Category Archives: poverty

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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Face masks and Covid-19: communal not individual relevance

face-masks-coronavirus-china-afpOne of the starkest differences between East Asian and European/North American responses to the Covid-19 pandemic has been in their differing attitudes towards face masks (used here generically, and differentiated from FFP3, also known as N95, respirators) : they are common in East Asian countries such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Japan, and yet are rarely to be seen in other parts of the world.  They have been part of the package of solutions recommended in East Asia, where infection and mortality rates have generally been quite low; yet they are absent in Europe and North America where rates are much higher.

World Health Organisation advice, followed assiduously by European governments and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is clear:

  • If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected 2019-nCoV infection.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
  • If you wear a mask, then you must know how to use it and dispose of it properly.

This is frequently interepreted in an abbreviated form, as by the BBC, to imply that “Only two types of people should wear masks: those who are sick and show symptoms, and those who are caring for people who are suspected to have the coronavirus”.

The case against wearing face masks comes down essentially to the argument that they will do little to protect someone from getting infected.  This is fundamentally an individualistic argument: “If I wear a mask it won’t be much good to me”.  However, from a communal perspective that is absolutely not the point; what matters is that if you wear a mask and are unknowingly infected it may help to prevent you spreading the infection to many other people.  Wearing a mask is about others not yourself.

A growing body of evidence is now suggesting that masks can indeed help to slow the spread of Covid-19:

  • The markedly different histories of infection between countries where masks are encouraged/enforced as part of a package of measures, and those where they are discouraged, is forcing researchers and policy makers to try to explain why.  Masks are an obvious possible answer.
  • It is increasingly being suggested that many Covid-19 carriers are asymptomatic.  They therefore don’t know that they might infect people, and so are going about their daily lives doing just that.  If they had been wearing masks, it is argued, this could reduce the number of people that they infect.
  • Dentists and healthcare workers in many parts of the world are encouraged or required to use masks both to provide some protection from patients, but also to protect patients from any infections that a dentist may have.  If such masks are seen to be offering patients some protection, then it seems strange to suggest that they offer no protection against a coronavirus such as Covid-19 (see reviews of surgical masks and N95 masks by Loeb et al., 2009, and more recently by Long et al., 2020)
  • Chinese doctors and scientists are increasingly confident that masks do make a difference.  In a recent interview, George Gao (Head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention) has thus suggested that “The big mistake in the U.S. and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren’t wearing masks. This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role—you’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth. Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others”.

In societies such as the USA and much of Europe where the focus tends to be more on the “self” rather than the “community” it is scarcely surprising that individuals and their politicians see little value in masks; but in more communal societies, where there is  perhaps more care for others, then masks are seen as an important part of the armour against Covid-19.

Many governments fear that encouraging citizens to wear face masks would mean that there would be insufficient left for medical professionals to wear.   This, however, is rather a lame excuse.  Such governments could readily have put in place systems in early February to prepare to expand production of protective clothing.  It is not too late for them urgently to do so.  The BBC thus reports that “UK clothes makers say the government has wasted time in ordering personal protective equipment for NHS staff.  Fashion and textile firms believe they could have begun making gowns and masks for front-line workers 10 days ago”.

However, for those who do care about their neighbours and don’t want to disrupt the official production of masks for healthcare providers, an increasing amount of guidance is now available for making your own masks, as at:

These are clearly not going to be as good as masks made by companies to stringent regulatory standards (for UK see Regulatory status of equipment being used to help prevent coronavirus (COVID-19)), but they may well offer at least some protection to reduce the communal spread of Covid-19.  Pressure on demand is likely to become very much worse than it is at present, especially when imported masks are low in supply and often fail to satisfy these standards: recent reports (see for example Business Insider, 29th March) thus suggest that 600,000 masks imported from China have had to be recalled by the Dutch government because they are faulty.  In countries unable even to import masks from elsewhere, domestic production in line with international standards (see Wong, A. and Wilkinson, A., 2020) can be recommended.

Above all, the discussion should not so much be about “will I be protected?” but instead “how can I protect others?“.  It rather depends on what kind of society we wish to live in – especially for those who are left after this pandemic has run its course.

