George Sadowsky’s new edited book entitled “Accelerating development using the Web: empowering poor and marginalised populations” has just been launched at the WSIS Forum in Geneva. This contains some really excellent material, and is an important resource for those interested in exploring ways through which the Web can be used by some of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people to enhance their lives. Generously supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, and produced in partnership with the World Wide Web Foundation and the UNDP, this book is designed as “a compendium of articles by recognized experts describing the real and potential effects of the World Wide Web in all major aspects of economic and social development”. Many of the authors combine academic and practical experience, and so this book is much more than just an arid digest of academic thinking on the subject. It also challenges many of the taken for granted assumptions about the Web, and examines the structural conditions that limit its use by the poorest of the world’s people. Chapters cover the following main themes:
- Chapter 1 – Introduction (George Sadowsky)
- Chapter 2 – Fundamental Access Issues (Michael Jensen)
- Chapter 3 – Technical Access Issues (Alan Greenberg)
- Chapter 4 – Policy Access Issues (Cynthia Waddell)
- Chapter 5 – Governance (Raúl Zambrano)
- Chapter 6 – Agriculture (Shalini Kala)
- Chapter 7 – Health (Najib Al-Shorbaji)
- Chapter 8 – Education (Tim Unwin)
- Chapter 9 – Commerce and Trade (Torbjörn Fredriksson)
- Chapter 10 – Finance (Richard Duncombe)
- Chapter 11 – Gender (Nancy Hafkin)
- Chapter 12 – Language and Content (Daniel Pimienta)
- Chapter 13 – Culture (Nnenna Nwakanma)
- Chapter 14 – Conclusion
It was great fun working with George and the team on this project, and I do hope that those who read it will find a sense of our commitment, enthusiasm and, at times, outrage. The Web is in danger of becoming a vehicle through which greater divides are created in our societies. We have to take specific actions if the enormous benefits that it can provide are to be made available to all of the world’s people. This is most definitely not the same as saying that access to the Web should be a human right – something that I most profoundly disagree with. However, it is most certainly to suggest that we cannot simply take it for granted that providing Internet access will without question benefit the poor. If the poor and the marginalised are indeed to benefit from the Web, there have to be clear mechanisms that enable them to use it to deliver on their needs and aspirations.
I’ve just had a great question posed to me by Brooke Kania: “I was just wondering, what are you looking for in students who are coming out of IDEV or ICT4D programs – what do you think the field needs from academic training? What advice would you give to aspiring ICT4D professionals?”. The question is easy; the answer is not! Fueled by a couple of very good glasses of Chianti, let me have a go at responding. Here then are the ten things I would look for, and also some reflections as to why:
- A willingness to cross boundaries. The great thing about ICT4D is that it is not (yet) a specific discipline, but brings together people from many different backgrounds. Exciting things happen at the edges! Get a computer scientist and a philosopher talking together, and great things can happen. The only trouble is that most academic ‘life’ is now about becoming the global expert in a tiny field of academic enquiry, and despite the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity, old disciplinary boundaries remain strong!
- Understanding the real needs of users. Far too many ICT4D projects are invented by academics who have little clue about what the real needs of users actually are, and they are then surprised that the projects fail! In part, this reflects the tyranny of the one year Master’s programme or three-year PhD, that limits the potential for a researcher to go into the field, really discover what would then make a difference to the lives of poor people, and then work with them to develop technologies that can really serve their interests.
- Humility. The Academy is all too often about ‘experts’ and people who claim to ‘have all the answers’. In my experience, that is the death of enquiry and exploration. There is much truth in the statement that “the more I know, the more I realise how little I know”. Interestingly, I think I have met more ‘bright’ people outside universities than I have within them! Far too often, academics create a language of obfuscation, to prevent others from understanding how ignorant they really are!
- Being technically sound. ICT4D is fundamentally about technology – not necessarily in an instrumentalist way, but it is definitely concerned with technology, both how it is shaped by society, and also how it shapes society. It is therefore essential that everyone working in the field of ICT4D does indeed have some technical grasp of technology. That does not mean the impossible, in other words that everyone must understand all the relevant technologies, but it does mean that we should all have some pertinent technical expertise. Thank goodness that I learnt to programme in Fortran as a student!
