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Discussing ICTs and the SDGs

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.

ICT4D Brown Bag Priorities

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)

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