Event: WEF India Summit 2017. Tracing the ICT4D discourse

Eraptis, October 23.

I’d like to use my concluding blog post to zoom out a bit and take a bird’s eye view of our vibrant discussions about the interconnectedness of social media, data, and development and place it into a wider discussion about development discourse. The question I’d like to ask is really, how much space does the ICT4D discourse occupy in mainstream development narratives? To do so I have chosen to focus on a single session coupled with a number of tweets from the recent World Economic Forum India Summit 2017 taking place in New Delhi on 4-6 October 2017.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) is an independent not-for-profit foundation based in Geneva, Switzerland. It was established in 1971 with the mission to “improv(e) the state of the world” through public-private cooperation, and as such engages the “foremost political, business and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas”. Since 1985, WEF annually organizes the “Indian Economic Summit” event specifically aimed at shaping the political, economic and industrial agendas of India in partnership with multiple stakeholders as outlined above. The topic of this year’s event was perhaps specifically indicative of this aim: Creating Indian Narratives on Global Challenges.

Apart from broadcasting and recording the live sessions of these events WEF also shares additional content through blogs and reports, which are distributed through their website, and shared and communicated on various social media channels such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. Participation in the events is however restricted to specific stakeholders.

The session I chose to cover directly addressed the overall topic of the event, “Creating Indian Narratives”, and took the form of a panel discussion comprising of the following participants representing government, private, and non-governmental stakeholders.

ict4d discourse

From top left: Ajay S. Banga, President and CEO of Mastercard; Dipali Goenka, CEO of Welspun India Ltd; Piyush Goyal, Minister of Railways and Coal; Malvika Iyer, Member of the UN Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development’s Working Group on Youth and Gender Equality; Karan Johar, Head of Dharma Productions; Sunil Bharti Mittal, Chairman of Bharti Enterprises

[youtube]“https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbMkQr6XP5A”[/youtube]

My first impression of the session was that several of the participants did indeed mention various ICT solutions as being part of a new Indian narrative numerous times. This was not wholly unexpected judging both by the composition of the panel and the mission of the WEF. In fact, Murphy & Carmody even go as far as characterizing organizations like the WEF and international financial institutions as forms of social movements of their own (albeit top-down), with the aim of advancing corporate globalization and the neoliberal agenda. In this sense, it seems that the ICT4D discourse occupies a significant amount of space in the realm of mainstream development discourse, at least in the more traditional branches focusing on economic growth and structural transformation as drivers of development. But in what way does ICT play a role in this kind of development? In order to unpack some of the statements made by the panellists, I found the following conceptualization provided by Murphy & Carmody to be very useful. By distinguishing the forms of ICT integration into “thin” and “thick” categories, the importance and strength of ICT integration can be meaningfully discussed. Thin, or imminent, forms of ICT integration often lead to cumulative gains in productivity and efficiency at the level of the individual or firm. Whereas thick, or imminent, ICT integration is more transformative in its character, often leading to new forms of industrial organization and practices at the industry and market level. Or what Schumpeter would call “creative destruction”. So, with this in mind, what kind of ICT integration did the panellists advocate for?

One of the most interesting exchanges from this perspective occurred in the first round of addresses where Ajay S. Banga, CEO and President of Mastercard, began speaking about India’s “productivity challenge” as a barrier to growth, resulting in a large part due to a large portion of the Indian labor force being employed by the informal sector. For him, transforming the economy to provide formal job opportunities must be part of the new Indian narrative. However, one of the challenges facing this transition is a relatively low skilled labour force, which furthermore is not incentivized to gain new skills in an informal environment, coupled with a low incentive for firms to invest in such an environment. Dipali Goenka continued Ajay’s line of reasoning from the perspective of her own industry (textiles) experience arguing on the one hand that India is still an agricultural economy, with these sectors employing maximum workforces (mainly women). And that digitization could be a way of educating women to increase their skills and productivity in that sector. Dipali also argued for smartphone usage for cotton farmers to increase their agricultural productivity through better access to information on weather and crop conditions.

Furthermore, Minister Goyal in the second round of addresses talked about the role of entrepreneurship and provided an example of ICT solutions as an enabling force empowering individuals along the railroad nodes to franchise ticket sales through mobile devices by small-scale entrepreneurs. Ajay then added that his own corporation (Mastercard) has played a significant role in providing financial services to a large number of people in the world through electronic and mobile payment solutions and digitization, which he argued has increased efficiency and safety in the overall payments systems. This kind of transformation in the way of doing things, Ajay argued, is part of changing the Indian narrative. Moreover, a large part of this kind of business and system development within Mastercard is developed in India, by Indian developers, and is then exported to the rest of world.

Applying Murphy & Carmody’s conceptual framework of imminent and immanent ICT integration to these arguments generates some interesting insights. Firstly, it could be argued that Ajay’s opening statement regarding the “productivity challenge” to some extent is a call for an imminent and deep transformation of both structure and organization of the productive formal sectors in order to absorb and employ labour from the unproductive informal sectors. Whereas Dipali’s following argument can be viewed more as an imminent form of ICT integration where efficiency and productivity gains could be achieved both in the textile industry by empowering and educating female workers through ICT solutions, as well as in the downstream (garment) and upstream (cotton farmers) sectors of the value chain. Likewise, Minister Goyal’s suggestion of franchising train ticket sales through a mobile application to small-scale local entrepreneurs instead of opening local sales offices is also an example of imminent ICT integration where increased efficiency may occur on the level of the individual or the firm. But what about Ajay’s last argument regarding Indian driven innovation within electronic and mobile payments system development? Surely this must be an example of thick, immanent, ICT integration fundamentally transforming industry practices? Yes, but not necessarily in India, as this depends on a multitude of things. On the one hand, and as Ajay expressed himself, new innovations are being developed “for the world”. Thus, the benefits from both uptake and development of these new technologies may occur elsewhere as a form of economic extraversion, and profits generated from these new ICT solutions may be accumulated where the company’s head office is situated (Murphy & Carmody). Whether these skills and capabilities developed eventually spills-over to local entrepreneurs and spur innovation at the national level, countering some of the dependency from multinational corporations, is not certain.

To answer my initial question “how much space does the ICT4D discourse occupy in mainstream development narratives?” – it seems, from this example, quite significantly both directly and indirectly. What is more interesting however is to try and unpack what kind of development, and how deep. Murphy & Carmody’s framework has been very helpful in thinking about ICT4D discourse from this critical perspective. What are your thoughts? And what are other potential threats and opportunities to digitization and ICT4D?

 

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