[Update 30th March – it is great to see that Austria has announced today, the day after I wrote the above, that it is to make wearing masks compulsory, and will distribute basic masks for free at the entrances to all supermarkets]

[Update 31st March – Tom Whipple in The Times notes comments from Prof Cheng at Birmingham University and Prof Cowling at University of Hong Kong in favour of wearing masks, although Prof McNally, also from Birmingham, expressed concern that this would be counterproductive since people would think they could still go out]

[Update 2nd April – David Shukman on the BBC News site: Coronavirus: Expert panel to assess face mask use by public.  The WHO should have acted much more quickly on changing its advice]

[Update 7th April – Link to Lydia Bourouiba’s important study on turbulent gas clouds and respiratory pathogen emission: coughs and sneezes can spread #Covid19 7-8 m; CDC guidance is only 2 m; masks might help https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2763852. We really need to rethink social distancing…]

[Update 7th JulyBBC Coronavirus: Don’t leave home without a face covering, says science body – why has it taken so long for people in the UK to argue vociferously for this?]

[Update 15th DecemberScientists say masks could stop coronavirus spreading in busy streets – nothing much has changed, apart from many thousands having died unnecessarily!  Just goes to show what an individualistic and selfish society we live in – as many of us have said for months, masks can help protect other people.  Every life saved matters]

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Donor and government funding of Covid-19 digital initiatives

Masai children 2We are all going to be affected by Covid-19, and we must work together across the world if we are going to come out of the next year peacefully and coherently.  The world in a year’s time will be fundamentally different from how it is now; now is the time to start planning for that future. The countries that will be most adversely affected by Covid-19 are not the rich and powerful, but those that are the weakest and that have the least developed healthcare systems.  Across the world, many well-intentioned people are struggling to do what they can to make a difference in the short-term, but many of these initiatives will fail; most of them are duplicating ongoing activity elsewhere; many of them will do more harm than good.

This is a plea for us all to learn from our past mistakes, and work collaboratively in the interests of the world’s poorest and most marginalised rather than competitively and selfishly for ourselves.

Past mistakes

Bilateral donors and international organisations are always eager to use their resources at times of crisis both to try to do good, but also to be seen to be trying to do good.  Companies and civil society organisations also often try to use such crises to generate revenue and raise their own profiles.  As a result many crises tend to benefit the companies and NGOs more than they do the purportedly intended beneficiaries.

This was classically, and sadly, demonstrated in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, especially with the funding of numerous Internet-based initiatives – at a time when only a small fraction of the population in the infected countries was actually connected to the Internet.  At that time, I wrote a short piece that highlighted the many initiatives ongoing in the continent.  Amongst other things this noted that:

  • “A real challenge now, though, is that so many initiatives are trying to develop digital resources to support the response to Ebola that there is a danger of massive duplication of effort, overlap, and simply overload on the already stretched infrastructure, and indeed people, in the affected countries”, and
  • “Many, many poor people will die of Ebola before we get it under control collectively. We must never make the same mistakes again”.

I have not subsequently found any rigorous monitoring and evaluation reports about the efficacy of most of the initiatives that I then listed, nor of the countless other digital technology projects that were funded and implemented at the time.  However, many such projects hadn’t produced anything of value before the crisis ended, and most failed to many any significant impact on mortality rates or on the lives of those people affected.

In the hope of trying not to make these same mistakes again, might I suggest the following short-term and longer-term things to bear in mind as we seek to reduce the deaths and disruption caused by Covid-19.

Short-term responses

The following five short-term issues strike me as being particularly important for governments and donors to bear in mind, especially in the context of the use of digital technologies:

  • Support and use existing technologies.  In most (but not all) instances the development and production of new technological solutions will take longer than the immediate outbreak that they are designed to respond to.  Only fund initiatives that will still be relevant after the immediate crisis is over, or that will enable better responses to be made to similar crises in the future.  Support solutions that are already proven to work.
  • Co-ordinate and collaborate rather than compete. Countless initiatives are being developed to try to resolves certain aspects of the Covid-19 crisis, such as lack of ventilators or the development of effective testing kits (see below).  This is often because of factors such as national pride and the competitive advantage that many companies (and NGOs) are seeking to achieve.  As a result, there is wasteful duplication of effort, insufficient sharing of good practice, and the poor and marginalised usually do not receive the optimal treatment.  It is essential for international organisations to share widely accepted good practices and technological designs that can be used across the world in the interests of the least powerful.
  • Ensure that what you fund does more good than harm.  Many initiatives are rushed onto the market without having been sufficiently tried and tested in clinical contexts.  Already, we have seen a plethora of false information being published about Covid-19, some out of ignorance and some deliberate falsification.  It is essential that governments and donors support reliable initiatives, and that possible unintended consequences are thorouighly considered.
  • Remember that science is a contested field.  Value-free science does not exisit.  Scientists are generally as interested in their own careers as anyone else.  There is also little universal scientific agreement on anything.  Hence, it is important for politicians and decision makers carefully to evaluate different ideas and proposed solutions, and never to resort to claiming that they are acting on scientific advice.  If you are a leader you have to make some tough decisions.
  • Ensure that funding goes to where it is most needed.  In many such crises funding that is made available is inappropriately used, and it is therefore essential for governments and donors to put in place effective and robus measures to ensure transparency and probity in funding.  A recent letter from Transparency International to the US Congress, for example, recommends 25 anti-corruption measures that it believes are necessary to ” help protect against self-interested parties taking advantage of this emergency for their own benefit and thereby undermining the safety of our communities”.

In the medium term…

Immediate action on Covid-19 is urgent, but a well thought-through and rigorous medium-term response by governments and donors is even more important, especially in the context of the use of digital technologies:

  • We must start planning now for what the world will be like in 18 months time.  Two things about Covid-19 are certain: many people will die, and it will change the world forever.  Already it is clear that one outcome will be vastly greater global use  of digital technologies.  This, for example, is likely dramatically to change the ways in which people shop: as they get used to buying more of their requirements online, traditional suppliers will have to adapt their practices very much more rapipdly than they have been able to do to date.  Those with access to digital technologies will become even more advantaged compared with those who cannot afford them, do not know how to use them, or do not have access to them.
  • Planning for fundamental changes to infrastructure and government services: education and health.  The impact of Covid-19 on the provision of basic government services is likely to be dramatic, and particularly so in countries with weak infrastructures and limited provision of fundamental services.  Large numbers of teachers, doctors and nurses are likely to die across the world, and we need to find ways to help ensure that education and health services can be not only restored but also revitalised.  Indeed, we should see this as an opportunity to introduce new and better systems to enable people to live healthier and more fulfilled lives.  The development of carefully thought through recommendations on these issues, involving widespread representative consultation, in the months ahead will be very important if governments, especially in the poorest countries, are to be able to make wise use of the opportunities that Covid-19 is creating.  There is a very significant role for all donors in supporting such initiatives.
  • Communities, collaboration and co-operation.  Covid-19 offers an opportunity for fundamentally different types of economy and society to be shaped.  New forms of communal activity are already emerging in countries that have been hardest hit by Covid-19.  Already, there are numerous reports of the dramatic impact of self-isolation and reduction of transport pollution on air quality and weather in different parts of the world (see The Independent, NPR, CarbonBrief).  Challenges with obtaining food and other resources are also forcing many people to lead more frugal lives.  However, those who wish to see more communal and collaborative social formations in the future will need to work hard to ensure that the individualistic, profit-oriented, greedy and selfish societies in which we live today do not become ever more entrenched.  We need to grasp this opportunity together to help build a better future, especially in the interests of the poor and marginalised.

Examples of wasteful duplication of effort

Already a plethora of wasteful (in terms of both time and money), competitive and duplicative initiatives to tackle various aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic have been set in motion.  These reflect not only commercial interests, but also national pride – and in some instances quite blatant racism. Many are also very ambitious, planning to deliver products in only a few weeks.  Of course critical care ventilators, test kits, vaccines and ways of identifying antibodies are incredibly important, but greater global collaboration and sharing would help to guarantee both quantity and quality of recommended solutions.  International Organisations have a key role to play in establishing appropriate standards for such resources, and for sharing Open Source (or other forms of communal) templates and designs.  Just a very few of the vast number of ongoing initiatives are given in the reports below:

Critical care ventilators

Testing kits

Despite criticisms of the replicative and wasteful nature of many such initiatives, there are a few initiatives at a global scale that do offer hope.  Prime among these must be Jack Ma’s donation of 20,000 testing kits to each of 54 African countries, which will go some way to reducing the need for these to be domestically produced across the continent.  But this is sadly only a small shower of rain on an otherwise parched continent.  Working together, we have much more to be achieved, both now and in the months ahead.

