Tag Archives: poverty

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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Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development


recict4dIt is always exciting to have finished the page proofs and done the index of a book, especially when this has to be completed between Christmas and the New Year as it was with Reclaiming ICT4D at the end of 2016! However, when the cover has been agreed and it appears on the publisher’s  website, then one knows that it is actually going to appear in several months time!

This is  OUP’s overview of the book:

  • Combines understanding of both theoretical and practical aspects of ICT for development (ICT4D)
  • Challenges existing orthodoxy and offers alternatives that can make a practical difference in the field
  • Addresses the interests underlying the use of technology in development
  • Wide ranging in coverage, including discussion of regulation, partnership, technological innovation, and the darker side of ICTs

I like being involved in the design of different aspects of my books, and I am so grateful to OUP for agreeing to publish Reclaiming ICT4D in two fonts, one to represent theory and the other practice.  I am also immensely happy that they were willing to use one of my pictures on the cover to represent much of what the book is about.  In case it is not immediately obvious, this picture taken a year ago in Murree (Pakistan) represents many things: a hope for the future, with the young boy vigorously hitting the ball way over his friends’ heads; cricket itself acknowledges the complex heritage of colonialism and imperialism; in the background is a telecommunications mast, providing the connectivity that has the potential to be used to reduce inequalities, but all too often increases them; the electricity so essential for powering ICTs is very visible;  and women are absent, representing another dimension of inequality that is addressed in the book.  It is also much more than this.  My father visited Murree 71 years ago, and may have walked along this street; I went there with friends, and the book is very much a personal story of how I have learnt from them and the many people who have shared their wisdom and experiences with me over the years; it is above all about how people like these boys, playing on the street, can use ICTs to transform their lives for the better, rather than becoming the cyborg cannon-fodder that global capitalism seeks to devour for the benefit of the rich and powerful.

A little more formally, this is how OUP describe the contents of the book on their website:

“The development of new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) has transformed the world over the last two decades. These technologies are often seen as being inherently ‘good’, with the ability to make the world better, and in particular to reduce poverty. However, their darker side is frequently ignored in such accounts.

ICTs undoubtedly have the potential to reduce poverty, for example by enhancing education, health delivery, rural development and entrepreneurship across Africa, Asia and Latin America. However, all too often, projects designed to do so fail to go to scale, and are unsustainable when donor funding ceases. Indeed, ICTs have actually dramatically increased inequality across the world. The central purpose of this book is to account for why this is so, and it does so primarily by laying bare the interests that have underlain the dramatic expansion of ICTs in recent years. Unless these are fully understood, it will not be possible to reclaim the use of these technologies to empower the world’s poorest and most marginalised.”

Its seven chapters are entitled as follows:

Preface
1: A critical reflection on ICTs and ‘Development’
2: Understanding the Technologies
3: The International Policy Arena: ICTs and Internet Governance
4: Partnerships in ICT4D: Rhetoric and Reality
5: From Regulation to Facilitation: The role of ICT and Telecommunication Regulators in a Converging World
6: Reflections on the Dark Side of ICT4D
7: …in the Interests of the Poorest and Most Marginalized.

It is also being made available as an Ebook, and publication date is estimated as 25th May 2017.

To request a review copy, do contact OUP directly using their request form.

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On the representation of the poor in international ICT4D forums


I found myself writing today about the ways through which the poor and marginalised are represented in major global ICT4D forums.  What I wrote, shocked me, and I fear that when published it will shock most of the readers of my new book as well! I am therefore sharing it here to try to garner some feedback beforehand that can help me recraft and improve the chapter.  This short piece is only the beginning of the section, and it does go on to suggest ways through which the voices of poor people can indeed be articulated and listened to,  not least through innovative uses of ICTs.  However, I would be fascinated to receive any feedback, preferably polite, on my thoughts below:

WSIS+10 HL Panorama small

“… the voices of the poorest and most marginalised are rarely if ever directly present in international ICT4D forums.  There is therefore a very real challenge of representation in such meetings.  Few participants have anything other than a relatively shallow understanding of what poverty is really like, or have ever engaged deeply trying to understand the needs of the poor, and how these might be delivered through ICTs.  To be sure, much research has been undertaken on ICTs and poverty, and some policy makers may have read a little of this literature, but global ICT4D forums remain forums of the elite and the powerful.  Some civil society representatives, with their supposedly strong involvement with community groups, are most likely to be closest to understanding the needs of the poorest and the most marginalised, but even then their senior representatives at international meetings are often far removed from the grounded reality of poverty.  Theoretically, government officials, with their responsibility for all of their citizens, should be mindful of the needs of their poorest and most marginalised citizens, but all too often government representatives are drawn from ruling elites, in both rich and poor countries alike, and again do not necessarily understand how ICTs might be able to empower poor people.  Their interests are often primarily in being re-elected. Moreover, the increasingly close relationship between governments and the private sector mean that all too often governments favour the interests of the private sector over those of the most marginalised, in the mistaken belief that economic growth will necessarily eliminate poverty.  Additionally, many of the most capable young ICT Ministers in poor countries are themselves drawn from the private sector, thereby reinforcing this private sector view of how to reduce poverty through the use of ICTs.   The private sector itself, including the supposedly munificent founders of Foundations, is primarily interested in driving economic growth and profits, and tends to see the poor and the marginalised largely as customers or an enhanced market. Few representative of the private sector at international ICT4D forums can lay claim to being poor.  To be sure, it is inevitable that international forums are populated by elites, and many people who attend them do like to think that they have the interests of the marginalised at heart.  Nevertheless, it is important that further consideration is given to this issue, and innovative ways are indeed sought through which the balance of conversation and debate is changed.  This short section highlights challenges with three particular areas: the involvement of young people, the highly sexist male-dominated character of the ICT sector itself, and the voices of those with disabilities.”

