Category Archives: India

Reflections on ICTs, the SDGs and innovation adoption


The contrast between attending a series of side events around the UN General Assembly in New York immediately following a marvellous two weeks in India has made me reflect again on the rhetoric and reality of using ICTs for development, especially in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

Contrast

My latest book, Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development (OUP, 2017) provides an overview of the interests underlying the use of ICTs for “development”, and what needs to be done so that the poorest and most marginalised can indeed benefit from ICTs.  However, working in India, and then listening to the rhetoric of the rich and famous in New York makes me wonder whether I was sufficiently vehement in what I wrote in that book.  It also makes me return to thinking about the research I did 30 years ago on innovation adoption by farmers.  This convinced me that Rogers’ well accepted theoretical arguments around innovation adoption, the S-shaped curve (see below), and the classification of people into categories (innovators, early adopters, really majority, late majority and laggards) is fundamentally flawed.

Rogers

There was very widespread agreement amongst the world’s leaders meeting in New York last week – and most other people as well – that ICTs can contribute very significantly to delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and that these will eliminate poverty.  The challenge, according to them, is how to connect the “next billion” to the Internet (mobile broadband), or in Rogers’ terminology the “late majority”.  As I have argued elsewhere, this will actually further increase global inequality, and most attention should instead be paid  to connecting the “first” (because they are most important) billion, or what Rogers termed the “laggards”.

The interests underlying connecting the next billion

The global focus on rolling out broadband to deliver the SDGs (even if that was possible) is not primarily in the interest of the world’s poorest people.  Instead it is mainly driven by:

  • private sector corporations and companies, from ISPs and mobile operators to the powerful multi-service giants such as Facebook and Google, who are all primarily interested in expanding their markets and profits;
  • national governments, eager to reduce costs through the use of digital technologies (although this is often a flawed assumption), as well as to control  “their” citizens;
  • UN agencies, keen to have a role to play in delivering the SDGS; and
  • NGOs, wanting to publicise their work more widely, and continue to receive project funding for their ICT-based initiatives.

These have little to do with the real interests and needs of the poorest and most marginalised.  The language of global corporations and governments is nearly always about providing access and creating demand for digital services.  But why should poor people necessarily want to go online?

Reasons not to be online…

Masai welcomeI recall a wonderful conversation a couple of years ago with a Maasai chief in Tanzania. He was speaking with a group of techies about the use of mobile devices, and they were trying to persuade him of the value of mobile phones, even just to call his friends in a village the other side of the hills.  He, wisely, remained unconvinced.  For him, walking across the hills, enjoying the landscape, spending time experiencing the physicality of nature, and just thinking about life, were a crucial part of going to, and speaking with, his friend in the next village.

For the wise poor and marginalised, there are many reasons for not being connected:

  • they remain outside a world where increasingly all human actions are monetised by  profit seeking corporations who use digital technologies to track their users and generate profit from selling such information;
  • they remain free from the prying eyes of governments, whose actions may not be in their interests;
  • there is little of interest to them in solving their real needs on the Internet;
  • they do not have to spend large amounts of their very limited cash on paying for digital services that they do not really need;
  • they do not suffer from the increasing amount of online abuse and harassment from trolls and others seeking to make them suffer;
  • their small amounts of cash are not subject to online theft from hackers of mobile money systems;
  • they do not become entrapped in a social media world, where every tweet or blog can adversely influence  their thoughts and senses of well-being;
  • they do not suffer from endless messages or e-mails, the senders of which increasingly expect an immediate response; and
  • they can enjoy being truly human in the analogue physical world (of all the senses), rather than trading this for the synthetic, and much less adequate digital virtual world (of mainly the two senses of sight and sound).

To be sure, there are many advantages of being connected, but the above list (and there are numerous other reasons that could be added) emphasises that there are also many negative aspects of Internet use, especially for the poor and marginalised.

The poor are not ignorant laggards who need to be convinced to go online…

One of the fundamental flaws of the widely accepted innovation adoption model proposed by Rogers is that it classifies people into “heroic” innovators and “ignorant” laggards; it is something about the people that influences whether or not they adopt an innovation, such as mobile broadband.  Such a view is held by many of those who seek to promote the global roll-out of the Internet: those who use the latest technologies are seen as being wise, whereas those who do not are seen as being lazy, ignorant laggards.

