Digital Development: what’s in a name?

Digital Development: what’s in a name?

Richard Heeks recently asked whether the emerging relationship between digital technology and international development should be referred to as “Digital Development” or “DigitalforDevelopment”. I use these two terms to refer to different things.

This issue of terminology is one that we covered recently as part of the Digital Development Summer School here at IDS. On the course I argued that “Digital Development” is most useful when it is used as a collective term, inclusive of three things: Digital in Development, Digital for Development and Development in a Digital World. I also argued that #ict4d remains the best hashtag for all of the above. Let me explain why…

Digital in Development, for me, refers to the use of digital techologies in the routine (in-house) work of development institutions and actors. By this I mean the use of information and communication technologies by development agencies to increase the internal efficiencies of their work: to cordinate programmes, manage finances, collect data, etc. As development actors continue to digitalise their operations, their application of Digital in Development continues to expand. Examples of Digital in Development include mobile survey tools, health management information systems and real-time monitoring and evaluation systems. Many non-development organisations use these same tools for non-development tasks.

Digital for Development, on the other hand, refers to the conscious design and application of digital tools explicitly for development outcomes and impact. Initiatives in this category include digital apps and platforms designed for development including the thousands of eHealth, mHealth, edtech, fintech, civic tech, eAgriculture and other ICT4D initiatives. Tim Unwin and Dorothea Kleine have argued that the use of the “for Development” language is advantageous because it requires us to be clear about what we mean by development, and what the claimed relationship is between the ICT and the Development outcome. So to answer Richard Heeks’ question, Digital for Development is the term that most directly speaks to the intended relationship between digital and development in international development. 

Development in a Digital World, I would argue, is a more appropriate term for talking about doing international development in an increasgly digitalised context. Whilst we were all busy focusing on bespoke apps and digital devices in the world of ICT4D, the entire social and economic world around us rapidly datafied. This datafication of social interaction, exercise, consumption, political preferences and so many other aspect of social and economic life have profound consequences for international development. The governance implications of data brokers like Cambridge Analytica selling the digital profiles of citizens to shady actors to influence elections, racialise discource, radicalise mindsets, and shape policy debates may already have been more impactful on civic governance than all civic tech to date? The (often unintended) outcomes of digitalisation and the use of Digital-ID and artificial intelligence by companies like Palantir and UN agencies like the WFP to mediate access to social protection, employment and education may already have eclipsed the development impact of applying Digital for Development? So perhaps when Richard Heeks asks us which term best describes the emerging relationship between digital technologies and international development, it may be that the best desciptor is beoming Development in a Digital World?

In passing it may be worth be worth noting that these three areas receive unequal attention from international development actors – and that different actors pay more attention to different areas. After all the use of technology is never neutral and always reflects particular interests. Driven by the need to show efficiency and ‘value for money’, the lion’s share of investment by international development agencies has perhaps been in the application of Digital in Development? On the other hand the majority of researcher and HCI/informatics practioner attention has been consumed by Digital for Development (including the conference series ICTD and ICT4D)? However, it may be that the most compelling issues moving forward are those of doing Development in a Digital World? Certainly more attention will need to be paid to these emerging issues in the years to come.

For these reasons, it seems practical to me to use the name “Digital Development” as a collective term when speaking about the wider field that is inclusive of all of the above. It also seems useful to me to make a distinction between Digital in Development, Digital for Development and Development in a Digital World.

As long as there are academics alive there will be no end to such semantic debate. Mercifully there is more consensus that, despite its admitted faults, the short hashtag #ict4d remains the most effective way to refer to all of the above on social media.

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