Category Archives: ICTs

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


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

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

The inexorable rise of China and the demise of the USA

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

Source: Hiram1555.com

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

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

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

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

An ever more digital world

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

Source: Forbes.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Wired.com

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

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

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

Online shopping and the redesign of urban centres.

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

Source: Independent.co.uk

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

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

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

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

Increasing global inequalities

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

Source: Gulfnews.com

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

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

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

Looking positively to the future.

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

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

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

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

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


Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Collaboration and competition in Covid-19 response


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

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

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

Don’t duplicate what others are already doing

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

Treat privacy and security very carefully

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

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

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

Keep it simple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collaborate and share

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

 

Resources

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

Recommended reliable information on Covid-19

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

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

A sample of crowdsourcing initiatives

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

Lists by others of relevant initiatives:

 

Global Covid-19 mapping and recording initiatives

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

 

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Filed under Africa, AI, Asia, capitalism, cybersecurity, Development, digital technologies, Education, Empowerment, ICT4D, ICTs, inclusion, India, ITU, Latin America, mobile phones, Pakistan, Sustainability, technology

Failures and corruption in DFID’s education programme in Pakistan


DFID’s much-vaunted education programme in Pakistan has been beset by problems since its very beginning.  Many of these issues could have been avoided if people responsible had listened to the voices of those on the ground who were working in the education systems and schools in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.  Those responsible for designing and implementing the flawed programme need to be identified, and take responsibility for their actions.  Many are still in highly paid and “respected” roles in private consultancy companies that are at risk of delivering such failed projects over and over again unless they are stopped.

A recent report in the Financial Times (by Bethan Staton and Farhan Bokhari, 24th August 2019) has gone largely unreported elsewhere, as a coalition of silence continues over this failure and corruption in a prestigious DFID programme.  As their report begins, “Buildings in more than nine in 10 schools in Pakistan delivered under a £107m project funded by the UK’s Department for International Development are not fit for purpose, leaving 115,000 children learning in makeshift classrooms as a new academic year begins”.  Some 1,277 out of the 1,389 schools that were meant to have been built or renovated are potentially at risk from structural design flaws, which put them at risk of collapse in earthquakes.  Pakistan is one of the most seismically active countries in the world and has had six major earthquakes over 6 Mw in the last decade.  The earthquake in October 2005 killed over 86,000 people, and set in train various initiatives to try to ensure that schools were indeed built to protect children in earthquakes.

The UK government has responded quickly to the FT’s report, with the new Secretary of State, Alok Sharma, saying that this is unacceptable and the contracting company would be retrofitting all affected classrooms at no extra cost to the taxpayer.  Stephen Twigg, the chair of the House of Commons International Development Select Committee, has also pledged to investigate this as part of an inquiry into the impact and delivery of aid in Pakistan.

However, all of this could have been avoided if earlier warnings had been heeded, especially from people in Pakistan on the ground who really knew what was going on.  The suspicion is that those who designed and benefitted from the programme thought that they could get away with benefitting personally from these contracts.  Yet again, suspicion falls on the probity of “international development consultants” and “implementing agencies”.  As a very good Pakistani friend said to me, “follow the money”.  So I have!

I first warned about problems with DFID funded education projects in Pakistan following a visit there in 2016.  I raised my concerns in a post in May of that year entitled Education reform in Pakistan: rhetoric and reality, and shared these with colleagues in DFID, but was assured that this was a prestigious DFID programme that was above reproach and was delivering good work.  My comments were, I was told, mere heresay.

That post ended with the following words:

“The main thing that persuaded me to write this piece was a Facebook message I received this morning, that then suddenly disappeared.  It read:

“It is true though Tim Unwin.  What is really pathetic is that neither Dfid nor Sindh/Punjab government are made accountable for those children whose education will discontinue after this debacle. Education Fund for Sindh boasted enrolling 100 thousand out of school kids. Overnight the project and project management has vanished, website dysfunctional…Poof and all is gone. There is no way to track those children and see what’s happening to their education”

This is so very sad.  We need to know the truth about educational reform in Pakistan – and indeed the role of donors, the private sector and richly paid consultants – in helping to shape this.   I cannot claim that what I have been told is actually happening on the ground, but I can claim that this is a faithful record of what I was told”.

I wish I knew why the words were taken down; perhaps the author did not want to be identified.  More importantly, I wish that people in DFID had listened to them.

My earlier post alluded to the coalition of interests in international development between individual consultants, global corporations, local companies, and government officials.  Let me now expand on this.

