smelling blind beggars shuffling along the streets in the hope of receiving some pittance to appease their hunger.  The ever so smart, neatly pressed, clothes of the urban elite at the weekends contrasted markedly with the mainly white saris, trimmed with bright colours, that scarcely covered the frail bodies of the old rural women in the villages where we worked during the week.  Any development that would take place here had to be about reducing the inequalities that existed between these two different worlds within the world of South Bihar.  This made me look at my own country, at the rich countries of Europe, and it made me all the more aware of two things: not only that inequality and poverty were also in the midst of our rich societies; but also that the connections between different countries in the world had something to do with the depth of poverty, however defined, in places such as the village of Sonua, or the town of Ranchi in South Bihar.

Figure 1.2: hat, or rural periodic market at Hat Gamharia, in what was then South Bihar, 1977 1.2 Source: Author

            Between the mid-1970s and the mid-2010s my interests in ICTs, on the one hand, and ‘development’ on the other, have increasingly fascinated and preoccupied me.  This book is about that fascination.  It shares stories about how they are connected, how they impinge on and shape each other.  I have been fortunate to have been involved in many initiatives that have sought to involve ICTs in various aspects of ‘development’.  In the first instance, my love of computing and engineering, even though I am a geographer, has always led me to explore the latest technological developments, from electronic typewriters that could store a limited number of words, through the first Apple computers, to the Acorn BBC micro school and home computer launched in 1981, using its Basic BASIC programming language, and now more recently to the use of mobile ‘phones for development.  I was fascinated by the potential for computers to be used in schools and universities, and I learnt much from being involved with the innovative Computers in Teaching initiative Centre for Geography in the 1990s (see Unwin and Maguire, 1990).  During the 2000s, I then had the privilege of leading two challenging international initiatives that built on these experiences.  First, between 2001 and 2004 I led the UK Prime Minister’s Imfundo: Partnership for IT in Education initiative, based within the Department for International Development (UK Government Web Archive 2007), which created a partnership of some 40 governments, private sector and civil society organisations committed to using ICTs to enhance the quality and quantity of education in Africa, particularly in Kenya, South Africa and Ghana.  Then in the latter 2000s, I led the World Economic Forum’s Partnerships for Education initiative with UNESCO, which sought to draw out and extend the experiences gained through the Forum’s Global Education Initiative’s work on creating ICT-based educational partnerships in Jordan, Egypt, Rajasthan and Palestine (Unwin and Wong, 2012).  Meanwhile, between these I created the ICT4D (ICT for Development) Collective, based primarily at Royal Holloway, University of London, which was specifically designed to encourage the highest possible quality of research in support of the poorest and most marginalized.  Typical of the work we encouraged was another partnership-based initiative, this time to develop collaborative research and teaching in European and African universities both on and through the use of ICTs.  More recently, between 2011 and 2015 I had the privilege of being Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation, which is the membership organisation of governments and people in the 53 countries of the Commonwealth, enhancing the use of ICTs for development.

Two things have been central to all of these initiatives: first a passionate belief in the practical role of academics and universities in the societies of which they are a part, at all scales from the local to the international; and second, recognition of the need for governments, the private sector and civil society to work collaboratively together in partnerships to help deliver effective development impacts.  The first of these builds fundamentally on the notion of Critical Theory developed by the Frankfurt School (Held, 1980), and particularly the work of Jürgen Habermas (1974, 1978) concerning the notion of knowledge constitutive interests and the complex inter-relationships between theory and practice.  The next section therefore explores why this book explicitly draws on Critical Theory in seeking to understand the complex role and potential of ICTs in and for development.  Section 1.2 thereafter then draws on the account above about rural life in India in the 1970s to explore in further detail some of the many ways in which the term ‘development’ has been, and indeed still is, used in association with technology.”

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Great new book on evaluating communication for development


I have always had huge admiration for the work (research and practice) that Jo Tacchi does.  It is therefore great to see her latest book, written together with June Lennie, published at the end of last year: Evaluating Communication for Development:a Framework for Social Change (Routledge, 2012).

As the publisher’s blurb notes, “Evaluating Communication for Development presents a comprehensive framework for evaluating communication for development (C4D). This framework combines the latest thinking from a number of fields in new ways. It critiques dominant instrumental, accountability-based approaches to development and evaluation and offers an alternative holistic, participatory, mixed methods approach based on systems and complexity thinking and other key concepts. It maintains a focus on power, gender and other differences and social norms. The authors have designed the framework as a way to focus on achieving sustainable social change and to continually improve and develop C4D initiatives. The benefits and rigour of this approach are supported by examples and case studies from a number of action research and evaluation capacity development projects undertaken by the authors over the past fifteen years.

