Is a Transformist ICT4D Possible?
Comment about ICT4D tends to be either celebratory hype or entirely negative criticism. Both extremes tend to be based on assumptions that are uncritical about exactly what we mean by development, as well as about the relationship between ICTs on the one hand and development on the other. At least that is the conclusion of several influential reviews of the ICT4D field by such luminaries as Chrisanthi Avergerou, Richard Heeks and Geoff Walsham.
An alternative approach is however gaining some traction. Tim Unwin took a more critical approach in his 2009 book called, simply, “ICT4D” and Yingqin Zheng & Bernd Stahl , Dorothea Kleine and Ineke Buskens are amongst a growing list of those taking a more critical view. This critical approach to ICT4D draws increasingly on critical theory from the South, critical feminism and intersectionality.
This week at the ICTD2015 conference in Singapore and next week at the Computers for Social Responsibility Conference (IFIP9.4) in Sri Lanka, along with my 'Punk ICT4D' co-conspirators Tigist Shewarega and Sammia Poveda we are asking “Is a Transformative ICT4D possible?”
In pursuit of the same aim Tim Unwin and Ineke Buskens have employed Jurgen Habermas' concept of knowledge constitutive interests as part of their approach. Habermas argues that three fundamental human drives or interests give rise to the three recognisable research paradigms. Whilst it is possible to use any methods in any research approach, it is still useful to see the three main research approaches as characterised by particular methods.
In her framework for gender and development research produced for IDRC, Ineke Buskens uses these three categories of research methods and intersects them with her three categories of research intent: 'conformist', 'reformist' and 'transformist', to provide a useful framework for gender and development research. Ineke's framework serves as a neat tool for researchers who want to align their choices about research method with their research intent - that is the work they want their research to do in the real world.
For Ineke, some research has conformist intent in that it aims to produce knowledge in order to understand how women can best cope or adapt to existing unequal gender relations and the structural power interests that support them.
The second category of reformist research intent aims to produce knowledge in order to understand how to reform existing unequal gender relationships – but does so without addressing the underlying structural power interests, the root-causes that give rise to and support those unequal relations.
The third category of transformist researcher intent aims to enable women to produce knowledge themselves so that they can better understand existing unequal gender relations and the structural power interests that support them, to enable them to transform both.
In my gender and development research in Zambia I found Ineke's framework extremely useful , but I also think, suitably adapted, it has application both beyond gender and beyond research.
So I am working on appropriating Ineke's gender research framework to adapt it for use by ICT4D practitioners and researchers.
Typology of ICT4D Practice
By intersecting Ineke's three categories of intent with Habermas' three categories of human interest it is possible to produce a typology of ICT4D initiatives.
The logic represented is that the human drive for technical control over the world produces top-down, technological fixes that aim to use technology to produce development change. In its most crude form this technology-centred approach to development sees provision of 'technology as development'.
On the other hand the human interest in communicative understanding calls for ICT4D initiatives that see 'communication as development' and includes initatives such as independent news media platforms or eAgriculture information plaftforms as development solutions.
The third fundamental human interest in emancipation from domination sees development as a process centred on disadvantaged people themselves appropriating technology in the service of their own initiatives to transform the constraints that limit their freedoms.
Any one of these three approaches to development, or ICT4D practices, can be either conformist, reformist or transformist, and there can be good reason to value ICT4D initiatives in any of the nine types represented in the typology.
I see this typology of ICT4D practices as a tool to help practitioners to think and talk about their project intent, and possible practices, with all stakeholders in ways that may help them to align project design and operational practices with their practical intent – that is what they really want their ICT4D initiatives to accomplish in the real world. For example, if we considered an ICT4D initiative like One Laptop Per Child or a government-designed national Health Information Management System, we might find it reasonable to characterise the initiative as conformist and technology-centric and to use this as a starting point to discuss in what ways we might makes the intitiave more human-centred or to ask how it might contribute to reformist efforts to change unequal social relations.
The claim being made for this typology is modest. It is only intended as a tool for initiating a conversation – for talking and thinking about practitioner intent and practices. The typology is of course too simplistic to represent the full complexity of social reality or multi-dimensional development programmes. In real life ICT4D projects will straddle categories across dimensions.
The typology however may have some heuristic value as a means to include all stakeholders in an on-going conversation about development intent and practice in ICT4D project during the different elements in the project cycle from design, implementation and evaluation.