Politics of Inclusion and Exclusion in ICT and Development: Reflection on the ICT4D Conference in Cape Town, South Africa

The inherent inequality and skewed power relation between the North and South has been extensively researched and critiqued in the field of development. Similarly, this paper argues, the role of ICTs for development, especially in the South, entangled with conflicting interest and assumption of the “poor” or the “marginalized” as passive subject of development.

This feminist critical take on ICT4D is based on the 2013 ICT4D international conference collaboratively hosted by the University of the Western Cape and University of Cape Town was held from 2 to 10December 2013. Young Women Govern South Africa (YWGSA)[1] was invited to take part in different seminars. As representatives of the project, we were enthused to attend some of the seminars with donors, practitioners, researchers, and scholars from different parts of the world. This paper is, therefore, a critical reflection on the open session seminars that we attended, with particular reference to the “ICT and the Social System (Gender, Class, Race and Generation)”, “Gender and ICT4D” and “Punk ICT4D” sessions. The discussions in these three open sessions critically analyzed the essential problems of ICT4D programs globally. Special attention was given to the exclusionary effects of policymaking and programming practices of different sectors of ICT4D (agriculture, health, and education to mention some). The following 4 points were poplar critique of ICTs for development:

(1) Often times, particularly in Africa, “experts” are sent with ready-made tools and strategies that ignore social difference and local contextual realities to oversee implementation of a certain development program. The problem with this kind of interventionist approach, as many tried to indicate is that it does not acknowledge differences in social and political experiences of individuals and the diversity of contexts.

(2) It was argued that critical reviews of innovative ICT projects are usually measured against statistical indicators, which are not well suited to capturing the complex dynamic interactions and relationships on the ground. As a result, the voice of these “marginalized” communities are not adequately included in conception, design, implementation, and evaluation.

For instance, in the ICT4D conference some of the new ICT technological innovations were presented at the “ICT4D Showcase” session. Most of these applications were regarded as “pro-poor” for they are developed to enhance the “poor’s” life and ultimately to elevate them from poverty. However, some of the applications require accessing high-tech mobile and other ICT resources. This paper argues that although the goal of ICT4D is to eliminate inequalities, because of the type of research done and tools implemented without in-depth investigation of local realities and participation of the “intended beneficiaries”, the program itself runs the risk of contributing to persistence of inequalities.

(3) Although there is a growing effort to bring forward social, economical and political issues to the ICT4D discourses, researches and discussion that are concerned with the ongoing impact of ICT on gender, race, ethnicity, class and other intersecting identities are still marginalized. For instance, the open sessions on 6 December titled “ICT and the Social System (Gender, Class, Race and Generation)”, the session on 7 December titled “Open Session: Gender and ICT4D”, “Punk ICT4D” and the IDRC book launch “Connecting ICTs to Development: The IDRC experience”were allocated a very small lecture rooms, as opposed to lecture whole where “innovative ICT solutions” presented to a wider audience. As a result, only very few donors, practitioners, researchers, and scholars get to participate. This simple observation is to shows that while creating these new spaces definitely grant visibility, however, the effectiveness of these discussions in terms of influencing political action and policymaking is essentially compromised.

(4) It was argued that, there is very limited space for “emerging researchers/scholar”, especially from the global south.Many of the “Punk ICT4D” seminar participants were young scholars who have vested interest in using ICT4D to create new and/or alternative knowledge production. However, they mentioned that when it comes to presenting their works, they are still seen as “emerging scholars” and their work is not given due recognition.

Although, the space appears to be very open with unlimited opportunities of knowledge creation, in reality opportunities are given to those “experts” who happen to be working in the institution for a very long time. This points to the question of autonomy for the “third world”. The underlining assumption here is “innovation originates elsewhere” (Avgerou, 2010: 3). Thus, as a result of this top-down power structure, homegrown African experts in particular seem to not have the autonomy to decide and represent their findings.

Finally, the paper argues that normalized and dominant assumptions of knowledge production, which tend to reproduce stereotypical narratives of the “developed” and “undeveloped” world on one side, “experts” and “emerging scholars” on the other, dangerously contribute for the complex exclusionary factors of ICT4D practices to continue being unquestioned or overlooked.

[1] Young Women Govern South Africa (YWGSA) is a component of an IDRC-funded project that involves three countries: Brazil, India and South Africa. This ICT project is an action-research project that aims to develop and use ICTs (including cellphones, digitized images, the internet, facebook and videos) to enhance socially marginalized women's public participation at local government level.