Death of ICT4D 'Greatly Exaggerated'

Upon reading his own obituary in the New York Times, Mark Twain famously declared that, "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated!".


Ken Banks has been busy sounding the death knell of ICT4D for several years now, and this week James BonTempo joined him, blogging what he claims to be a time-line of "The Slow Death of ICT4D". In my humble opinon these reports of the death of ICT4D are greatly exaggerated.


There seems to be plenty of evidence that ICT4D is not merely alive but actively flourishing (and I mean both ICT4D 'the discipline' as well as use of the term). Since Ken began foretelling the imminent demise of ICT4D the number of undergrad and postgrad university courses has blossomed alongside a continued multiplication of ICT4D conferences, workshops and meet-up groups. The number of ICT4D programmes, apps, projects and initiatives is increasing and has expanded employment opportunities in ICT4D spawning at least one dedicated recruitment service and a significant increase in ICT4D post-holder at international organisations. There is also an ever-expanding list of ICT4D websites, blogs and publications.


So if this evidence seems compelling, what then are the reasons for the continued vibrancy of ICT4D? I believe that reports of the death of ICT4D are premature for at least three reasons:


1. Technology always has been – and always will be - at the heart of human development.

If, as I blogged previously, 'development is the application of human resources, knowledge and technology to solve human problems', then it follows that technology has always been a central component of human development – and it always will be. (Try to think of any social development in history that you value, which was accomplished without the use of any kind of technology). Information and communication technologies are simply the latest phase in this continuum of applying the best of the tools available to improve human circumstances.


2. ICTs offer far greater possibilities than previous technologies.

Where ICTs trump previous generations of technology is in their unlimitted flexibility and applicability, enabling our personal computer to be, at the same time, our phone / clock / shopping / dating / publishing / printing / conferencing platform..... Because the micro-processor at the heart of all digital ICTs is a universal Turing-machine we can program - and endlessly reprogram - it to do absolutely anything that humans can conceive of and are able to articulate in a sofware programme. For this reason the truth is that we have barely begun to explore, let alone to achieve, the vast scope that exists for applying ICTs to the myriad aspects of human development. The true potential of ICT4D remains largely untapped; far from being on its last legs ICT4D may still be in its infancy.


3. There will be no 'end of development'.

Ken Banks has declared the demise, not only of ICT4D, but also of INGOs and of 'development' itself. It is fair to criticise many aspects of the 'development industrial complex' but people's struggle for their own development must continue. In my humble opinion Ken's proclamations of the imminent demise of ICT4D is no more credible than Bell's assertion of the 'end of ideology' or Fukuyama's proclamation of the 'end of history'. Unjust social realities demand that people continue to dream of a better life, and to act collectively in the world to pursue developments that they value. The gap between the opulence of tiny national elites and the disadvantaged majorities continues to grow across the world, and the free-market mechanism continues to prove itself inadequate in providing a decent life to billions at the base of the pyramid. So organised development efforts must continue.


People in all countries have always strived for better social and economic circumstances and acted collectively in pursuit of a better life. In their struggle for development people will continue to appropriate and make practical use of those technologies available to them. The widening diffusion of information and communication technologies and the ability of ICTs to amplify the capacity and intent of those engaged in development work assures the on-going role of ICT4D.


Thanks for your comment Joseph.
I read with interest your own paper advocating the use of mobile apps for farmers in Zimbabwe
In my opinion that would be a good example of the use of information and commincation technologies for (agricultural) development.
For other see ICT4D

Hi Gertjan, you and I have had this conversation many times so you know that I share your frustration! Far more needs to be done to address these inequities. However I think that you also over-claim. It would be a diservice to the many ICT4D scholars and practitioners in 'the South' to suggest that ICT4D is 'not a subject in 'the South''; as to do so would only further frustrate their efforts to appropriate the debate.

To my knowledge there are university courses in ICT4D in many countries including South Africa, India, Malaysia and Bangladesh. In Africa I am aware of several specialised ICT4D research organisations including GRACE, iHub Research, Research ICT Africa, as well as the pan-African 'Local Governance and ICTs Research Network for Africa' (LOG-in) at the University of Nairobi. There must be many others that I omit? I am also aware of funders who make ICT4D grants available only to Africa organisations including Indigo Trust, Hivos and OSISA and many hundreds of ICT4D projects and programmes initiated and managed by practitioners in 'the South'. I know that you have been involved in such projects and research yourself.

This response is not intended to be a denial of the real power imbalances that currently exist in setting global agendas nor is it intended as an apology for the errors of the 'development industry complex'. My intention is only to deny that ICT4D doesn't exist in 'the South' and to draw attention to some heterodox organisations that do exist and are making a difference.

Hi Pamela. Thanks for your comment. Like many areas there is often disconnect between some academics and some practioners (as well as some significant distrust, jealousy and hostility!). I guess the political economies of the two ecosystems reward different outputs and push them in different directions? Luckily for your organisation the 'Dada' of Dadamatic is Dr. John Dada PhD, MPH, RN, DipHE and he is able to comfortably manage his research output alongside his practitioner work. 

Thanks for your comment Richard. You are clearly right that the context is continually changing - politically, economically, geographically as well as in terms of the new technologies in play. This historical perspective is valuable. Hopefully now that we are beyond the hype of the MDG era there will be space for more sober assessments? I think that seeing ICT4D from this more historical perspective helps us both to make better use of the learning and experience of the (pre-ICT) 'technology for development' practioners/scholars as well as to see clearly through the 'end-of-history' claims of the 'death of ICT4D'. 

Thanks for highlighting these open courseware materials for schools.


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