Tag Archives: ICTs

ICTs, sustainability and development case studies: the Restart Project


Earlier this year, I was privileged to work on a co-authored book project for the ITU.  This was published by the ITU as ICT-Centric Economic Growth, Innovation and Job Creation, and was launched at the World Telecommunication Development Conference in Argentina in October.  The chapter that I led was entitled ICTs, sustainability and development: critical elements, and provided a challenging account of ICTs and sustainability.

Each chapter was accompanied by a single case study – although I had argued strongly that there should be more than one case study for each chapter, so that a range of different examples and perspectives could be included.  I had worked with several colleagues to produce great examples that would exemplify some of the key arguments of the chapter, but sadly these were not published.

Hence, as a supplement to the book, I am including these now as blog posts.  This is the first, and was written with the help of the amazing Ugo Valauri, co-founder of the Restart Project:

The Restart Project: local, community driven initiatives moving beyond the throw-away economy

One effective way of reducing the environmental impact of ICTs is simply to use them for longer.  The Restart Project, a London-based social enterprise that encourages and empowers people to use their electronics longer in order to reduce waste, is an excellent and innovative example of such initiatives.  Launched in 2012 with its first “Restart Party” pop-up community repair event in the UK, it has inspired groups in 10 other countries to replicate similar initiatives in  Europe, North Africa and North America.

Restart

Most energy used and most emissions generated during the life of mobile phones occur during its production process.  Hence, if people use their mobile phones for longer, and repair them when they are faulty, their overall energy impact can be dramatically reduced.  The figures are striking: the average mobile phone made in 2015 produced 36 kg of carbon emissions in manufacture, equivalent to 16 weeks of laundry in affluent countries; the total carbon footprint of the 1.9 billion mobiles sold in 2015 was roughly equivalent to Austria’s total carbon emissions; if every mobile phone were used for one-third longer than the typical 3 years, there would be an emissions saving equivalent to Singapore’s total annual emissions.

The Restart Project is both about changing people’s attitudes and also helping them to make a practical difference.  It works with communities, schools and companies to value and use ICTs longer, and to document the barriers to so doing.  This is done through convening hands-on learning events, known as Restart Parties, where volunteers  help people fix their own small electrical and electronics, and also through helping others to do the same globally, not least through developing educational resources to inspire younger people and sharing tips  for repairing different kinds of equipment.  Acting together, they draw on the skills that everyone has, and collect and publish data on the products they fix. Just over 50% of all products taken to Restart events get fixed by volunteers. By collecting data on common failures and barriers to repairability, Restart hopes to inspire designers, manufacturers and policy makers to fix some of the problems that cannot be solved: early software obsolescence, ease of disassembly and availability of spare parts are all common problems. The combined impact of the over 200 Restart Parties held  by April  2017 prevented 4,011 kg of waste, and 88,687 kg of CO2 emissions, which is equal to driving a car 739,000 km or the emissions caused in the manufacture of 15 cars.

Their guidance for hosting Restart Parties is clear and simple:

  1. Offer free entry to the public (although you can suggest a donation);
  2. Promote a collaborative learning process;
  3. Fix other stuff like bikes if you want, but you’ll need at least three-to-four electronics repairers;
  4. Tell the Restart Project about your party beforehand, and share the results with them; and
  5. Be insured! The Restart Project is not liable for events we do not organise. If uninsured, please work in partnership with a group that is.

Such efforts, though, require funding, at least of the central team running and administering the parties and undertaking the research.  Not everything can be done by volunteers.  The Restart Project has to date been funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the Shuttleworth Foundation. Some of their activities are supported by running special events for local authorities, cultural institutions and companies. They are actively looking to  generate additional income from consultancy built on their insights on participants’ frustrations and recurrent faults and direct donations from the general public.

