Mainstreaming ICTs in Development: The Case Against

ICTs should be mainstreamed into development.  That’s the current conventional wisdom.  And it is wrong.

Mainstreaming ICTs means they should be understood as one among a number of tools seeking to achieve other development goals – poverty alleviation, health, education – of the MDG variety.  ICTs become just means, not ends, in development.  Donor agencies, governments and other development organisations no longer require a specialist ICT4D group; their goal-oriented departments will all have ICTs as part of their toolkit.

Can we see signs of mainstreaming?  We surely can among main donors.  Where previously they “sidestreamed” by having dedicated ICT4D units; increasingly they no longer do.  UK’s DFID closed down its specialist Information and Communication for Development unit in 2006.  Swiss SDC largely phased out its ICT4D concentration in 2008 in favour of integration of ICTs into its other programmes.  Canada’s IDRC restructured in 2009/10 to disperse its ICT4D group.  No doubt you could add your own examples.

None of this should be surprising.  There was a continuous discourse of integration and mainstreaming from the time ICTs emerged onto the development agenda in the late 1990s.  A discourse that grew stronger during the 2000s as political economic analyses identified private sector interests in artificially ramping ICTs’ profile in development; as information systems and development studies analyses showed the historical and conceptual failure of technology-driven change and of technological determinism; and as ICTs mirrored that history in practice by failing to be a magic bullet for development.  (With Manchester’s Centre for Development Informatics right in the mix of that discourse!)

So ICTs have been or are being mainstreamed; they have floated down to their proper one-colour-among-many-on-the-palette place in development, and all is well.

Or not.

Because we can already identify the dangers of mainstreaming ICTs:

– Subsuming the technology into individual development goal silos means learning about ICTs becomes trapped by mainstreaming.  The specialist knowledge that successful ICT4D deployment requires – about design, development, implementation, evaluation, etc. – does not flow across the silos, causing wheels to be continuously and wastefully reinvented.  Hence – nearly ten years after I started analysing ICT4D failure – that failure is still widespread, and requires actions outwith the mainstreaming development actors in order to pool knowledge; e.g. ICTworks and FailFaire and others.

– You only have to hang around with ICT4D techies for a short while to see that their techno-centrism and focus on innovation generates excitement, motivation and hope that are lost if technology becomes hidden beneath other development goals.  Equally lost may be the philanthropic and other funding this excitement, motivation and hope can generate.  Agencies have also become ignorant of ICT trends and innovations that can address development issues in new ways.

– Jeff Beck sang, “You’re everywhere and nowhere, baby”.  We can already see when mainstreaming makes ICTs everywhere, it simultaneously makes them nowhere.  Mainstreaming becomes a synonym for “forgotten”; particularly with many development actors still not skilled, knowledgeable or comfortable with ICTs.  The 2010 UN Information Economy Report, for example, notes the absence of ICTs in Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, and cites a UNECA review that found ICTs in only two of twenty UN Development Assistance Frameworks.  Even a cursory glance at gender and development shows this would be expected.  Reviews of ten years of gender mainstreaming report: “mainstreaming has effectively drowned out the project of equality between women and men” (Charlesworth 2005); “A potentially contrary outcome of this understanding is that when mainstreaming is everyone’s task, it can become nobody’s responsibility.  This was the experience of the Dutch government … thus, gender mainstreaming is in crisis.” (Mehra & Gupta 2006); “mainstreaming has been co-opted as a useful dismissive device whereby departments can go back to business as usual. … Gender mainstreaming becomes a very useful, internationally sanctioned vehicle for this dismissal of women.” (Alston 2006).  Just so with ICTs.

– Mainstreaming of ICTs has been driven alongside an info-centric view that conceives them as tools for handling the information and communication that development requires.  This is ICTs’ “intensive” role of improving existing activities.  It ignores ICTs’ “extensive” role of creating new development processes and livelihoods.  As a result, for example, ICTs’ productive role gets ignored.  Yet we know from the 2010 UN Information Economy Report that ICTs are creating millions of new jobs and micro-enterprises in developing countries.  Which donor agency, which government, which development organisation has its eye on that ball?  Answer – none of them save those very few such as UNCTAD and InfoDev/World Bank, which are hanging on as bastions of sidestreaming rather than just mainstreaming ICTs.

– Mainstreaming agencies fail to take account of ICTs’ cross-cutting, integrative capabilities: digital technology’s ability to address a whole raft of development goals at once.  Mainstreaming is particularly antithetic to a Senian view of development.  It means using ICTs to deliver pre-set goals.  Yet, as Dorothea Kleine (2010) demonstrated, ICTs’ great value in Senian terms is in enabling choice and capabilities of individuals; a multitude of different outcomes that cannot be pre-determined. ICTs’ ability to do so is much greater than that of other development tools; affording them a special status.  A special status that mainstreaming cannot recognise.

– Drawing the latter points together, any question of ICTs’ transformative potential disappears when you mainstream.  The raindrops of evidence we have about Development 2.0 – about ICTs delivering radically new development models; attacking foundational development constraints; changing our view of development; enabling us to think outside the MDG box – all these find no place in a mainstreaming agenda.  Just as they were with mobiles, traditional development actors will be blindsided to the ICT-enabled future if they carry on mainstreaming.

Adapting Rischard’s framework cited by Manuel Acevedo (2009) we can say that mainstreaming will leave development organisations:

– weak at the operational level of projects due to inability to build ICT good practice, and due to sidelining of ICTs.

– very weak at the strategic level of policies and programmes due to ignorance about ICT trends and innovations, about ICTs’ “extensive” role, and about ICTs’ cross-cutting role, and due to ICTs’ generally low profile.

– completely lacking any vision for development that encompasses the present and future impact of ICTs.

All this is not an argument for isolationism.  ICTs should not be sealed into pods within development agencies.  But the opposite road – just popping those pods and stirring into the general mix – is equally wrong.  Development agencies must both mainstream and sidestream.  This will mean retaining, recreating or building specialist ICT units.  Without the sidestream, they will be less efficient, less effective and wandering blindfold into the future of development.