Rant in Defense of ICT4D

Erik Hersman is due a great deal of respect for his work with Ushahidi and iHub Nairobi. I am a confirmed fan of both. On a personal level he’s a genuinely nice guy. However, in my humble opinion, his rant on ‘The Subtle Condescension of “ICT4D” includes misapprehensions and misjudgments (as well as some condescension of his own).

I trust that he will not be offended if I just rant right back at him.

Actually my guess is that Erik is mischievously trying to court controversy in order to stimulate debate. Otherwise why would someone with a problem with “ICT4D” be featuring the advertising logos of ‘ICTD’, ‘Web4Dev’, ‘Tech4Africa’ etc. so prominently on their own blog?

Erik builds his entire argument upon the premise that the term “ICT4D” is used only about Africa & Asia, and that for this reason, the use of the term is condescending and hypocritical. This is a false premise. It is a misapprehension that the term ICT4D is only used about Africa & Asia. The term ICT4D is frequently used about initiatives in the UK and elsewhere, as well as about initiatives that are global in nature.

Erik attends more ICT4D events than almost anyone else, so I am absolutely sure that he has heard about ICT4D initiatives outside of Africa & Asia as well global ICT4D projects. Erik was at the recent Power of Information ICT4D event in London so I know that he is familiar with projects such as MySociety, TalkAboutLocal and FixMyStreet here in the UK.

Scrolling through the #ICT4D posts on Twitter is also a quick way to locate initiatives not about Africa or Asia but which are global in character. #ICT4D includes the latest in debates around ICT & Climate Change, Open Data and Open Access as well as many other global concerns which are neither focused on, nor confined to, Africa and Asia.

As @phat_controller I use the hashtag #ICT4D to tweet information on rural internet access in the UK as well as on using social media to mobilise community activism in the UK – including applications of Ushahidi for London Transport and London Riots.

Twitter aside, there is plenty of other evidence of ICT4D activity outside Africa and Asia. This month’s London ICT4D Group meeting is a presentation by, and discussion of AppsForGood a non-profit that enables young people in UK schools to build mobile apps to change their world.

Another UK example would be the ICT4D agency Computer Aid International which has provided hundreds of computers to education and community development initiatives in England and Wales on exactly the same basis that it provides them to non-profits in Latin America and Africa.

The third fundamental flaw with Erik’s blogpost is his proposed solution of ICT4$. He says “We have to think less of ICT as something about development, and more of it as a commercial venture. We need more focus on ICT4$ than ICT4D”.

I am especially grateful to Erik for giving me this excellent opportunity to inject a little bit of politics into the ICT4D debate and to use this rant to get a couple of other things off my chest…..

The problem with relying on commerce is that the ‘free’ market is fundamentally flawed; for 300 years it has abjectly failed to meet the needs of millions of people at the periphery. Whilst elites in capital cities enjoy relative opulence, marginalised communities are unable to secure adequate nutrition, basic healthcare or human rights. These divides continue to widen. In response people form not-for-profit organisations to have their voices heard and their community development needs addressed; sometimes employing ICT for these Developmental ends. Not-for-profits exist because of the failure of markets.

ICT4$ alone is not capable of fixing this problem.

Here in London inequality is growing rapidly. The average pay rise of CEOs was 49% this year at a time when three million have been made unemployed and our healthcare, education and pension funds are being looted by government to pay for bankers bonuses and bailouts following the the havoc caused by casino capitalism.

The violence wrought by the free-market condemns marginalised communities to suffer systemic unemployment, inadequate healthcare and piss-poor education; yet people continue to resist through their collective agency. Some sneer at the word ‘charity’ but not-for-profit organisations are how ordinary people organise to proactively redress the indignities and deprivations suffered by their families and by their neighbours. They work hard to raise funds through public subscription to fund their work, and they use the legal vehicle of a registered ‘charity’ to avoid paying tax on that donated income. The objective of their organisation may be to address hunger, oppose slavery, tackle violence against women, challenge a hospital closure, or to build social housing.

When communities refuse to accept injustice and deprivation and form associations of solidarity with those at risk we should give them our respect. If they seek practical assistance in applying ICT for Development we should offer whatever assistance we are able. There will often be a positive role for ICT in community development.

ICT4D alone, of course, is not capable of fixing the system.

Most would agree that the development funding that Ushahidi receives is ‘a good thing’ as was DFID start-up funding for m-Pesa. Building support and recognition for the role for ICT in Development has taken twenty years of hard work. Obtaining the support of funders was extremely difficult in the 1990s and it should not be taken for granted today. I would caution that it may prove to be a misjudgement to now fracture the community of support and practice that exists around “ICT4D” by getting dragged into internecine semantic strife – simply to replace ICT4D with some other – inevitably flawed – term.

