On Tuesday the 3rd of March we went to Stayokay in Amsterdam for a meeting with Soenke Zehle who, amongst others, founded the ‘incommunicado’ project along with our thesis advisor Geert Lovink. It proved to be a valuable meeting in which Soenke guided us in thinking critically about the term ICT4D and provided us with a theoretical approach on deconstructing the significance and use of the term ICT4D.
ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for Development) is a term being used increasingly in defining the interdisciplinary research field which is concerned, according to Wikipedia, with overcoming the barriers of the digital divide. “It is an emerging field within the discourse and agenda of organizations working to support development efforts as well as within the development agendas of developing countries and development-oriented organizations in developing countries” [Source]. But what does ICT4D actually imply? And how can we critically assess the use of it?
We started with writing down what we understood under ICT, what we understood under 4 and what under D in about 5 keywords. By doing this we could create a generalized concept of the term.
- Under ICT we identified key terms as infrastructure, devices and networks.
- Under 4 we identified the terms connectivity, usage, access, opportunities and empowerment.
- And under D we understood conceptions of cultural and societal differences and a certain need for improvement, change and innovation.
While we setup this list of conceptions a discussion arose in which critical questions came up which helped us explore in broader detail what ICT4D implies in reality. We often think of ICTs as being purely physical devices and/or hardware we implement and use to support us in information and communication processes. Along with their means of use, like software, these devices extend human bodily capacities and supposedly improve the lives and daily processes of people. Therefore ICTs are often conceived as a grand vehicle for development because they provide technological means of empowerment and “life changing” opportunities through an increase in connectivity and access to digital information.
But what is often overseen and largely misunderstood by actors within the development scene, is that the implementation and use of ICT involves more that solely setting up the physical infrastructure and providing devices and means. Through implementing and using ICTs, immediate transformations of social and cultural structures take place. In this sense the “focus” in development issues shouldn’t solely lie within the domain of merely physical technology, but largely in the much broader domain of the socio-cultural transformations. Anticipating these socio-cultural transformations, provides the backbone for sustainable development.
The problem encountered then is that values and uses are embedded within the implemented infrastructures and devices used for development. From this the question arises: How do you implement an infrastructure and technology that doesn’t predefine its own use? Cultures and societies differ in needs, interpretations, standards, intrapersonal relations etc., so when assuming that the implementation of a functional technology for one country will have the same functionality and will provide the same solutions and opportunities in the other (to be developed) country means that no attention is given to social and cultural mechanisms that are actually of biggest importance to take into account.
This leads us to questioning the main actors in development processes. Who gets to speak and decide for the people in need? Who defines the development trajectory? And what actors take the actual decisions that eventually shape cultures and transform social structures? Within this perspective we identify local, national and international actors which all can have a say on the development means. So, when talking about ICT for Development, the term development is loaded with predefined conceptions, assumptions and stratifications of cultural and societal differences between states, the one lagging behind or rising above the other. We can separate the voices and actions of inhabitants, end users and recipients, of governments, collectives and opinion leaders, and of major development organizations and investing/donating states. But the ones defining the needs for development and the trajectory of the development process differ largely and puts great questions to the legitimacy of the contemporary forms and structures of development in which ICT is used as empowering agent.
Eventually, Soenke advises that, irrespective of these three categories of actors and stratifications of societies and cultures, it’s important to map entire regimes development initiatives will influence and reflect on the totality of transformations that can and will take place.