  • McKinsey, Pearson, Delivery Associates and Sir Michael Barber.  Barber is curently chairman and founder of Delivery Associates (among other roles) and was in many ways the mind behind DFID’s recent educational work in Pakistan.  From 2011-2015 he was DFID’s Special Representative on Education in Pakistan (as well as Chief Education Advisor at Pearson, 2011-2017), and in 2013 he wrote an enthusastic report entitled The Good News from Pakistan: How a revolutionary new approach to education reform shows the way forward for Pakistan and development aid everywhere, which explored in particular ways through which expansion in low-cost private sector educational delivery might spur the government to reform itself (pp.49-50).  However, as the Mail Online pointed out Barber was paid £4,404 a day for his advice.  As this source goes on to point out, “Sir Michael was handed the deal 18 months ago as part of a wider contract with management consultants McKinsey.  Originally McKinsey was planning to charge £7,340 a day for Sir Michael’s advice on improving Pakistan’s education system over 45 days, making a total of £330,300.  Overall, four consultants were to be paid £910,000 for 250 days’ work, although this was reduced to £676,720 after the firm agreed a ‘social sector discount’, which took Sir Michael’s daily rate to £5,505. A fellow director was paid the same rate while two ‘senior consultants’ were paid £2,350 a day”.  There is no doubt that Barber played a key role in shaping DFID’s educational policies in Pakistan and was paid “handsomely” for it.  The 2016 review of the PESP (II) (Punjab Education Support Programme) clearly describes his involement: “More formally, the bi-monthly stocktake of the Roadmap provides a high-level forum to discuss a range of key education indicators (such as student attendance and missing facilities) with the CM, Secretary Education and Sir Michael Barber, as the UK Special Representative for Education in Pakistan”.
  • IMC Worldwide, the main contractor.  The British Company IMC Worldwide won the main contract for delivering much of DFID’s school building programme in Pakistan, and continues to claim on its website that the project is a great success (as noted on a screenshot of its home page earlier today, shown below).

Screenshot 2019-08-30 at 18.04.25

This goes on to highlight their success in improving up to 1500 classrooms, with videoclips emphasising in particular their use of reinforced foundations, innovative use of Chinese Brick Bond, preserving history through innovations, and building community engagement.  It is, though, worth remembering that the Punjab Education Support Programme PESP (II) January 2016 review commented that “The school infrastructure component has been slow to perform. This was due in part to a delay in legal registration of IMC Worldwide (the international private sector implementing partner) in Pakistan. Unit costs have also risen dramatically since the last Annual Review and work is behind the original schedule. The quality of construction in the classrooms that have been completed is encouraging”.  In hindsight, the quality of work would appear to have been anything but encouraging!

  • Humqadan-SCRP, the local initiative.  IMC needed to implement the programme through local contractors, and this led to the creation of Humqadan-SCRP.  The implementation phase started in May 2015 as a five year programme funded by DFID and the Australian government, and managed by IMC Worldwide.  It is very difficult to find out details about exactly who is involved in delivering the construction work on the ground (closed tenders are listed here).  Its newsletters in 2017 and 2018 mentioned that Herman Bergsma was the team leader, although he has now been replaced (his predecessor was Roger Bonner).

Screenshot 2019-08-30 at 18.44.44

As with the IMC site, Humqadan’s media centre page above indicates great success for the initiative.  However, local media in Pakistan has occasionally reported problems and challenges with the work.  In December 2017, Dawn thus highlighted the case of a school building being demolished in 2015, but still remaining to be reconstructed.  More worrying, though, are suggestions that IMC may have failed sufficiently to do quality checks, and had challenges in ensuring that local contractors were paid appropriately and on time; there are even claims that IMC may have sought to keep much of the money for themselves.  DFID’s July 2016 annual report for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Education Sector Programme (KESP) perhaps gives some credence to such rumours, noting that “Just before the finalisation of last year’s KESP annual review, Humqadam flagged to DFID an expected increase in their costs for construction and rehabilitation, but the detail was not clear at the time of publication. Humqadam subsequently confirmed that after going out to the market for the construction work, several cost drivers were significantly higher than in their original estimates. This had the effect of approximately doubling average classroom construction costs from PKR 450,000 (£2,813) to PKR 950,000 (£5,938)”.  The Pakistani construction sector is notoriously problematic and anyone the least bit familiar with the country should know the importance of good and rigorous management processes to ensure that appropriate standards are maintained.  A doubling of costs, though, seems remarkable; even more remarkable is DFID’s apparent acceptance of this.