If it has taught us anything at all, twenty years of ‘post-modernist discourse’ has at least demonstrated that literally any term can be endlessly deconstructed, with no discernible overall benefit.

“ICT4D” is imperfect as a name, but then so are others including @whiteafrican or @phat_controller.

The word ‘Development’ simply means advancing from an imperfect situation to an improved one: this can be with respect to education, healthcare, physical safety or democratic rights. These are things that we are all at pains to secure for our own children, and should prize equally for our neighbours’ children. I am confident that ICT has a valuable part to play in the process of development: amplifying the voice and agency of marginalised communities and enabling them to hold government to account, amongst other key areas.

In closing I would counter Erik’s closing remark about ICT4$ by suggesting that “We have to think less of ICT as a way of making money and more of ICT as a tool for development”. 

Maybe we should judge people by their deeds and not by their hashtags.

Posted in Computer Aid International, Development, ICT4D | Tagged | 3 Comments

Appropriating Technology via Rural Hackspaces

In his recent blog-post Emeka Okafor raised the issue of appropriate technology and illustrated the concept with case studies.

According to Rolfe Leary’s article, appropriate technology is defined as “a simple technology created for, but not by, the people“.

Compared to the practice of international technology transfer that it eclipsed, appropriate technology was a progressive form of technology for development. Rather than transferring capital-intensive technologies from industrialised countries, appropriate technology practitioners consciously set out to design technology appropriate, as they saw it, to the needs of non-industrialised countries.

Although progressive relative to technology transfer, appropriate technology remained fundamentally flawed in at least two respects. In the first place the appropriate technology movement was premised on a belief that the solution was technology and they thus operated with a ‘technological imperative’ to improve whatever already exists through the application of new technology. Secondly the technology solution was almost invariably devised, designed and delivered by foreign experts – especially in the early decades.

Today we find both failings in some ICT4D practice. Both errors – starting with technology rather than community, and locating power in the hands of foreign experts – disables local people. We need to improve our practice in both regards.

If the appropriate technology movement (or ICT4D) relies for its solutions on engineers in London or Washington who have been socialised in technocratic cultures and who live in industrialised economies, then we should not be surprised if they continue to prescribe technical fixes for development; nor should we be surprised if those solutions often misjudge local priorities, fail to reflect local custom and practices, or prove to be unaffordable or otherwise unsustainable.

In order to create truly ‘appropriate technology’ we must take an altogether different approach to ICT4D – one which from the outset is community-owned and directed, and where decision-making power, resources, and capacity are located as near as possible to intended the site of development. Rather than transferring technologies internationally ICT4D agencies might think constructively about transferring the location of their HQ, decision-making, and budget-holdings to developing countries?

A re-engineered ICT4D should aim to avoid dependency on foreign experts, donors or institutions, and instead set out to develop participatory people-processes that enable communities to define their own development objectives, priorities and activities. To reduce dependencies there is also a need to build operational capacity in the field that is able to innovate new solutions to development challenges – or appropriate and modify (hack) existing solutions according to identified needs.

One possible way to build such delivery capacity is to use the kind of hackspaces and iHubs that are gaining such popularity worldwide. Hackspaces are places equipped with engineering tools and workspaces where people can meet, share skills and work on collaborative projects. iHubs are similar except that they focus on software development projects. Hackspaces provide a vibrant community of makers, engineers and tinkers able to learn from and teach each other the practical skills of manufacture and production.

ICT4D agencies could set up rural hackspaces and iHubs and employ engineering and development graduates from African universities to hack solutions to community-defined problems. Regular opportunities to share experience and expertise with co-creators from other communities would need to be a feature to enable cross-pollination and diffusion. This could be facilitated through open-days, volunteering schemes and hacker-in-residence programs. Rural Hackspace R&D teams could work on community-identified challenges such as alternative power for rural areas, open-source adaptive technologies for the disabled, or irrigation pumps for arid areas..

Instead of running apps4dev competitions out of UN agencies with sponsorship from multi-national corporations, ICT4D agencies could run Maker Faires and Hackathons in rural Africa, catalysing creative solutions to rural problems, and building sustainable capacity to address development challenges. One example of work in this vein is the establishment of an Ubuntu Campus in rural Macha in Zambia’s Southen Province in collaboration with the University of Zambia (UNZA).

I believe that a Rural Hackspace would result in indigenous solutions that are grounded in an appreciation of the local operating environment: context, culture and markets. I think that enabling people to appropriate technology for development would be a powerful way to build self-reliance and local capabilities.

