Participatory Design Problems in ICT4D: The Low Self-Efficacy Issue

First inscribed into Magna Carta in 1215, it is a legal requirement for all ICT4D project evaluations to conclude that more user participation would be a good thing.  But would it?


I’ve written earlier in general on the problems of participation in “The Tyranny of Participation in Information Systems: Learning from Development Projects“.


Here, though, I want to reflect on the more specific idea that norms of user feedback do not always apply well in ICT4D contexts.


This was prompted when I reviewed research (which will be presented at the ICTD2009 Qatar conference) on an ICT4D project to help women from poor communities get better access to health information.  As per participative norms, a prototype system was built and women were brought in to use the system and provide feedback on design improvements.  However, it was difficult to get any useful feedback from the women.


Further investigation found a key underlying issue.  When the ICT4D system did not work well, the women tended to blame themselves rather than either the system or the designers.  Therefore they had little or no design improvement feedback to offer.


That sounds like a classic problem of low self-efficacy (“the belief that one is capable of performing in a certain manner to attain certain goals”) and/or low self-esteem (“a person’s sense of self-worth”).


Put simply and in stark form, some users in ICT4D projects see themselves as either useless with ICT systems and/or generally worthless, and so offer little input in conventional participative design/prototyping situations.  This may be particularly true of the more marginalised groups that ICT4D often targets.  (And, yes, also true of some groups/individuals in the global North, so this is not necessarily a North-South difference issue.)


Some spin-off points:


– Problems with ICT4D participatory design are sometimes put down to cultural differences (e.g. Winschiers’ work; see also Straub on global market usability testing).  Prescriptions of reducing the perceived status-differentials between users and designers may work.  But they may work for efficacy and esteem reasons, as much as the claimed cultural reasons.  (See also Kam et al’s work in India showing the importance of relationship building between users and designers.)


– The “Bollywood method” of engaging users through film plot-style exercises may, again, be less about the presented issue of user motivation and more about overcoming efficacy barriers (users feel capable of talking about films, not about ICT systems).


– Drawing on Bandura’s theorisation of self-efficacy, we would want more attention being paid with ICT4D user-participants to issues of a) past ICT experience; b) modelling and other peer/social influences; c) physiological factors.


Generally, this suggests ICT4D needs to dip more of a toe in the waters of psychology than it has so far done.  Negative psychological constructs like low self-efficacy and low self-esteem may be hampering ICT4D participation, and will continue to do so unless we understand them more.


I’d be grateful for comments pointing to other evidence (or counter-evidence) on this issue.


(Thanks to Andy Dearden for helping develop these ideas and pointing to sources.)



Are Mobile Phone Companies the New Treasuries of Africa?

Is implementation of fiscal policy in developing countries being increasingly handled by mobile phone operators?


That’s what hit me from two presentations at the recent 1st m4d conference; in particular from Adam Denton’s keynote [2MB pdf] on behalf of the GSM Association.  (This was full of interesting evidence-based nuggets, some of which I’ve added at the bottom of this post.)


My thoughts on government finances arise from:-


– a) the general poor performance of developing country governments in implementation of fiscal (tax and spending) policy;


– b) Mick Moore’s argument (e.g. in the book, “Taxation and State-Building in Developing Countries”: you can find on Google books) that state-building in developing countries is significantly undermined because governments don’t rely very much – if at all – on their citizens for taxes; as a result, governments find it easy to ignore citizens when making policy.


Mobile telephony could be changing this, albeit in an unplanned and as yet largely unrecognised way.  How?  Because mobile phone operators are key, and rapidly growing, contributors of tax revenues to government.  They average 7% of tax receipts in Africa and, in some countries, are the single largest tax payer.


More importantly, and almost uniquely among tax sources (compared, say, to customs revenue or taxes on natural resource extraction), mobile phone companies derive their revenue from a large and increasing mass of the citizenry of a country (around 30% of the cost of mobile phone ownership goes to pay tax).  They are, therefore, indirectly providing the tax connection between citizens and governments in developing countries, the absence of which Mick Moore and others have long lamented.


Previously, if governments wanted to raise or lower the tax burden on their citizens, they had few if any levers.  Now they do.  Assuming a competitive mobile market, changes in the tax burden on phone companies will directly affect large swathes of a country’s population.  Raise taxes on mobile operators: you extract more money from millions of citizens.  Lower taxes for the reverse effect.