Many more initiatives such as the Restart Project can readily be created by local community groups across the world; as the Restart Project claims, “We’re fixing our relationship with electronic – putting people and planet first”.  Such initiatives are truly focused on finding ways through which ICTs can indeed deliver a more sustainable world, and thus help to make progress in achieving the SDGs.  If everyone kept their mobile phones, tablets or laptops longer, manufacturers would have to prioritise provision of better repair services, spare parts and refurbishing of devices, and the environmental impact would be significant.  It would be one way through which everyone in the world who owns a digital devices could contribute to achieving the SDGs.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under ICT4D, Development, SDGs, Sustainability, ITU

“Reclaiming ICT4D” – conclusion to the first chapter


1.4I was re-reading the introductory chapter of my Reclaiming ICT4D (OUP, 2017) recently just to check that I still agreed with it!  Doing so made me think of posting its conclusion here, because this highlights five aspects that make it rather different in approach from many other books on ICTs and development.  So, here it is (original manuscript with emphasis added; and including Figure omitted from published book).  Hope this makes people want to read more!

“This chapter has summarized the theoretical and practical groundings for the account that follows, and has sought to make clear why this book focuses on five main aspects of the interface between ICTs and development.  First, it seeks explicitly to draw on both theoretical and practical understandings of the use of technology in development.  It deliberately seeks to build on insights from both theory and practice, and crosses boundaries between different stakeholder communities.  This is also expressed in its style and use of language, which consciously seeks to offer different ways of reflecting on these issues.

Second, the book is built on a belief that just describing the changes that are taking place, and how technology has been used in and for development is not enough.  We must understand the interests behind such occurrences if we are to change what is currently happening.  We must also adopt a normative stance, and be much more willing to say what should be rather than just what is.  It is no coincidence that technology is being used to drive economic growth forward as the expense of those who do not have access to it, or the knowledge or interest in how to use it.  This book thus has an avowedly practical intent to help poor and marginalized people gain benefits from the use of these technologies, and it does not shy away from making tough policy recommendations as to ways in which this can be achieved.

Third, it emphasizes that there are many different ways in which technology and development interact.  I have previously very much championed the notion of ICT for development (ICT4D), but now fear that this has been subverted to a situation where many stakeholders are using the idea of ‘development’ as a means to promulgate and propagate their own specific technologies, or what might be called ‘Development for ICT’ (D4ICT).  Hence, I wish to reclaim ICT4D from the clutches of D4ICT.  This requires us above all to focus primarily on the intended development outcomes rather than the technology.

To do this, it is very important that this book concentrates on both the positive and the negative, intended and unintended, consequences of the use of ICTs in development.  There has been far too much euphoric praise for the role of technology in development, and although the recent UNDP (2015) and World Bank (2016) reports go some way in pointing to the failures, they do not go anything like far enough in highlighting the darker side of technologies and particularly the Internet (although for a darker view of ICT in general see Lanier, 2011).  To be sure, ICTs have indeed transformed the lives of many poor people, often for the better, but they have not yet really structurally improved the lot of the poorest and most marginalized.

Finally, as I hope the above has shown, this book argues that development should not be focused on economic growth, nor about the modernising power of technology.  Rather, development is fundamentally a moral agenda.  ICT4D is about making difficult choices about what is right or wrong.  It is about having the courage to be normative, rather than just positive, and it holds on to the belief that we can still use technology truly to make the world a better place.”

5 Comments

Filed under Development, ICT4D, ICTs, Inequality

Responding to sexual harassment in the workplace


One of my reasons for so strongly supporting the ITU and UN Women led EQUALS (gender equality in the digital age) initiative was my realisation that there continues to be a surprising amount of sexual harassment at international ICT events, as noted in my blog post on the subject in May 2016.  I still firmly believe that all organisations convening such conferences and events should have a set of guidelines advising participants on appropriate behaviours, not least since such behaviours are heavily culturally influenced, and people may not always realise what is expected behaviour in another culture.

