ICTs for empowerment and social transformation - A note prepared by IT for Change for ActionAid International

ICTs for empowerment and social transformation


A brief exploration of the field

from the viewpoint of organizational action



A note prepared by IT for Change for ActionAid International


May 2013

Table of Contents


Social empowerment and social transformation

ICTs and empowerment

How ICTs help create choices

How can ICTs restrict or foreclose choices

Local ICT based opportunity structures for empowerment

ICTs and the larger social transformation

ICTs as systems technology, and the theory of delayed action

Bigger the better – but is it empowering

Networked dominance and the failing public systems

Doing business in networks – where does power lie

ICTs and macro political shifts

Spaces for engagement from below

Some empowering possibilities of ICTs

Community information centre

Community generated information

Local media/ public sphere

SMSes for information, participation and accountability

General ICT Community Centres

Some specific issues about current ICTD practice

Some pointers for an organization contemplating its role in ICTs for empowerment and social transformation

Creating a knowledge centre on ICTs for empowerment

Understanding different kinds of ICT projects

Adopting a network approach






ICTs are an undeniably important part of our social milieu today. They also enter our social change imagery. If indeed ICTs represent a technology watershed that vastly improves our lives, and have a largely positive influence at a social-structural level as well, the mandate of social change actors should be relatively straight-forward. Get ICTs into the hands of people who are likely to be under-served by the markets, and build their capacities to use them.


Employing what is called as the 'digital divide' approach, ICTs for development (ICTD) practice has largely aimed at reaching and bringing in people who are being left behind by the ongoing generic ICTs adoption wave. This ICTs wave is of course led by the market, and also to a good degree determined by it. ICTD interventions mostly come in to address what are seen as situations of a limited and temporary market failure. This is based on a belief in (1) the generative and self-propelling qualities of the new ICTs, and, (2) generally, well-performing markets in this area. Accordingly, the focus has been on evangelizing ICTs, providing access, and building capacity. In addition, some contextual technology 'solutions' are also sought to be developed, which, it is assumed, will self-sustain by getting rooted in the socio-cultural contexts and market frameworks. In this world-view, the larger ICT phenomenon is taken to be deterministic and basically benign.


Even among those who are more inclined towards social analysis, this larger ICT phenomenon may appear as too high-level, and/or perhaps too complex and fine-grained, for them to be able to influence it in any meaningful way. The field of application of ICTs to social change seems to be completely divorced from structural thinking. This is the main reason that the theory and practice of ICTs for empowerment and social transformation has remained so under-developed.


This note seeks to situate the current wave of ICT adoption in society within traditional perspectives of social change, especially a historically situated understanding of the discourse of empowerment and social transformation. The purpose is to provide a framework for progressive social change actors to understand and determine their role in employing ICTs for empowerment of marginalized people and for larger positive social transformation.


The note avoids a simplistic cause-effect narration of instances where use of ICTs seem to have shown 'spectacular' outcomes. Most social change actors by now realize that ICTs are a powerful contemporary phenomenon. It may therefore no longer be necessary to buttress this general assertion. What is required instead is to understand how change happens, what factors contribute to and which inhibit positive change, and what are the long term impacts on real issues of concern to people and communities. The note attempts to focus on what we see as real doubts, paradoxes and roadblocks that social change actors face with respect to the use of ICTs in their work.


Social empowerment and social transformation


Empowerment “refers to the process by which those who have been denied the ability to make strategic life choices acquire such an ability” (N Kabeer) . The concept of empowerment in development literature therefore relates specifically to (1) previously dis-empowered groups, and (2) expansion of 'strategic choices' and not just any set of choices. Empowerment is about “challenging existing relationships of power” (S Batliwala) and altering them (G Sen). The unending stream of new gadgets and applications, in the hands of a dominant consuming class, no doubt expanding their choices, is not what we are concerned with here. Neither is empowerment here meant as it is in business management's concept of 'employee empowerment' which is aimed at the profit bottom-line rather than centred on employee's own benefit. Even when in the hands of the marginalized people, ICTs can be considered as empowering only if they expand 'strategic life choices' and not some “less consequential choices which may be important for the quality of one’s life but do not constitute its defining parameters” (N Kabeer) .


