ICT4D Research Priorities from the Post-2015 Development Agenda

25 March 2014 1 comment

What should be the future priorities in researching ICT4D?

The post-2015 development agenda will be the single most-important force shaping the future of international development.  In planning our priorities for development informatics (DI) research – the academic study of ICT4D policy and practice – we should therefore pay close attention to the post-2015 agenda.

In previous blog entries, I have discussed: the process by which the post-2015 agenda is being created; its importance; its content; and the way in which it reflects changing trends and priorities in international development.

In this blog, I summarise the findings from a recent working paper: “Future Priorities for Development Informatics Research from the Post-2015 Development Agenda”.  This presents results from a content analysis exercise which compared the content of the post-2015 development agenda against the content of 116 recently-published papers researching ICT4D.

The basic comparison is shown in the figure below.  It provides a measure of research gap by plotting the extent of difference between the post-2015 text and the development informatics papers; aggregated into a set of development issues.  Issues above the line are more highly represented in DI documents than in the post-2015 agenda; issues below the line are less highly represented.  The larger the indicator the greater the over- or under-representation.

DI Research Gaps Chart

Figure 1: Measure of “Research Gap” Between Development Informatics Research and Post-2015 Agenda


This chart plus a whole set of other analytical data (see online paper for details) produce the development informatics research priority map shown below.  Laterally, it sorts research issues in terms of their relation to development.  Mainly by type of goals – environmental, economic, social, political, or cross-cutting – but also including mechanisms of development.

DI Research Priorities Map

Figure 2: Map of Post-2015 Development Informatics Research Priorities


Vertically, it sorts research issues in terms of gap.  The higher up the diagram a topic appears, the greater the gap between its presence on the post-2015 agenda and its presence in current DI research.  The larger the gap, the greater the need for additional development informatics research on this topic in future.  Put another way – if you are planning what ICT4D-related topic to research in future, there is a logic in starting your search at the top of the figure.

Further details about the topics identified in the research map can be found in the online paper.

Hot, Warm and Cooling Topics on the Post-2015 Development Agenda

12 February 2014 1 comment

The analysis presented in my previous blog entry helped understand the post-2015 development agenda.  But it was static, giving no sense of the dynamics and trends within that agenda.  Those dynamics are important to all development stakeholders: “hot” topics garner funding and attention and political support, and so can gather momentum and produce real-world impact.

So, using the MDGs as the comparison point, what topics are falling down, continuing on, and rising up the international development agenda?

A textual analysis – for details see “From the MDGs to the Post-2015 Agenda: Analysing Changing Development Priorities” – was undertaken comparing core MDG with core post-2015 documentation.  The figure below shows the results of that comparison for 25 development issues (each of which aggregates a number of separate terms).

PTDA Change

Figure 1: Averaged Issue Change in Frequency from MDG to Post-2015 Core Documentation

These can then be grouped into three types of issue and into four categories of change, as summarised in the table below.

MDG to PTDA Change Development Goals Development Mechanisms Development Perspectives
Diminution - MDG 8 with ICTs/Digital

- Manufacturing

- Insecurity

- Traditional Development Finance

- Development Strategy

Continuity - Wellbeing 

- Infrastructure

- Urban Development

- Institutional Development

- MDGs 1-6

- Informatics
Some Expansion - Rural/Agricultural Development

- Services

- Livelihoods

- Growth and Jobs

- Rights and Justice

- New Development Finance

- Technovation inc. Data and Mobile

- Complex Adaptive Systems
Significant Expansion - Open Development

- Inclusive Development

- Migration

- Environment and Sustainability

- Development Projects

- New Stakeholders

Table 1: Summarising Changes in Development Issues from MDGs to Post-2015 Agenda

A blog is not the place for lengthy explanations: if you’d like to understand what each of these issues represents, then refer to the working paper.

Instead, I’ll comment on the bigger picture of change.  The post-2015 agenda represent a richer, more multi-faceted view of development.  This reflects the breadth of consultation behind post-2015; criticisms of what the MDGs missed out; and the ongoing complexification of development.

Other context also matters.  In relative terms, the MDGs were written at a time of stable politics and growing economies.  The post-2015 agenda is being created within a world suffering an ongoing series of economic, environmental and socio-political shocks.

So some of the agenda dynamics reflects real-world change – aid is no longer as important as it was; there has been some decline in war and conflict; services have grown relative to manufacturing; migration and mobile use are rising; the private sector has an ever-larger role in developing countries.  Some of the agenda trajectory reflects a mix of real-world change and the moving political spotlight: growth, jobs, inclusion and inequality are rising because of new evidence and a new economic context, but also because political insecurities have made them more salient.  Climate change and sustainability also fall into this category, though the political impetus to address them remains distributed and volatile.

