ICT for development - musings from the fringes

ICT4D/ICTD - ICT for development - is a new area of research in computing that lots of researchers (myself included) claim to be working in.  so I spent some time trying to understand the nature of this new area.  after speaking to many people, i think three issues need to be addressed: the definition of ICT4D; who benefits from ICT4D research; and the political underpinnings of this area.

firstly, ICT4D is about development.  it is not about ICT in of itself, but about the application of ICT to problems that are about development, like providing clean water to people.  it is therefore technically IT research and not CS research (read ACM's classification of computing disciplines for the difference).  the precise definition of development is also unclear.  development is about making progress in society and it is highly specific to the society that you live in.  development may happen organically or there may be a plan.  in many cases there is a plan (see South Africa's National Development Plan) but there could be insufficient implementation to effect the plan.  development is also an atttribute of all societies, not just poor countries or countries in Africa.

the term "developing world" that we use so often, in the context of this definition, makes no sense because every country is therefore a "developing country".  sure, some countries may at some points in time be stagnating but maybe we should rather call them "stagnating countries" than "developed countries", as there can surely be no end for development.  in the prevailing way of thinking about developing vs. developed, many researchers believe that ICT4D is about research in poor rural areas and townships.  studying poor people is not in of itself research.  novel ways of helping poor people to overcome obstacles in their development could be research.  there are clear ethical issues in doing some kinds of high impact research that benefits the researchers and has no clear benefit (and sometimes even harms) the poor communities.  it may be time for a framework for ethics in ICT4D - related to ethics in development.

finally, i do not believe that development without politics is possible since development agendas are linked to political agendas.  who decided that development is all about medical care and not at all about saving lives by preventing war?  logically this makes no sense, but it serves specific political agendas.  to understand ICT4D, we have to understand international politics and the history of the world, both as it is understood by the ex-colonial powers and the ex-colonies.  trying to define ICT4D outside political frameworks is in fact making a strong statement about specific political frameworks - this is not something ICT4D researchers can and should be engaging in without a good understanding of issues in development.

the agnostic definition of ICT4D leads to unusual effects.  for example, it has emerged that while a lot of ICT4D research appears to be useful in society it only addresses symptoms, not causes.  development is all about human rights, dignity and identity - not only education and medical care.  if we only focus on the latter issues, those societies may be stuck in a constant cycle of needing the same type of development.  are we in fact causing a dependence on ICT4D/development efforts?  do we sufficiently consider the short- and long-term effects on society outside the context of research?

finally, can one truly do ICT4D research with a normative so-called Western view of the world? from what i have seen, i do not think this is possible in Africa, because research has to be done with a deep sense of respect for local society and recognising the deeply-entrenched negative legacies of colonisation.  unfortunately, the field has been defined mostly by people with a so-called Western perspective (who live all over the world).  maybe local research into using ICT for development needs a new name?  Post-colonial ICT?  Historically-informed ICT?  ICT for African development?  maybe just ICT or just development?

hussein (11 september 2013)