The idea of empowerment was introduced to counter top-down development approaches that aimed at addressing 'basic needs' of people. Moving away from simplistic and standardized conceptions of what people need, the concept of empowerment rightly focuses on self-perceived improvements in people's lives, of a substantial and sustainable nature. However, a potential drawback of operationalizing such an approach is that as the target and the 'end result' is moved closer to the contextually diverse life situations of people, the causes for 'dis-empowerment' and the required remedies may also get largely shifted towards the people themselves. This may divert attention from the culpability of larger structural factors that cause and sustain dis-empowerment.


Such an epistemological error is endemic to the field of ICTs and development ( ICTD). ICTs get seen mostly as individual empowering tools, and there is a tendency to focus exclusively on the individual's immediate context. If the collective is addressed at all, it is mostly at the level of a small primary group The probability that a particular empowerment 'solution' in an individual's proximity could exacerbate larger structural factors of her dis-empowerment is not something that ICTD has generally paid much attention to.


As ICTs are explored in specific contextual uses, it is important to simultaneously visit the macro- structural frameworks of how ICTs themselves get shaped, and in turn how they are impacting our societies. What kind of social transformation is being caused by ICTs? What are the key points of determinability in the process that can be leveraged by social change actors? While a range of meanings can be associated with the term 'social transformation', here it is meant in the progressive sense of moving towards social structures with a more equitable distribution of social, economic, political and cultural powers.


ICTs and empowerment


To appreciate the empowerment potential of ICTs, it is important to understand some of their basic features, which make them an unique kind of technologies. ICTs are general purpose technologies (GPTs), like steam engine and electricity. This means that they have a generic use across an immense array of sectors and activities. With gradual society-wide adoption, GPTs tend to disrupt existing social systems and reconstruct new ones in their place. It is instructive to note that the steam engine and electricity gave rise to the modern factory system that made possible the industrial revolution, which in turn resulted in dramatic shifts in social organization in almost all areas, from the family to the nation state.


Generic technologies of production, like agriculture implements making skills, and steam engine/electricity, are often considered as the most significant ones in triggering paradigmatic social change. Shifts from a pastoral to a settled agrarian society, and then to an industrial society, were caused in this manner. Many sociologists consider technologies of information and communication – e.g., language, writing, press and broadcasting, as having a similar paradigmatic significance. What is perhaps unique about new ICTs is that they are both generic technologies of production and of information and communication. This is expected to make their social impact rather widespread and deep.

How ICTs help create choices

Communication can be an empowering social process, and so is access to information. Any ICT therefore has a considerable inherent empowerment potential. New ICTs have fundamentally transformed our information and communication paradigms by making multiple point to point communication and information flows very easy and inexpensive. Capacity for asynchronous communication is another key paradigmatic feature of the new ICTs (whereby actors or nodes can communicate even when they are not connected at the same time – email being a good example). Further, digital processing of information can help organise almost every kind of work and activity in ways which were previously unthinkable. Informational and communicational artefacts also have a huge positive network effect, whereby their marginal cost to benefit ratio falls sharply as they are adopted by more and more people.


The intentionality of the 'makers' of a technology is embedded or concretised in it to varying degrees in relation to the technology's malleability in user's hands. For instance, there is relatively little that a user can to do to the design and functionality of an automobile that she may use, other than perhaps through responding to a market survey. On the other hand, digital artifacts like software and applications allow considerable malleability at the user end. This is partly owing to the inherent nature of the technology (being non-material and consisting of cognitive symbols representing logic sequences). Many contingent factors, however, have been equally important. Just a few of them are; the early designers of the Internet deliberately meant it to be a dumb network, where all the power was to be exercised at the 'peripheries'; some progressive techies developed and deployed a form of viral software licensing model1 that helped preserve its commons nature; and, there developed new forms of distributed and voluntary technology standards development processes2. Regulatory authorities have also played an important role here, For instance, it was through regulatory enforcement in the US that software was unbundled from hardware, which made the software revolution possible.