Rogers’ formulation is fundamentally problematic because it suggests that it is something about the people themselves that determine whether or not they are leaders or laggards.  This largely ignores the structural factors that determine whether people adopt something new.  With the adoption of agricultural innovations, for example, many poor people act perfectly rationally, and choose the option that they consider suits them best.  Poor people often make very rational, wise decisions not to adopt an innovation, often because the innovation increases the risks of crop failure, and they cannot afford this risk.  Moreover, if they do not have access to innovations it is scarcely surprising that they do not adopt them; the spatial distribution of outlets for herbicides, hybrid seeds or inorganic fertilizers is the main factor influencing whether people adopt them, rather than something about their propensity to innovate.  In the ICT sector, it is hardly surprising that people living in areas without electricity, let alone connectivity, do not see the need to have the latest generation of smartphone connected to the Internet.

If progress is to be made in helping poor and marginalised people benefit from the Internet, it is essential to do away with this flawed model of innovation adoption, and understand instead the structural factors and interests underlying why wise poor people, who know the contexts of their poverty very well, do not choose to adopt such technologies.  The rich elites of the world could begin by trying to understand the real conditions of poverty, rather than simply believing that ICTs can eliminate poverty through the SDGs.

Development in the interests of the poor

children 2ICTs will never deliver on reducing inequalities in the world unless there is a fundamental sea-change in the attitudes of those leading the global private sector corporations that currently shape the world of the Internet.  It is perfectly logical for them to sign up to the SDGs formulated by the UN system, and to seek to show that expanding their digital empires will necessarily deliver the SDGs.  This is a powerful additional weapon in their armoury of market expansion and profit generation.  The problem is that these agendas will continue to increase inequality, and as yet remarkably little attention has been paid to how ICTs might actually help deliver SDG10.  Until corporations and governments really treat the link between ICTs and inequality seriously, peoples of the world will become every more divided, and if poverty is defined in a relative sense then poverty will actually increase rather than decrease as a result of roll out of the Internet.

 

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Filed under Africa, agriculture, Asia, Development, Education, Entrepreneurship, ICT4D, India, Inequality, Rural, SDGs, Urban

Night life at Hauz Khas


One of the many pleasures of being at IIT Delhi over the last fortnight was its proximity to Hauz Khas “village”, with its many restaurants and sites to explore.  Originally, Hauz Khas was part of Siri, the second medieval city and fort of the Delhi Sultanate, dating mainly from the 14th century, and it was built alongside the royal water tank that gave it its name, Hauz meaning “water tank” and Khas meaning “royal”. Many buildings were constructed here by Firuz Shah, including a madrasa, a mosque, his own tomb, and domed pavilions, most of which were built soon after he became ruler in 1351.  After years of decay, the area was redeveloped in the 1980s, and efforts have been made to restore the lake and its surrounding deer park as a tourist attraction and commercial area.

Hauz Khas has developed rapidly over the last decade, and is now a popular area for eating and boutique shops. After long days of meetings and teaching at IIT Delhi, it was good to be able to relax and sample the restaurants.  One evening in the pouring monsoon rain we ate delicious south Indian food at Naivedyam (dosas, oothappam and idli), and on another it was good to catch up with Commonwealth Scholarship alumni at Rang de Basanti Urban Dhaba (for a wide range of traditional food typical of the roadside dhabas of India).  My last night in Delhi on this trip was to the very different night-club atmosphere of Hauz Khas Social, where I felt the oldest person there by far!  However, the food and drink were  good, and it was nice to relax with a view out towards the lake (although the loudness of the music did make conversation difficult!).

I hope that the pictures below capture some of the atmosphere of this colourful and vibrant part of modern Delhi.

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Thanks so much once again to Anushruti Vagrani for taking me to places I don’t think I would have been likely to venture by myself!

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Nehru Place, Delhi: a digital hive


I went seeking some new and interesting ICTs on my last full day in Delhi, and my colleague Anushruti kindly therefore took me to Nehru Place in South Delhi.   I had never been there before, and it turned out to be a fascinating exploration of Delhi’s digital world; a hive of activity, with hundreds of small tech companies each competing for business, seemingly mainly selling mobile devices or offering laptop and phone repair services.

Nehru Place was built in the early 1980s as a commercial district, focusing primarily on the financial and business sectors.  However, as new financial centres have emerged across the city, its traditional role has all but vanished, and it has now been taken over by numerous small ICT businesses; it has often been described as the IT hub of South Asia.  It has a very informal atmosphere, with people also selling software (often pirated) and other small digital goods as pavement vendors on the wide streets between the buildings.

It is a very male dominated environment, and I was also fascinated by the gendering of the ICT advertisements on display (there is definitely a research project to be done on this); the dominance of a few corporate names on the hoardings, mainly Chinese, such as Lenovo, Oppo and Vivo, was a further reminder that India does not yet have much indigenous ICT manufacturing.  The prices of many of the goods on sale were also surprisingly high (India is definitely not the place to buy Apple laptops!).

