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.

21 thoughts on “Mainstreaming ICTs in Development: The Case Against

  1. This is an excellent piece of work. To achieve real and sustainable development in this 21st century, ICTs must be the main driving tool for development hence must be given priority just as Government cannot operate without the Ministry of Finance and development agencies without Finance department.

    I can only agree with Richard on the above issues raised. To add to them, I will argue that the need to target human capacity building in the areas of ICT skills must be a primary policy issue for governments and development agencies in developing countries.

  2. Nice post Richard. Fortunately, IDRC has decided to mainstream and sidestream for exactly the reasons you mention. A core program will allow us to focus on issues related to the new opportunities (and threats) related to increasingly pervasive ICTs including mobiles, social media, etc.. ( as an aside I find it interesting that ICT mainstreaming has happened just at a time when ICTs have become more relevant and feasible for development). Sen’s capabilities approach has been a big inspiration for us as well. Our mainstreaming process will hopefully be made more relevant by ensuring dedicated ICT4D staff focus solely on ICT issues within their respective areas (I know that has yielded mixed results in the case of gender, but hopefully the mix of mainstreaming and sidestreaming should help overcome some of the obvious obstacles).

    So just an assurance that ICTs as a core field of study has not gone the way of the dodo bird at IDRC.

  3. Thanks for mentioning ICTworks and might initiatives like this be the solution to these issues? I don’t see ICT coming back as its own focus in donor organizations, so its up to outside organizations to curate the deep ICT expertise that can be incorporated into larger programs.

  4. > Richard-provocative as usual! Two comments.
    > First, a minor terminology issue. Mainstreaming may not be equated
    > with dissolving central or specialized ICT units and disbursing ICT4D staff.
    > Mainstreaming, in my mind at least, could mean integrating ICT into
    > economic development strategies, sectoral strategies, and all means of
    > development assistance, in strategic and organic ways. Anyway, this
    > is just for clarification, but will use your meaning of mainstreaming
    > for my second point.
    > Second, your last point should be first, that “development agencies
    > should both mainstream and sidestream”. Yes, but how and why,
    > particularly after you tried to demolish the mainstreaming option?!
    > You devote all your arguments to demolishing mainstreaming and
    > advocating sidestreaming, and not for seeking a balance or synthesis
    > of both options. My long experience trying to get the World Bank (and
    > other regional development banks) to take the ICT revolution seriously
    > into development suggests that neither option alone has been working.
    > What is most urgently needed is a network or partnership approach,
    > whereby the specialized (central, modestly sized) ICT unit would be an
    > anchor for a network composed of ICT or hybrid staff working in all
    > key sectoral and country assistance units in the aid agency. Central
    > ICT units are important for the reasons you mentioned, to share ICT
    > trends, innovations and good practices, to provide vision and
    > strategic understanding, and to attend to ICT sector issues that
    > provide the foundations for the health of this
    > sector: the telecommunications infrastructure and Internet access and
    > the enabling environment for a promising ICT services industry. But
    > the central unit cannot by itself do much integration of ICT into all
    > types of sectoral programs: e-health, e-education, e-government, e-business, etc.
    In practice, all central ICT units I know of have instead been content to
    > focus on ICT sector interventions, advocate technological determinism,
    > and at times at act as a bottleneck and monopoly on ICT expertise,
    > rather than a catalyst and enabler of ICT integration in development
    > assistance within the aid organization. Central ICT units do not speak
    > the language of the core business or economic development, and do not
    > even try. Even if they wish, they cannot be current to the challenges
    > facing each sector. Meantime, the rest of development assistance staff
    > are left in the dark about how to leverage ICT for their own sectors
    > and country development strategies. No ownership for ICT role is
    > engendered within each sector. Sidestreaming alone, as much as premature mainstreaming, led to ignoring ICT’s “extensive”
    > role of transforming and creating new development options.
    > Urgently needed are central units that can take care of the core
    > pillars of ICT-enabled development, such as e-policy and regulatory
    > issues and support to core ICT competencies and ICT services industry,
    > and at the same time facilitate and encourage ownership and
    > capabilities within sectoral and regional units to integrate ICT
    > within their business.
    In this, aid agencies could learn from
    > diversified business corporations where CIOs learned to work with
    > business units (and their own distributed ICT staff) to integrate ICT with own business strategies.
    > For those interested, my 3 books below provide further info on the how
    > to further such strategic integration of ICT into development.
    > Thanks Richard for initiating this discussion!
    > A paperback version of my recent 3 books on ICT-enabled transformation
    > and innovation, published by Springer, are now available and on sale
    > at Amazon
    > n-Tech
    > nology/dp/1441978437/ref=sr_1_20?ie=UTF8
    > on-Tec
    > hnology/dp/1441978437/ref=sr_1_20?ie=UTF8&qid=1288206653&sr=8-20>
    > &qid=1288206653&sr=8-20
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    > on/dp/1441978445/ref=sr_1_21?ie=UTF8
    > nnovat ion/dp/1441978445/ref=sr_1_21?ie=UTF8&qid=1288206653&sr=8-21>
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    > &qid=1288206618&sr=8-15