Making effective use of the malleability of an ICT may require a certain level of technical skills and, perhaps, investment of some resources. Still, even ordinary users may be able to derive some benefit from such malleability by leveraging their social capital, non-profit intermediation or local digital businesses. This can considerably improve the empowerment potential of ICTs. It is important to note that the extent of malleability of ICTs is controllable. It is possible for instance to restrict users from exercising some strategic choices while allowing other kinds of malleability at the user end which, for instance, may help tap their creativity and free labour for the benefit of the principal controller of a particular ICT. The empowerment literature makes a basic distinction between strategic choices and the more commonplace ones. Therefore, how ICTs are developed, and what kind of choices are allowed and which get controlled, should remain central in our exploration of their empowerment potential. The open source software movement, and other open technology models, like, open wireless networks, open spectrum, open hardware, open search engines and open social networking, aim at resiting centralization of power in technology and techno-social architectures.


The GPT nature of ICTs and their high degree of malleability, along with the efficiencies caused by the network effect, enable a very large range of technology affordances3 or functionalities covering almost all areas and aspects of social life. Many of these can have empowering possibilities in specific contexts. Access to information and easier tele-communication are two basic kinds. Getting the right information can obviously have powerful results. Easy communication beyond face to face situations can help build and sustain new forms of associations, while strengthening/ transforming existing ones. They can also create new spaces of communal communication or local public spheres. These were some examples of completely new opportunities that ICTs can open up. In addition, their appropriate use can help, and at times transform, numerous functions and activities in different social, economic, cultural and political areas an individual or community may be involved in.


The above discussion provides the theoretical basis for the wonderful qualities of ICTs that we have all experienced and continue to do so. (This 'wow!' factor in the ICT adoption wave of the dominant classes, to which most social change actors too belong, can become a significant distraction in terms of exploring the empowerment potential of ICTs.) Most basic ICTs, in the hands of anyone with basic skills for using them, do immediately open up a lot of possibilities, Some of them are really empowering. A married woman in traditional societies who can regularly access to a mobile phone, or preferably own her own, may be able to keep closer and more regular contact with her parents and other relatives, and possibly others outside her immediate kinship structures. Not only does this keep her connected with previous networks of trust and belonging, but it also allows her some degree of maneuver, in patriarchal structures, resulting in a power shift that is significant(In fact, enough anecdotal evidence indicates how threatened families can be on account of such access leading to the woman losing access to her mobile phone). Similar opportunities may open up for an adolescent girl whose mobility is increasingly restricted as she grows older. Both these instances represent the impact mobile based connectivity can have in alleviating experiences of structural isolation. Mobiles are also known to generally increase the social capital of people, especially those who have higher than average social and economic aspiration and entrepreneurship, and, sufficient existing social capital. They may greatly enhances some existing economic opportunities and even open up new kinds. This can be especially true in case of marginal economic actors who work outside organizations but in areas requiring regular distance communication – for instance, small producers of perishable goods like fishermen, and self-employed low-skill persons like plumbers, electricians and beauticians. In such cases, reliance on middlemen can get eliminated or reduced to a considerable extent with direct access respectively to buyer and client networks through mobile phones. In the kind of cases discussed here, the action that is required from social change actors may just be to increase affordable access to technologies such as mobile phones.