However, my management and leadership experience has sadly taught me that sexual harassment in the workplace, especially in the ICT sector, remains far too prevalent.  I have always tried to put appropriate policies in place if they did not previously exist in the organisations where I have worked, and personally to support those who considered that they were being harassed.  I have also encouraged organisations to provide training where relevant, and always to include sexual harassment within wider staff training programmes on bullying.  However, I realise that I have never provided specific guidance on my blog to advise people on how to respond to being harassed.  When people are sexually harassed, they often feel helpless and do not know where to turn.  Recommended responses to harassment also vary in different legal systems and cultures.  So, to make amends , I thought it might be helpful to provide the following set of links that provide a wealth of helpful material:

Summarising the above, it seem that there are five main pieces of immediate advice:

  1. Know your organisation’s staff handbook and always follow the guidance contained within it on sexual harassment.
  2. Talk with your harasser immediately, tell them that you do not like being harassed, and ask them to stop.  This may not always be easy, but it is important that they know you feel harassed.  If it helps, have a friend with you when you tell them.
  3. Document everything, and put the date on every note.  Preferably, do this in a handwritten form in a notebook that can be used as a consecutive record of what has happened.   Do not simply type it on your work laptop or computer that could be hacked by someone else.
  4. Report it in writing to the appropriate person in your workplace immediately if any touching is involved, or if you receive explicit demands for sex.  If you are being harassed by the person to whom you are meant to be reporting, or if the head of the company or organisation is the person who is harassing you, there  should be a nominated alternative person who should be informed.  This might be the Head of Human Resources, or if the head of the organisation is concerned it could be the Chairman of the Board or Council.
  5. Find support.  Many organisations and companies have someone whose role is to provide such first line support or provide direction to an appropriate source of help.  People who are harassed sometimes feel guilty, or blame themselves , even though they have done nothing to encourage such harassment.

Leave a comment

Filed under Conferences, ICT4D conferences, ICTs, Sexual harassment

Reflections on ICTs, the SDGs and innovation adoption


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

Contrast

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

Rogers

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

The interests underlying connecting the next billion

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

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

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

Reasons not to be online…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Development in the interests of the poor

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

 

1 Comment

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

Information and communication technologies: resolving inequalities?


It was great to be invited to give a lecture in the Societat Catalana de Geografia in Barcelona on the subject of “Information and Communication Technologies: resolving inequalities?” on Tuesday 4th October in the Ciclo de Conferencias Programa Jean Monnet convened by my great friend Prof. Jordi Marti Henneberg on the theme of Los Desafîos de lintegración Europea.  This was such an honour, especially since I had the privilege of following the former President of the European Union Josep Borrell’s excellent lecture earlier in the day on El Brexit y sus consequencias en la goberabilidad de la Unión Europea.

lectureThis was an opportunity for me to explore the relevance to the European context of some of my ideas about ICTs and inequality gleaned from research and practice in Africa and Asia.  In essence, my argument was that we need to balance the economic growth agenda with much greater focus on using ICTs to reduce inequalities if we are truly to use ICTs to support greater European integration.  To do this, I concluded by suggesting  that we need to concentrate on seven key actions:

  • working with the poor rather than for the poor
  • pro-poor technological innovation – not the “next billion” but the “first” billion
  • governments have a  key role to play through the use of regulation as facilitation in the interests of the poor and marginalised
  • crafting of appropriate multi-sector partnerships
  • managing security and resilience against the dark side
  • enhancing learning and understanding, both within governments and by individuals
  • working with the most disadvantaged, people with disabilities, street children, and women in patriarchal societies

2 Comments

Filed under Europe, ICT4D, ICTs, Inequality, Uncategorized

ICTs and the failure of the Sustainable Development Goals


The euphoria associated with the consensus reached by UN member states on 2nd August on the Sustainable Development Agenda to be signed by World Leaders in New York on 25-27 September is fundamentally misplaced, although not unexpected (for process see UN Post-2015 Development Agenda).  The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will do little to reduce poverty, will continue to propagate a world system based on inequality, and will continue primarily to serve the interests of those in the UN system and practitioners in the “development industry”.

