The long and storied history of information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) field is like the dead letters of Herman Melville’s anti-hero Bartleby: papers, commitments and declarations that fail to reach their destination and are, in many cases, forgotten.
From the rise of ICT4D as a field of study in the 1980s and 1990s to the World Summits on the Information Society (WSIS) in the early 2000s, debates about the power of ICT to transform societies have seen hopeful enthusiasts and impassioned critics shout their arguments across an ever-widening digital divide.
But beneath this is a story of remarkable innovation, written by the most unlikely authors and acted out in the most unlikely of places. Despite seemingly insurmountable challenges and a lack of global commitment to bridge policy and access gaps, the people who face the greatest barriers – women, youth, rural communities – are, in fact, using ICT in unexpected ways to improve their lives.
In the early days of ICT4D, techno-optimists built a case that ICT would usher in a new era of economic growth and development around the globe, overcoming decades of social and geopolitical inequality. This hypothesis spawned workshops and conferences which led to numerous documents and declarations by multilateral agencies, such as the World Bank, G8 Digital Opportunities Task Force, UN and International Telecommunications Union, that both set the discourse for the development of ICT4D projects and also initiated funding for them. The apex of this optimism was the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva and Tunis between 2003-2005, which brought together ICT advocates, industry leaders, enthusiastic governments, civil society organizations and academics, who developed zealous plans and commitments to ensure all people could benefit from the digital revolution.
The techno-pessimists shouted from the sidelines, arguing that ICT cannot be divorced from the failures of the development project itself, rooted in imperialist politics, and national and global forces that entrench inequality and poverty. They were alarmed at how quickly the digital divide was widening, excluding the most marginalized women, people who live in rural or peri-urban areas and those who are poor, illiterate, and speak vernacular languages – essentially 60% of the world’s population. Just as much as it can be a force for good, technology, they argued, can make bad systems worse.
Post-WSIS, many development agencies turned away form ICT4D as a priority in and of itself. It barely featured in the Millennium Development Goals or the Sustainable Development Goals, reflecting a growing gap between ICT4D policy and practice and the world’s development agenda and commitments.
International agencies that do focus on ICT4D tend to emphasize the technology and infrastructure over the social, cultural and political factors that shape uptake and use, such as regulatory policies, cost and gender dynamics. As a result, global disparities in access to ICT continue to exist, despite the enthusiasm and liberal rhetoric of the late 90s and early 2000s, and despite the astounding increases in internet penetration and access to ICT, particularly mobile phones, in countries throughout the world. Within countries, this disparity in access between the rich and poor is an ever-growing chasm.
Nonetheless, innovation is happening everywhere – in the most developed urban centres and least developed villages – despite, and in many cases driven by, the socio-political and economic challenges many people face every day. Mini disruptions through ICT have been happening all along, in the margins of workshops and forums, undeterred by the lack of progress in global strategies and commitments.
Take FarmDrive, for example, a digital record-keeping platform that allows traditionally unbanked smallholder farmers to establish records of credit and access loans from financial institutions. Founded by two young women whose families struggled in Kenya’s volatile agricultural sector, FarmDrive is an innovation driven by the desire to solve community challenges. Similar stories have emerged all over the Global South, from a Ugandan graduate who designed a system to charge a mobile phone using a bicycle and increased digital access despite his rural community’s lack of electricity; to a range of other lower-tech “frugal innovations” solving challenges in India.
Others have used the technology available to them in innovative ways that drive social change, such as Lina Ben Mhenni, a Tunisian blogger-turned-activist whose blog documented the uprising during the 2011 revolution, when other independent media outlets were denied entry to the country. In Rwanda, young “Digital Ambassadors” are using mobile technology to empower women in remote areas of the country by linking digital literacy training to entrepreneurial activities. While Ben Mhenni drew significant international attention for the vital service she provided during the Arab Spring, stories like hers and those of the Digital Ambassadors are largely left out of conversations about ICT4D. As David Edgerton argues in his book The Shock of the Old, there is a tendency to focus on technology-as-invention to the exclusion of technology-in-use.
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In the context of the SDGs, in which ICT4D is called out in only four of the 169 targets, ICT is primarily framed in relation to the development of a robust technology sector and STEM-trained workforce in the least developed countries in order to feed the disruptive demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Yet, these solutions show little regard for the ways in which people are already using ICT in their everyday lives. Indeed, we risk leaving the most marginalized behind in our pursuit of achieving the SDGs if we do not carefully consider how technology is shaping our economic, social, cultural and human environments and how we can foster an inclusive Fourth Industrial Revolution going forward.
To close the access gap, ICT4D strategies and programmes need to be driven as much by the innovative and unexpected ways people adopt and use technology in their everyday lives, as they are by technocratic solutions.