How can ICTs restrict or foreclose choices

The sheer range of functionalities of new ICTs may, however, disguise the otherwise well recognized fact that technologies are indeed social constructs. They have contextual intent and application. This means that both the manner in which they get constituted and may be usefully applied are highly dependent on the social context. (This fact may get obscured from actors belonging to the dominant classes because markets develop technologies keeping social context and preferences of these classes in mind4.) Only a very few forms of ICTs, like mobile telephony, may have an extreme decontextualized nature5. This allows them to be used fruitfully across almost the complete range of social actors and contexts. This is the reason why mobile telephony has rapidly become so widespread, and has had such a great impact, even among the marginalized sections. Most other ICTs have strong social embeddedness and contextuality which makes it difficult to simply replicate the 'mobile success story' over the full or even a significant breadth of new ICT functionalities.


Even for mobile telephony, and more certainly for 'higher order' ICT uses, whether they cause empowerment or not has to be interrogated and established contextually. The high degree of social embeddedness and contextuality of almost all such 'higher order' ICTs – whether software, applications, content, types of hardware, or various e-community platforms – mean that considerable technical and socio-technical investments are required to be made at the meso-structural level6, that is within social contexts sufficiently close to the users, even if not at the primary community level. These technologies need to be appropriately contextualized to specific social needs and contexts. Markets may not find it remunerative to provide the needed contextual 'higher order' ICT to classes and geographies that lack the 'paying capacity' or 'market potential', unlike the case of mobiles. These latter kind of ICTs do not involve significant investments for contextualising them. Basically, the technology developed for dominant classes is simply offered to marginalised groups, with the required adjustments to the business models.


Since considerable investment in relation to the social context is required for 'higher order' ICTs, the market led paradigm may not only under-serve the economically and socially marginalized, but it also presents other, perhaps, deeper dangers. Rather than adapt technologies to particular meso- and micro- social contexts with low revenue potential, ICT producers find adapting the social context to available technologies make better economic sense. (Under what conditions this is achieved will be discussed in the next section.) Users are enticed into a digital fantasyland of a hugely diverse set of, so called, 'cultural' products7, that can manipulate and mold the social orientation of individuals. For instance, regardless of who the user is, a plethora of applications that may be completely superfluous to the context is bundled into mobile phones. ICT producers thus create and perpetuate new consumption patterns, that can develop sustainable markets for their products and services, without having to invest too much into contexualising them. Being mostly monopolistic businesses, investing in 'creating' new social contexts and structures can also provide them permanent rentier positions in these new structures. Establishing and perpetuating such control can eventually become a much more attractive business proposition than just supplying ICT services. Internet monopolies like Google and Facebook immediately come to mind in this regard. (A number of ICT companies that arose out of significant technology innovations have shifted towards 'managing their communities' as their primary business focus. Such a shift of business focus may actually reduce further technology innovation in the area through what can be deliberate and unethical suppression of innovation, including through buyouts, when it threatens the highly remunerative, extant business model.)


A false sense of empowerment may be felt by users being suddenly able to access such a range of new products and services, which however may not really open up new strategic choices. The new dependencies that get created, on the other hand, may have deeply negative economic, social and cultural impacts. It is therefore important to distinguish between elements and aspects of ICTs as a set of utilities that can usefully be employed across social contexts, and their nature as deeply social and cultural products.

Local ICT based opportunity structures for empowerment

The manner in which markets respond to, or fail to respond to, the needs of 'higher order' ICTs begs the question of what should therefore be done towards employing their empowerment potential for marginalized groups. This imperative most of all requires appropriate investments into new meso-structures that allow contexualised development and use of new ICTs for empowerment. The very nature of ICTs is to provide sustained communicative avenues beyond face-to-face situations. Consequently, the social disruption and reorganization that ICTs cause tend towards a certain shift of the loci of some of the most meaningful social interactions from micro- structural contexts towards meso-contexts (and also, beyond, towards macro-contexts). Meso-structures refers to the social processes and ordering that occur between the macro and micro levels of social organization. In the context of how ICTs impact social structures, we can define meso-structure as a social unit that is large enough to allow appreciable network effect8 but small enough to embody sufficient local context and, at least potential, primary relationships (community-kind relationships). As a result, a higher level of efficiency and effective relationships can be obtained, without too great a loss of autonomy of individual social actors. Such a structure can also enable an appropriate mix of face-to-face and virtual relationships, the kind of social hybridity that is a central feature of the information society paradigm.