  • The donor’s role, DFID.  DFID’s regular reports on progress with the project are mixed.  Ever since the beginning, they have tended to over-emphasise the successes, while underestimating the failures. That having been said, it is important to emphasise that some attempts have been made by DFID to grapple with these issues.  As I noted in my earlier post relating to the Punjab Education Support Programme (PESP II): “DFID’s Development Tracker page suggests that there was a substantial over-spend in 2013/14, and a slight underspend in 2015/16, with 2014/15 being just about on budget.  Moreover, DFID’s most recent review of the project dated January 2016 had provided an overall very positive account of the work done so far, although it did note that “The school infrastructure component has been slow to perform” (p.2)“.  The July 2016 KESP report likewise noted that “Over the 12 months since the last KESP review, DFID has responded by strengthening its management of the Humqadam contract to increase scrutiny and oversight. The team produced an enhanced monitoring strategy and commissioned a Third Party Verification (TPV) contract to verify that this intervention still represented value for money.”  It is nevertheless remarkable that the programme score for this programme increased from C in 2012, to B in 2013 and 2014, and then A from 2015 to 2016.  As far as DFID is concerned it was indeed therefore being successful.  Not insignificantly, though, the risk rating rose from High from 2012-2015 to Major in 2016.  Unfortunately there is no mention of Humqadan in the first Performance Evaluation of DFID’s Punjab Education Sector Programme (PESP2), published in 2019.  On balance, some aspects of the overall programme would indeed appear to be going well, but DFID’s monitoring processes would seem to have failed to pick up a potentially catastrophic failure in actual delivery on the ground.

This is clearly a complex and difficult situation, but above all two things stand out as being extremely sad:

  • Children on the ground in desperate need of good learning opportunities seem to have been failed, since so many new school buildings appear not to have been built to the appropriate standards; and
  • DFID’s reputation as one of the world’s leading bilateral donors has been seriously tarnished, whether or not the scale of construction failure is as high as the FT article suggests.

All of these problems could have been resolved if:

  • greater care had been taken in the design of the programme in the first place;
  • greater attention had been focused on the problems picked up in the annual reporting process;
  • greater scrutiny had been paid to the work of the consultancy companies and local contractors; and
  • greater efffort had been expended on monitoring local progress and quality delivery on the ground.

Above all, if senior DFID staff had listened more to concerns from Pakistanis working on the ground in rural areas of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and had been less concerned about portraying its success as a donor agency, then these problems might never have arisen in the first place.  Yet again the coalition of interests of donor governments, international consultants and their companies and corporations, seem to have dominated the views and lives of those that they purport to serve.

If the Financial Times report is true, and the scale of incompetence and possible corruption is indeed as high as is claimed, I hope that DFID will take a very serious look at its processes, and ensure that those who have taken British taxpayers’ money for their own personal gain are never permitted to do so again.

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Filed under Education, ICTs, Pakistan, poverty, technology, Uncategorized

The gendered language of ICTs and ICT4D


I have long pondered about writing on the gendering of language in the field of ICT for Development (ICT4D), but have always hesitated because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.  However, I feel that the time is now right to do so following the recent launch of our initiative designed to change the attitudes and behaviours of men in the ICT/tech sector (TEQtogether).  This post may offend some people, but I hope not.  It is an issue that needs addressing if we are truly to grapple with the complexities of gender in ICT4D.

The way we use language both expresses our underlying cognition of the world, and also shapes that world, especially in the minds of those who read or hear us.  My observation is that in the ICT field most writers and practitioners have been blind to this gendering of language, and thus perpetuate a male-dominated conceptualisation of ICT4D.  Four very different examples can be used to highlight this:

