Category Archives: Story-telling

“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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On the representation of the poor in international ICT4D forums


I found myself writing today about the ways through which the poor and marginalised are represented in major global ICT4D forums.  What I wrote, shocked me, and I fear that when published it will shock most of the readers of my new book as well! I am therefore sharing it here to try to garner some feedback beforehand that can help me recraft and improve the chapter.  This short piece is only the beginning of the section, and it does go on to suggest ways through which the voices of poor people can indeed be articulated and listened to,  not least through innovative uses of ICTs.  However, I would be fascinated to receive any feedback, preferably polite, on my thoughts below:

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“… the voices of the poorest and most marginalised are rarely if ever directly present in international ICT4D forums.  There is therefore a very real challenge of representation in such meetings.  Few participants have anything other than a relatively shallow understanding of what poverty is really like, or have ever engaged deeply trying to understand the needs of the poor, and how these might be delivered through ICTs.  To be sure, much research has been undertaken on ICTs and poverty, and some policy makers may have read a little of this literature, but global ICT4D forums remain forums of the elite and the powerful.  Some civil society representatives, with their supposedly strong involvement with community groups, are most likely to be closest to understanding the needs of the poorest and the most marginalised, but even then their senior representatives at international meetings are often far removed from the grounded reality of poverty.  Theoretically, government officials, with their responsibility for all of their citizens, should be mindful of the needs of their poorest and most marginalised citizens, but all too often government representatives are drawn from ruling elites, in both rich and poor countries alike, and again do not necessarily understand how ICTs might be able to empower poor people.  Their interests are often primarily in being re-elected. Moreover, the increasingly close relationship between governments and the private sector mean that all too often governments favour the interests of the private sector over those of the most marginalised, in the mistaken belief that economic growth will necessarily eliminate poverty.  Additionally, many of the most capable young ICT Ministers in poor countries are themselves drawn from the private sector, thereby reinforcing this private sector view of how to reduce poverty through the use of ICTs.   The private sector itself, including the supposedly munificent founders of Foundations, is primarily interested in driving economic growth and profits, and tends to see the poor and the marginalised largely as customers or an enhanced market. Few representative of the private sector at international ICT4D forums can lay claim to being poor.  To be sure, it is inevitable that international forums are populated by elites, and many people who attend them do like to think that they have the interests of the marginalised at heart.  Nevertheless, it is important that further consideration is given to this issue, and innovative ways are indeed sought through which the balance of conversation and debate is changed.  This short section highlights challenges with three particular areas: the involvement of young people, the highly sexist male-dominated character of the ICT sector itself, and the voices of those with disabilities.”

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Vanuatu – gun running


Just seen this exciting report from Radio New Zealand International:

“Posted at 22:38 on 24 July, 2012 UTC

Vanuatu authorities have confiscated firearms after detaining a yacht, the Phocea.

16 crew members and the skipper, along with the owner’s girl friend have been arrested.

The owner, Anh Quan, was a Chinese national but became a Vanuatu citizen this year.

Local media has reported that police believe the vessel was being used to try to smuggle high-powered firearms and illegally acquired money into the country.

Authorities have also confiscated 16 allegedly fake diplomatic passports, and Vanuatu Maritime legal documents.

The passports reportedly include the fake signatures of the Principal Immigration Officer, Francois Batick, and a former Vanuatu Maritime Commissioner, Les Napuati.

Two government ministers, another MP and other politicians were spotted on the yacht before the authorities went on board on Sunday.

The yacht, which had been travelling from Italy to Papua New Guinea, was once owned by a former French government minister, Bernard Tapie.

News Content © Radio New Zealand International
PO Box 123, Wellington, New Zealand”.

And all this happened just after I left Vanuatu!

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Never ever, ever, ever fly through Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson (so-called) International Airport


I have just spent almost two hours trying to escape from Atlanta’s so-called international airport, and have to say that it was without any doubt, far and away the worst experience I have ever had trying to leave an international airport – and I only had hand luggage!  The slowness, rudeness, incompetence, inefficiency and downright unpleasantness of the people and machines were unbelievable.

First, we had to queue for well over an hour to get through the passport check, fingerprints and retinal scans. We were herded like cattle through a very slow moving roped off set of alleyways.  There were only a handful of officials on duty, with many ‘gates’ empty.  It was designed to raise our temperatures, and if I had not been in a hurry it would have been faintly amusing listening to the comments in the queue.  The ‘officials’ seemed to be spending as long as they possibly could with each person arriving; there was no sense of urgency at all. Then, nearing the end, when I was in line to be ‘checked’, the officious official who was guiding us to the scanning point ordered me to move one foot to the left!  I could not believe it.  There was a wide open space and I had to move one foot to the left.

The sense of power and control that these unpleasant people have is quite unbelievable.  It is rather like many of those on baggage security checks across the world who take joy in making life as miserable as possible for travelers, ordering them around!