Instead of running apps competitions in New York judged by corporate CEOs let the communities around the Rural Hackspace award their own prizes to the solutions that they have most reason to value.

Posted in Africa, Development, ICT4D | 4 Comments

How to End All eWaste

As previously posted it is certain that every one of the six billion mobile phones produced so far will need to be recycled, along with the 2.6 billion radios, two billion TVs and over a billion computers. The list of electrical and electronic equipment in use goes on and on…….

Every country on earth is consuming many millions of items of electrical and electronic equipment but almost none have put in place effective end-of-life solutions. This task is extremely urgent if the environment is to be protected and human health preserved.

Original equiment manufacturers (OEMs) have an ethical duty and social responsibility to deal with the environmental damage caused by their products. Within the European Union OEMs already have a legal liability and financial responsibility to fund re-use and end-of-life recycling for all Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment as dictated by the WEEE Directive of the European Parliament.

Having accepted this legal responsibility within Europe there is no moral defence for not providing the same end-of-life recycling facilities in all other countries where their products are sold inluding in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

This week Computer Aid International, an organisation that I used to be CEO of, published an excellent introductory guide for citizens concerned to move this environmental agenda forward in any country. The PDF version of “How to end all eWaste” is free to download here.

Computer Aid is just completing a project to build the advocacy capacity of civil society in three countries to lobby government to build eWaste recycling facilities with funds from the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

In summary the six-point plan to end all eWaste is:

1. Ban the import and export of e-waste.
2. Ban the landfill and other dumping of e-waste.
3. Prioritise reuse over recycling as reuse is 20 times more energy-efficient.
4. Compel e-waste recycling through licensed & inspected operators.
5. Compel OEMs to fund end-of-life e-waste management.
6. Enforce it – monitor enforcement and punish environmental crime.

This is not rocket science. OEMs already fund best practice in Europe. There is no excuse for delaying provision of recycling to the same high standards in North America, Africa and the rest of our fragile planet.

Posted in Africa, Computer Aid International, eWaste & GreenIT | 5 Comments

Development as Struggle

In her recent ODI blog post, “What Egypt tells us that development discourse doesn’t?”, Lisa Denny points out that ‘people’s resistance & solidarity’ will have a greater positive effect on the country’s development than all of the planned interventions of governments and external agencies.

I agree and feel that is as it should be. For me, “What Egypt tells us that development discourse doesn’t”, is that people themselves are the motor force of history, and that people’s organisations are the vehicle of change. It has always been thus.

In the UK, women’s suffrage, comprehensive education, and a national health service (free at the point of delivery) were not gifts from above, but were the hard-fought gains of decades of people’s struggle to realise the freedoms and capabilities they most valued.

Islington Suffragettes 1908

Like the UK quest for women’s suffrage, the ‘sudden’ Egyptian uprising of #Jan25 was the result of many years of work by community activists, in youth organisations, workplaces, mosques and churches. The Kefaya movement had mobilised street protests against Mubarak’s continuation since 2005, there was a sustained series of workers’ movement, sit-ins and sleep-outs from 2008-2010, and the 6th April Youth Movement, founded in 2008 to support the 6th April strike, progressively transformed itself into the popular political movement famous for using Facebook  as one in building support for the popular struggle.

It is ironic that just when the UK government is at great pains to feign support for people’s uprisings in the Arab world, DFID announced that it was shutting down the Civil Society Challenge Fund. The CSCF was a multi-million pound budget used, inter alia, for building the capacity of people’s organisations to advocate for human rights and hold their governments accountable.

Twenty years ago we were able to secure DFID Civil Society funds for work with the Movimiento Comunal Nicaragüense under the revolutionary Sandinista government, as well as with the South African National Civic Organisation, whose members put their lives on the line to bring down apartheid. Securing funds for this kind of work today would be, shall we say, ‘problematic’. The development discourse has been effectively depoliticised.

The discourse of struggle organisations has also moved on. Kefaya and other key movement structures in Egypt took a principled decision not to accept any external foreign funding following their analysis that such funding had distorted and corrupted other civil society structures.

Right now, European and US agencies are falling over themselves to be seen to be working with Arab civil society structures, yet the vanguard of the Egyptian movement has no appetite for aid. Perhaps what Egypt also demonstrates is that the development discourse has become increasingly irrelevant to those activists focused on delivering lasting and meaningful change.

In Latin America too it is actually Venezuela, ostracised by the OECD, that has succeeded in provided 17 million citizens with free health care & halved extreme poverty, Ecuador and Nicaragua are refusing the neo-liberal prescription of the IMF & World Bank, and Bolivia has actually expelled USAID.

