3 ICT4D terms you need to think about

It’s easy to get lost in development-related terminology, and ICT4D has no shortage of complex terms used by different actors, in different ways, and in different contexts. In this post, I’ll look at three of those terms: Participation, the digital divide, and community. The idea is not to provide a definite explanation of the terms (as there is no such thing!) but to show that these terms are complex and should not be taken for granted within ICT4D – or development discourse more generally.


‘Participatory development’ is now part-and-parcel of development terminology – used by governments and civil society organizations alike – but the paradigm of participation was originally a radical approach intended to transform the societal structures which reproduce poverty and marginalization (Leal 2010: 91). Ironically, participation entered development discourse because the industry needed a new direction after the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank’s (WB) structural adjustment policies (SAPs) reproduced poverty in and marginalized developing nations (Leal 2010: 91). When activists participated in protests against SAPs, the WB appropriated the notion of ‘participation’ in its policy documents to “assume a populist appearance” in order to justify “the removal of the state from the economy and its substitution by the market” (Leal 2010: 93). From there, it entered development in that people needed to participate in the economy for development to be successful; accordingly, it has become a central tenet in development during the current, neo-liberal epoch.

The next time you hear ‘participation’ mentioned, consider who’s using it and how it’s being used! 

Of course, it’s hard to talk about participation in ICT4D’s without arriving at …

Source: http://einclusion.hu/

The Digital Divide

It’s hard to read an ICT4D related piece without encountering a mention of the digital divide, but what is it? Who does it hurt? Does it even exist?
Granqvist (2005: 286) refers to the digital divide as “a metaphor for the uneven global distribution of new technologies, conceived as a major obstacle for the progress of societies regarded as less developed. ” Granqvist’s assertion that it is merely a metaphor is contentious, but he goes further, calling it “the single most important myth of the ICT-for-development discourse” (2005: 286).   Granqvist’s main point concerning the digital divide is that it is merely another reflection of how wealth is unevenly distributed in the world. And this raises an important point: The digital divide is largely used in reference to the economic potential of access to ICTs. 
Social and political opportunities are rarely mentioned when development scholars refer to the digital divide. But do ICTs need to be used in terms of opportunities at all? Arora and Rangaswamy (forthcoming: 6) argue for the “need to look at the global south users at typical users and not virtuous beings awaiting and capitalizing on opportunities for socio-economic liberation,” but these authors are in the minority.

What are your thoughts on the ‘digital divide’? Write them in the comments below. 


ICTs as we know them did not exist when Raymond Williams explained the notion of ‘community’ in his seminal work Keywords (1985). Williams mentions that it has a number of meanings, but perhaps his most important point is that community, “unlike all other terms of social organization, … seems never to be used unfavourably” (ibid: 76). I think this still holds true.
It’s an interesting thought to ponder while considering how community is conceived in relation to ICT4D discourse.
Concerning development, Cornwall (2010: 3) claims the concept of community became popular thanks to neoliberalism as “‘do it for yourself’ became ‘do it by yourself’.”
But what about ICTs and ‘community’? Well, it’s hard to argue that globalization has not impacted our ideas of what constitutes a community, but Howley (2005: 6) explains community in the following mannerVaried symbolic practices, such as customs and rituals, identify communities and help them be differentiated from other communities. It’s hard to argue against Howley’s logic, but his definition is too broad for my liking.

Community is no longer restricted to a sense of the local; ICTs allow people to form virtual communities. Castells refers to “the decline of community understood in terms of space, work, family, and ascription in general” and adds that this is “a shift towards the reconstruction of social relationships.” Clearly, ‘community’ is a term in transition.

For an interesting take on ‘community’, check out this blog, which argues (successfully, in my opinion) that journalist Nick Kristof is a community.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll be sure to comment back if you drop a comment below.


Arora, P., & Rangaswamy, N., (Forthcoming). “Digital leisure for development: Reframing new media practice in the global south.” Media, Culture & Society.

Castells, M. (n.d.). “The Impact of the Internet on Society: A Global Perspective” in Change. BBVA OpenMind.

Cornwall, A., (2010). “Introductory overview – buzzwords and fuzzwords: deconstructing development discourse “in Deconstructing Development Discourse: Buzzwords and Fuzzwords. Oxfam GB: Oxford.

Granqvist, M., (2005). “Assessing ICT in development: a critical perspective” in Media & Glocal Change: Rethinking Communication for Development. CLASCO: Buenos Aires.

Howley, K., (2005). Community Media: People, Places, and Communication Technologies. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Leal, P.A., (2010). “Participation: the ascendancy of a buzzword in the neo-liberal era.” in Deconstructing Development Discourse: Buzzwords and Fuzzwords. Oxfam GB: Oxford.

Williams, R., (1985). Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press: New York.

4 thoughts on “3 ICT4D terms you need to think about”

  1. Intriguing post, Sean! I couldn’t agree more with you that these three words are have become part of the development lexicon. By the way, it is interesting to know that the phrase ‘digital divide’ was coined by a New York Times editor to emphasize the ‘cognitive distance’ between a husband who frequently uses the computer and his wife who does not use it at all.


    Cisler, S. (2005). What’s the Matter with ICTs? Lovink, G., & Zehle, S. Incommunicado Reader (pp.146-158). Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures

    1. Thanks, Natalie – And no, I didn’t know the origins of ‘digital divide’ – How interesting! I can definitely recommend having a look at Williams ‘Keywords’ if you’re interested in the origin of terms.

  2. Sean,

    As always you provide acute analysis and original insights to three terms that are ubiquitous in development discourse and yet whose meanings are far from clear. It’s important that we scrutinize these terms as best as we are able or else they quickly fall into that category of buzzword that Neera Chandhoke described as “consensual hurrah-words” that mean something in the abstract but nothing in practice. I was interested – but I guess not surprised — to read that participation was a radical approach that has been appropriated and desensitized by the Bretton Woods institutions. As for community, well, I think your analysis here and your comments on my post are spot on. Howley seems to want to have it both ways. Castells is probably closer to the mark when you quote him as saying “it’s a term in transition.” That’s an idea I plan to explore further in my individual assignment. Thanks again for the thoughtful commentary.

    1. Thanks, Andrew. I’ll be sure to look into Chandhoke’s work for my own individual assignment, too.
      One correction though, it was me saying ‘community’ is in transition, not Castells (he did imply it). Best of luck with your assignment.

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