And some trends seem to fall more into the realm of fads and fashions.  There are long-burn issues that have taken a while to arrive at the centre of development debate: livelihoods, capabilities, rights, justice and systems are all candidates here.  Others are more cyclical – development projects and management, science and technology were central to development debate from the mid-20th century, then faded, and are only just returning.  Indeed, for these and other issues, we might invoke the Gartner hype cycle (see Figure 2).  ICTs, for instance, are much more important to life in 2014 than 1999 but are only just recovering from their over-hyped peak at the turn of the century.  Resilience and other recent arrivals on the development agenda may follow a similar path (see Dave Algoso’s analysis for more on this.)

Gartner Hype Cycle

Figure 2: The Hype Cycle

We can try to reach into the data to find the changing narratives of development.  One – which we can associate with the fastest-rising terms including sustainability, resilience and uncertainty – is that development in 2000 was about moving forwards.  Development in 2015 will be about that, but will also be about not slipping backwards.  With disability, inclusion/exclusion, partnership and stakeholders as other fastest-rising terms, we can also see a changing narrative from “development for many” to “development for all”.

In turn, the events and changing priorities of the 2000s could be seen as a(nother) challenge to the neo-liberal model that has been the dominant development paradigm.  Perhaps we have finally reached a point of inflection for that model in which the weight of its associated externalities give rise to some alternative.  Of course claims of such a point are arguably continuous from Marx onwards, and the MDGs themselves – while not really challenging the neo-liberal model – spoke as much from the human development paradigm as any other.

There is certainly an expressed desire to move from an incremental to a more transformative notion of development: that is a core leitmotif of the High-Level Panel report but it appears throughout the post-2015 discussions.  In practice, the aspiration for transformation sometimes means more of the same but if there is a paradigmatic transition, it is most likely to be to a sustainable development worldview.  How much political traction this will have with Western governments still likely to see themselves as fragile and emerging from recession during 2014 and 2015 remains to be seen.

There is additionally the sense that opposition to neo-liberalism is somewhat divided.  The post-2015 documents echo other development worldviews that could be transformational if they were the centrepiece for the future of development but which currently sit as one ingredient of the mix: inclusive development, rights-based development, perhaps even open development if it were able to deliver a well-grounded and broad narrative.

Returning to a main theme, above all, the post-2015 agenda – like the MDGs – reflects the world in which it is being created.  A world of growing climate change and growing inequality, of increasing global flows of capital and labour, of increasing complexity and connectivity in which a rising number of stakeholders want their voice to be heard and their views taken into account.  So alongside paradigms like sustainable, inclusive and open development will need to be a worldview that accepts development as a complex adaptive system, and seeks ways to manage that emerging reality.

Analysing the Post-2015 Development Agenda

30 January 2014 3 comments

In two earlier posts, I outlined the current process of creating the post-2015 development agenda, and analysed how important it will be to development practice and research.

But what will that agenda be?  The best guide at present appears to be four key documents that emerge from the totality of post-2015 activity as previously summarised:

  • The foundational “Realizing the Future We Want for All” document and its update “A Renewed Global Partnership for Development”: these are the products in 2012 and 2013 respectively of the UN System Task Team; the core of the post-2015 process.
  • As part of that process a High-Level Panel was set up based around the leaders of the UK, Indonesia and Liberia, which produced a report, “A New Global Partnership” in mid-2013.
  • The Open Working Group, and High-Level Political Forum, and Expert Committee associated with Rio+20 and the Sustainable Development Goals are all in mid-process, so the best guide as yet is the outcome of the Rio+20 conference; a UN General Assembly resolution of 2012 entitled, “The Future We Want”.

Textual analysis of these documents was undertaken.  A simple approach to this was the creation of tag clouds: the cloud for the combined post-2015 documentation is in the figure below.

PTDA TagCloud

Tag Cloud for Combined Core Post-2015 Documentation

 A more detailed analysis was then undertaken via word counts within the documentation.  In all, roughly 200 terms were analysed.  The term list was developed via:

a)   selection from the top 500 words counted in the document using Wordle, which also produced the tag cloud; eliminating all non-discriminatory terms (both simple terms like “and”, “the”, “of”, etc, but also those which relate to development but do not provide any particular guide to a development agenda such as “development”, “developing”, “countries”, etc), plus

b)   similar selection from the top 500 words within the MDG documentation (see future posts), and

c)   cross-checking with terms used in a set of other current development reports and journal paper titles.

The frequency of all terms was normed to a mean count per 10,000 words.

All meaningful terms which appeared more than 10 times per 10,000 words (i.e. with a frequency of more than 0.1% of the text) are shown in the table below.