I find it difficult to believe how Ban Ki-moon could really believe the words he said when welcoming the agreement, saying it “encompasses a universal, transformative and integrated agenda that heralds an historic turning point for our world … This is the People’s Agenda, a plan of action for ending poverty in all its dimensions, irreversibly, everywhere, and leaving no one behind. It seeks to ensure peace and prosperity, and forge partnerships with people and planet at the core. The integrated, interlinked and indivisible 17 Sustainable Development Goals are the people’s goals and demonstrate the scale, universality and ambition of this new Agenda”.

Here, I wish to focus attention particularly on the almost complete omission of ICTs from the final agreed SDGs, and why this is a very serious failing.  Back in June 2013, I wrote stridently about the paucity of mentions of ICT in the report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, which provided the initial basis for the agreement reached last Sunday.  Little has changed since then. Although my focus is on ICTs, it is important, though, to begin by noting some of the fundamental structural issues that mean the SDG process has been so flawed, and will fail to address the interests of the world’s poorest people:

  • There are far too many goals (17) and targets (169) – this will lead to diffusion of effort and lack of focus, not only within the ‘global system’, but also in individual countries.  It is much better to do a few things well, rather than try to do too many things, and fail to do any of them well.  The reality is that this list is a compromise of everything that those involved in the formal deliberations could think of that might reduce poverty (and serve their own interests)
  • Target setting is hugely problematic in that it can lead to resources being directed too much towards delivering the targets and not enough to other factors that might actually have greater impact.  This would not be so worrying if goals and targets were treated as flexible aspirations, but the reasons for the failure to deliver on many of the original Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) should have sent a much more powerful message to those planning the SDGs.  The UN’s own 2014 report on the MDGs, for example, stated that “Substantial progress has been made in most areas, but much more effort is needed to reach the set targets”.  If the world could not deliver on 8 Goals in 15 years, how is it going to deliver on 17 goals and 169 targets in the next 15 years?
  • The process remains largely concerned with absolute poverty rather than relative poverty.  Claiming that the SDG agenda will end poverty in all of its dimensions is, I’m afraid, crass (see my now very old paper No end to poverty that explores this further).  The SDGs will do little fundamentally to change the structural conditions upon which the present world system is based, which remain primarily concernd with economic growth rather than reducing social and economic inequality (despite claims that the agenda does indeed address inequality, as in Goal 10).
  • These goals and targets represent the interests of those organisations (UN, civil society, private sector) driving the SDG agenda, rather than the poorest and most marginalised; it is these organisations that are actually likely to benefit most from the SDG agenda.  Perhaps more than anything else, the SDGs have become a vehicle through which the UN and its many agencies can try to show their continued relevance in an ever-changing world.
  • The need to monitor progress against the goals/targets will further expand the “development industry”, and consultants and organisations involved in such monitoring and evaluation will undoubtedly benefit hugely.  Small, poor countries simply do not have the capacity to implement, let alone develop the complex monitoring systems required by, the new SDGs and targets.
  • The SDGs reflect a relatively small set of interests (economic growth, agriculture, health, education, gender, environment and climate, justice and security, urban/industrial development), and focus insufficiently on some of the key issues that require attention if we are to create a fairer and more equal world, notably the role of ICTs, and the relative lack of attention paid to people with disabilities.

Each of the above claims (and indeed the many other reasons why the SDGs will fail) needs justifying at much greater length, but the last point brings me directly to the abject failure of the SDG agenda to pay sufficient attention to the critical role of ICTs in shaping contemporary development.  ICTs are not mentioned directly in any of the SDGs, and are only to be found in but four of the 169 targets:

  • 4b) By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing States and African countries, for enrolment in higher education, including vocational training and information and communications technology, technical, engineering and scientific programmes, in developed countries and other developing countries
  • 5b) Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women
  • 9c) Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020
  • 17.8) Fully operationalize the technology bank and science, technology and innovation capacity-building mechanism for least developed countries by 2017 and enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology

Only one of these (9c) has a focus on ICTs as a direct aim.  All of the others merely mention ICTs in an enabling role: for higher education scholarships (4b); to promote the empowerment of women (5b); and for the development of a technology bank and science, technology and innovation capacity-building mechanism (17.8).  In this context, it is quite scandalous that the SDGs, while mentioning the empowerment of women, fail to mention the much more significant use that ICTs can make to the lives of the 10% of the world’s population with disabilities.

