Rant in Defence 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.


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