Tag Archives: Books

Reclaiming ICT4D at the WSIS Forum 2017


BookTo coincide with the recent publication of my new book entitled Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development (Oxford University Press, 2017), the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D is convening a workshop on Friday 16th June from 11.00-12.45 in ITU Room Popov 1 at the 2017 WSIS Forum being held in Geneva.  The key premise of the workshop is that the global spread of ICTs has increased inequality, and that the poorest and most marginalised have therefore failed sufficiently to benefit.  The workshop will explore whether the continued focus on the ways through which ICTs can contribute to economic growth will inevitably lead to ever increasing, and dangerous, inequality, and will make recommendations as to how different stakeholders can best ensure that the poorest and most marginalised can indeed benefit from their use.

It will begin with short (5 minute) perspectives from some amazing people (listed in alphabetical order of first names):

  • Alex Wong (Head, Global Challenge Partnerships & Member of the Executive Committee; Head of the Future of the Internet Global Challenge Initiative, World Economic Forum) on The power of partnership
  • Dr. Bushra Hassan (School of Psychology, University of Sussex) on The wisdom of marginalised women
  • Charlotte Smart (Digital Policy and Programme Manager, Department for International Development, UK) on The delivery of donors
  • Michael Kende (Senior Advisor, Analysis Mason, and former Chief Economist of the Internet Society) on The trust in technology
  • Nigel Hickson (VP IGO Engagement, ICANN) on The design of the domain name system
  • Torbjörn Fredriksson (Head of ICT Analysis Section of the Division on Technology and Logistics, UNCTAD) on The energy of entrepreneurship

Following these short, and undoubtedly provocative, presentations there will be an open discussion focusing on participants’ thoughts as to what are the most important priorities for action that different stakeholders must take so that the poorest and most marginalised people and communities can indeed be empowered through the use of ICTs.

The workshop is open to everyone with interests in ways through which ICTs can indeed benefit poor people, and there will also be an opportunity after the workshop for participants to purchase copies of Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development at a 40% reduction from list price.

I very much look forward to seeing you there!

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Reclaiming ICT4D: the Conclusion


recict4dEarly last week I had a good meeting with OUP about the marketing of Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development – and hopefully copies will be ready in time for the WSIS Forum in Geneva in June! Then, at the end of the week, the final version of the revised page proofs appeared.  I’ve never had to read so many versions of one of my manuscripts before, and am so grateful to the work of all those who have helped in the production process!

Having shared the cover, preface, index and contents page, as well as the introduction before, I thought it was timely also to share the final few paragraphs. I very much hope that people will enjoy, and indeed be challenged by, them.  I hope too that those who consider these to be overly extreme, will indeed read the book and be convinced of the truth that lies within them.  Although some will remain unconvinced, I hope that the book will encourage everyone working at the interface between technology and development to reflect on what they are doing and change their practices in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

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“The design of ICTs and their rapid deployment have been one of the main causes of increasing inequality in the world.  One of the underlying themes of this book is that this has become exacerbated by the linkage between ICTs and development defined as economic growth.  Indeed, advocacy that ICTs can contribute positively to economic growth, and that this will reduce or eliminate poverty, has actually served to increase inequality and thus further marginalize the poor.  The idea of ‘development’ itself has become a vehicle through which the technological interests of the private sector in particular, but also those of governments and civil society, can be further propagated.  Expansion in the use of ICTs has thus become the primary focus of attention (D4ICT), rather than the development outcomes that might be facilitated by ICTs in the interests of the poor and marginalized (ICT4D).  This is scarcely surprising, given the long history of the use of technologies to serve and maintain the interests of the rich and powerful.

Many factors have influenced this state of affairs.  In particular, the increasing power of the private sector in global governance, the dominance of an instrumental view of ICTs that sees them necessarily as being a force for good, the diminution in the role of governments in serving the interests of all their citizens, the symbolic power of modernity embodied in ICTs, and an emphasis on enhancing economic growth rather than reducing inequality, have all been very significant in shaping the current intersection between ICTs and development.  To be sure, there are many instances where ICTs have been used to enhance the lives of groups of poor and marginalized people, but the overwhelming balance of evidence is that most such initiatives fail to go to scale or be sustainable.  Moreover, there is also a growing body of evidence that the dark side of ICTs is seriously harming many poor people, and especially women and girls.