Building on current arguments within the fields of C4D and development, the authors reinforce the case for effective communication being a central and vital component of participatory forms of development, something that needs to be appreciated by decision makers. They also consider ways of increasing the effectiveness of evaluation capacity development from grassroots to management level in the development context, an issue of growing importance to improving the quality, effectiveness and utilisation of monitoring and evaluation studies in this field.

The book includes a critical review of the key approaches, methodologies and methods that are considered effective for planning evaluation, assessing the outcomes of C4D, and engaging in continuous learning. This rigorous book is of immense theoretical and practical value to students, scholars, and professionals researching or working in development, communication and media, applied anthropology, and evaluation and program planning”.

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Waitrose, Fox News and Barack Obama


I enjoyed the following report from the Guardian illustrating just how seriously some UK companies consider comments on US news channels in determining their advertising spending:

“His last-minute Olympic sprint to back Chicago may have come to nothing, the Afghan quagmire may be bubbling away and Sarah Palin may be topping the bestseller list, but Barack Obama can at least take comfort from the fact that Britain’s most upmarket supermarket chain is on his side. Waitrose, which prides itself more on its “quality food, honestly priced” than staring down rightwing attack dogs, has become the latest firm to pull its ads from Fox News after presenter Glenn Beck’s remarks about the US president. In July, Beck called Obama “a racist” with “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture” after the president said that police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had “acted stupidly” in arresting the distinguished professor Henry Louis Gates as he entered his own home. Beck’s outburst prompted dozens of companies – among them Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Travelocity – to withdraw their adverts from his show for fear that their businesses might become tainted by association. Now Waitrose, which advertises on the channel carried by Sky in Britain, has followed suit after customers complained about the Glenn Beck Show”

It made me wonder what Barack Obama might do for Waitrose in return?

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25 years of PowerPoint


For some excellent advice on how not to use PowerPoint, see Max Atkinson’s recent article ‘celebrating’ 25 years of PowerPoint in the BBC’s online magazine.  It contains some great tips!

The BBC magazine also has a  selection of amusing PowerPoint experiences – 10 good ones, and ten bad!

Born on the 14th if August 1984, PowerPoint is still going strong – quite a testimony to the way our lives have been transformed by computer technologies.

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World Press Freedom Day debate at the Frontline Club


01052009395The UK National Commission for UNESCO and the Press Freedom Network have convened today’s debate at the Frontline Club on the motion “Governments at war are winning the battle of controlling the international media”.  The proposers are Andrew Gilligan (Evening Standard) and Jamie Shea (Private Office of the Secretary General of NATO) and the opposers are Jeremy Dear (General Secretary, National Union of Journalists) and Alan Fisher (Al Jazeera English). William Horsley is the debate chair.

My interpretations of what was said by the speakers:

  • Wars create a sellers market in news; demand increases but supply reduces in times of war.  Wars are confusing.  It’s in the interest of those running the battle to keep things confused.  Embeds provide most of the reporting on ongoing wars as  in Afghanistan.  This makes news much more uncontroversial than they should be (Andrew Gilligan)
  • The voices of those suffering are given life by journalists.  War on terror has been accompanied by a war on civil liberties.  Journalists have risked their lives and been killed as they try to lift the veil of secrecy. Despite censorship, a complete blockade of news is not possible given the existence of mobile ‘phones, computers and the Internet (Jeremy Dear)
  • “No pictures, no news” – governments are quick learners.  Do governments make mistakes?  “Yes”.  Do they learn from their mistakes?  “Yes”.   Governments keep the journalists always occupied – keeping them in constant briefings, so they cannot go off and find out things for themselves! We no longer need to work through the media – governments create their own media networks – such as NATO TV.  Instead of using the press to get the message out, we now use pundits who are sympathetic to our cause. “Anyone can be his or her own journalist”. The profession has become democratised – so why cannot governments join in?  A good press helps those of us in government who believe in accurate information (Jamie Shea)
  • Journalists can now report immediately from the frontline; in the old days ‘geography’ mattered, but this is no longer true.  Governments are losing the battles because there are now more ways of accessing the truth than ever before – the bloggers and the twitters…  But the answer is not simply as a result of these new technologies.  Technology is one of our biggest assets – it is getting smaller and better all the time (Alan Fisher)

My thoughts and comments from the floor:

  • There was a tendency to imply that journalists are the arbiters of the truth.  But are they?  I think not.  We all bring parts of ourselves to the truths that we espouse.
  • A key theme, though, is the distinction between “independent journalism” and “public sector broadcasting” – independent voices are really important
  • I liked the comment from the floor that “journalists are concerned with their own greed”!
  • I echo the thoughts of a speaker from the floor who said that African governments are taking advantage of so-called press freedom – many African peoples do not have a choice
  • Much of the debate is indeed ethnocentric – despite global telecommunications
  • An African channel about whom the joke is “not wrong for long”!
  • Relationships between governments and the free press have to be based on mutual respect (Jamie Shea)
  • I would agree with Andrew Gilligan that very few people can actually get to the frontline of war zones – and therefore that professional journalists have a key role to play
  • I enjoyed Alan Fisher’s comments on the Georgia-Russia war – journalists on the ground can directly contradict what government spokespeople are saying
  • Do governments collude in disinterest? Is that why we don’t hear much about continuing violence in places such as DRC?
  • From the floor: “credibility has nothing to do with truth”
  • From the floor: “Deep in the Congo forest you cannot use your mobile ‘phone”.
  • From the floor: “In many countries, to get a SIM you still need to give your identity”
  • How many African countries really support freedom of the press?
  • In so many parts of the world, local journalists do not have the power actually to report because of government restrictions
  • Jeremy Dear emphasised the fundamental importance of journalists supporting each other in the face of oppression from governments
  • Andrew Gilligan: “bloggers have no credibility and little reach”

Who won the debate?  In favour: 38; Against: 15; Abstentions: 9.

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UK Government announces that it has no plans to create a central database for storing communications data


The UK’s Home Office has recently announced that it no longer has any plans to create a centralised database to store all communciations data.  In its consultation paper presented to Parliament in April 2009, and entitled “Protecting the Public in a Changing Communications Environment“, the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith commented that “this consultation explicitly rules out the option of setting up a single store of information for use in relation to communications data”.  This is excellent news for all those concerned that the government was indeed considering establishing such a centralised database of all digital communication (see my comments in February about this). The consultation paper is a very important document, and lays out clearly the various options facing a government eager to get the balance right between privacy and security.

The consultation paper asserts that “The Government has no plans for a centralised database for storing all communications data.  An approach of this kind would require communications service providers to collect all the data required by the public authorities, and not only the data required for their business needs.  All of this communications data would then be passed to, retained in, and retrieved from, a single data store.  This could be the most effective technical solution to the challenges we face and would go furthest towards maintaining the current capability; but the Government recognises the privacy implications of a single store of communications data and does not, therefore, intend to pursue this approach”.

With reference to third party data, two approaches are identified as possible ways forward:

  • “The responsibility for collecting and retaining this additional third party data would fall on those communications providers such as the fixed line, mobile and WiFi operators, who own the network infrastructure”
  • “A further step would be for the communications service providers to process the third party communications data and match it with their own business data where it has elements in common; this would make easier the interpretation of that data if and when it were to be accessed by the public authorities”.

In the light of this, the government intends to legislate “to ensure that all data that public authorities might need, including third party data, is collected and retained by communication service providers; and that the retained data is further processed by communications service providers enabling specific requests by public authorities to be processed quickly and comprehensively”.

The government is particularly eager to receive responses on four main questions:

  • Q1  On the basis of this evidence and subject to current safeguards and oversight arrangements, do you agree that communications data is vital for law enforcement, security and intelligence agencies and emergency services in tackling serious crime, preventing terrorism and protecting the public? Found on page 22
  • Q2  Is it right for Government to maintain this capability by responding to the new communications environment? Found on page 22
  • Q3  Do you support the Government’s approach to maintaining our capabilities?  Which of the solutions should it adopt? Found on page 30
  • Q4   Do you believe that the safeguards outlined are sufficient for communications data in the future? Found on page 30

As the consultation paper concludes, “The challenge is to find a model which strikes the right balance between maximising public protection and the ability of the law enforcement and other authorities to do their jobs  to prevent and detect crime and protect the public, and minimising the intrusion into our private lives”.

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Grassroots comics


I’ve just come across an excellent small book on how to use comics in grassroots development work, writtencomic2 by Leif Packalen and Sharad Sharma, and published in 2007 by The Ministry of Foreign Afairs of Finland.  Entitled Grassroots Comics – a development communication tool, it includes a wealth of practical guidance about how to use comics in development work, as well as examples  from across the world about ways in which comics have been used to support grassroots development initiatives.

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