- A focus on really understanding ‘development’. This is difficult, very difficult. There are many definitions of what development is about, but anyone working in the field of ICT4D must address this question in their own way. For me, development is about addressing the appalling inequalities that exist in our societies, and this is something very, very different from the hegemonic view that development is actually mainly about economic growth. Capitalist economic growth can never eliminate poverty, and the sooner we abandon this misguided nonsense the sooner the world’s poor and marginalised people will be able to live the lives to which they aspire.
- Get some real ‘development’ experience! This is tricky for a student, but it is really impossible to understand the challenges and intricacies of ‘development’, however we define it, unless we have experienced it practically on the ground. For some 20 years I did research and taught about development, but I never worked for a development agency, the private sector, or civil society organisation in that time. In six months working for a bilateral donor agency, I learnt more about the practice of development than I did in most of my previous research on the subject!
- Recognition that ICT4D is a moral, rather than a technical agenda. This is closely linked to the above point, but I think it is different. ICT4D should be about the normative – what should be – rather than what actually is. Academics are generally quite good about describing what exists, but far too few go beyond this to suggest what they think should happen in the light of their analyses . This is irresponsible! Academics are hugely privileged, and they abrogate the trust placed in them by society if they do not use their research to make the world a better place. They can only do this by having a vision for what the world could be like, and then engaging in political action to help shape that world.
- An ability to engage in critical analysis. This should lie at the heart of all academic enquiry, but all too often it doesn’t! Far too much academic research repeats the obvious, albeit dressing it up in grandiose terms. If we want to explain or understand a phenomenon, we have to keep asking the question “why?”. I read so many papers that fail to do this! If the interviews, questionnaires, or experiments that are undertaken do not seek to say why something is observed, then they remain purely descriptive and fail to add to our real understanding. If you are a social scientist, just look at the questions asked in interviews, focus groups or questionnaires. There will usually be many “what?”, “where?”, “when” or “who?” questions, but far fewer “how?” questions, and even fewer “why?” questions! If we do not ask “why?”, we fail really to move knowledge forward.
- Freedom to fail! Far too much academic work is about getting students to regurgitate accepted truths – especially the opinions of those who teach them! What we do not seem to allow students is the opportunity to experiment and fail. I tend to think that people generally learn more from their mistakes than they do from their successes. So, my advice would be to try something new, and not worry about the risk of failing. That is where true innovation comes from. In job interviews, I often tend to ask people about one of their failures, and then get them to think about what they learnt from it. Those who claim never to have failed, don’t come up to the mark – especially in my book!
- Be a good team player. It was difficult to think of a tenth piece of advice – there is so much that could be said. However, I am convinced that ICT4D is about good team work. None of us have all the necessary skills, and so if we are going to develop appropriate solutions, we must be able to work effectively together. Far too much academic work is now about individual success – and we have lost the collective enterprise that so inspired me as a young academic. Wisdom, scholarship and development are above all collective enterprises, and we need to embark on them together.
So, Brooke, I hope this gives you some ideas of my thinking right now. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a tirade against the Academy. Far from it. Universities are a hugely precious element in our societies, and I value them enormously. It is just, I fear, that too many institutions and individual academics have lost their way, and have become merely another tool in the hands of those who do not want us to be free. Ultimately, it is hugely difficult for those committed to implementing real change in our societies to be based within universities; I have tremendous respect for those who remain fighting for their integrity and sanity. ICT4D is about engagement, not just about writing papers in academic journals that few people will ever read. Those who determine our research agendas should be the world’s poor and marginalised.
I was delighted to be able to help the Association of Commonwealth Universities run a workshop on “Doctorates, development and and brain drain” at the recent World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) held in Doha from 1st-3rd November. This focused on four key themes:
- the purposes of a PhD and the characteristics of those who have PhDs
- the quality of a PhD; do we need standards?
- alternative modes of delivery for doctorates
- the brain drain
Although the number of participants was small, the discussion was highly interesting, and the mind map below attempts to capture what we discussed (click WISE 2011 for a .pdf version).