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Filed under Africa, Asia, Australia, Health, ICT4D, poverty, research, technology, United Nations

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

Interview with Teledifusão de Macau on ICT4D

It was so good to be in Macau and Shenzhen recently in my role as a member of the Advisory Board of the United Nations University Computing and Society Institute.  During my visit, colleagues at the Institute had arranged for me to participate in Teledifusão de Macau (TDM)’s prime time Talk Show with Kelsey Wilhelm.  This was a great opportunity to share some of my current thinking about the interface between digital technologies and humans, and Kelsey made sure that it was a lively and fun half hour discussion – really grateful to him for this!

The show is now available on YouTube, and begins with an overview of the current state of ICT for development, before going on to discuss

  • ways through which people with disabilities can be empowered through the use of technology,
  • the importance of new technologies being inclusive, because otherwise they lead to new inequalities,
  • working “with” the poorest and most marginalised rather than for them,
  • the role of new technologies such as AI and blockchain in serving the interests of the rich rather than the poor,
  • cyborgs and the creation of machine-humans and human-machines, and finally
  • some of the ethical issues that need to be discussed if we are to balance the benefits of new technologies whilst limiting their harm.

I very much hope that what I have to say is thought-provoking and interesting.  We need much wider public debate on these issues!

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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

“Development for ICTs”, bilateral donors and the “beltway bandits”

AfricaOne of the strong claims of my book Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development (OUP, 2017) is that we now have “Development for ICTs” (D4ICT) rather than “ICT for Development” (ICT4D).  In other words, the private sector, governments and civil society are all using the notion of “development” to serve their own ICT interests. This has been reinforced by the 2030 agenda, and an increased emphasis on the ways through which ICTs can indeed contribute to delivering the SDGs, which I have also challenged in my chapter in the ITU’s book ICT-centric economic growth, innovation and job creation (ITU, 2017), as well as in a recent blog post on ICTs and the failure of the SDGs.

My frustrations with much civil society work in the field of ICT4D came to the fore in a short Tweet that I wrote on 5th May: “Challenging question: do most international development civil society organisations serve the interests of those who want to try to do good, or the interests of the poorest and most marginalised? How many poor people create such organisations to empower themselves?.

This was shortly before I headed to Lusaka for the ICT4D Conference held there on 8-10 May, the lead partner of which is Catholic Relief Services (the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States), and for which the two strategic partners are Nethope (a collaboration between the 50 leading international nonprofit organizations SYt_JrNrand the technology sector) and The Norwegian Refugee Council (an independent humanitarian organization helping people forced to flee).  I was delighted that the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D at Royal Holloway, University of London, had also been invited as one of the content partners, and it was great to work with colleagues from other content partners to co-lead the education and livelihoods tracks.

Nothing that I write below is intended to denigrate the commitment and interests of many of the people organising and attending this conference.  Some very close friends were participating, and I made many other new friends.  However, the conference forced me to reflect further on my Tweet, and to challenge once again much contemporary ICT4D practice.  The conversations that I participated in and overheard (over breakfast, at dinners, and on the shuttle buses) at the conference very much reinforced my view that the arguments of Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development are indeed important, and that those of us committed to helping the poorest and most marginalised to empower themselves through the use of ICTs still have a  very, very touch challenge ahead of us.

In short, it seems to me that many of us involved in ICT4D are primarily in it for our companies, our organisations and ourselves, rather than for the people that we claim to serve.

To justify this claim, I focus here on three issues: the funding policies and interests of donors, the practices and interests of many of the companies and civil society organisations involved in delivering aid, and the commitment and interests of many individuals involved in these organisations to do good.