Tahrir Square Protester 2011

As Lisa Denny concludes in her post, the development discourse needs to focus more on ‘why things change’ and on the ‘potential for bottom-up change’.

In the UK at least, the development discourse has shied away from discussing political struggle for two decades. The events of 1989 put progressive activists on the back-foot and (whilst a period of reflection is positive) the development discourse has suffered from the lack of any progressive political critique.

Now however, people’s organisations in Africa and Latin America are on the front-foot, demanding freedoms, an end to corruption and, in Egypt at least, political revolution.

It seems to me that the development discourse needs to ‘get with the programme’ and incorporate the politics of social change and people’s struggles to secure their rights and freedoms. To be considered relevant, the development discourse should reflect the critiques of neo-liberalism and US Imperialism that informs new social movements, as well as learning from their innovations of tools and techniques of community mobilisation and action.

Mubarak has moved on, but the regime remains intact. Today the country is being run by the military; a military funded by the USA to the tune of US$1 billion per year. Perhaps this other form of aid dependency will yet determine the outcome?

On the upside, change in Egypt could result in a progressive new political dispensation that genuinely reflects the will of the people; on the downside we could see Egypt’s US-funded military shepherd the installation of a new puppet government subservient to the will of Washington/Israel). The outcome is far from certain at this point.

Lisa Denny is 100% right to point out that ‘people’s resistance & solidarity’ will have a greater positive effect on the country’s development than all of the planned interventions of governments and external agencies.

Whether Egyptians gain new freedoms and capabilities, or continue to suffer unfreedoms and structural underdevelopment, as pawns in a wider political and economic struggle, will be determined by people’s resistance and solidarity.

Development discourse ought not be neutral to the outcome. We should be engaged in debate about how best way to provide solidarity to people’s struggles, and how to empower those community activists in youth organisations and workplaces that drive change, in order that people can attain the freedoms and capabilities that they have reason to value.

The discourse urgently needs an injection of politics; without one it will continue to wither and become increasingly irrelevant to development.

Posted in Development | 1 Comment

Why Apps can’t Transform Society

The nice folk at ICTworks are plugging WikiReader again & are asking:
“Is WikiReader the Killer App that will transform the developing world?”.

Well, the answer is a resounding “No”. WikiReader is a neat gadget but like any other gadget already invented, or yet-to-come, we can be 100% certain that it is not going to “transform the developing world”.

Development is not a commodity that some foreign dudes can manufacture by burning a bunch of information onto a read-only device.

Transforming education (or agriculture, or whole societies) is not susceptible to a technical fix; you can’t just ship the latest gadget, stand back, and wait for the magic to happen.

Where genuine transformation has been achieved it has generally required a long-term commitment to sustain the training and professional development of teachers (or agricultural extension workers, or community activists).

Research on other technology-push programmes in ICT for Education supports the idea that realising the potential benefits of educational technology requires refocusing on the agency of the teachers and learners by investing in teacher training, learning materials, and curriculum support.

There is no silver bullet that can overcome centuries of structural underdevelopment – not in education and not in society more widely.

Radical social transformation necessarily involves overcoming resistance from those with vested interests in preserving the status quo. Previous experience tells us that overcoming entrenched opposition requires that women and men come together to work as agents of change, winning over new recruits to the cause, and build a constituency for change that becomes irresistible.

In pursuit of transformation, educators and social activists will always make best use of whatever information and communication technologies are accessible to them. Educators will use chalk boards or computers as available; agricultural extension workers will draw diagrams in the dirt or use mobile phones as appropriate; community activists will use pamphlets and megaphones alongside Twitter and Facebook.

As previously posted whenever people combine together, intent on social change, ICT can help: be it in advocacy work to build a constituency for change, or to coordinate supporters in direct action as part of a wider struggle.

The point however is that the agency in transformational change is never technological; in social change the agent is always human.

As the @ict4djester, Kentaro Toyamo says, without human action technology is just a ‘hunk of junk’, yet when applied purposefully by people seeking social change technology will amplify existing human capacity and intent.

The WikiReader is not a bad thing but creating the illusion that gadgets can transform the world is. To suggest that “killer apps” can “transform the developing world” is to offer false hope, and to divert attention from the real need, which is to focus on local people’s needs, agency, and capacity.

Local people, not foreign gadgets, are the agents of transformative change. Technical artifacts cannot create history; only people who are politically conscious and acting in unison have that potential.

Social change will not come in a box with batteries and instructions.