  • The gendering of electronic parts. For a very considerable time, electronic parts have been gendered.  Take, for example, male and female connectors.  This is summarised graphically in the populist but communal Wikipedia entry on the subject: “In electrical and mechanical trades and manufacturing, each half of a pair of mating connectors or fasteners is conventionally assigned the designation male or female. The “female” connector is generally a receptacle that receives and holds the “male” connector … The assignment is a direct analogy with genitalia and heterosexual sex; the part bearing one or more protrusions, or which fits inside the other, being designated male in contrast to the part containing the corresponding indentations, or fitting outside the other, being designated female. Extension of the analogy results in the verb to mate being used to describe the process of connecting two corresponding parts together”.  Not only are different electronic parts gendered, but such gendering leads to an association with heterosexual intercourse – mating.  Interestingly, in digital systems, it is usually the male part that is seen as being “active”: keyboards and mice (male) are the active elements “plugged into” a female socket in a computer.  Yet, in reality it is the processing IMG_3261power of the computer (perhaps female) that is actually most valued.  Moreover, the use of USB “sticks”, often phallic in shape, can be seen as a clear example of this male/female gendering associated with heterosexual sex.  The use of such sticks to infect computers with viruses can also, for example, be likened to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in humans.  The shift away from the use of such male and female connectors to the increasingly common use of WiFi and Bluetooth can in turn perhaps be seen as one way through which this gendering might be being broken down, although much more research needs to be done to explore the gendering of all aspects of digital technologies.
  • The use of language in ICT4D.  Far too often the language associated with the use of technology in international development carries with it subconscious, and (hopefully) usually unintended, meanings.  In the light of the above discussion, the DIGITAL-IN-2018-003-INTERNET-PENETRATION-MAP-V1.00widely used term “Internet penetration” is, for example, hugely problematic.  The “desire” to increase Internet penetration in poorer parts of the world can thus be interpreted as a largely male, north American and European wish sexually to “penetrate” and “conquer” weaker female countries and cultures.  Whereas normally countries are “seduced” into accepting such Internet penetration, the forceful and violent approach sometimes adopted can be akin to rape, an analogy that is occasionally applied to the entire process of imperialism and its successor international development when considered to be exploitative of “weaker” countries or economies.  The implication of this is  not only that great care is needed in the choice of particular words or phrases, but also that the complex subconscious and gendered structures that underlie our understanding of technology and development need to be better understood.   For those who think this too extreme a view, why don’t we just talk about the spread of the Internet, or Internet distribution?
  • Digital technologies represented by male nouns. At a rather different level, languages that differentiate between male and female nouns often consider ICTs to be male.  Thus, a computer is un ordinateur in French, ein Computer in German, un computer in Italian and un ordenador in Spanish.  Likewise a mobile phone is un téléphone portable in French, ein Handy in German, un cellurlare in Italian, and un celular in Spanish.  Not all ICTs are male (it is, for example, une micropuce for a microchip in French), but it seems that in languages derived from Latin the majority are.  The implications of this for the mental construction of technologies in the minds of different cultures are profound.
  • Computer code: bits and qubits.  Computer code is usually based on a binary number system in which there are only two possible states, off and on, usually represented by 0 and 1.  Binary codes assign patterns of binary digits (or bits) to any character or instruction, and data are encoded into bit strings.  The notions of male and female are similarly a binary distinction.  However, it is now increasingly realised that such a simple binary division of gender and sexuality is inappropriate.  The recognition of LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and questioning) identities challenges the traditional notions of binary distinctions that have long held sway in scientific thinking.  In particular, it can be seen as being closely isomorphic with many concepts of quantum computing, most notably the use of quantum bits (qubits) that can be in superpositions of states, in which any quantum states can be superposed (added together) to produce another valid quantum state.  This fluidity of gender, paralleling new notions in quantum computing, is particularly exciting, and may be one way through which the traditional maleness of ICTs and digital technologies may be fragmented.

These are but four examples of how the language of ICTs can be seen to have been traditionally gendered. They also point to some potential ways through which such gendering might be fragmented, or perhaps changed.  For some this will be unimportant, but let me challenge them.  If a largely male ICT or digital world is being constructed in part through the way that it is being spoken about (even by women), is it surprising that it is difficult to engage and involve women in the tech sector?  If we want to encourage more women into the  sector, for all the undoubted skills and benefits that they can bring, then surely we can all rethink our use of language to make the world of ICT4D less male dominated.

Finally, it is good to see that some of these issues are now being considered seriously by academics in a range of fields.  For those interested in exploring some of these ideas further, I would strongly recommend that they also read papers on gendering robots such as:

See also the following interesting article from a UK civil service (Parliamentary Digital Service) perspective on gender and language:

And thanks to Serge Stinckwich for sharing this interesting link from the BBC:

 

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Filed under Gender, ICT4D, ICTs, Inequality, language

The dark side of using ICTs in education


Much evidence has been adduced to suggest that ICTs enhance not only the quantity but also the quality of education and learning; those selling such technologies have skilfully created an atmosphere where it is usually unquestioningly assumed that ICTs do indeed have a beneficial impact.  However, the opportunity to undertake research recently for UNICEF on the future of ICT use in education provided me with the chance to explore some of the darker aspects of such use, and I summarise my thoughts here to encourage a more balanced approach to discussions about ICTs and education.