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US poverty: a good example to follow?


Official US date recently released shows that the number of US citizens living in poverty rose to a record 46 million last year.  Yet the world is encouraged to believe that the US model of ‘democracy’ and ‘economic growth’ is the one that should be followed to eliminate poverty.  Surely there is a contradiction here?

The BBC reports the release of these data as follows: “The number of Americans living in poverty rose to a record 46.2 million last year, official data has shown. This is the highest figure since the US Census Bureau started collecting the data in 1959. In percentage terms, the poverty rate rose to 15.1%, up from 14.3% in 2009. The US definition of poverty is an annual income of $22,314 (£14,129) or less for a family of four and $11,139 for a single person. The number of Americans living below the poverty line has now risen for four years in a row, while the poverty rate is the biggest since 1993. Poverty among black and Hispanic people was much higher than for the overall US population last year, the figures also showed. The Census Bureau data said 25.8% of black people were living in poverty and 25.3% of Hispanic people. Its latest report also showed that the average annual US household income fell 2.3% in 2010 to $49,445. Meanwhile, the number of Americans without health insurance remained about 50 million. The data comes as the US unemployment rate remains above 9%”.

Is it not time that global organisations, aid agencies, and governments across the world stopped pretending that economic growth leads to a reduction of poverty?  Capitalism fundamentally depends on the maintenance of inequalities: between rich and poor countries, between rich and poor people.  The increase in US poverty revealed in these data reinforces such arguments.  The US ‘system’ enables Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to acquire huge wealth, while large numbers of their compatriots are consigned to poverty.

Freedom carries responsibilities.  The focus of US capitalism on the freedom of the individual at the expense of the wider public good is surely not a model that the world should be encouraged to follow.  As the BBC report notes, 50 million people in the US do not have health insurance.  While the rich can have the benefit of the latest medical research, such care is beyond the means of the poor.

These figures should be seen as a wake up call to economists and politicians across the world.  Unfettered capitalism, fueled by a self-reinforcing cycle of individual greed, can never lead to a reduction in poverty.  Only when governments act explicitly to support the most marginalised in their societies can we begin to redress the balance.

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Filed under Development, Politics

New ITU report on the role of ICTs in advancing growth in the least developed countries


The ITU has just published a very important report on the role of ICTs in enhancing development in the least developed countries.  I was privileged to have been asked to write the foreword, in which I made the following comments:

  • “This important ITU report focuses explicitly on the experiences of people living in the world’s ‘Least Developed Countries’ (LDCs). It addresses not only how and why ‘outsiders’ have been eager to offer new ICTs as a means to encourage their ‘development’, but also how technical innovation can occur in some of the poorest countries of the world. Above all, it suggests that there is nothing automatic about the potential contribution of ICTs to ‘development’ processes, however these are defined. If marginalised people and poor countries are to take advantage of ICTs in transforming their fortunes, then specific efforts need to be made to address their needs and aspirations. The market by itself will not deliver on the information and communication requirements of the poorest and most marginalised people and communities”, and
  • “This exciting report points in many directions. It highlights both the successes and the failures of ICT initiatives and developments over the last decade, particularly with respect to LDCs. It emphasises the many challenges that still need to be overcome before we can claim that these technologies really have had the equalising benefits that many attendees at WSIS had hoped for. However, above all, it provides suggestions for innovative ways forward through which some of the poorest countries in the world can grasp the potential of ICTs to enhance the lives of their peoples”.

The charts and graphs contained within the volume provide very important evidence that many of the poorest countries and people in the world have not yet benefited from the potential of ICTs, and that very substantial effort is needed to ensure that ICTs do not actually lead to further increases in the differences in access between the world’s richer and poorer people.  This is essential reading for all involved in ICT4D.

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Filed under Africa, Development, ICT4D

Development as ‘economic growth’ or ‘poverty reduction’


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:

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Filed under Africa, Development, Ethics, ICT4D, Photographs