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Digital Dividends: Thoughts on the 2016 World Development Report

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Judging from this year’s World Development Report – “Digital Dividends” – that rose-tinted optimism has been replaced by a much more realistic, and somewhat downbeat, perspective on ICT4D; a perspective that’s emerged from strong engagement with the current evidence base.

Three Divides

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.

Digital Development

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.

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