Freq. per

10,000 Words


Freq. per

10,000 Words


Freq. per

10,000 Words





















































































Most Frequent Development Terms in Post-2015 Documentation

 Detailed discussion of the dynamics of the post-2015 development agenda will be undertaken in a future post.  Here, I note the following ten conclusions:

  1. The importance of sustainable development as a core model, of course arising particularly because of the presence of the Rio+20 track within the post-2015 process; with some recognition of the role of inclusive development.
  2. Poverty and environment being the two most important individual development issues on the agenda.
  3. Perhaps, a reasonable parity between three of the main domains of development: environmental, social, and economic.  But a question mark over the place for political development: “politic*” scores just 8.3 and so does not appear; but “govern*” would score 31.2.
  4. A strong presence for items related to MDGs 1 to 6: e.g. poverty, health, women, food, education.
  5. A strong recognition of the importance of technology within development.
  6. A strong presence for what one might term the mechanisms or processes of development: the need for partnerships and cooperation and participation, the role of policies, but also of processes and implementation and impact.
  7. Despite moves towards a more multi-stakeholder perspective on development and the presence of business and communities; still a dominant role for the state in its various guises: state, government, public sector.
  8. Some sense of a systems perspective on development.
  9. Maslow’s shade – or at least the importance of basic needs – stands over the agenda given the presence of poverty, health, food, energy, water, security.
  10. The recognised importance of data (just outside the list at 9.2) and information as the foundation for decision-making and action in development.

Readers are encouraged to make their own analysis of the findings presented in the table, and to draw any other big picture conclusions.

How Important Will The Post-2015 Agenda Be For Development Research And Practice?

19 December 2013 1 comment

In an earlier post, I outlined the current state of the post-2015 development agenda (PTDA) process.  Later posts will look at the content of that agenda and its implications for development – particularly development informatics – research.

Before getting to that, though, it is appropriate to ask a couple of foundational assumption-checking questions.

Question number 1: “How important will the PTDA be to international development?”.  If it is just going to end up gathering dust on a shelf, or if it is just  a side-show, then there is little point using it to shape our research priorities.  We will not know the answer to that question until something like 2020 at the earliest but we have two current guides.

The first is how important the post-2015 agenda is currently perceived to be.  One set of evidence is the extent of participation in the consultation process.  There have been nearly 100 national, six regional and eleven thematic consultations, with each of these typically involving many hundreds of organisational participants[1] plus thousands of online contributions[2].  It is hard to benchmark this against other activities but it must represent one of the most substantial exercises in global consultation.  Other evidence comes from polling perceptions: for example, of more than 100 civil society organisations surveyed in 27 developing countries, 87% wanted a post-2015 development framework[3].

A second guide is historical: investigating how important the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have been to international development, given they are by far the closest historical phenomenon to the PTDA.  There is a generalised assumption about the MDGs’ importance: “the MDGs … have an incontestable strength”[4]; “the Millennium Development Goals … have unified, galvanized, and expanded efforts to help the world’s poorest people”[5].  However, in the complex field of influences that exists within international development, attribution is problematic: “the direct development impact of the MDGs is difficult to determine”[6].

Those who have sought to study this come up with differentiated conclusions depending on the area of influence investigated.  For example:

  • Debate/Discourse: “There is widespread agreement that the MDGs have placed broad-based poverty reduction at the center of the development agenda at least in international discussions and policy discourse”[7]; “There is plenty of evidence of the influence of the MDGs on policy discourse, if this is measured by mention of the goals or their presence in donor policy documents, PRSPs and developing country government goals”[8].
  • Aid Flows: “The MDGs have mobilized government and business leaders to donate tens of billions of dollars”[9]; “We argue that the MDGs may have played a role in increasing aid”[10].
  • Policy: “For better or worse, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have constituted the longest standing paradigm that has ever emerged in development thinking. The goals have been an organising framework for international aid over the last ten years. At the core of countless policy documents, plans and announcements”[11]; “policy statements of major bilateral donors align with the MDG priorities only partially and in varying ways … there is a considerable adoption of MDG priority areas, however there is equal or higher adoption of priorities not in the MDGs”[12].
  • Outcomes: “the most powerful impact of the MDGs appears to have been on aid flows, but the impact of that aid on outcomes is difficult to assess and plausibly muted”[13]; “In some areas, such as vaccination or primary education enrolment in sub-Saharan Africa, the links between the MDGs, the mobilisation and focusing of additional aid, and subsequent impacts seem convincingly close. But in others, the links seem less plausible”[14].
  • Practice: “The research shows that in the organisations studied [small number of faith-based NGOs], the extent of influence of the MDGs has been minimal upon development activities in a direct sense, although some indirect influence due to donor funding requirements has been reported”[15].

Drawing on these sources and others[16], a subjective summary assessment of MDG impact can be drawn up as shown in Figure 1.

