Category Archives: My Lectures

What if…?  [Thinking about first-mile connectivity]

It was great to have been invited by Aminata Amadou Garba to give the final talk in the ITU Academy’s training session on Last Mile Connectivity on 30th June. She was happy for me to be a little bit provocative, and so I returned to one of my long-standing arguments – that by using terms such as “the last mile” or the “last billion” we often denigrate the poorest and the most marginalised. If we really want to ensure that they benefit from the use of digital technologies, we should instead start thinking about them as “the first mile” because they are most important!

The session addressed seven main themes:

  1. The “last” mile in whose eyes?
  2. Parallels with the “next billion”
    • and the “Digital Divide”
  3. Whose perspectives matter most?
  4. The political economy of connectivity
  5. The fundamental role of regulation
  6. Global connectivity initiatives
  7. Environmental implications

I’m so glad that we were able to have quite a lively discussion both during and after the presentation – a copy of which is available here for those who might be interested.

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Filed under digital technologies, Education, Environment, ICT4D, inclusion, Inequality, ITU, My Lectures, technology

Participating in IFLA’s President’s Meeting and Ministerial Forum, Buenos Aires, 22-23 May 2019

Ministers Forum

Ministers and Secretaries of Culture Forum

It was a real privilege to have been invited to participate in the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) Forum of Ministers and Secretaries of Culture of Latin America and the Caribbean on 22nd May, and to give a keynote address at its 2019 President’s meeting which was on the theme of Motors of change: libraries and sustainable development on 23rd May, both in Buenos Aires.  These meetings provided a valuable opportunity for those actively involved in the role of libraries in contributing to the development of Latin American and Caribbean countries to share ideas and experiences, and agree on ways through which their work can be further enhanced.

The Forum of Ministers and Secretaries of Culture was held in the very impressive Congress of the Argentine Nation, and provided an excellent opportunity for senior


IFLA President and Secretary General

government officials from across the region to share presentations and discuss the theme of Libraries, Access to Information and the Sustainable Development Goals.  Welcoming participants, IFLA President Glòria Pérez-Salmerón reminded them of the theme of her presidency – Motors of Change – and underlined the difference that libraries can make, for so many people, in so many ways.  IFLA Secretary-General Gerald Leitner stressed to the ministers of the power they had in their hands, and made the case for ensuring that they – and libraries – are included fully in national development plans.  A key outcome of the meeting was the signing of the Buenos Aires Declaration which affirmed participating governments’ commitment to the UN 2030 Agenda, and to the power of libraries and access to information to achieve it.  The meeting also saw the launch of the second edition of the Development and Access to Information Report produced by IFLA and the Technology and Social Change Group (TASCHA) at the University of Washington, focusing especially on SDG4 (education), SDG8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG10 (inequalities), SDG13 (climate chage) and SDG16 (peace, justice and strong institutions), and edited by Stephen Wyber and Maria Garrido.

In the evening, there was a Cultural Gala in the Public Hall of the Library of the National Congress, which consisted of three main elements:

  • Nacha

    Nacha Guevara

    A dance performance in two parts by the Arte Ballet Compañía: the Don Quijote suite, and Tiempos de Tango, with ideation, choreography and direction by María Fernanda Blanco.

  • Music played by the Chamber Orchestra of the Honorable Argentine Chamber of Deputies with a repertoire dedicated to the Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, featuruing especially the saxophone soloist Jorge Retamoza.
  • A wonderful closing sequence of songs by the famous Argentine artist Nacha Guevara.

The 2019 President’s Meeting on 23rd May built on the themes of the Development and Access to Information Report, and began with a session of welcoming speeches by IFLA President Glòria Pérez-Salmerón, IFLA Secretary-General Gerald Leitner, Alejandro Lorenzo César Santa (General Coordinating Director, Library of the National Congress), and Rene Mauricio Valdes (United Nations Resident Coordinator, Argentina).  This was followed by my keynote  on Libraries and Sustainable Development: challenges of inequality in a digital world (.pdf of slide deck), which:

  • Screenshot 2019-05-25 at 21.00.54Challenged those who believe that the SDGs will deliver on their aspirations;
  • Highlighted the role of digital technologies in leading to increasing inequalities;
  • Explored issues around power, knowledge and content;
  • Advocated for the important role that libraries can serve as open places and communal resource centres; and
  • Concluded by encouraging participants to have the will to make a difference.

In the afternoon, there were three sets of discussions and presentations by the authors of the Development and Access to Information Report and others on the following themes:

  • A Library Response to Global Challenges: What Can Libraries Contribute to International Efforts to Tackle the Issues that Affect the Planet?
  • Driving Development at a Local Level: Libraries Making a Difference to People’s Lives
  • Improving Decision-Making and Accountability: Libraries as Pillars of Democracy and Good Governance

Tango 1

Our great tango teachers!