There is widespread agreement that ICTs have been one of the major factors that have transformed the world over the 15 years of the MDGs.  They have driven extraordinary economic growth, have opened up entirely news ways of delivering education, health and rural development, have transformed the relationships between governments and citizens, and have created an interconnected world of communication and knowledge sharing.  It is not an exaggeration to say that they have been one of the most significant changes to humanity over the last 20 years.  Yet, those determining the SDG agenda for the next 15 years barely give them any recognition at all.  This would not be so worrying if ICTs had not also created some of the greatest inequalities that the world has ever seen; the differences in life experience between someone connected through mobile broadband to a 4G network, and someone with only 2G connectivity, let alone without a smartphone or equivalent digital device, is extraordinary (for a wider discussion see some of my recent papers).  ICTs have the capacity to be used for great good, and to transform the lives of poor people; but they also have the capacity to be used to create vast inequality, and to do much that is negative.

Hence, those involved in crafting the SDGs should have paid very much greater attention to the transformative role of ICTs.  The single target (9c) “Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020” is indeed to be welcomed, but as one of only 169 targets there is a real danger that it will be lost in the plethora of other competing aspirational targets for governments across the world.  As it is, there is little indication of what “significantly increase” actually means, or indeed of how best this target can be achieved.  The dominant rhetoric in the “global community” is still of how to reach the “next billion”, rather than how to serve the needs of the poorest and most marginalised, what most people call the “bottom billion” but which should better be termed the “first billion” to focus our attention on it being the most important!

The failure of ICTs to be mentioned more substantially within the SDGs provides a salutary example of how such goals are formulated, and the politics of the UN and international development system.  Looking back, it is remarkable that ICTs were mentioned explicitly within the sixth target of Goal 8 of the original MDGs in 2000: “In cooperation with the private sector, make available benefits of new technologies, especially information and communications”.  Yet, from this highpoint the role of ICTs within the SDG agenda of 2015 can be seen to have diminished almost to insignificance.  In large part this reflects the failure of international organisations with interests in ICTs to realise the significance of the SDG agenda early enough, and then to engage sufficiently actively in the discussions surrounding their formulation.  In this context, I was delighted that under my leadership the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) did indeed reach agreement in 2014 on a statement about the role of ICTs in the SDGs, but sadly this fell on rather deaf ears in the wider international community. Interestingly, during informal discussions with several multilateral and bilateral donors in recent years, during which I have personally sought to promote the crucial role of ICTs in development, I have regularly been told that the relevant UN organisations (such as the ITU) and other donors have insufficiently promoted the need for a goal on ICTs.  This, I am sure, is correct, but it is also important to understand why this might be the case.  At least four reasons seem relevant:

  • First, the UN system is one of strict hierarchy, with some agencies being seen as much more powerful and dominant than others.  Despite dramatic enhancements in the efficacy and role of the ITU in recent years under the leadership of Hamadoun Touré and now Houlin Zhao, it still seems to lack the clout at the wider international table of some of the other more powerful UN organisations and lobbies, for example, in the fields of health, gender and climate change.
  • Second, despite their being some young brilliant Ministers for ICTs/Telecommunciations across the world, more often that not these ministers are relatively low down the national hierarchy of ministerial responsibility, and were therefore unable effectively to influence national delegations who contributed to the crafting of the SDGs about the importance of ICTs.
  • Third, many bilateral and multilateral donors remain unconvinced of the power of ICTs to transform development in the interests of the poor and marginalised. This reflects badly both on the ICT for Development (ICT4D) community who have failed to provide enough evidence of the real development benefits of ICTs, but also on the ignorance, self-interest and bigotry of many of those working for donor agencies.
  • Fourth, when push comes to shove, individuals and institutions will usually focus on their own core areas, rather than on cross-cutting or collaborative initiatives.  Hence, the WHO and the powerful international health lobbies focus primarily on delivering health, UNESCO and the educational industry will focus on education, and the FAO and rural development lobby will focus on agriculture and rural development.  The ICT for Development field is relatively new, and remains insufficiently robust to compete against these powerful existing entities.

