All ICT4D is Political
Emily Shaw wrote a great blog this week about 'Civic Tech', which, in case you have been living in a cave for the last year, is the new lingo for the field of 'citizen technology for social change'. Handily those nice people at the Knight Foundation have produced a jazzy animated visualisation of the whole 'civic tech' field here. If you haven't read Emily's piece you might want to read that before reading this.
I love Emily's post, not least because she dares to use seemingly 'banned' words like 'politics', 'privilege' and 'power', but also because she implicitly asks whether civic tech is a movement of genuine transformatory substance, that we have reason to value, or just a carnival of ever-newer ways to reproduce existing privilege. At stake is whether civic tech (or ICT4D) ultimately acts to reinforce existing structures of power and (dis)advantage, or whether it has the potential to actually transform them.
The public discourse about ICT4D tends to avoid mentioning unfashionable subjects like 'politics', 'privilege' and 'power'. This is despite the reality that all ICT4D & civic tech is inevitably political, by virtue of the fact that its central concern is the distribution of resources. Emily quotes political scientist Harold Lasswell as saying that 'the central function of politics is to distribute power: to determine who gets what, how and when. 'Development', it seems to me, is necessarily about rebalancing the availability of resources between North and South, rural and urban, male and female. ICT4D is also political in the sense that it always produces benefits unevenly across geographies but also unevenly across divisions of gender, 'race'-ethnicity and class-caste. None of our initiatives is equally available to all people everywhere; no initiative delivers equal benefits to all people everywhere; as a result every ICT4D initiative benefits some over others. For these reasons no civic tech or ICT4D initiative can reasonably be considered 'neutral'. All ICT4D has political outcomes.
This is not to say that all ICT4D initiatives are conceived with a consciously political intent - or that practitioners are always conscious of the political outcomes being produced. Often we are not. But whether the outcomes are intended or unintended - all ICT4D initiatives inevitably (dis)advantage some people in relation to others. The danger for practitioners who do not consciously consider the politics of their initiatives is that they may produce most unwelcome outcomes. An e-Agriculture initiative, for example, may be conceived in Cambridge with the intent of advantaging rural farmers in Tanzania. However if the initiative is designed and implemented uncritically and without conscious consideration of the politica interests at play in the target community, it may unwittingly serve vested interests; it may for example increase the wealth and power of male farmers from an elite ethnic group, whilst further entrenching the deprivation of women from minority ethnic groups. To protect against such possibilities the best defence is to analyse the power interests in play and clarify the political intent of ICT4D initiatives by deliberating at regular intervals with the most informed people, closest to the situation i.e. the 'intended beneficiaries'.
All of which brings us to the issue of 'critical intent', or in the terms of Emily's blog, “Who are we intending to benefit”; “What are the main problems to solve?”; and “How do we know if that's the real problem?”. Should we limit our intent to helping people to solve problems relating to their immediate practical needs, for food, education and income, or should our intent be expanded to include helping people to address the root-causes of those problems; addressing strategic interests?. For if we confine ourselves to addressing only the former – even if we are 100% successful, 100% of the time – without addressing the root-causes then inequality will continue to be reproduced, such that a rural underclass of women will always be under-privileged and structurally disadvantaged in relation to urban elite men.
There has been an enormous proliferation of civic technology and ICT for Development initiatives in recent years. Not all of it has involved the 'intended beneficiaries' in conscious analysis and prioritisation of their 'development' needs - and the root-causes of those problems - alongside technologists and project designers. I believe that improving the process of our initiatives in this way, to involve all stakeholders in critical analysis - of both immediate practical needs and their underlying structural causes - is key to improving the outcomes of our initiatives. Without critically conscious deliberation to inform the intent of initiatives their political outcomes may simply add to the disadvantage of already underprivileged groups.
P.S. Maybe rather than categorising technology projects by function and sector, it would be helpful to also map them in terms of their intent and the interest that they serve? But then that is a blog for another day...