Sitting in an interesting meeting of the International Advisory Group of IDS’s MK4D (Mobilising Knowledge for Development) initiative, it struck me that there are now a number of similar initiatives, all trying to tackle the sharing of development knowledges in rather different ways, and yet no central place where these are all listed. So, here is a list of some of the ones that I think are most interesting (sorted alphabetically!):
- bytesforall – a citizen’s network in South Asia that identifies, discusses and builds network on emerging issues related to ICT and its impact to development
- Comminit – The Comunication Initiative Network, where communication and media are central to social and economic development
- Development Gateway – an international nonprofit organization with the mission to reduce poverty and enable change in developing nations through information technology (includes the Zunia programme)
- Eldis – based at IDS and aiming to share the best in development policy, practice and research (within the MK4D package for work at IDS)
- Global Development Learning Network – cooordinated by the World Bank, the Global Development Learning Network (GDLN) is a partnership that collaborates in the design of customized learning solutions for individuals and organizations working in development
- IDRC/CRDI (Canada’s International Development Research Centre) – supporting applied research to find local solutions that will have lasting impacts on communities around the world.
- IICD – using ICTs to help people in Africa and Latin America access the information that can transform their lives
- infoDev – supports global sharing of information on information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D), and helps to reduce duplication of efforts and investments
- R4D (Research4Development)- the portal to DFID centrally funded research
- Zunia Knowledge Exchange
The Policy Brief resulting from the systematic review report by Marije Geldof, David Grimshaw, Dorothea Kleine and Tim Unwin on the development impact of ICT4D partnerships is now avalable from the R4D website (Policy Brief) and the ICT4D Collective website (Policy Brief).
This emphasises five key findings:
- Success is increased when detailed attention is paid to the local context and the involvement of the local community in partnership implementation.
- It is important for such partnerships to have clear and agreed intended development out-comes, even where constituent partners may themselves have different reasons for being involved in the partnership.
- Sustainability and scalability of the intended development intervention need to be built into partnership design at the very beginning.
- Successful partnerships are built on trust, honesty, openness, mutual understanding and respect.
- A supportive wider ICT environment needs to be in place, both in terms of policy and infrastructure, if such partnerships are to flourish and deliver effective development outcomes
Link to Full Systematic Review Report on ICT4D Partnerships (.pdf)
Together with Marije Geldof, David Grimshaw and Dorothea Kleine from the ICT4D Collective, I have just completed a DFID funded systematic review on the development impact of ICT4D partnerships. This is part of the extensive programme of systematic reviews initiated recently by DFID, that draws very largely on the model of such reviews used in the medical sciences. DFID thus emphasises that ‘Systematic reviews have been used in health, education and social policy to meet this need. Systematic reviews are a well-established and rigorous method to map the evidence base in an unbiased way as possible, assess the quality of the evidence and synthesize it. Systematic reviews can then be mediated in specific ways to make it easier for policy makers and practitioners to rapidly understand the body of evidence and use this as a strong foundation on which to base policy and practice decisions’. Undertaking the review was both challenging and interesting, and we not only reached substantive conclusions about the role of ICT4D partnerships, but we also made considerable comments about the difficulties in undertaking rigorously defined systematic reviews on topics such as this.
Based on our review of 53 key publications in the field, we had five main substantive conclusions:
- Success of ICT4D partnerships is increased when detailed attention is paid to the local context and the involvement of the local community in partnership implementation
- It is important for such partnerships to have clear and agreed intended development outcomes, even where constituent partners may themselves have different reasons for being involved in the partnership
- Sustainability and scalability of the intended development intervention need to be built into partnership design at the very beginning
- Successful partnerships are built on trust, honesty, openness, mutual understanding and respect
- A supportive wider ICT environment needs to be in place, both in terms of policy and infrastructure, if such partnerships are to flourish and deliver effective development outcomes
In terms of our recommendations relating to the actual systematic review methodology, we suggest that
- When dealing with multidisciplinary issues such as this, it is crucial to retain some flexibility in search strategies, and procedures such as those often adopted in reviews of health interventions may sacrifice real understanding in the name of overly zealous adherence to claimed rigour
- External reviewers play a crucial role in guaranteeing the quality of such reviews, and they need to be rewarded for their contributions
- Many of the publications that we reviewed lacked a rigorous account of their research methodology, and we recommend that all funders of development related research should insist that researchers carefully document their methods in all of their publications, so that readers can judge the reliability of the findings
- Many publications on ICT4D partnerships do not specify either what they mean by partnerships or the real development outcomes that they were pursuing. It is therefore very difficult to identify the precise impact of partnerships on development. It may well be that interventions that claim to have benefited from partnerships could have been delivered more effectively through other contractual arrangements
Copy of report (.pdf)
Policy brief (.pdf)
Great to see my latest paper just published in The Electronic Journal on Information Systems in Developing Countries – thanks to Mark Levy and Vignesh Ilvarasan for all their editorial work on this.