Paradoxically, the main ways through which the use of ICTs can be reclaimed for development that might empower poor and marginalized people have rather little to do with the technologies, but much more to do with attitudes and approaches adopted by all those engaged in serving the interests of the poor.  First, the idea that ICTs in general, or the rollout of mobile broadband in particular, is some kind of panacea, or silver bullet, that can reduce poverty must be abandoned.  This must be combined with a realization that policies designed purely to increase economic growth through the use of ICTs will necessarily continue to increase inequality.  There needs to be a fundamental shift in thinking by governments, civil society and those who fund development interventions away from the economic growth agenda and instead toward the explicit use of ICTs to support the poor and the marginalized.  The private sector will continue to serve as the engine of growth, and thereby drive the use of ICTs by the majority of people, but its profit-taking voracity needs to be tempered by a realisation that the technological Jinn that it releases may well eventually do more harm than good.  This requires a fundamental reorientation of much research to focus primarily on the development of ICTs through which the very poorest might be empowered.  This needs to begin with a humble realization that academics interested in ICT4D should become the servants of the poor and marginalized, learning from them, and using their skills and expertise to serve the interests of the poor rather than their own careers, or the interests of global ICT corporations.  Research and practice should be with the poor rather than merely for the poor.  Governments and regulators have a central role in facilitating such a shift, but it would be naïve to suggest that all governments are indeed benign and without self-interest.  Politicians of all hues therefore need to be convinced that increasing inequality is ultimately a greater threat to stability and their own political futures than would be any reduction in economic growth.  Likewise, private sector companies have much to contribute to this renewed vision of ICT4D.  Those that can develop innovative new technologies and business models to deliver affordable services to the poorest ‘first billion’, for example, will necessarily be able to undercut companies still focusing on the ‘next billion’, and thereby make considerable gains in market share.

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            Above all, those who share my passion for technology, and the ways through which it can indeed be used to help empower the poorest and the most marginalized, the limbless beggars in Sierra Leone, the blind musicians playing on street corners in China, or the young women in Pakistan at threat of being murdered because of the images they post on social media, must begin by reflecting on their own practices.  We need to change from being part of the problem to being part of the solution.  Once we have begun to be enlightened ourselves about the role of technology in development, we may in turn be able to help empower others through crafting new ICTs and the strategies through which they can be implemented in the interests of the poorest and most marginalized.

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“Reclaiming ICT4D” – in the beginning


It is always exciting submitting a book manuscript to a publisher, and today is no exception!  I have at last finished with my editing and revisions, and sent the manuscript of Reclaiming ICT4D off to Oxford University Press.  I just hope that they like it as much as I do!  It is by no means perfect, but it is what I have been wanting to write for almost a decade now.

This is how it begins – I hope you like it:

“Chapter 1

A critical reflection on ICTs and ‘Development’

This book is about the ways through which Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have become entwined with both the theory and the practice of ‘development’.  Its central argument is that although the design and introduction of such technologies has immense potential to do good, all too often this potential has had negative outcomes for poor and marginalized people, sometime intended but more often than not unintended.  Over the last twenty years, rather than reducing poverty, ICTs have actually increased inequality, and if ‘development’ is seen as being about the relative differences between people and between communities, then it has had an overwhelming negative impact on development.  Despite the evidence to the contrary, I nevertheless retain a deep belief in the potential for ICTs to be used to transform the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalized for the better.  The challenge is that this requires a fundamental change in the ways that all stakeholders think about and implement ICT policies and practices.  This book is intended to convince these stakeholders of the need to change their approaches.

It has its origins in the mid-1970s, when I learnt to program in Fortran, and also had the privilege of undertaking field research in rural India.  The conjuncture of these two experiences laid the foundations for my later career, which over the last twenty years has become increasingly focused on the interface between Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) on the one hand, and the idea of ‘development’ on the other.  The book tells personal stories and anecdotes (shown in a separate font).  It draws on large empirical data sets, but also on the personal qualitative accounts of others.  It tries to make the complex theoretical arguments upon which it is based easy to understand.  Above all, it has a practical intent in reversing the inequalities that the transformative impacts of ICTs have led to across the world.

I still remember the enjoyment, but also the frustrations, of using punch cards, with 80 columns, each of which had 12 punch locations, to write my simple programs in Fortran.  The frustration was obvious.  If you made just one tiny mistake in punching a card, the program would not run, and you would have to take your deck of cards away, make the changes, and then submit the revised deck for processing the next day.  However, there was also something exciting about doing this.  We were using machines to generate new knowledge.  They were modern.  They were the future, and we dreamt that they might be able to change the world, to make it a better place.  Furthermore, there was something very pleasing in the purity and accuracy that they required.  It was my fault if I made a mistake; the machine would always be precise and correct.  These self-same comments also apply to the use of ICTs today.  Yes, they can be frustrating, as when one’s immensely powerful laptop or mobile ‘phone crashes, or the tedium of receiving unwanted e-mails extends the working day far into time better spent doing other things, but at the same time the interface between machines and modernity conjures up a belief that we can use them to do great things – such as reducing poverty.

Figure 1.1 Modernity and the machine: Cambridge University Computer Laboratory in the early 1970s.