Building on this last point, it is highly salient that at the May 2015 WSIS Forum held in Geneva, the UN agencies involved explicitly recognised that the battle had been lost to have one of the SDGs with an explicit focus on ICTs, and instead developed a matrix to show how ICTs as represented in the WSIS Action Lines could contribute to each of the emerging SDGs.  While this goes some way to indicate how different UN agencies can indeed use ICTs to deliver their wider SDG commitments,  it fails comprehensively to tackle the deep structural issues that mean that ICTs are continuing to contribute to greater global inequality.

Without much greater focus on ensuring that the poorest and most marginalised, including people with disabilities, can use ICTs effectively to lead enhanced lives, the SDGs will inevitably lead to a more fractured and unequal world.

14 Comments

Filed under Development, ICT4D

Beyond the Digital Divide: Developing Local Capacity to Deliver Local Content


Below is a slightly revised text of the interview that the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU) did with me on the occasion of the CTU’s 25th Anniversary (photo with SG Bernadette Lewis of the CTU when signing a mutual co-operation agreement with the CTO a while back) 

CTO CTUBy 2016, one per cent of the world’s population will own more than half of its wealth. The staggering projection, from a recent study by anti-poverty group Oxfam, made headlines just as the World Economic Forum was getting started in Davos last month.

One concern for Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) Professor Tim Unwin, who was at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, is that the rapid spread of information and communications technologies is not helping to reduce that growing gap between poor and rich.

“The difference between the least developed and the most developed is getting greater. In that way, you can say that ICTs are actually increasing inequality,” he said, in a telephone interview from the annual gathering of top political and business leaders in Switzerland.

As head of a body bringing together perspectives of telecoms stakeholders from across the 53 countries of the Commonwealth—about one-third of the world’s population—Unwin is deeply concerned about that growing digital divide, and the dual impact of technology development on the world’s poorest.

Developing Caribbean capacity

“One of the things that always strikes me when I visit the Caribbean is how much more advanced and successful and connected it is than many other parts of the Commonwealth,” he said.

While the islands’ size is a source of some economic challenges, it also provides some advantages.

“The islands are relatively small, so it is not so problematic to get universal connectivity, as compared with, say, Nigeria or Pakistan,” Unwin said.

But Internet access and connectivity alone won’t reduce the gap between poor and rich. For Unwin, the real priority is not simply to increase the quantity of Internet users but to improve the overall quality of Internet usage. Two major issues affecting quality, he said, are bandwidth and cost, which is where Internet service providers and industry regulators play such a critical role in the region’s Internet system.

“What you can do with large bandwidth compared with low bandwidth is incredibly different, particulary with the rapid increase in applications that use video and large amounts of data. And the second variable is cost. That’s where regulators play a crucial role in helping to ensure that markets operate as effectively as possible.”

Delivering Caribbean content

The point of developing local capacity, Unwin was quick to point out, is to deliver local content. The potential of the underlying technology is only realised if it is used to facilitate the delivery of other services, such as digital banking, online education, mobile health or e-government. But that is easier said than done.

“Content development is quite expensive and resources aren’t always put into that. It’s much easier to lay a bit of fibre than it is to develop the content that is going to go over it,” said Unwin, who also sits on the advisory board of the m-Powering Development Initiative of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

One obstacle to developing local content, he said, is the lack of functional relationships between government ministries or even ministerial departments, which would need to harmonise their operations in order to produce high-quality local content.