MDG Development Influence

Figure 1: Relative Impact of MDGs on Differing Aspects of International Development

Question number 2: “How important will the PTDA be to development research agendas and funding?”.  Again, we can look at current evidence about PTDA activity, plus also historical evidence relating to the MDGs.  At the time of writing, many of the major development research institutes – those with a majority focus on international development and lying at the top of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program rankings[17] – have post-2015 initiatives underway.  This seems much less true of US-based institutes, probably reflecting the lower levels of US engagement with the MDGs and the post-2015 agenda[18]:

  • Center for Global Development: has a number of blog posts on post-2015 and some publications on the MDGs which include thoughts on post-2015, but no main topics or initiatives.
  • Kennedy School Center for International Development: has no apparent research programmes or specific activities related to the post-2015 agenda.
  • International Food Policy Research Institute: has its own 2020 agenda but no major post-2015 research activity.

The picture is very different for development research institutes outside the US.  Listing these in descending TTCSP rank order:

Alongside this snapshot of current activity, we can look at historical impact of the MDGs on research agendas and funding.  Data on the output side is not particularly clear.  A review was undertaken of articles in the three top development studies journals – World Development, Development and Change, and Journal of Development Studies – published during 2008-2013.  This suggested that 1-2% of articles had a specific engagement with the MDGs (mentioned in the title or abstract), and 10-15% mentioned the MDGs somewhere in the main text.  In the absence of other benchmarks, not much can be concluded from this data.

A stronger sense of the importance of the MDGs comes from the input side; from analysis of funder research strategies.  For this activity, analysis was undertaken of the research strategies of three key development research funders – Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) – during the period 2002-2012.  This suggested a continuum of MDG influence as summarised in Figure 2:

  • IDRC: research strategy documents have just one or two passing references to the MDGs, and the MDGs do not frame research strategy.  For example: “Although not explicit nor an underpinning of IDRC’s health programming, there is an implicit interest in the health-related Millennium Development Goals”[19].
  • SIDA: the MDGs are one among a number of components that have shaped research strategy.  For example, a core overview[20] lists three foci for research: matters of relevance to low-income countries; research issues arising from international commitments as defined by the MDGs and UN conventions; and cooperative arrangements that identify new research of relevance to developing countries.
  • DFID: “The current effort is … using the Millennium Development Goals as the main framework for determining research strategies and priorities”[21].  “All DFID’s efforts are directed towards achieving the targets set by the world community in the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. They are the basis for choosing research topics”[22].  “The purpose of DFID’s research is to make faster progress in fighting poverty and achieving the MDGs”[23].

MDG Development Research Influence

Figure 2: MDG Influence on Development Research Strategies

Taking together all of the evidence, it seems reasonable to conclude that – whatever its absolute strength and with acknowledgement to local variations – the post-2015 development agenda will be the single most important force shaping the future of development and of development research.  It is certainly of sufficient importance to take very seriously in the planning of future development-related research agendas.  If our own future research is in synch with post-2015, at the least we can use that to boost the credibility and perceived relevance of our research; at the most, we will gain greater funding and a wider audience for our research.  Future posts will explore this further.

[1] e.g. TWWW (2013a) Global Thematic Consultation on Governance and the Post-2015 Development Framework,The World We Want http://www.worldwewant2015.org/governance/finalreport; and TWWW (2013b) Health in the Post-2015 Agenda, The World We Want http://www.worldwewant2015.org/health

[3] Pollard, A., Sumner, A., Polato-Lopes, M. & de Mauroy, A. (2011) 100 Voices, CAFOD, London http://www.cafod.org.uk/Media/Files/Resources/Policy/100-Voices

[4] Prammer, E. & Martinuzzi, A. (2013) The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Post-2015 Debate, Case Study no.13, European Sustainable Development Network, Vienna

[5] McArthur, J. (2013) Own the goals: what the millennium development goals have accomplished, Foreign Affairs, March/April http://www.brookings.edu/research/articles/2013/02/21-millennium-dev-goals-mcarthur

[6] Higgins, K. (2013) Reflecting on the MDGs and Making Sense of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, The North-South Institute, Ottawa, ON

[7] Kenny, C. & Sumner, A. (2011) More Money or More Development: What Have the MDGs Achieved?, Working Paper 278, Center for Global Development, Washington, DC http://international.cgdev.org/files/1425806_file_Kenny_Sumner_MDGs_FINAL.pdf

[8] Lockwood, M. (2012) What have the MDGs achieved?  We don’t really know, From Poverty to Power, 31 Aug http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/?p=11498

[9] McArthur 2013

[10] Kenny & Sumner 2011

[11] Pollard et al. 2011

[12] Kenny & Sumner 2011

[13] Kenny & Sumner 2011

[14] Lockwood 2012

[15] Dore, M. (2011) Keeping Faith with the MDGs, MSc Dissertation, University of Edinburgh

