Some years back, helping run a session at the World Bank, I introduced myself to a table of participants. “Oh yes”, came the sniffy response, “you’re the ICT failure guy”. This was a World Bank that believed in – and heavily promoted – the development benefits of ICTs, and had little time for any contrary evidence.
Judging from this year’s World Development Report – “Digital Dividends” – that rose-tinted optimism has been replaced by a much more realistic, and somewhat downbeat, perspective on ICT4D; a perspective that’s emerged from strong engagement with the current evidence base.
WDR2016 is a tale of three divides.
The first is an impact divide: a gap between ICT’s widespread diffusion and its actual delivery of benefits – the “digital dividends” of the title. As one would expect, the Report does a great job of laying out those dividends, particularly through pithy frameworks and graphics. It shows the way in which ICT affordances of efficiency, inclusivity and innovation have driven productivity, growth and jobs in the economic sphere, and more capable and responsive governments in the political sphere.
Yet alongside the digital dividend has come:
- a digital deficit: inequalities in the distribution of these benefits with a few “haves”, many “have nots”, and far more “have lesses”; and
- digital ills: cybercrime and curtailment of online freedoms that sit beside the ICT4D unmentionable, online pornography.
The cause of these problems – at least the digital deficit – is the two other divides.
The digital divide is familiar territory: the problems of accessibility and affordability with customary prescriptions that mix competition and regulation, and at least a mention for the applicability problems that arise from digital illiteracy. But of more interest is the strong recognition that a social divide is the main determinant of the pattern of ICT4D impacts: a gap between the regulations, skills, and institutions needed to deliver digital dividends for all vs. the actual regulations, skills and institutions present within developing countries.
Those who believe in a contextualised, socio-technical approach to ICT4D will nod along to all this. Even the consequent prescriptions – “regulations that allow firms to connect and compete; skills that technology augments rather than replaces; and institutions that are capable and accountable” – while they have an expected flavour of neo-liberalism, constitute a broader digital policy agenda than often promoted in the past by the World Bank.
This broader agenda reflects a bigger picture issue: the Report is one more marker of the transition from “ICT4D” to “digital development”. The absence of ICT4D (it gets no mentions save a bibliographic reference to one of my papers) in favour of digital development is more than just a change in terminology but – as I’ve written in an earlier report (see here for edited version) – reflects the slow change from ICTs being a tool that assists development to their being the platform that mediates development.
The agenda for digital development will be substantially shaped by the Sustainable Development Goals, with their three essentials of transformation, inclusion and sustainability:
- As noted above, WDR2016 identifies how much ICTs have already delivered; how reality has so far undershot the transformative potential of ICTs, due to technical and social divides; but also what the solutions might be.
- Inclusion – or rather lack thereof – is also a key Report theme, citing concentration of economic and political power, state and corporate control of citizens, and inequality of economic impacts. The Report’s focus on economic and political domains means it has much less to say about ICTs and inequalities in other domains such as social and family and cultural life. It is also rather mixed in its perspective on ICTs and inclusion: at times arguing inequalities “persist, not because of digital technologies, but in spite of them”, but in other places explaining how ICTs have facilitated digital monopolies, automation of middle-income jobs, and digital authoritarianism.
- Sustainability and its operationalisation through resilience gets a brief acknowledgement but – as I’ve noted in my “ICT4D2016” paper – much remains to be done to really get a grip on the coming e-sustainability and e-resilience agenda.
The practice of digital development will be substantially shaped by Development 2.0: the ICT-enabled innovations that challenge existing development structures and processes: users as digital producers, the power of the crowd, digital participation, network structures, data-intensive development, and open development. In largely reviewing the existing evidence base, “Digital Dividends” has less to say about these. But they are identifiable within the Report as part of the coming flow.
WDR1998/99 (“Knowledge for Development”) had an important impact in kick-starting ICT4D. WDR2016 faces a different world – one far more mature, and perhaps a little jaded in its experience of ICTs and development, but it reflects this evolution well and will be a vital pointer for the “digital development” future.