So significant is the difficulty involved in developing relevant local content that there is a great temptation to simply import content from abroad, and sidestep the growing pains of building local capacity. But shortcuts are dangerous, Unwin said, citing the example of MOOCs, or massive open online courses, which are web-based courses aimed at unlimited participation through open access.

“I’d like to challenge some of those who think that things like MOOCs are the solution for the education of small-island states. I completely disagree because MOOCs can be a form of cultural or intellectual imperialism. The fact that people can get access to courses from richer countries is problematic, to me. What we want to have is locally developed, locally produced content, that is indigenous to users in Caribbean countries.”

The challenge for Caribbean societies, therefore, is to define and produce content that is appropriate and relevant, to enable solutions that align with development priorities.

“You have to make sure you have the right content in the right formats for the right people. If you’re just importing content from outside, you’re not building the knowledge-base of your own countries.”

Beyond the Divide

One of the CTO’s key partners in helping the region to face up to this challenge is the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU). The two work together on policy development, and have collaborated closely at significant international gatherings, including meetings held by the International Telecommunication Union.

“We believe, as does the CTU, in the real importance of avoiding duplication and overlap. One of the things we respect about the CTU is their openness to working collaboratively,” Unwin said.

The CTU was established in 1989 by the heads of Caricom governments, to support its members in leveraging telecommunications for social and economic development. Unwin explained the importance of the CTO in helping the CTU pursue that mission in a globalised environment.

“Across the world, there are different regional telecommunications unions, sometimes working in isolation and therefore unable to learn from each other. So, what’s happening in Africa may not be known in Asia. Or what’s happening in the Caribbean may not be as well known to people in the Pacific. One of the things that the CTO can do is bring together perspectives from people from many different parts of the Commonwealth, so that together we can do far more than any one of us could do by ourselves.”

Several Caribbean ministers were among 30 official delegates from across the Commonwealth who signed an agreement outlining shared principles for the development of broadband, at the CTO’s first-ever Commonwealth ICT Ministers in London in March of last year. The CTO is working with the Organisation of American States and the CTU to help Caribbean states seeking to take that commitment forward, Unwin said.

At one upcoming workshop, organised in partnership with the Antigua and Barbuda government, Unwin will focus on how technology can help improve quality of life for people with disabilities.

“Last time I was in Port of Spain,” he said, “we ran a workshop for young people on how they can use technology to build their entrepreneurial skills and contribute to the economy.”

Partnering with Success

Unwin returned to Trinidad and Tobago this month to speak in the CTU’s 25th Anniversary ICT Week, from February 2nd to 6th, at the Hyatt Regency.

The high-level event is a forum for government ministers, regional policy makers and other stakeholders to share perspectives on the importance of ICTs to Caribbean development. Prime Ministers of Trinidad and Tobago and Grenada will attend. Mr Irwin LaRocque, Secretary General of Caricom Secretariat, and Mr Brahima Sanou, Director of the ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, are also expected to speak.

The event will celebrate the achievements of CTU members and the contribution of strategic partnerships, like the one with the CTO, drawn from within and beyond the region. The last two days will feature workshops organised in partnership with the Internet Society, the Latin American and Caribbean Internet Addresses Registry, the International Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers, the Organisation of American States, the University of the West Indies, The American Registry of Internet Numbers, the Caricom Implementation Agency for Crime and Security, and Arkitechs.

Among the highlights of the five-day event will be the signing of new agreements between the CTU and the International Telecommunications Satellite Organisation and the ITU.

Inter-organisational relationships clearly account for a big part of the past achievements of organisations like the CTO and the CTU, and form the fabric of their future success. If the partnership between the CTO and the CTU is a pattern for success, then strengthening those relationships may well be the key to the future of all regional development.

Leave a comment

Filed under Caribbean, Commonwealth, ICT4D