ICT-induced meso-structural shifts could be in a positive direction, like new forms and avenues of political mobilization, economic cooperation and collaboration, access to public services, etc. Or they could carry a negative potential – like ICT-facilitated corporatisation of agriculture adversely impacting local livelihoods, erosion of local social capital required for local political processes, and so on. All such meso- structural changes are obviously embedded in the larger structural logics and proclivities of a society which is progressively incorporating ICTs into most of its social functions and activities. It is, therefore, important to examine these macro-structural trends in order to appreciate the possibilities of empowerment through use of ICTs.


ICTs and the larger social transformation


The Internet was developed as a decentralized network. All of its intelligence, and thus power, was supposed to be at the end-points and not in the centre, or in the network. For the Internet to then have become a major ally, if not the powerhouse, of the centralizing and hegemonic processes of economic globalisation is somewhat surprising. Here, we briefly visit how ICTs are triggering major structural changes in society, from the viewpoint of the project of progressive social transformation.


ICTs as systems technology, and the theory of delayed action

In the US, by the late 1980s, computers were being incorporated into many business activities and were hoped to greatly improve productivity. In 1987, the economist Robert Solow observed: “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics." This has been termed as the 'productivity paradox'. By the end of the 1990s, however, there was a general consensus that digital technologies were tremendously contributing to productivity in the US. This provides an important insight. As general purpose technologies, ICTs contribute by building new, more efficient, systems. Their optimal use consist in successfully applying them across a number of activities of a social system, and mostly also a general change-over in system design and working. This explains the observed time lag in their demonstrated impact. Using ICTs in a one-off manner, for some specific activity or the other, may have an immediate flashy or spectacular outcome, but is mostly not sustainable, and ultimately not so useful and productive. (Think of a situation whereby one were to invest in using a laptop, say, only for booking air or railway tickets. Productive investment in a laptop requires not only a full system of online ticketing to be in place, the laptop should be usable for a large range of other sufficiently important purposes.)


These insight about the need of a systemic adoption of ICTs, and the time lag in terms of their demonstrable impact, are of central relevance to ICTD practice. They are, however, not well understood and articulated. ICTD projects mostly focus on a specific problem of a narrow social and geographic segment, without a vision of how the ICT intervention fits in the larger system-change that may be taking place, or must take place. The default premise seems to be that markets are largely responsive to the demands of an inclusive information society, and that they would and must finally takeover. Any given ICTD project must therefore seek to fill in a 'temporary market failure' gap, and merely provide leads about the required directions that private enterprise can then take forward.

Bigger the better – but is it empowering

Another feature of ICT induced structural changes is a move towards bigger social systems, meaning, of a larger scale. A key limitation on the size of any social system is the availability of adequate avenues for sustained communication across its elements. New ICTs have an obvious paradigmatic influence on this factor. As a result, there is a move towards larger social configurations catering to more and more key social functions and relationships. At the macro level, ICTs fuel the process of globalisation, whereby the anchor of many erstwhile national social system level issues is shifting to global levels,. Global information society has to be seen from a rather larger perspective than the traditional economic globalisation lens, since a much greater range and multi-dimensionality of social, economic, cultural and political issues are involved here. All of these global issues impact possibilities of empowerment of marginalized communities more than ever before.


A good amount of development work has been focused on the community level. We have discussed how meta-level structures become more important in the new context, and how they mediate forces of homogenizing globalisation on one side and possible localisation (which could lead to community empowerment) on the other. ICTD practice gets inescapably situation in this complex flux. Most ICTD projects, however, fail to give sufficient allowance to this important structural change that is taking place.