As the photographs below show, Nehru Place has a  run down feeling to it, but the informality and vibrancy are clearly indicative of a lively digital scene, and it very much reminded me of a digital beehive, with everyone labouring away in their own little cell of the honeycomb that is Nehru Place.  Sadly, I couldn’t actually find what I was seeking to purchase, despite being directed from one shop to another in the hope that I would be able to!

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Alawalpur: farming, mobile ‘phones and cattle


On a very hot Sunday afternoon yesterday, with temperatures reaching the high 90os F (high 30os C), colleagues (Priya Chetri, Srishti Minocha and Anushruti Vagrani) at IIT Delhi kindly took me out into the Haryana countryside where they are conducting a baseline survey on the use of mobile devices by farmers.  In the first instance, this is investigating how helpful meteorological forecasts are to the farmers, but in the longer term it is also going to explore how sensors might be able to provide more refined information that would enable farmers to increase yields and thus profitability.

This was a great opportunity to immerse myself once again in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch of the Indian countryside.  We spent most of our time talking with farmers in the large village of Alawalpur, but after the interviews were over we were also shown one of  the village’s special sites, the Baniewala Mandir.  The temple itself was fascinating, but I had never expected to find the 500 cattle that are so well cared for alongside.  The freshly made chai massala made from their milk after the interviews were done was absolutely delicious!

I hope that the following pictures reveal something of the adventure.  I learnt so much, and am very grateful to Priya, Srishti and Anushruti for taking me there and to Dr. Upasna Sharma for arranging the trip.

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Dilli Haat


I’m amazed that on my previous visit to Delhi no-one mentioned that I might like to explore the craft village of Dilli Haat in southern Delhi.  Perhaps I was previously simply too busy working!  However, one day last week over breakfast in the Faculty Guest House at IIT Delhi, a colleague suggested that it was not far away, and if I had time I should try to visit.  So, I made time this Saturday afternoon, with the temperature well over 95o F (35oC), to set off and explore.

The Haat (market), which opened in 1994, is run by the Delhi Tourism and Transportation Development Corporation, and includes craft stalls from many different parts of India, as well as food sellers, and a stage.  Having paid a small entrance fee (100 INR for a foreigner), one is free just to wander and explore.  In some parts of the market, brightly coloured cloth covers the alleyways, and in others the stalls are set along a sort of arcade.  There is a huge range of craft produce from many different regions of the country for sale, including clothes (mainly for women), jewellery, woodwork, pottery, spices, brass goods, leather work, musical instruments, and mother of pearl bowls.  One of the nicest things is that it was not very crowded, and few traders were overly-persistent in trying to make a sale.  Those near the back of the market clearly received less business, and so some good deals can be struck there, but other traders stated clearly that there were fixed prices.  Certainly, there is a premium to be paid over the price of goods that can be found elsewhere in the city, but the quality is good, and having so much to choose from in one place makes shopping for gifts most enjoyable!

The diversity of products, the richness of colour, as well as the taste and smells of the market all made for a wonderful couple of hours exploration, and I hope that the pictures below capture something of the essence of the place.

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Thanks so much once again to Anushruti Vagrani for taking me there, and helping me negotiate!

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The dogs of IIT Delhi campus


I am greatly enjoying living on the IIT Delhi campus, but have to admit that I am uneasy when walking past the many dogs that are usually roaming around in packs, seemingly on the look out for trouble!  There is always a sense of trepidation walking past them when they block the entrance to a building, or lie across the path!  Waking up in the night to hear them viciously barking, is also not exactly soothing!

Temperatures rose today, and I was surprised to see most of the dogs apparently asleep in the late afternoon sun.  This was definitely an opportunity to take my courage into my hands and photograph them!

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Chandni Chowk


My beautiful pictureThe first time I visited Chandni Chowk (Moonlight Square) in Old Delhi was more than 40 years ago in 1976 (picture to the right).  I remember its vibrancy, the vivid colours, the energy, the diversity of smells, the complexity of everything that was there.  It fascinated me.  I got lost.  I wandered.  I explored back alleyways.  I emerged, having felt something of the depth of Delhi; the ever living past in its present.

I had not been back until two days ago.  Much had changed; little had changed.  I was struck anew by the splendour of some of the old buildings; the mix of religions; the melting pot of cultures that was Old Delhi; the old wooden doors; the delicious food; the wonderful colours, especially of the saris; the dogs and cat; the pale skinned mannequins.  I had to go there, just to feel, smell, hear, see and taste Old Delhi; a special treat was to eat at Parawthe Wala on Paranthe Wali Gali – it is most definitely worth searching out for every imaginable sort of paratha!

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I was so spoilt by my friend and colleague Anushruti Vagrani from IIT Delhi, who took me back to Chandni Chowk, and had patience with me as I just absorbed anew everything about the market.

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