The paper examines the moral implications of the use of ICTs in e-government initiatives, focusing especially on national databases, identity cards, and surveillance technologies. It suggests that in resolving debates over these, we need to reach ethical resolutions concerning notions of trust, privacy, and the law. It also draws attention to the ethical problems that emerge in linking the notion of of Universal Human Rights with the introduction of ICTs in developing countries.
As I argue in the paper, “The really difficult ethical questions that arise from this are about how we judge whether it is better for poor and marginalised communities for such egovernment initiatives to have been introduced, or whether they might actually be more advantaged if their governments did not spend vast sums of money on their implementation. Just because it is possible to implement national citizen databases, to use biodata for ID cards, and to introduce sophisticated digital surveillance mechanisms does not mean that it is right to do so”.
Will economic growth lead to poverty reduction? I believe passionately that the market will never serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised. This seems to me to be so clear and obvious that it scarcely needs defending! However, I am becoming increasingly worried that such opinions are very much in the minority. The dominant, hegemonic view amongst most of those working in the field of development really does seem to be that economic growth will indeed eliminate poverty.
Following my recent keynote at m4Life on 28th October, at which I argued that we need to develop ways in which mobiles can be used to support marginalised groups, such as people with disabilities, I was very strongly challenged by an African colleague, whose views I respect. In essence, she accused me of being a typical western academic who does not really understand Africa, and that if I did I would know that most Africans wanted economic growth. By focusing on the poorest, she suggested that my views were tantamount to arguing that Africans should remain poor. I felt deeply hurt by these accusations, and am still smarting from their vehemence some two weeks later! I actually don’t know why, they hurt so much, but perhaps it is because I have elsewhere argued strongly that Africa is indeed rich, and that we need to help build on its richness rather than always describing it as being poor! The irony is that the paper I have written on this has continually been rejected by academic journals – quite possibly because it too does not conform to accepted dogma!
I clearly need to learn to express my arguments more convincingly. This is a brief attempt to do so in the form of some basic principles:
- The potential for inequality to increase is inherent within all economic growth.
- Economic growth, defined in absolute terms, cannot therefore eliminate poverty (see my critique of Jeffrey Sachs, for example, in ‘No end to poverty’)
- If economic growth proceeds unchecked, it will inevitably lead to increased inequality that will ultimately fuel social and political unrest at a range of scale
- A fundamental role of states is thus to intervene in the market to ensure that the poorest and most marginalised are not excessively disadvantaged.
- Given that the market serves the interests of the majority of people, it is incumbent on those who care about reducing inequalities specifically also to address the needs and interests of the poor.
- Such an argument can be justified both on moral grounds (that it is just), and also on socio-political grounds (to reduce potential violence)
- With reference to mobile technologies, therefore, all I was doing in my keynote was to argue that companies, entrepreneurs, app developers, and all those claiming to use ‘mobiles for development’ should seek to address the needs of the poor and marginalised, alongside those of global corporations and their shareholders.
- This is premised upon a belief that ‘development’ is about rather more than just economic growth, and includes notions of equality of opportunity and social justice.
These arguments are developed more fully in:
- Godfred Bonnah Nkansah and Tim Unwin (2010) The contribution of ICTs to the delivery of Special Educational Needs in Ghana: practices and potential, Journal of Information Technology for Development, 16(3), 191-211
- Tim Unwin (ed.) (2009) ICT4D, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Tim Unwin (2007) No end to poverty, Journal of Development Studies, 45(3), 929-953
- Tim Unwin (2004) Beyond budgetary support: pro-poor development agendas for Africa, Third World Quarterly, 25(8), 1501-1523