Increase in scale of our social systems is accompanied by greater fluidity of their constituent elements and flexibilities of relationships. Networks are considered to be the primary organizational form of the emerging social paradigm (also called the network society). With a network, one instinctively thinks of a system with relatively dispersed power, which should be a very positive promise for progressive social change. However, as Manual Castells has theorized so persuasively, this cannot be assumed. Left to themselves, networks can lead to much greater concentration of power than the less flexible organizational systems of yore. Current thinking and practice of ICTD seem not to have taken the network factor into consideration well enough. While the fact of increased networking is evident, for instance in various kinds of public private partnerships, the absence of an adequate theoretical approach and understanding has meant that the key issue of how power operates in various partnerships is mostly ignored. This single factor has been the cause of failure of many ICTD projects.

Networked dominance and the failing public systems

After some fits and starts over the late 1990s and early 2000s, the business sector has now adapted itself rather well to the emergent 'network phenomenon'. Evidently, this is resulting in ever greater concentration of economic power. States, or the public systems, however, have almost completely failed to rise to the occasion. This failure has further added to the 'withdrawal of the state' crisis, which seems to be much more manifest in the ICTD space than other development areas. As for civil society's role in ICTD, it seems to have almost completely aligned and submitted itself to market-led development of the institutional ecology of the emerging information society. This is what we have called as taking the 'temporary market failure' approach. Civil society led ICTD initiatives mostly aim at plugging these 'temporary' gaps, whereby in due time the markets should be able to take over entirely.


It is by now evident that digital businesses uniquely tend towards global monopolies. Increasingly, this market distortion is being made worse by vertical integrations in the digital business sector. Such business trends give a few global companies huge social power to manipulate new techno-social systems that are being built in this formative period of the information society. Since they monopolize their respective areas of operation, it is productive for these global corporations to spend huge amounts of money to influence, and manipulate, government policies as well as civil society's perspectives and positions for social action. This is increasingly the practice of monopoly digital businesses, taking cover in the supposed virtues of building cross-sector partnerships. The aim is not only to build lucrative markets for their technology products, but also to take up key rentier positions in the emerging ICT-enabled social systems. Doing so is much more remunerative than relying on real ICT based value propositions in what could be an intensely competitive business field. If ideal conditions exist (which is a big 'if'), digital business can be a very competitive field since capital requirements in this sector can be relatively low.


ICTD practice has largely failed to find an appropriate response to these important aspects of the current structural changes. Many of the involved actors remain divided in their mind. They may often wonder whether their activities merely end up contributing to problematic social engineering being undertaken by monopoly companies; or do they at least help cause some power shifts in a positive direction within what are apparently inevitable and deterministic macro social processes.


The world seems to be moving, in a rather decisive manner, towards a scale-oriented, corporate-mediated social paradigm. In an ICT-enabled society, big corporate dominance is going much beyond production systems, solidly into the policy field and social projects, in an unprecedented manner. What does this shift mean for progressive social transformation cannot be divorced from project level thinking and interventions by social change actors. A few things stand out in framing the significant role of ICTs in furthering corporate power in our societies. Firstly, ICT businesses are mostly global, and also monopolistic, and for these reasons national jurisdictions have very little leverage over them. Secondly, ICT services are deeply intertwined with many basic social processes of information, communication and association, which gives immense social power to ICT businesses. And , thirdly, given that ICTs and the information society are new and formative areas, neoliberal forces as early adopters have been opportunistic enough, largely through sheer propaganda, to successfully define these areas essentially as a private sector phenomenon. The public sector, correspondingly, is seen to have a minimal role, if any. The normal institutional balance between public and private is therefore lacking in the ICT space. And as ICTs shape and co-constitute the new social processes of an emerging information society, the neoliberal hope is that this disbalance can be carried to all sectors of the society.