  5. Thanks Richard. If one was to only look at the “intensive” side of ICTs for the moment, there is still a lot that needs to be done for effective mainstreaming. On the one hand are the ICT4Ders who could engage and involve better colleagues in the core development sector. On the other, the comfort, knowledge and skill of the latter needs to take a leap to consider ICTs as a relevant, legitimate and effective means of supporting development results. It would be hard to talk of “mainstreaming” without discussing and addressing these challenges appropriately. And yes there is lot to learn from the mainstreaming of gender.

  6. Significant points, but I think you have still left one argument unaddressed. ICTs are not cast in stone, they are exceedingly dynamic. In fact, the actual morphology of any specific ICT solution itself is dynamic, and is shaped by interactions, between its users, and with the solution.

    Once a specific ICT solution is mainstreamed, so that it is managed by specialists from other fields within the context of their own assignments, its further development is unlikely. Worse, even homegrown attempts by ‘beneficiaries’ to improve such solutions will be negated by natural organisational processes. The problem is not with the embedding of the technology, but of marooning it from the ferment of technology development, within which it can constantly improve.

    The arguments presented above appear to miss out on this essential facet of ICTs.

  7. The evidence of “ICTD” research contributing to development policy making leave alone measurable development outcomes is limited and highly debatable in the Indian context. Too often ICTD projects proclaim success prematurely or falter without any lasting development impact. Studies of Research explaining the same can be more often found outside what goes in the name of “ICTD Research” than within it. That is because ICTD research, as it stands now does not adequately engage with issues of development.

    Ultimately all “ICT good practices in development” are essentially good development practices. If Development Practitioners see a use for ICTs, Richard should trust them to make the best use of it. Often Development Practitioners can help a lot of people with reasonably good technology tools without the need for bleeding edge technology. Whether the role of ICTD field is to highlight trends and innovations in ICTs…I think ICTs are essentially tools, tool makers should make a good brochure about what purposes they can serve. ICTD field should not be that brochure.

    Thanks to all the ICTD hype, Development Practitioners in the Government and International Aid Agencies once they define their development goals will be able to get the needed “expert advice” to mainstream ICTs in attaining these development goals. Computers are not present in productivity statistics because productivity like development is not a computer problem. Despite this paradox, people are using all kinds of new ICTs. The same will happen in the broader field of development despite ICTD “experts” not chaperoning them.

  8. Informative, for me obviously as I am no expert on the subject; a student rather. I think one of the most important reasons for the slowing down of this whole ICT4D concept and irrational steps being taken is that we still do not understand the scope of influence and capability of ICT. We are still unclear about the consequences and the unintended consequences of technology.

    Do you think there is any disadvantage of deploying ICT for development? Limitation could be of resources, infrastructure etc, but has any harm been caused?

    1. I think Himanshu is part-right: we don’t understand enough about the consequences of technology, in part because ICT4D in broad terms is so relatively recent.

      We do have quite a few studies, though, which provide an reasonable overview. For examples, see “Impact Assessment of ICT-for-Development Projects: A Compendium of Approaches” and “Do Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) Contribute to Development?

      So perhaps what matters more is the politics of how these results are interpreted. In whose interests is it to promote a positive view of ICT4D? In whose interests is it to promote a negative view of ICT4D?

      1. Dear Richard,

        Thank you for acknowledging my opinion and for the useful references.

        ICTs, especially information systems, have a bad reputation of opening the black box of authority, as also seen in Bangladesh, Ireland and India. This perhaps, besides corruption and other reasons, drags in the two perspectives of positive and negative representation.

  9. The 2011 “Capturing Technology for Development” report from World Bank Group ( notes the problems caused by the 2010 dissolution of the GICT group within the World Bank, and appears to recommend some shift back to allow a strategic and co-ordinating function for ICT across WBG (see esp. Chapter 5 in the main report): so the analysis seems to support the idea that full mainstreaming is problematic and that continued sidestreaming is necessary.

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