Telling the Truth about Information Communication Technology (ICT) and Development…

It just happens to be an Inconvenient Truth

by Han Ei Chew

22 August 2013

Han Ei Chew

I am compelled to let a rattling skeleton out of the closet of ICT and development. But when I am done telling the inconvenient truth, I also hope to provide some cause for reasoned optimism about the role of ICT for development.

For too long it seems advocates of ICT for development (ICT4D) have been economical with the truth. Within inner circles, they pretty much agree that technology-driven solutions have their limits and sometimes negative impacts. Outwardly, they are prone to emphasize the positive impacts of ICT. Away from the hoopla of technological cure-alls however, the inconvenient truth about the limits and negative impacts of ICT and development seems to be telling itself.

  • Technology and productivity gains: Whether technology improves net productivity is still ambiguous even though scholars posed the question as early as 1987. ICT has produced measurable reductions in transaction costs between businesses through innovations such as video conferencing and automated payments. However, it seems that for every study that attributes productivity gains to technology, there is a counter-study that reveals that workers are spending an inordinate amount of time watching YouTube videos and recovering from technical difficulties. Equally in developing countries, mobile phones are not solely used for economic purposes; social uses of mobile phones are just as prevalent.

  • Retaliation against social media democracy: In its annual report on freedom on the internet, Freedom House reported that internet restrictions in many countries continued to grow in 2012. To counter the influence of independent voices online, regimes have hired armies of pro-government bloggers to tout the official point of view, discredit opposition activists, or disseminate false information about unfolding events. Others have resorted to internet and mobile phone network shutdowns, or even physical and technical attacks. Social networking sites that have been credited with the Arab Spring and other Twitter revolutions were recently found to have been used by a US government agency to boost popularity.

  • Electronic waste: The burgeoning problem of e-waste or waste from electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is plaguing  countries around the world. In 2008, 60 Minutes ran a story of how e-waste was channeled into an underground sewer that flowed from the United States into poor countries. At one of these dump sites in China, peasant farmers live and work next to open, uncontrolled burning of plastics and toxic compounds.

  • Citizen data security and privacy: As developing countries increasingly adopt biometric systems in electoral and citizen identification programmes, serious concerns of privacy and security are also emerging. Biometric systems can eliminate ‘duplicates, ghosts and the deceased’ from national welfare systems and records, but many developing countries lack laws to secure data and protect privacy that will prevent misuses.

Just as ICT4D specialists are acknowledging the limits and negative impacts of ICT, the popular press are also hedging their optimism about technology in development. Where narratives used to exalt the transformative impacts of ICT in the developing world, they now adopt a more cautious stance. The Guardian led a story stating ’Technology can empower children in developing countries’ but added ‘…if it’s done right’. The Financial Times led a story (‘Technology can help kill corruption in developing countries’ by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala) with ‘Technology can help kill corruption in developing countries’ but reminded readers that better outcomes will be achieved if technological innovations in governance are coupled with institution-building. The view that technology (on its own) will solve the problems of the developing world is fast becoming one only held by diehard techno-determinists.

The double-bind of the inconvenient truth

The truth about the limits and possible negative impacts of technology for development is especially inconvenient for technology proponents. They know that communication about development solutions needs to be simple and have a magic bullet quality. Technological solutions need to get to the heart of the problem while still keeping up with current trends. Complexity means that the idea may not take off. Encapsulating the benefits of technological solutions with narratives of limitations and possible failures is an effective way of sending the ideas off to an early grave.

Consequently, proponents of ICT4D are in a classic Catch-22 situation. As technology advocates, they have to justify the resources they are mobilizing to address developmental challenges. Yet, they cannot deny that technological innovations can be used for nefarious purposes as well as for good. Besides, the global development community has become more sophisticated, and discourses of unbridled techno-fetishism are likely to be greeted with much scepticism. Kentaro Toyama, co-founder of Microsoft Research India, laments that this could usher in a new era of doublespeak, where everyone says the right thing, while continuing to throw resources into their one killer app that will undoubtedly save the world. So what now? Is there no recourse other than to pay lip service to the limitations of technological innovations for development?

Addressing the limits and negative impacts of technology for development

One course of action is to tell the more complete truth about technology and development AND do something about it. First, recognize that technology really only magnifies human intent and capabilities. It does not create the desire for education, the drive for entrepreneurship, or the need for political freedom—it amplifies existing intent and capabilities.[1] Second, institutionalize complementary efforts. The effectiveness of technological solutions can only be realized when integrated with other complementary interventions. Talking about Youth Learning, a computer hardware and literacy programme run by computer giant Dell, Deb Bauer, director of Dell Giving, said ‘What we've learnt is that it isn't enough to simply provide the hardware, it's the quality [of] the wrap-around services—the teacher training, maintenance of technology, reliability of power, which provides the long-term benefits…’. Likewise, biometric voting systems to eliminate ghost voters and prevent vote-rigging would produce better outcomes on transparency and accountability when complemented with institution-building in governance.

Pursuing this course of action requires restraint and thoughtful deliberation. Technology advocates have to rein in their impulses for a technological solution to every developmental problem, and consider if they are indeed addressing underlying causes. Case and point, biometric identification systems promise to deliver social equality for the poor but some are doubtful about their effectiveness. The detractors argue that lack of state identification is only a symptom of a complex history of discriminatory political, economic, and social structures. The biometric identity systems may address the marginalization, but only if broader, more difficult reforms undergird their deployment. Rushing into a technological solution risks underwhelming results after extensive resources are mobilized. Such is a surefire way of undermining future goodwill towards ICT solutions for development.

Another course of action is to balance the over-emphasis on positive impacts with research on negative impacts. Studies on how cyber scams take place, or how inner city crime is enabled by mobile phones, may not be a Non-Profit Institution’s (NPI) idea of philanthropy, but they yield insights that can fix broken systems. This concept is not original. White-hat hackers or benevolent hackers prepare public data systems for incursions that will inevitably come. Similarly, instead of assuming that technology will always be used for positive development goals, purposive investigations into the negative uses of technology can bring to light how causes of underdevelopment are perpetuated and how technology can be subverted. Decision makers will then be better informed to develop targeted solutions that can mitigate these negative impacts.

The truth about ICT and development may be an inconvenient one but we are probably better off telling it as it really is. This truth presents technology as double-barreled and complex—not a truth that will find favour in development contexts everywhere. But instead of sandbagging against the downsides of ICT, perhaps the more fruitful approach is to recognize them, accept them, and prepare for them. Despite the complexities of working with technology for development, just imagine doing development work without it.

Han Ei Chew is a Research Fellow at the United Nations University specializing in Information Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D)

[1] The author’s own research on Indian micro-enterprises supports this amplification effect of technology.

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August 2013
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