[16] e.g. Gore, C. (2009) The Global Development Cycle, MDGs and the Future of Poverty Reduction, European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes, Bonn http://www.eadi.org/fileadmin/MDG_2015_Publications/Gore_PAPER.pdf; and Manning, R. (2010) The impact and design of the MDGs: some reflections, IDS Bulletin, 41(1), 7-14 http://www.humanitarianforum.org/data/files/impactanddesignofmdg.pdf

[17] McGann, J.G. (2013) 2012 Global Go To Think Tanks Report and Policy Advice, Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA http://gotothinktank.com/dev1/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/2012_Global_Go_To_Think_Tank_Report_-_FINAL-1.28.13.pdf

[18] e.g. Hulme, D. (2009) The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): A Short History of the World’s Biggest Promise, BWPI Working Paper 100, Brooks World Poverty Institute, University of Manchester, UK http://www.bwpi.manchester.ac.uk/resources/Working-Papers/bwpi-wp-10009.pdf

[19] IDRC (2009) Innovating for Development Strategic Framework 2010-2015, IDRC, Ottawa http://www.idrc.ca/EN/AboutUs/WhatWeDo/Documents/12614275681Strategic_framework_2010-2015.pdf

[20] Regeringskansliet (2010) Research for Development, Regeringskansliet, Stockholm http://www.government.se/content/1/c6/14/60/03/eab96d0b.pdf

[21] Surr, M., Barnett, A., Duncan, A., Speight, M., Bradley, D., Rew, A. & Toye, J. (2002) Research for Poverty Reduction: DFID Research Policy Paper, DFID, London http://www.idee.ceu.es/Portals/0/Actividades/Doc_Reduccion_Pobreza.pdf

[22] DFID (2004) DFID Research Funding Framework 2005-2007, DFID, London http://globalgrn.files.wordpress.com/2009/08/dvidresearch-framework-2005.pdf

The Post-2015 Development Agenda

28 November 2013 6 comments

This is the first of a number of related blog entries that will look at the post-2015 development agenda and its implications.  This entry describes the process of setting that agenda.

In theory, the origins of the post-2015 process could be traced back many years to the setting of the Millennium Development Goal deadline.  It was obvious then that there would be a post-MDG world from 2015.  However, it seems more appropriate to date the timeline (see Figure 1 below, and more detailed timeline in Table 1 at the end) from September 2011, with the formation of the UN System Task Team: the body charged with overseeing the post-2015 process.

PTDA Timeline

Figure 1: Post-2015 Process Outline Timeline

The MDGs were an integration in 2001 of two rather separate processes: the OECD Development Assistance Committee’s work on International Development Goals, and the UN’s work to develop the Millennium Declaration[1].  This added to the time and effort required to produce the MDGs, yet the same is happening again with the post-2015 process, as summarised in Figure 2 below (adapted from an original by Claire Hickson[2]).

PTDA Structures

Figure 2: Post-2015 Development Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals Process Map

The timeline shown is therefore a single representation of multiple strands.  The post-2015 development agenda process is relatively well-advanced.  Following the UN System Task Team’s formation, a series of thematic and national consultations on the agenda have already been conducted, with two key reports produced in 2012 (“Realizing the Future We Want for All”) and 2013 (“A Renewed Global Partnership for Development”).  A High-Level Panel was set up by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.  Chaired by the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia and the UK Prime Minister and involving 24 other “eminent persons”, this produced its report mid-way through 2013.  These documents were placed before the UN General Assembly when its 68th session began in September 2013; a session which included special meetings and events on the MDGs and after.

At the time of writing, the sustainable development goals (SDGs) process was not quite so well developed.  Emerging from the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (“Rio+20”) and its General Assembly resolution in July 2012, this led to formation of a UN Open Working Group.  The Group has been supported by a UN System Technical Support Team, which provides a link to the post-2015 activity since it works under the UN System Task Team.  It has also been supported by an “Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing” and a “High-Level Political Forum” that provides political momentum for the process.  The Open Working Group has a series of eight sessions being run during 2013-2014, and structured along thematic lines.  This will report towards the end of 2014.

At that point – during 2015 – an integration of the two processes and political negotiation of the final post-2015 agenda should occur, leading to a new post-MDG framework to run from the start of 2016.  It is worth just asking whether such a framework might not emerge.  Present signs are that this would be extremely unlikely: process, timeline and structures are all in place; and significant political capital – plus other resources – has already been invested.  It would take something huge and unexpected to derail the process.  We can therefore work on the assumption that there will be a post-2015 agenda.