Disclosure: I was an invited Advisory Panel member for WDR2016.Follow @CDIManchester
Now the Sustainable Development Goals are with us, what are the implications for ICT4D? A recent discussion held by members of the Centre for Development Informatics gave some pointers.
The MDGs have run their course, achieving a mixed bag of success. The post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – an ambitious set of 17 goals and 169 targets – take over the proverbial baton in the global race towards achieving, what has been described as “the world we want”. There are criticisms of the efficacy of these types of goals and the processes by which they are derived. But they provide a starting point and framework around which actors with varied mandates can gather. Indeed, the SDGs have already begun to shape the development discourse, development models and development funding mechanisms.
The discussion was initially motivated by a blog post from Tim Unwin where he critiques the limited role of ICTs within the SDGs. While several discussants sympathised with many of the points raised in Unwin’s article, others took an alternate view. Too great a presence for ICTs could risk re-kindling the ICT4D hype-cycles that generated unrealistic expectations in the 1990s and early 2000s. If the telecentre age taught us anything, it is that overemphasising the ability of ICTs to generate development outcomes is counterproductive for developing communities, as well as for donor and ICT communities.
Others argued that the low profile for ICTs was encouraging because it reflected the times in which the SDGs were written: a recognition of the embeddedness and pervasiveness of ICTs within a progressively digital society. Consequently, not only are ICTs now seen as instrumental, they have become a platform through which development activities are increasingly mediated. For instance, even if not explicitly mentioned, it is impossible to conceive effective environmental monitoring that does not involve sensors, satellite imaging, and a solid infrastructure to handle the data generated. Additionally, ICTs are now raising development issues of their very own: digital identities, digital exclusion, privacy and security come to mind.
Another theme we tackled was the relationship between the SDGs and ICT4D research. The questions considered included: “Do we obtain our research agenda from the SDGs or from what we see happening in the world of ICTs? Should the engagement of the ICT4D academic community with our peers in policy and practice be informed by the SDGs?”.
There was consensus that, while the SDGs might not necessarily drive ICT4D research agendas, they can provide a vehicle and language through which we can make more explicit linkages between our research and the development issues of our day. Developmental progress is often seen to result from changes in behaviour. Identifying and fostering the factors that cause or inhibit behavioural change are, therefore, integral to development planning and policy-making. ICT4D researchers can improve the support we offer to policy, practitioner and entrepreneurial colleagues by providing better evidence of how ICTs impact behavioural changes that are aligned with the realisation of the SDGs. Therefore, we discussed the need for ICT4D researchers to become more adept at discerning issues of causality around human behaviour and ICTs.
As researchers motivated by global inequality and pressing social concerns, we felt our work should not just focus on addressing knowledge gaps but development gaps. Here, the SDGs provide guidance. Case in point, Goal 13 calls for urgent action against climate change and its impacts and a recent survey of ICT4D research identified significant gaps in our knowledge about ICTs, the environment and climate change. So, if you have a particular concern for the environment (perhaps we all should?) and are keen on starting a PhD, this might be an area on which to focus.
The example above highlights bigger questions about the relationship between knowledge gaps and development priorities and how knowledge gaps around particular development priorities, such as climate change, have remained scarcely addressed within our field. On this theme, we focused on how the SDGs can be used to bridge these gaps and priorities. One practical approach for academics and anyone interested in addressing development priorities within the ICT4D space – practitioner, policy maker, entrepreneur or combination – is to use the SDGs as a stepping stone to find that unique point where the wider social concerns of development, our desire to make a difference (personal actualisation), and sustainable mechanisms (through business, NGO, public agency, etc) intersect.
On Addressing Development Priorities through ICT4D
These are just a few ideas. We are curious to hear what others have to say and welcome your thoughts in the comments section below.
Written by Ritse Erumi, Juan Gomez and Ryo Seo-Zindy (CDI PhD Researchers)Follow @CDIManchester