At last, I was in front of the person who was going to take my fingerprints and retinal scan.  In the old days – and they were good, very good – only criminals had their fingerprints taken.  Just think what the US government might do with all of our biodata.  So, I decided to be nice, and got a word in first, asking him what kind of day he had had, saying he looked as tired as I did.  It worked!  He smiled!  He had started work at 5.30 this morning, with a break for lunch, and it was by that time nearly 8.45 in the evening!  Anyway, I will give him credit – he processed me politely and swiftly, for which I am very grateful.  I certainly had vastly better treatment than many others in the queue.

I was lucky!  I only had hand luggage so did not then have to wait for any checked baggage – but I’m sure it would  in any case have come through by then!  So, next we had to queue to hand in our customs declaration form – just to show we were not bringing in anything that might be against US regulations.  Fortunately, I went through that fairly swiftly.  Any normal person would expect then to be able to walk out of the airport and get a taxi.

But no, not at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport.  Wait for it.  Can you imagine what happened next?  Yes, another bag check and full body scan. And this was simply to get out of the airport! I had to join yet another snaking queue, to have my bags checked.  Yet again, jackets off, shoes off, computers out with everything being put in trays.  Officials shouted at us to get in the correct lines.  One poor gentleman from India, was totally confused as to whether he was being shouted at or not.  And the stench!  I have no idea what it was, but it was definitely the most evil smell I have encountered in any airport in the world!  And then the body scan. Everything, even handkerchiefs has to be taken out of pockets, and some of us were chosen to be placed in this scanning device.  No notices about what it would do, any potential health issues, or what would happen to the images after they had been taken.  I was simply forced through.

At last, I thought I was free.  But they did not like the look of my laptop and notepad, so back it had to go through the bag scanner.  Even then, when of course nothing was found, it took a good 20 minutes to walk to the shuttle train that took me to the concourse from whence I was at last able to get a taxi.

How nice it was to see an Ethiopian driver, who brought with him a sense of history, of culture and of hospitality.  What on earth was he doing here in this land of oppression I asked myself.  What horrors had he left to make his home in this neo-fascist place I had arrived in.

It made me think of all the other airports I have visited recently.  Perhaps the best comparison is with Beijing airport.  What luxury!  What efficiency!  What civility!  It is so easy to get through Beijing, and one is treated with dignity and hospitality by the Chinese officials.  Perhaps this is a reflection that China has become the world superpower, and because it does not try to impose democracy on other countries at the end of a gun or bomb, it does not have to be so preoccupied with ‘protecting its borders’.  In Atlanta, the symbolism of officials shouting and ordering people around, herding them like cattle in pens, scanning them for biodata and personal information, reminds me of the fall of other empires.  Petty bureaucrats who get their kicks out of being deliberately unpleasant. The use of machines to control people’s freedom.  The sense of oppression and foreboding.

And then, I often hear USAns complaining about Heathrow airport.  What absolute hypocrisy and cheek! Heathrow is bliss compared with Atlanta.

You have been warned!  Never travel through Atlanta airport if you can possibly avoid it.  Better still, avoid Atlanta itself!  What a pity, I have such good friends here.

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… and then the sun came out, Virginia Water, 7th January 2010


Following yesterday’s immense snowfall and dark skies, we awoke this morning to a gorgeous sunrise and freezing conditions.  Yes, the boiler stopped working again, but what does that matter when the weather takes its part in painting England at its best! Below is a selection of photographs of the scenery in Virginia Water, especially in the woodland surrounding the Wentworth golf course.  Enjoy!

For larger versions, just click on the images.

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Snow in Virginia Water, 6th January 2010


Many parts of the world are deep in snow with temperatures well below freezing – Moscow is predicted to have a maximum temperature of -14o C today.  Our weather in the UK palls in comparison!  However, last night saw some of the heaviest snowfalls in southern England for many a year, which somehow creates a sense of exhilaration. Minor roads across the region have not been cleared, leading to many an ‘incident’ with cars sliding all over the place, and not being able to get up even relatively slight inclines.  Early this morning, attempts to help push drivers stuck on the hill outside our house proved surprisingly futile!  Some young people nevertheless managed to ‘enjoy’ themselves, throwing snowballs at passengers waiting to get on to the few trains that were running!  I know that this amount of snow is unusual, but Surrey County Council has done a really bad job of keeping local roads ice and snow free this winter.  To be sure, the weather has been extreme, and main roads should take priority, but in the last 20 years the local roads in north-west Surrey have never been as dangerous as they have been this year.

So, please enjoy these images from Virginia Water: snowing last night; at least 6″ of snow in the garden; the postmen had some fun at their depot; local rail bridge, not flooded for a change; Siam restaurant in the snow – a long way from Thailand; well done to South West Trains actually getting some trains to run; Wellington Avenue abandoned cars; the railway line; more abandoned cars; trees in the snow; Trumps Green Road trees; Trumps Green Road shops; and the car park by Station Parade.

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