Table 1: The Post-2015 Process Schedule

Sourced largely from Hickson (2013)

Date Activity
Sep 2010 UN MDG Summit
Sep 2011 UN System Task Team established to lead post-2015 process
May 2012-Apr 2013 Post-2015 thematic global consultations
Jun 2012 Rio+20 summit; working group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set up
Jun 2012 UN System Task Team “Realizing the Future We Want for All” report
Jun 2012 National post-2015 consultations begin
Jul 2012 Rio+20 “The Future We Want” resolution to UN General Assembly
Aug 2012 High-Level Panel (HLP) set up by Ban Ki-moon
Sep 2012 HLP convened
Nov 2012 HLP first substantive meeting (London)
Jan 2013 SDG Open Working Group created
Feb 2013 HLP second meeting (Monrovia)
Feb 2013 EU post-2015 communication “A Decent Life for All”
Mar 2013 UN System Task Team “A Renewed Global Partnership for Development” report
Mar 2013 HLP third meeting (Bali)
Mar 2013-Feb 2014 Eight sessions of SDG Open Working Group
May 2013 Draft SDG report
May 2013 HLP “A New Global Partnership” report
Jul 2013 Progress report of SDG Open Working Group to UN General Assembly
Sep/Oct 2013 New UN General Assembly session and MDG Review Summit
Sep 2013 First session of High-Level Political Forum on sustainable development
Sep 2014 SDG Open Working Group to report to UN General Assembly
Jan 2015 MDG deadline
Jan-Dec 2015 Intergovernmental negotiations via UN General Assembly on Post-2015 Agenda
Sep 2015 High-Level Political Forum Meeting
c.Jul-Sep 2015 UN General Assembly Post-2015/MDG Review Summit
Jan 2016 New Post-2015 framework in place

[1] Hulme, D. (2009) The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): A Short History of the World’s Biggest Promise, BWPI Working Paper 100, Brooks World Poverty Institute, University of Manchester, UK http://www.bwpi.manchester.ac.uk/resources/Working-Papers/bwpi-wp-10009.pdf

[2] Hickson, C. (2013) Post-2015 development goals process and timeline, Trio Policy, 11 Jul http://www.triopolicy.com/post-2015-development-goals-process-and-timeline/

Understanding Inclusive Innovation

27 August 2013 3 comments

If you work on technology, you need to understand innovation.  If you work on technology and development, you need to understand inclusive innovation.

In simple terms, inclusive innovation is the means by which new goods and services are developed for and/or by those who have been excluded from the development mainstream; particularly the billions living on lowest incomes.  So new technologies for the base of the pyramid – mobile phones, mobile services, telecentres, better seed varieties, vaccines, etc – can all be included.

We can chart the rapid rise of interest in inclusive innovation in various spheres.  In the past few years, the World Bank, IDRC, GIZ, OECD and other development agencies have all launched inclusive innovation actions.  India, Thailand, China, South Africa, Indonesia and other national governments have added inclusive innovation elements into their policies.  And – as shown in Figure 1 below – academic publications related to the topic have been growing fast.

IncInnov GS Publications

Figure 1: Google Scholar Academic Publications for “Inclusive Innovation”

But what exactly is “inclusive innovation”?

The growth in publications means an increasing diversity of views, which now demand some overall conceptualisation.  This has two key aspects: firstly who, secondly what.

Inclusive innovation means someone is being included.  But who?  It must be some group that is typically marginalised within or excluded from mainstream processes of development.  Sometimes this may be women or youth or the disabled or the elderly.  But dominant attention has been on “the poor”; those on lowest incomes which may typically be defined as some small number of US dollars – US$1, US$1.25, US$2, US$2.50, etc – per day.  (There is also the issue of who, within this group, is then to be included via the innovation: will it be the whole group or just some part: perhaps the less-poor, or the men, or the adults?  This raises further questions about representation and heterogeneity and inequalities within the excluded group.)

And if (some of) this group are now being included in some way, in what are they being included?

It seems most helpful to understand the different views as a “ladder of inclusive innovation” (see Figure 2 below): a set of steps, with each succeeding step representing a greater notion of inclusivity in relation to innovation.  In more detail these are:

  • Level 1/Intention: an innovation is inclusive if the intention of that innovation is to address the needs or wants or problems of the excluded group.  This does not relate to any concrete activity but merely the abstract motivation behind the innovation.
  • Level 2/Consumption: an innovation is inclusive if it is adopted and used by the excluded group.  This requires that innovation be developed into concrete goods or services; that these can be accessed and afforded by the excluded group; and that the group has the motivation and capabilities to absorb the innovation.  All of those stages could be seen as sub-elements of this level of the inclusive innovation ladder, though all will be required for consumption so they are not hierarchical sub-steps (as appear in later levels).
  • Level 3/Impact: an innovation is inclusive if it has a positive impact on the livelihoods of the excluded group.  That positive impact may be understood in different ways.  More quantitative, economic perspectives would define this in terms of greater productivity and/or greater welfare/utility (e.g. greater ability to consume).  Other perspectives would define the impact of innovation in terms of well-being, livelihood assets, capabilities (in a Senian sense), or many other foundational understandings of what development is.  For those with concerns about inequality, this could include a condition that the benefits were restricted to the excluded group, or were greater than those achieved by ‘included’ groups using the innovation.  One can therefore differentiate an absolute vs. relative notion of inclusive impact of innovation, the latter being a sub-step above the former.
  • Level 4/Process: an innovation is inclusive if the excluded group is involved in the development of the innovation.  It is highly unlikely that the entire group could be involved so – as noted above – this immediately shrinks down to “members of the excluded group”.  This level needs to be broken down according to the sub-processes of innovation: invention, design, development, production, distribution.  These would create a set of sub-steps with, for example, an assumption of greater value of inclusion in the upstream elements than the downstream elements.  Further complicating matters, the extent of involvement is equated with different levels of inclusion.  Again, there would be sub-steps akin to those seen when discussing participation in development, with higher sub-steps representing deeper involvement.  Borrowing from Arnstein’s[1] ladder of participation, sub-steps can include: being informed, being consulted, collaborating, being empowered, controlling.
  • Level 5/Structure: an innovation is inclusive if it is created within a structure that is itself inclusive.  The argument here is that inclusive processes may be temporary or shallow in what they achieve.  Deep inclusion requires that the underlying institutions, organisations and relations that make up an innovation system are inclusive[2].  This might require either significant structural reform of existing innovation systems, or the creation of alternative innovation systems.
  • Level 6/Post-Structure: an innovation is inclusive if it is created within a frame of knowledge and discourse that is itself inclusive.  (Some) post-structuralists would argue that our underlying frames of knowledge – even our very language – are the foundations of power which determine societal outcomes.  Only if the framings of key actors involved in the innovation allow for inclusion of the excluded; only then can an innovation be truly inclusive.

IncInnov Ladder Model

Figure 2: Understanding the Different Levels of Inclusive Innovation

The levels are akin to steps on a ladder because each level involves a gradual deepening and/or broadening of the extent of inclusion of the excluded group in relation to innovation.  In general each level accepts the inclusion of the levels below, but pushes the extent of inclusion further.  Thus, for example, those concerned with inclusion of impact accept – necessarily – the value and actuality of inclusivity of intention and consumption, but feel this is not sufficient to fully justify the label of ‘inclusive innovation’.

The corollary is that a commentator standing at any particular step of the ladder would not regard views or practice at lower levels to represent true inclusive innovation.  Taking the example of those at the base-of-the-pyramid as the excluded group, commentators at Level 4 would feel innovation is only inclusive if those on low incomes somehow participate in the innovation process; perhaps typically in the development of the new good or service.  A new good or service which benefited the poor without this (i.e. an innovation at Level 3 developed non-participatively by a large firm or by government) would not be regarded as an inclusive innovation.

One may also detect a move from the positive towards the normative in ascending the ladder, with a decreasing number of real-world examples as one ascends.  Thus there are many examples of new goods and services which are developed and consumed by excluded groups, some of which have a beneficial impact.  Involvement of excluded groups in innovation processes is not frequent but it does occur.  However, one may be harder-pressed to find examples of structures let alone widely-shared knowledge frames in practice: these levels may represent aspirations more than realities at present.

Armed with the ladder model, we will find that dialogue, research, policy-making, practice, etc. are easier to achieve because all parties have the basis for framing their own understanding of inclusive innovation, and that of others.

However, this is just a first attempt.  So comments or pointers to other conceptualisations of inclusive innovation are welcome.

(This model and related text are extracted from “Inclusive Innovation: Definition, Conceptualisation and Future Research Priorities” by Richard Heeks, Mirta Amalia, Robert Kintu & Nishant Shah; a conference paper for AIE 2013 which can be found at: http://bit.ly/IncInnov)

[1] Arnstein, S.R. (1969) A ladder of citizen participation, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4), 216-224

[2] For further details on the relation between innovation systems and inclusive innovation, see: Foster, C. & Heeks, R. (2013) Conceptualising inclusive innovation: modifying systems of innovation frameworks to understand diffusion of new technology to low-income consumers, European Journal of Development Research, 25(3), 333-355 [see also: https://www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk/uk-ac-man-scw:198318]

Factors Shaping Management of IT Impact Sourcing Service Providers

What factors shape management decision-making in IT impact sourcing service providers?

IT impact sourcing means outsourcing IT work to bottom-of-the-pyramid employees with the aim of socio-economic development impact.  This was the focus for a study recently conducted within the Centre for Development Informatics at the University of Manchester by postgraduate researcher, Ioannis Traintafyllis under the supervision of Dr Brian Nicholson.

