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The Missing Vision for ICT4D and WSIS Beyond 2015

ICT4D drew attention, money and other resources at the turn of the century because it was associated with a compelling narrative.  Albeit via a variety of terms, we foresaw the creation of an information society in developing countries; delivering the e-fruits of the global North to the global South.

At present, we have no such ICT4D narrative for post-2015 development.  The technology has fragmented with ICT4D struggling to keep hold of mobile, broadband, cloud, social media, smartphones, etc.  The development goals and sectors that ICT serves are sub-fragments within economic, social, political and environmental fragments.

Having never really gone away, it is hard for ICT4D to really reinvent itself with a reinvigorated sense of what an “information society” is and why it matters.  But it should at least try.

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) process – the global node for ICT4D policy and practice – is publishing materials on its “beyond 2015” vision.  But as yet these have little to offer.  There is no defined core of an information society, just a sweeping up of the many fragments in the hope they might amount to something worth pursuing.  The notion of an information society is qualified: in a number of places it must be “inclusive”; at one point it must be “people-centric, inclusive, open and development-oriented” (did someone forget to add “sustainable” to that list?).

The erosion of vision is in some ways understandable because ICT4D stood well ahead of actuality in the early 2000s, offering a clear and different future destination.  Over the years, reality in developing countries has started to catch up but WSIS has not maintained its headway: it has moved from casting visions to reflecting realities.  WSIS has also fallen victim to a path dependency that keeps it within existing tramlines: a future of the same old action lines, and a conservatism that leads to repetition of increasingly-stale incremental formulations instead of embracing transformative new thinking.  If path dependency is typical of institutionalised processes then fragmentation of core concepts is typical of multi-stakeholder processes: it is easier to keep adding phrases to please particular constituencies.  But it means “information society” resembles the mule in Buckaroo – increasingly over-laden, and with the only solution that it must throw off all of these loads and boil down to a more singular and coherent vision.

ICT4D could try to join another’s army, looking for a central role within the core narratives of post-2015 development.  But those narratives are not yet clear – perhaps sustainable development; perhaps inclusive development – and narratives of “sustainable informatics” or “inclusive informatics” might give ICTs a marginal not central role in development.  They would, nonetheless, be worth developing: the questions “where do ICTs fit into a sustainable development agenda?” and “where do ICTs fit into an inclusive development agenda?” remain unanswered.

ICT4D could try grabbing someone else’s flag, claiming the data revolution as its own, and carrying that forward at its head into post-2015 discussions.  It won’t be a comprehensive narrative, but at least it would be something that smells of fresh paint.

ICT4D might try to develop its own internal narrative.  The two candidates so far have barely sputtered, let alone caught fire.  “Development 2.0” – the ICT-enabled transformation of development processes and structures – remains a marginal concept but one worth further investment given transformative development is a third possible narrative of the post-2015 agenda alongside sustainability and inclusivity.  “Open development” has, thanks to IDRC, had more thought and work put into it and – another plus – it reaches out well beyond the technology.  But that is also its downside: it does not yet resonate as an ICT- or even informatics-related narrative; and it suffers from conflicting meanings (the World Bank’s definition of open development is narrowed to open data and its impact on transparency and accountability; IDRC’s definition is more ambitious and potentially paradigmatic).

All that can be suggested at present, then, is exploratory moves to look for an overarching narrative.  The future role and structure of ICT4D policy and practice may well depend on how far forward those moves are able to explore.

[This blog entry is a modified excerpt from the working paper: “ICT4D 2016: New Priorities for ICT4D Policy, Practice and WSIS in a Post-2015 World”.]

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