The funding policies and interests of donors

It is widely accepted that much international aid is a form of neo-imperialism; a way through which donor countries can influence, if not entirely control, poorer recipient countries.  At best, aid is a relatively benign, self-centred, form of bourgeois apologetics, through which rich and middle-class people seek to provide support for the poor and marginalised, without necessarily realising that their affluence is in part a direct result of the policies of their states and companies which create such poverty in the first place.  At worst, it is a means through which states on behalf of companies, seek to create the conditions through which those companies can extract greater profits; this is done in the name of economic growth, as represented and formalised through the SDGs.  It has to be more widely understood that economic growth, largely fueled by ICTs, is leading to considerably increased inequality in the world, and if poverty is defined in relative ways, it is actually therefore leading to an increase in poverty.

Participating in the ICT4D conference forced me to go back and look at the levels of funding provided by international donors to major private sector corporations.  In 2001, the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD recommended that aid to the Least Developed Countries should be untied, meaning in effect that those countries should be able to choose where to spend the aid that they were given; it should not have to be spent on companies and organisations from the countries that provide the aid.  As a result, the percentage of tied aid has decreased considerably over the last 15 years or so.  However, recently the tide has turned the other way.  As a recent DAC report has commented, “In 2014, the share of ODA covered by the Recommendation that was reported as untied stood at 87.1%. This marks a drop of 2.4 percentage points, from 89.5%, in 2013. After a further drop of 3.6 percentage points, the share stood at 83.5% in 2015. The share remains high by historical standards, but represents the lowest figure since 2009”.

Not all countries have untied their aid, with the USA being one of the main countries still actively encouraging their companies to benefit from aid spending.  A recent report on the Devex platform thus notes that USAID “continues to award the bulk of its contracts to American firms. In 2015, the top 20 recipients of USAID funding were all U.S.-based organizations. Combined, these transactions account for 70 percent of the total USAID spending for obligated contracts for the year, up slightly from 67 percent in 2014”.  Several of these top-20 companies sponsored, were partners, and were present at, the ICT4D Conference: Chemonics (ranked 2nd), Tetra Tech (ranked 4th), DAI (ranked 5th), and FHI 360 (ranked 11th) featured prominently.

Yet, even those countries that claim to have their aid untied often have very close relationships with large corporations and consultancy companies which gain a surprisingly large percentage of their funding.  According to a 2017 UK House of Commons International Development Committee report, the percentage of the total aid budget spent by DFID through contractors operating on a for-profit basis (not necessarily headquartered in the UK), has thus risen from 12% to 22% between 2010/11 and 2015/16.  This report  goes on to say that “We are also greatly concerned about the appalling conduct of some contractors who have behaved in a way that is entirely misaligned with the Department’s purpose”.  Moreover, the UK’s cross-government Prosperity Fund, which “aims to remove barriers to economic growth and promote the economic reform and development needed to reduce poverty in partner countries” is specifically designed to support initiatives that will generate direct benefit to UK companies and organisations. Claiming to have untied aid need not therefore mean that many of the direct benefits of such funding are not within the grasp of companies or other entities based within the donor countries.

The ICT sector is strong in many donor countries, and their support for ICT4D initiatives in poorer states is thus but one of the many means through which donor governments directly enhance the competitiveness and profits of their consultancy and ICT companies.  This was sadly all too evident from listening to the conversations at the Lusaka conference.

The practices and interests of ICT4D companies, consultancies and civil society organisations

The majority of participants at the 2018 ICT4D Conference were from the private sector and NGOs, most of whom live and work outside Zambia. This is scarcely surprising, since the purpose of the conference was primarily to serve their interests.  On the platforms, in the workshops, in the corridors, over dinner and on the buses – although perhaps not on 3the dance floor – the conversations were dominated by concerns over maintaining the viability of such organisations and companies, through enhancing the ways through which ICTs could contribute positively to development in general, and to the SDGs in particular.  Where poor people and marginalised communities were mentioned, it was usually merely as “beneficiaries” of the largesse, wisdom and technological expertise of those delivering the ICT4D interventions.  Scarcely ever did anyone dare to suggest that these technologies might have a darker side.