As detailed in a previous blog entry (“The Research Agenda for IT Impact Sourcing”), Rockefeller/Monitor research estimates that impact sourcing is already a US$4.5 billion market employing 144,000 people and “has the potential to be a $20 billion market by 2015, directly employing 780,000 socio-economically disadvantaged individuals”.

The most common model of impact sourcing involves three main actors: the client, the BoP sub-contractor employees/enterprise, and an intermediary that sits between the other two and provides quality control.  Examples of leading impact sourcing intermediaries – also known as ‘impact sourcing service providers’ (ISSPs) – include Digital Divide Data, Samasource, Business2Rural (India) and Daproim Africa.

The ISSP is critical but we know very little about what shapes their decisions: are they driven by a moral concern for the disadvantaged of the world, or by economic gain, or something else?

To investigate this issue, Schwartz and Carroll’s (2003)[1] three-domain model of corporate social responsibility was used, shown in Figure 1 below.

SchwartzCarroll Model

Figure 1: Domains of Responsibility Driving Managerial Decision-Making

The model identifies three domains of factors which, individually or in combination, can shape decision-making in organisations like ISSPs:

- Economic: e.g. a drive to profit

- Legal: e.g. a drive to comply with the law

- Ethical: e.g. a drive to comply with a moral code

This model was then tested with an established ISSP via interviews with senior managers plus a review of secondary sources.  Examples were found of all three domains shaping decision-making in the company:

- Economic: senior managers saw the impact sourcing model as “an asset to open doors to the market” which could deliver an income stream for the company and meet clients’ needs in various ways.  First “it makes sense economically for our clients” but there was also a necessity to meet client standards “on the basis of quality” and also to meet client needs “to know if we operate in an ethical, corporate responsibility way”.  There was, though, a largely instrumental sense of economic factors: getting the economic aspects of the ISSP business model right was not an end in itself but a means to a wider end.

- Legal: again, senior managers’ decision-making was shaped by an awareness of the legal context but as a box to be ticked; as an enabler to other ends: “we obey the legal responsibilities and the rules of the society but it is our social mission that guides our actions”.  There was an awareness of the value of compliance with global standards such as the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, but these had not shaped the core functions of the company; rather those core functions were already well-shaped in a way that could meet global standards.

- Ethical: the main impetus behind formation of the firm, and the foundation for decision making was the impact of contracts in providing jobs, skills and incomes for those from disadvantaged backgrounds in developing countries.  In philosophical terms, this was more a consequentialist than deontological morality: driven by the outcomes of the firm’s actions rather than by some deeper and shared moral code.

Two other elements, though, were notable in the responses of senior executives, which reflect some of the specifics of the ISSP business model.

First, this is as yet a relatively new, small and fragile business model.  Senior managers were therefore continuously concerned about sustainability of the business model and of the company.  As a concern, this had pushed diversification – of both client domains and outsourcing locations – as a strategy.  Diversification can be read as both economic and ethical in its origins, though an issue for all ISSPs will be whether – over time – there is a tendency for the balance to shift from the ethical to the economic.

Second, all domains and issues – economic, legal, ethical – were continuously filtered through the lens of corporate reputation and profile.  Managers knew clients, in part, signed up because of the positive image of impact sourcing; but would walk away if impact sourcing got a widespread ‘bad press’.  Their foremost legal concern was to ensure external awareness of compliance.  And they were keen to share stories of individuals who had been helped by impact sourcing; stories being the type of data that readily lends itself to good PR.

This is only to be expected.  In conceptual terms, as with other types of fair trade, clients do not have direct access to the context of production.  The ISSP is an agent acting on behalf of their client/principal.  As a result the link between client and BoP subcontractors is almost entirely mediated by trust, image and reputation of the ISSP, and by the wider media portrayal of impact sourcing.  This would necessarily make ISSPs most concerned about the appearance of processes and impacts.

The importance of external image is reinforced because impact sourcing intersects two business models – fair trade and IT offshoring – both of which have come in for strong, at times intimidatory and vituperative, criticism; particularly in the US.

We can therefore revise the basic triorbital model (see Figure 2) to show its dynamics over time which lead sustainability and diversification to shape decisions; and to show that all issues are always filtered through a reputation/profile lens, affecting not just external communications but also internal decisions.

ISSP Decision Factors

Figure 2: Factors Driving ISSP Managerial Decision-Making

The base of data used here is very limited, so much remains to be researched, but we hope this model can form the foundation for future study.  Analysis can probe the relative weights of the three domains, including the potential for changes in those weights over time.  Research can also look at the difficulties of managing in a field in which appearance may matter more than reality.

[1] Schwartz, M.S. & Carroll, A.B. (2003) Corporate social responsibility: a three-domain approach, Business Ethics Quarterly, 13(4), 503-550


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