Teacher Training in Chikanta, Zambia

Posted in Africa, Development, ICT4D | 21 Comments

Top Ten ICT4D Conferences 2011

OK the final results are in and so, according to popular acclaim, this the official Top Ten ICT4D Conferences of 2011:    *drum-roll*


May 16-20th, Geneva: WSIS Forum 2011

May 22-25th, Nepal: Partners for Development – ICT Actors and Actions

May 25-27th, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania: e-Learning Africa

June 6-9th, Cape Town, South Africa: Mobile Health Summit

Aug 1-3rd, New Delhi, India: eWorld Forum

Sep 5-8th, The Hague, Netherlands: HDCA, Development as Freedom

Sep 12-13th, Lugano, Switzerland: IPID 2011 ICT4D Symposium

Oct 26-28th, Lima, Peru: 5th Development Informatics Assoc

Nov 16-17th, Nepal: 4th ICT for Development & Education conference

Mar 12-16, 2012, Atlanta: ICTD 2012


OK so ICTD 2012 is clearly not in 2011, but it looks like being their largest ever, so we put the rule book to one side and let it sneak in.


Top Ten compiled with help from @trucano @jcdonner and @DGateway and drawn from sources including the original @ICTlogy Event Calendar for ICT4D and the massive @ICTWorks  Technology, ICT4D and International Development Conference Calendar.

Thanks to all.

Posted in Africa, Development, ICT4D | 3 Comments

Reply to Bill Easterly

In his recent blog post entitled 2500 years of Development Professor Bill Easterly argues that “for most of history, things were mainly happening along the line between Birmingham and Baghdad,” as represented by the lights on Gareth Lloyd’s new video which geo-locates Wikipedia mentions of events between 498 BC and 2011 AD on a world map.

Perhaps Professor Easterly is being tendentious in order to court controversy but nonetheless this fallacious and offensive claim should not go unchallenged.

Development has not been Eurocentric; regrettably much written and taught about development history has been.

Whilst the lights from Birmingham to Baghdad shine brightly in the video, the map has almost no illumination to reflect the cultural achievements and great trading network of Mayan civilisation, nor the agricultural and engineering advancements of the Inca; nor the great city states and military empire forged by the Aztecs.

Development in China far outstripped that of Europe for many centuries during the European Middle Ages – yet this is not well reflected. For much of the millennium between the fall of the Roman Empire and the end of the Ming Dynasty, Europe was a development backwater when compared to China – as any encyclopaedic comparison of “Ming Dynasty” with “Dark Ages” will attest.

In relative terms wikipedians have also poorly represented developments within Africa including the great trading Empire of Ghana, the military and expansive Mali Empire, and the Songhai Empire with its thousands of learned university graduates. If wikipedians had documented the development of African states, religions and wars as effectively as they have those of Europe the video would then tell a different story with illumination to reflect the great opulence of the Ashanti as well as the monumental achievements of Great Zimbabwe, a city at the centre of a trading network that extended as far as India and China.

For the record: Birmingham in 1086 was a small village officially valued at 20 shillings in the Doomsday Book produced that year, and remained no more than a small market town until well into the 1500s. Timbuktu on the other hand, was twice the size of London, though small compared to other cities in the Mali Empire; it was a centre of scholastic learning, at the heart of an empire larger than the whole of Western Europe.

Mentions of events in the English version of Wikipedia do not equal development in any meaningful way; measuring mentions of events in Wikipedia is not even close to an effective proxy for development.

What mentions of events in the English version of Wikipedia do accurately mirror are the biases and discriminations of our existing educational system including its view of history as the actions of great Europeans; wikipedians are themselves products of that flawed education system so, whilst disappointing, it is perhaps not surprising that they reflect the same prejudices and cultural blinkers as their university professors.

No doubt if we measured ‘mentions of inventions’ on Wikipedia we would find that it reduces the history of technology to a succession of heroic (white male) inventors. Prof. Easterly might then produce this as evidence that women play an inconsequential role in history: again reproducing the prejudices and discriminations of history as currently taught.

White male professors dominate the reproduction of history in universities in Europe and the USA. Men write 87% of Wikipedia contributions. Wikipedia evidences a worldview in which Africa is less important that Europe and women are less important men. Thus are reproduced exactly the prejudices and discriminations that ‘justify’ and lead to inequality and underdevelopment.

Geoff Lloyd’s video helps us to better understand the glaring omissions and prejudices in currently production of history and the representation of development.

We have a long way to go to remove racial and gender prejudice from the historical record; the task is urgent. We must hope that the next generation of university Professors and wikipedians will better reflect the true diversity of society and social development.

Posted in Africa, Development | Leave a comment