1.1

Source: University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory (1999)

In 1976 and 1977 I had the immense privilege of undertaking field research in the Singbhum District of what was then South Bihar, now Jharkhand, with an amazing Indian scholar, Sudhir Wanmali, who was undertaking his PhD about the ‘hats’, or periodic markets, where rural trade and exchange occurred in different places on each day of the week (Figure 1.2).  Being ‘in the field’ with him taught me so much: the haze and smell of the woodsmoke in the evenings; the intense colours of rural India; the rice beer served in leaf cups at the edges of the markets towards the end of the day; the palpable tensions caused by the ongoing Naxalite rising (Singh, 1995); the profits made by mainly Muslim traders from the labour of Adivasi, tribal villagers, in the beautiful forests and fields of Singbhum; the creaking oxcarts; and the wonderful names of the towns and villages such as Hat Gamharia, Chakradharpur, Jagannathpur, and Sonua.  Most of all, though, it taught me that ‘development’ had something powerful to do with inequality.  I still vividly recall seeing rich people picnicking in the lush green gardens of the steel town of Jamshedpur nearby, coming in their smart cars from their plush houses, and then a short distance away watching and smelling blind beggars shuffling along the streets in the hope of receiving some pittance to appease their hunger.  The ever so smart, neatly pressed, clothes of the urban elite at the weekends contrasted markedly with the mainly white saris, trimmed with bright colours, that scarcely covered the frail bodies of the old rural women in the villages where we worked during the week.  Any development that would take place here had to be about reducing the inequalities that existed between these two different worlds within the world of South Bihar.  This made me look at my own country, at the rich countries of Europe, and it made me all the more aware of two things: not only that inequality and poverty were also in the midst of our rich societies; but also that the connections between different countries in the world had something to do with the depth of poverty, however defined, in places such as the village of Sonua, or the town of Ranchi in South Bihar.

Figure 1.2: hat, or rural periodic market at Hat Gamharia, in what was then South Bihar, 1977 1.2 Source: Author

            Between the mid-1970s and the mid-2010s my interests in ICTs, on the one hand, and ‘development’ on the other, have increasingly fascinated and preoccupied me.  This book is about that fascination.  It shares stories about how they are connected, how they impinge on and shape each other.  I have been fortunate to have been involved in many initiatives that have sought to involve ICTs in various aspects of ‘development’.  In the first instance, my love of computing and engineering, even though I am a geographer, has always led me to explore the latest technological developments, from electronic typewriters that could store a limited number of words, through the first Apple computers, to the Acorn BBC micro school and home computer launched in 1981, using its Basic BASIC programming language, and now more recently to the use of mobile ‘phones for development.  I was fascinated by the potential for computers to be used in schools and universities, and I learnt much from being involved with the innovative Computers in Teaching initiative Centre for Geography in the 1990s (see Unwin and Maguire, 1990).  During the 2000s, I then had the privilege of leading two challenging international initiatives that built on these experiences.  First, between 2001 and 2004 I led the UK Prime Minister’s Imfundo: Partnership for IT in Education initiative, based within the Department for International Development (UK Government Web Archive 2007), which created a partnership of some 40 governments, private sector and civil society organisations committed to using ICTs to enhance the quality and quantity of education in Africa, particularly in Kenya, South Africa and Ghana.  Then in the latter 2000s, I led the World Economic Forum’s Partnerships for Education initiative with UNESCO, which sought to draw out and extend the experiences gained through the Forum’s Global Education Initiative’s work on creating ICT-based educational partnerships in Jordan, Egypt, Rajasthan and Palestine (Unwin and Wong, 2012).  Meanwhile, between these I created the ICT4D (ICT for Development) Collective, based primarily at Royal Holloway, University of London, which was specifically designed to encourage the highest possible quality of research in support of the poorest and most marginalized.  Typical of the work we encouraged was another partnership-based initiative, this time to develop collaborative research and teaching in European and African universities both on and through the use of ICTs.  More recently, between 2011 and 2015 I had the privilege of being Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation, which is the membership organisation of governments and people in the 53 countries of the Commonwealth, enhancing the use of ICTs for development.

Two things have been central to all of these initiatives: first a passionate belief in the practical role of academics and universities in the societies of which they are a part, at all scales from the local to the international; and second, recognition of the need for governments, the private sector and civil society to work collaboratively together in partnerships to help deliver effective development impacts.  The first of these builds fundamentally on the notion of Critical Theory developed by the Frankfurt School (Held, 1980), and particularly the work of Jürgen Habermas (1974, 1978) concerning the notion of knowledge constitutive interests and the complex inter-relationships between theory and practice.  The next section therefore explores why this book explicitly draws on Critical Theory in seeking to understand the complex role and potential of ICTs in and for development.  Section 1.2 thereafter then draws on the account above about rural life in India in the 1970s to explore in further detail some of the many ways in which the term ‘development’ has been, and indeed still is, used in association with technology.”

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