Making ICTs work in spite of hegemony

This will be my last entry for the time being in, what I hope, has been a series of blogs that somehow follows a linear path in my understanding of the expansive role information and communication technologies (ICTs) play in ‘doing development’. Moving from intent, to influence and finally impact, the musings which I have scrawled have helped me to, at the very least, organise my thoughts on how NGOs and the like work with the technologies and new media which have come to dominate our lives (at least here in the West, the ‘Developed world’)..

And it is on this note that caution must be offered. For all the advantages and benefits that ICTs can bring to development, it is still fundamentally being administered by the West, the Global North, the First World. Post-development critique rightly grounds us with its forthright assertion that Western interests guide how the ideology of development is socially constructed (Escobar, 1995). When the vast majority of production, consumption and distribution of ICTs derives from the West, then there will inevitably be hegemony at play, or ‘technological benevolence’ if we are trying to be nice to ourselves. Further questions arise: Do power asymmetries increase or decrease (Fuchs, 2014)? Does this hegemony lead to mainstreaming which tends to overlook cultural context? Does it meaningfully expand participation or merely reflect and reinforce various status differences (Manning, 2012: 3)?


None of these questions are new, and all of this is no doubt being thought about by those in the field. But these points, and countless others, must act as sobering reminders to ICT4D theorists and practitioners alike that, as usual, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Limitations of ICTs in development include computer literacy, sustainability and lack of infrastructure. When there are few policies in place for ICT learning or insufficient bandwidth capacity for widespread internet use then adaptations and compromises need to be made. Knowledge surrounding internet security and privacy is something very much that too must be on the agenda in countries where online exploitation of children remains a massive problem. And considering we in the West can’t remain private online – in spite of such things as law – then we should maybe be wary of exporting all the glorious wonders we possess.

Lastly, I want to remember what the aim of ICTs for development are. Is it to bridge the digital divide? To give Minecraft to the indigenous of the Amazon? Or is it about helping the poor and the marginalised, the communities mired in inequity? About utilising the technological advancements of our time in order to bring social, political and economic development to those most in need? With them in control! We’ll see.

Let’s hope the poet Gertrude Stein was wrong when she said ‘Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense’.

3 Comments

  1. Sisil Benjaro

    There is -with no doubt- a host of cases where ICTs are used by humanitarian actors to empower people and enhance their participation in the development process, however, the focus with the use of these technologies in the majority of the programs is more related to make a better control of the resources e.g. to increase benefit with less costs, reduce corruption risks, enhance transparency etc.
    The kinds of projects that use ICTs as a tool to enhance people’ participation are challenging ones as programmers need to deal with the many contextual blockers (pointed out in your post) that can hinder the practice. Not many NGOs have the capability or the resources to go through such a long-term process, so they focus more on utilizing ICTs to save time and money, and consequently fulfill their donors’ requirements about being efficient with their expenditures.

  2. Manuela

    Steve, you are right in saying that the guiding principle should be that “there is no one-size-fits-all solution”. A big problem with ICTs, as I see it, is that its relative newness and the overexcitement that comes with it, easily creates a fog that can cloud the judgement. I really do hope that when things have settled a bit more and there has been enough time to look back, a more critical perspective will emerge.

  3. Good piece, Steven.
    Aside of the exploitative and extractive practices associated with colonialism, Shuddhabrata Sengupta, perhaps inadvertently, points out that historically, technology has been something that was DONE TO as opposed to SHARED WITH the global south – and often with fairly racial purposes originally.
    “What’s interesting is that if you look at the histories of the other technologies, if you look at the history of face recognition and anthropometric scans, again, it is in places like Australia, Southern Africa, India that craniometrical scanning becomes an obsessive enterprise.”
    Sengupta, S. (2005). Knowing in Your Bones that You’re Being Watched. In Lovink, Geert & Zehle, Soenke (eds.), incommunicado reader. Institute of Network Cultures. (pp. 64-67). http://www.networkcultures.org

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