In recent years there has been an increasing amount of evidence that sheds doubt on the claimed benefits of ICTs for education, and also highlights their limitations and dangers (see for example UNICEF’s recent report on Children in a Digital World).  Four themes are particularly pertinent:

  • doubts about the overall efficacy of ICTs in enhancing learning;
  • the distractions that they provide;
  • their use for behaviours intended to harm children; and
  • the increasingly blurred interface that they create between humans and machines

Do ICTs necessarily improve learning outcomes?

One of the first major studies to examine the overall impact of ICTs on learning outcomes was an OECD report in 2012 that concluded that “Overall, the results of the estimates presented in this report point to a generalized negative correlation between the use of ICT (in terms of either intensity or deviations from the mean) and PISA test scores”. The authors were very cautious about their findings, and PISA scores are only one measure of learning, albeit a one that many governments treat very seriously.

More recently, the OECD has produced a comprehensive report on Students, Computers and Learning, that also questions the overall impact that ICTs have on learning.  This shows that the exposure of children to computers in schools varies considerably between countries and within countries.  Most significantly, though, it concludes that the use of computers does not seem to be an important factor in explaining the variation in student performance in mathematics, reading or science as reflected in the PISA scores.  The report concludes (p.15) cautiously that “the connections among students, computers and learning are neither simple nor hard-wired; and the real contributions ICT can make to teaching and learning have yet to be fully realised and exploited”.

One important conclusion from this and associated research is that if poorer countries outside the OECD invest substantially in the use of ICTs in schools there is no guarantee that it will improve traditionally defined learning outcomes.  Moreover, it seems evident that ICTs by themselves do not necessarily have a clear and positive impact on learning outcomes.

Other research has gone further and shown that many educational skills, especially relating to memory, are not as good when using ICTs as when using more traditional methods.  Kirschner and Neelan have thus reported that handwritten notes are much more effective for learning than those made using a digital device, and Mangen et al. have also shown that students who read texts in print score significantly better in reading comprehension than do those who read them digitally.  Much more research is needed about the impact of different methods, particularly with and without ICTs, on the learning achievements of children.

Mobiles as distractions

A decade ago, in the early days of mobile devices, it was often argued that bring-your-own devices could be a means of enabling schools to introduce ICTs without having to expend large amounts on hardware. Such schemes have been widely criticised because of the inequalities that they can perpetuate, but an increasing amount of evidence is available to suggest that the use of mobile devices in classrooms also has a negative impact on children’s learning, especially because of the distractions that they cause.  Much of the opposition to mobiles in classrooms comes from frustrated teachers and parents, and finds its expression in popular news media.  Headlines in mainstream media such as “Schools ponder classroom ban on ‘distracting’ mobile phones” (The Times) are increasingly common. This is closely related to concerns about the digital distractions that are now seen as harming labour productivity later in life.

There is a growing body of research that supports such general concerns.  In a ground-breaking study, Kuznekoff and Titsworth, for example, have shown in a small-scale study that university “Students who were not using their mobile phones wrote down 62% more information in their notes, took more detailed notes, were able to recall more detailed information from the lecture, and scored a full letter grade and a half higher on a multiple choice test than those students who were actively using their mobile phones”. Likewise, in a survey of schools in four English cities, Beland and Murphy have shown convincingly that student performance in high stakes exams significantly increases after mobile ‘phones have been banned, and the these increases in performance are generally driven by the lowest-achieving pupils.  As a result, they suggest that restricting mobile phone use in schools can be a low-cost way to reduce overall educational inequalities.

In the light of such general concerns, several countries have sought to prohibit the use of mobiles in schools.  In much of China, secondary pupils in boarding schools are only permitted to use their ‘phones for short periods each day, and they are not allowed to use them in classes.  Likewise, a decision by the French government to ban mobile ‘phones in school from September 2018 has received widespread publicity.  Reasons for the ban include a general concern about the health implications of children regularly using ‘phones before the age of 7, about the desirability of them physically playing in breaks rather than just being on their devices, and the perception that they cause distraction during lessons.  It is salient to note that attempts to introduce a similar ban in New York City in 2006 largely failed, and it was lifted in 2015.

The dark side of digital devices: addiction, bullying and harassment

UNICEF’s important review Children in a Digital World, highlights three forms of digital risk to children: content, contact, and conduct.  In particular, it emphasises the threats of cyberbullying, online child sex abuse and exploitation.