The fiscal flipside could also apply.  Katharine Vincent and Nick Freeland are working on a social protection project in Lesotho. Cash transfers to the poor are an increasingly-popular social protection tool to address poverty and wider vulnerabilities.  However, delivery mechanisms are difficult.  One possible solution?  Get government to outsource delivery of the cash/credit to mobile operators, who would effect the transfer via mobiles.  Mobile operators would thus be implementing government spending policy.


That may be some way in the future.  However, we do need to recognise the extent to which mobile phone companies are mediating – and could mediate – fiscal relations between governments and citizens.  This one more sign of “Development 2.0”: the way in which ICTs are reworking core development structures and processes.


Any other examples of phone operators as outsourced Treasuries would be welcome.


Other nuggets from Adam Denton:


– 10 years ago, Manhattan had more phone lines than all of Africa.  Today, Africa has more phone lines than the US and Canada combined.


– GSMA states that every US$1.00 invested in mobile telephony generates an average US$0.80 in tax revenues for developing countries.


– GSMA predicts that 80% of broadband delivery in Africa will occur via mobile; but that may require release of spectrum currently used by analogue TV.


– Population coverage in Africa of mobile networks grew from 10% in 1999 to 60% in 2007, and is predicted to grow to 90% by 2012.


– Mobile operators provide 34% of the revenues for universal service funds but receive only 5% of disbursements (fixed line operators get the rest).  In 2006, more than US$6bn in universal service funds was collected; only US$1.5bn was disbursed.


– (A personal conclusion): we know the menu for mobile and telecom and ICT policy quite well already; the interesting question today is not what should be in policy but how and why policy is made and implemented.


And, yes, I do realise that the GSM Association has a particular worldview.  If you wish to challenge their figures with alternative evidence, please feel free to comment.  If you’d like more of the same, then see:


The Godfather of ICT4D, and ICT4D’s First Computer

When did ICT4D start?  Conventional histories might typically cite the World Bank’s 1998/9 “Knowledge for Development” World Development Report, released in October 1998 (in which case, we should’ve just celebrated ICT4D’s 10th birthday).


But the use of digital technologies to achieve development goals goes back much further than that.


To 1956, and the installation of the developing world’s first digital computer: the HEC-2M.  It was used to undertake numerical calculations at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, including statistical analyses for India’s national plans such as the Second Five-Year Plan (1956-61).  We should thus have already celebrated the golden jubilee of ICT4D.


Even more intriguing, one of the original team members that worked with the HEC-2M is in his 70s but still very much around: Prof. Dwijesh Dutta Majumder, who is now Professor Emeritus at the ISI, and currently researching particularly on medical image processing.


Unless there are any other nominations, I think Prof. Majumder should be christened the godfather (or perhaps midwife?) of ICT4D.


You can find out more about the HEC-2M and Prof. Majumder’s role in a couple of Dataquest articles, one from 1985 and one from 2006.  I am happy to report that the HEC-2M – ICT4D’s first computer – was designed by a professor in a UK university.  (Sadly it wasn’t me and it wasn’t Manchester; it was Prof. Andrew Booth at Birkbeck and the computer was built in the UK by the forerunner of ICL (for whom I used to work, so I can claim some connection!).  More details on Booth’s work here.)


Prof. Majumder also recalls that, although not automated and not “proper” computers, the first analogue computers in the developing world were separately but simultaneously developed and demonstrated in 1952 at the ISI and .. .. where else but ICT4D’s mecca, Bangalore, at the Indian Institute of Science.


IISc itself doesn’t appear to lay claim to this first, but I like this historical alignment of past and present.


Barring new information, India seems to take the ICT4D first computer prize.  For other continents, I can get back to 1960 for both Africa ( and Latin America (  But I suspect those can be bettered; e.g. O Riain, Sean (2006) Dominance and Change in the Global Computer Industry: Military, Bureaucratic, and Network State Developmentalisms. Studies in Comparative International Development, 41 (1) pp. 76-98 claims the Brazilian Navy installed its first computer in 1958 but no source is given and I can’t find any corroboration.