Three inter-related issues seemed to be particularly apparent, and for me at least worrying, about their claimed practice of ICT4D:

  • First, the core interest of many of the participants seemed to be to represent their companies in the best possible light, and thus to gain respectability and prestige that will subsequently enable them to gain more contracts and thus greater profits.  If they are honest, the majority of people say that they learn more from their mistakes than their successes. Yet, there was little discussion of mistakes, or even of how the problems associated with ICTs for development can be mitigated.  Consequently, generation after generation of people working in ICT4D keep on making the same old mistakes that we made more than two decades ago. This is desperately depressing, especially for the poorest and most marginalised who such interventions are supposedly intended for.  Perhaps this version of ICT4D, though, is not actually interested in the needs of the poorest and most marginalised at all, but instead the pay packages of the senior executives of the companies and organisations marketing their wares.
  • Second, the self-assuredness of many of the senior executives of companies and civil society organisations involved in ICT4D was remarkable to behold.  For the first time in my life I was told by a speaker from one of the top-20 company recipients of USAID in a session that I was meant to be moderating that he was an experienced speaker and had no need of a moderator!  To be sure, I might not be a very good moderator, but neither was he a real expert in ICT4D, at least not as I understand it – but I simply stood aside and let him take the floor on his own.  So many of these so-called experts had nothing new to say, and the way that they gave their presentations focused primarily on how wonderful their organisations were in implementing ICT4D programmes, rather than on whether these really made a substantive impact to the empowerment of poor people and marginalised communities.  Rarely did I hear anyone talking about what they had learned from  listening to the voices and needs of the poorest, and how they sought to deliver on these needs.
  • Third, it was fascinating listening to the conversations of staff within many of these organisations, about the key importance  of gaining contracts to build their companies, social enterprises or civil society organisations; it was actually hard to avoid listening to them given the tendency of people from some countries seemingly to shout at the tops of their voices in restaurants or other public spaces!  These conveyed overwhelmingly the impression that ICT4D was being used above all else as a vehicle to build their organisations rather than serving the needs of the poorest.

The interests of individuals in doing good

Understanding the real interests of individuals involved in delivering international development, particularly through the use of ICTs, is one of the hardest things to do. We all make mistakes that we try to cover up.  We all like to be seen to be successful.  Most of us like to be seen to be doing good.  It was fascinating, though, just listening to the conversations, particularly among many of the brilliantly able young people participating.  Most people, but definitely not everyone, participating in the conference, were there because they truly wanted to do good, and they believed that they were indeed doing so.  Again, the failure to look sufficiently at the dark side, and the actual harm that many ICT4D initiatives have done, was cause for concern.  If only more people could focus on the challenges in using such technologies, then perhaps things could be different. To be sure, there were also plenty of people who made no real claim to do good, but rather focused explicitly on the business models of their organisations and how they could ensure greater profitability.  However, I suspect that many of  even them began their careers thinking that they could indeed do good for others as well as for themselves.

Much more worrying was that all too often the conversations degenerated into discussions about sources of funding for their next projects, or how to gain financial support from particular donors. Rarely did after-dinner conversations focus down on such issues as listening to the voices of the poor and marginalised, and truly trying to understand how we can design and implement technologies that will indeed serve their interests.  Of course there were some such discussions, but they seemed to be in a small minority.  The pressure of career success, following the “logics” of the organisation employing you, seeking to build its success, and wanting to gain promotion by doing the “right” thing, all mean that it is the interests of the companies and organisations delivering ICT4D that seem to prevail, rather than those of the poorest and most marginalised.

Concluding reflections

There were many great moments in the conference, and I learnt a lot – perhaps not so much about how ICTs can indeed empower poor people, but certainly about the power of the beltway bandits in delivering USAID projects.  I share these reflections with constructive intent, primarily to encourage wider debate on the interests underlying ICT4D initiatives across the world.  I hope I am wrong, and that these do not primarily serve neo-imperialist governments and the companies that they seek to empower that are headquartered within their territories.  Most people attending the ICT4D Conference in Lusaka were there in the belief that they were indeed doing good to others.  Few, I imagine, ever thought that they were there primarily to do good to themselves and their organisations.  I hope that by sharing these thoughts I will encourage greater reflection, and thus the enlightenment and empowerment about which I wrote in Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development .

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