In most instances, when children use ICTs in schools they are usually subject to some kind of control or supervision.  However, when they are outside school, they are very much freer to use such technologies, despite the potential control measures that some parents seek to impose.  Hence, it is very easy for children to be subject to abuse or harassment from their peers and others once they have left the confines of their schools.  This raises important questions about the relative balance of responsibility between schools and parents in helping children grow up safely in a digital world.

In all uses of ICTs in education, it is essential that the highest priority should be given by schools to:

  • The secure management of children’s data;
  • Digital relationships between teachers and pupils, especially on social media;
  • Behaviours of children online, especially to one another; and
  • The potential for external individuals or organisations to influence children in their care.

Above all, though, it is essential that schools provide extensive training for children in the wise use of digital technologies, covering not only the above  requirements but also issues around critical thinking relating to information on the internet, the use of search engines, social media, privacy, and all aspects of their interface with ICTs.  These need to be balanced, and stress both the positive potential of ICTs alongside their dangers and threats.  Schools cannot do this alone, and there needs to be extensive collaboration between governments, companies, civil society, and parents, but schools are very well-placed to be the central point through which such education and training are provided.

Increasingly, national governments are providing regulations as well as guidance for schools about keeping children safe online at schools and at home.  The UK, for example, announced new measures to tackle this in 2015, requiring all schools to have in place filters and monitoring systems to prevent access to potential harmful material, and to ensure that children are taught about online safeguarding.  Many poorer countries, though, do not have such systematic regulations in place, and there is an urgent need for all governments to create systems of support for schools to help them share good practices relating to child online protection.  It is also important that examples of good practice are widely shared, and sources such as those provided by the European Commission’s Better Internet for Kids service platform, and the ITU’s guidelines on child online protection should be more widely known and acted upon.

Globally, there is insufficient awareness of the significance of many of these issues (see for example the work of the UK-based Internet Watch Foundation).  Whilst overt bullying, harassment and exploitation are becoming increasingly discussed, insufficient attention has been paid until recently on the rising impact of digital addiction on children.  South Korea, for example, sees Internet addiction as a national health crisis, with there being an estimated 2 million addicts, most of whom are children or young adults.  It is estimated that one in ten South Korean children is a digital addict and there is increasing evidence that excessive screen time is damaging developing brains.

Recent warnings in the UK likewise highlight the addictive dangers of giving children smartphones, with a third of children between 12 and 15 admitting that they have difficulty balancing their use of smartphones with other aspects of their life. A particularly worrying aspect of this addiction is the normalisation of sexting, whereby young children are convinced into believing that sending nude pictures of themselves us completely normal.  One survey reported in 2017 has suggested that around two-thirds of primary teachers said they were aware of pupils sharing inappropriate sexual material.

Responsibility for this addiction, and how best to deal with it, are topics that require detailed consideration by all those interested in education.  The design of social media platforms is thus increasingly being seen as problematic, and gives rise to considerable debate.  It has, for example, been claimed that Facebook was explicitly designed as an addictive form of social media, which exploits a vulnerability in human psychology through its social-validation feedback loop.  Others, though, see the value that such social media platforms offer, and suggest that only a relatively few people become seriously addicted to it.  Most recently, following the launch of Messenger Kids for children under 13, a group of 100 leading academics, practitioners and organisations have written an open letter to Facebook claiming that young children are not ready to have social media accounts, that it will increase the amount of time young children spend with digital devices, and that the app’s overall impact on families will be negative.

Moreover, there is also growing evidence that the recent rise in depression amongst people born after 1995 in the richer countries of the world, and especially the USA, can be directly linked to the dramatic increase in smartphone use since 2012.  Twenge, for example, has found that teens who spent more than 5 hours a day online were 761% more likely to have at least one suicide risk factor than were those who spent only an hour a day online.

Another general issue that requires further discussion is the use of children’s data by companies providing educational services.  All data are potentially hackable, and school generated data are often seen as being particularly vulnerable because of lax cybersecurity.  In 2017, high profile hacks in school systems across the USA brought the ease of this, as well as the damage that it could cause, to public awareness. UK school systems have also been targeted with relatively simple scams that defraud them of large sums of money. More worrying is the vast amount of data that governments and companies, such as ClassDojo, gather on a regular basis through digital educational systems and platforms, especially relating to examination performance and children’s personal backgrounds.