These two days of lively and interesting discussion provided a wealth of ideas for all those participating from governments and libraries to implement on return to their own countries.  It was also a very valuable opportunity to build a network of people working at the interface between libaries and international development, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean.  Very many thanks are due to the hard work and hospitality of colleagues from IFLA and our Argentian hosts.  One of my lasting memories will definitely be learning to dance the tango – for which many thanks to our brilliant teachers!


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Filed under Conferences, Dance, ICT4D, Latin America, My Lectures, Photographs, research, SDGs, United Nations, Universities

Unleashing the Potential: ICTs for Development

I had the privilege of being a keynote speaker at the SciFest symposium on ICT for development and learning held in association with a meeting of the Computer Science Days of the Finnish Computer Society held at the University of Joensuu on 15th April. Here is a summary of the key issues that I raised:

  • The main question I sought to address was “How can Computer Science contribute to the lives of some of  the poorest and most marginalised people in the world?”
  • Much computer science seems to be very theoretical, and practised by people who prefer to remain in their familiar institutional surroundings
  • However, for those who wish to gain new experiences, insights and intellectual challenges, working in some of the poorest countries of the world offers great opportunities
  • Unfortunately, much so-called ICT4D research and practice tends to be top-down and led by people from Europe and north America
  • All too rarely does such research really address development needs
  • As privileged academics, we ought to listen much more to the stated needs of the poorest and most marginalised in crafting our research agendas
  • The private sector is likely to enable many relatively poor people to benefit from ICTs, but the very poorest – those with disabilities and street children – need interventions by governments and civil society organisations to help them use ICTs to achieve their aspirations
  • For those computer scientists not lured by the interests of capital, there remains the wonderful challenge of working for social agendas that can make a difference – both to their own intellectual benefit, and to the benefit of the world’s poorest people

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Filed under Africa, ICT4D, My Lectures

ICTs, Citizens and the State – seminar at Michigan State University

Thanks to colleagues in the Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media Department at Michigan State University for their valuable critique of some of my thoughts on the ethical dimensions of e-government initiatives following my seminar there today.  My paper examined the moral implications of the use of ICTs in e-government initiatives, focusing especially on national databases, identity cards and surveillance technologies.  It suggested that in resolving debates over these, we need to reach ethical resolutions concerning notions of trust, privacy and the law.  I also drew attention to the ethical problems that emerge in linking the notion of Universal Human Rights with the introduction of ICTs in developing countries.

In terms of general conclusions, the following seem particularly pertinent:

  1. First, there are indeed many complex ethical aspects associated with e-government, and while to date the emphasis among governments of developing countries, international agencies and donors has very largely been on their positive practical benefits, I suggest that we need to pay much more thorough attention  to their ethical grounding, and especially to the balance of rights and interests between citizens and the state.
  2. Second, in so doing, I suggest that three areas warrant particular attention, namely the ethics of trust, privacy and the law.   It is here that Geuss’s (2008) emphasis on existing real political contexts, rather than the imposition of some external ideal ethical solution, needs to reiterated.  The fundamental point I wish to emphasise is that in each country where e-government initiatives are introduced, people need to ask about the rights and wrongs of such proposals in terms of existing ethical understandings of trust, privacy and the law.
  3. I also sought to raise fundamental questions concerning the continuing validity of much of the human rights based policy and legislation that has dominated global agendas during the last 50 years – particularly in the context of e-government initiatives, and their implication for the rights of individuals and the responsibilities of states.  We need to open up for sensible debate the value of the emphasis placed on human rights, criticism of which is all too often seen as being politically incorrect and a taboo subject. However, if people do not actually have ‘rights’ that they can give up to a state, then we need to reconsider the whole edifice upon which such arguments are built.  An idealistic belief that people have universal rights has not been any protection for those who have suffered at the hands of those who do not believe in such rights.  There is therefore a strong argument that we need to shift the balance away from rights, and towards the responsibilities that people and states have for each other.  For example, rather than simply claiming that knowledge is some kind of human right, it might be a much more positive step to argue that states have a responsibility to enable their citizens to gain knowledge.
  4. Capurro (2007) has argued that ‘Western’ concepts of individual privacy are very different from the ‘African’ emphasis on communal traditions.  It may well therefore be that many of the existing models of e-government developed around European and north America notions of individual privacy are inappropriate in an African or Asian context, and that instead Africans and Asians should instead be designing new such initiatives around their own traditions and cultural practices
  5. Whatever the benefits to states, individuals and communities of e-government initiatives, there is no doubt that global corporations developing the hardware and software for such systems have been very great beneficiaries.  One of the difficult ethical questions that arise from this concerns how we judge whether it is better for poor and marginalised communities for such e-government initiatives to have been introduced, or whether they might actually be more advantaged if their governments did not spend vast sums of money on their implementation.  Just because it is possible to implement national citizen databases, to use biodata for ID cards, and to introduce sophisticated digital surveillance mechanisms does not mean that it is right to do so.


Filed under Africa, Ethics, ICT4D, My Lectures