Cyborgs and transhumanism

A final, and much deeper, ethical question that also needs to be considered is the ways through which the use of ICTs in schools may be influencing the long-term relationships between humans and machines.  The notion of cyborgs, organisms that combine organic and biomechatronic parts and have enhanced abilities through the integration of components that rely on feedback systems, has been discussed heatedly since the 1960s. However, the rapidity of recent technological development has meant that some now see all human life as inevitably becoming more entwined with that of machines.  Elon Musk, the serial scientific inventor and business magnate, has thus argued that humans must indeed become cyborgs if they are to stay relevant in a future dominated by artificial intelligence, and he is not alone in his thoughts.  Such life-changing rhetoric requires vociferous challenging by those who do not wish to see such a future, and it is important that there is a balanced and open debate about transhumanism and the desirability of humans becoming cyborgs.

Those with pacemakers, artificial limbs and cochlear implants, are already combinations of machine and humans, and companies such as Calico, a business within the Alphabet group that also owns Google, are already undertaking research that will use technology to enable people to lead much longer and healthier lives.  Those who wear “fitbits” that transmit their bodies’ physical data to companies that then use it to generate revenue from marketing or insurance are already virtually cyborgs.  It will not be long before more people start arguing for humans to be chipped with their digital identities just like their pets, so that they no longer have to have physical biometric identity cards. Transhumanism (also known as H+) is an extreme form of such thinking that seeks to transform humans by using technology to enhance human intellect and physiology.  Companies such as Kernel are seeking to develop a wave of new technologies that will be able to access, read and write from the human brain.  Even if most people reject the extremes of H+, the general argument that ICTs should be used to enhance humans is now becoming much more widely accepted than it was previously.

This has very significant implications for education systems, especially in terms of the ways that humans store and process memory.  Children are increasingly relying on digital memories, especially access to the Internet or the memories on their digital devices.  They are also being encouraged to use their brains for skills other than merely acquiring knowledge, although good traditional education systems were never merely about simple knowledge acquisition as is often claimed.  We know that brains adapt remarkably quickly to their environments, but insufficient research has yet been done on the systematic way through which ICTs are changing brain function.

 

This is the third in 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, and the second was 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.  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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Filed under cybersecurity, Education, ICT4D, ICTs, Transhumanism

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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Filed under Education, ICT4D, ICTs, Learning, Monitoring and Evaluation, poverty, Uncategorized

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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Filed under Education, ICT4D, ICTs, Inequality, Uncategorized

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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ICTs, sustainability and development case studies: M-KOPA Solar


Earlier this year, I was privileged to work on a co-authored book project for the ITU.  This was published by the ITU as ICT-Centric Economic Growth, Innovation and Job Creation, and was launched at the World Telecommunication Development Conference in Argentina in October.  The chapter that I led was entitled ICTs, sustainability and development: critical elements, and provided a challenging account of ICTs and sustainability.

Each chapter was accompanied by a single case study – although I had argued strongly that there should be more than one case study for each chapter, so that a range of different examples and perspectives could be included.  I had worked with several colleagues to produce great examples that would exemplify some of the key arguments of the chapter, but sadly these were not published.

Hence, as a supplement to the book, I am including these now as blog posts.  This is the second, and focuses on the way through which M-KOPA is making sustainable energy available to poor people in eastern Africa.  Since this was first written almost a year ago, new data are available, but I hope that this will provide some insights into an important commercial initiative that is indeed using ICTs to contribute to sustainable development.

M-KOPA Solar: using ICTs to enable poor people and marginalised communities to access sustainable energy

M-KOPA Solar has developed a highly innovative solution for using ICTs to deliver on sustainable energy provision, especially for previously unserved poor people.  It is therefore an excellent example of the ways through which ICTs can indeed deliver on some of the critical challenges identified in this chapter at the interface between ICTs and the SDGs.  Above all, it indicates how new technologies can create novel and disruptive opportunities for those with entrepreneurial and innovative approaches to develop new business models that can indeed deliver valuable services to previously marginalised people.

M-KOPA

M-KOPA Solar is a Kenyan solar energy company founded in 2011 by Nick Hughes, Chad Larson and Jesse Moore, and its mission is “to upgrade lives by making high-quality solutions affordable to everyone”.  Nick Hughes was previously responsible for creating the very successful M-PESA mobile money solution for Vodafone, where Moore had also worked.  As of July 2016, M-KOPA has connected 450,000 homes in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda to solar power, with more than 500 new homes being added every day.

Three factors have been central to M-KOPA’s success: the ability of its founders to identify a viable and innovative business model; their identification of a real need for which people are willing to pay; and then their skills in creating an innovative cost effective solution.  At the heart of their model is the ability for people to use their mobile phones to pay a small amount each month through mobile money transfer to buy the equipment, and then to own it after a year’s usage.  Their 2016 basic model is the M-KOPA IV Solar Home System, which has an 8W solar panel, providing energy for 3 LED light bulbs, a portable rechargeable torch, a home charging USB with five standard connections, and a rechargeable radio.  In Kenya users pay a deposit of 2,999 KES (£22.45) and then 50 KES (£0.37) a day for a year, during which time there is a full warranty for the equipment.  Prices are similar in neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania.  The actual equipment is available through local dealers, and there is also a customer care team that supports customers, agents and retail partners.  A more expensive version of the model, the M-KOPA 400 also has a 16” digital television, which requires a deposit of 7,999 KES and a daily payment of 125 KES.

The company estimates that current customers will make projected savings of US$ 300 million over the next four year, and are enjoying 50 million hours of kerosene-free lighting per month.  This has important environmental ramifications by reducing harmful emissions and the risk of fire causing serious burns to people using kerosene.  They have also created some 2,500 jobs in East Africa, thereby contributing to the wider employment and economy of the region.  One of the most striking features of M-KOPA is that it has developed a business model that delivers on a real need, and does so in a cost-effective manner through the use of mobile money payments.  It estimates that more than three-quarters of its customers live on less than US$ 2 a day, and this is therefore an innovation that really delivers on the needs of some of the world’s poorest people.  Providing light extends the time people have both for social activities and also for productive education and information gathering, thereby potentially enabling many other SDGs to be achieved, including those related to education and health.  The use of radios puts them in touch with what is going on in the wider world, and their recharged phones enable them to communicate with others whenever they have connectivity.  The indirect contributions of M-KOPA thus go far beyond merely the provision of affordable light for poor people.

 

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EQUALS Research Group Meeting in Macau


EQUALS 5is a global initiative committed to achieving gender equality in the digital age.  Its founding partners are the ITU, UN Women, UNU Computing and Society (UNU-CS) institute, the International Trade Centre, and the GSMA, and it has been a real privilege to work with colleagues from these organisations and other partners over the last 18 months to try to help forge this partnership to reduce the inequalities between men and women in the digital age.   There are three partner Coalitions within EQUALS: for Skills (led by GIZ and UNESCO); Access (led by the GSMA); and Leadership (led by the ITC).  These are supported by a Research Group, led by the UNU-CS. The picture above shows the first Principals meeting held in September 2017 at the edges of the UN General Assembly in New York.

Despite all of the efforts to achieve increasing female participation in STEM subjects, in employment and leadership positions in the ICT sector, and in the use of ICTs to help towards women’s empowerment, most of the indicators show that gender digital inequality is increasing.  At the broadest level, this means that most of the initiatives undertaken to date to reduce these inequalities have failed.  Business as usual is therefore not an option, and the EQUALS partnership is intended to encourage committed partners to work together in new ways, and on new initiatives, to help deliver Sustainable Development Goal 5,  to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. 

The first face-to-face physical (rather than virtual) meeting of the Research Group was convened by the UNU-CS in Macau from 5th-6th December (official press release), and it was great that both Liz Quaglia and I were able to represent the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D (at Royal Holloway, University of London) at this meeting, which was attended by researchers and policymakers from 21 universities and organizations around the world. This meeting established the group’s research agenda, drafted its work plan for 2018, and finalized the content and schedule of its inaugural report due to be published in mid-2018.  In particular, it provided a good opportunity for researchers to help shape the three Coalitions’ thinking around gender and equality in the  areas of skills, access and leadership, and also to identify ways through which they could contribute new research to enable the coalitions to be evidence-led in their activities.

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Huge thanks are due to Araba Sey, who convened the meeting with amazing enthusiasm, insight and professionalism, and all of the other staff at UNU-CS who contributed so much to the meeting.  It was a great occasion when some of the world’s leading researchers in gender and ICTs could meet together, not only to discuss EQUALS, but also to explore other areas of related research, and to build the trust and openness necessary to increase gender equality both in the field of ICTs, and also through the ways that ICTs influence every aspect of people’s lives.  The BBQ and dancing on the last night ensured that memories of this event will last for a long time in everyone’s minds!

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Filed under Gender, ICT4D, ICTs, Inequality, ITU, United Nations, Universities