Doing business in networks – where does power lie

It is not just the encroachments by a few large digital corporates over the erstwhile public and community functions that is problematic. The new paradigm seems to be marginalizing and disempowering small businesses as much. The ever growing concentration of economic power in the hands of a few corporations is quite evident. Smaller businesses are reduced to serving lower levels of global value chains as captive suppliers within business networks in which the real power keeps moving cente-wards9. Increasingly, intellectual property is the 'legal' basis, and ICTs the technical means, to exercise close control over these global value chains in all areas of economic production.


The development of global digital value chains is causing a lot of economic outflow from developing countries. The situation will become worse as ICTs permeate, and even become central to, more and more social processes and activities. The 'cloud computing'10 architecture, which is expected to become mainstream, further centralises power and value flows. Even countries like India that have developed considerable traction in servicing software writing requirements may be on a slippery slope as wages rise in India, and similar IT expertise becomes available in other developing countries. (There is some degree of cluster-factor11 involved in attracting and retaining competent IT skills within existing IT centres, but the long term sustainability of such an advantage is questionable.)

ICTs and macro political shifts

The advent of ICTs has indeed set up the stage for considerable political change as well. They may have facilitated political revolutions in some countries. Till now, such revolutions have affected only some relatively unstable personality-centred political regimes. Their impact both on larger ideology-based totalitarian regimes, like China and Iran, and on liberal democracies that seem to be tottering in terms of their legitimacy and real democratic content12, is yet unclear. It appears that as long as alliances and networks can be built across a relatively large base of political and economic elites, ICTs can be used as instruments of continued dominance as much as they may possibly be for further democratization. ICTs can both be employed to increase statist hegemony, as well as entrench corporatist ideologies – through newer kinds of informational and communicational controls. Whether ICTs can really help tip the balance of power between the elite and the general populace is therefore still unknown.


There is a lot of talk about ICTs enabling transformational forms of participatory democracy, but real evidence in this regard is limited13. It is possible that this may be owing more to considerable political resistance on the part of incumbents rather than actual possibilities for improved participation. Meanwhile, ICTs- facilitated open government, meaning greater access to public information, does show considerable promise. This movement will need to be linked to possibilities of democratic action for it to have real impact. A few instances of effective ICT-enabled participatory policy making also do exist.14 Even if there were some real new democratic opportunities here, how they are likely to pan out in the light of increasing domination of big corporate mediated ICT ecosystems will need to be studied.


ICTs are certainly likely to cause major disruptions in our political systems. But it is premature to assume that this will necessarily result in positive democratic outcomes. whereby the job of social change actors can simply be considered as 'getting more ICTs in the hands of more and more people'. Most countries are beset with deep, and perhaps unsustainable, discontent against extant political systems. ICTs may have had a role in propagating and consolidating this discontent, and will continue to have such a role. Whether this discontent will get channelised into greater corporatization of social systems, with a shrinking role of political entities, or towards significant democratic reform, and the role that ICTs will play here, remains to be seen. These trajectories will be determined concomitantly by many social factors and forces outside the ICT realm. Such larger structural contexts are very important to keep in mind as ICTs for development interventions are planned and executed.

Spaces for engagement from below

One of the most far-reaching impacts of ICTs has been on the public sphere, creating, what Benkler calls as, the 'networked public sphere'. Public sphere is the space where such public opinion is formed as can influences political processes. Over the last many decades, corporate media seems to have greatly usurped this space, converting it into what is now considerably a controlled political theater. Also, classical public sphere theory has always faced the criticism that it pertains to a relatively elite group that dominates 'public opinion' forming processes. It is in this background that the potential of ICTs for a new kind of emancipator y public sphere has to be judged.


Indeed, there has come to be much greater media plurality with increasing popularity of online media, which requires very little investments. Many organized groups and even individuals have used this new opportunity to develop what have become important sources for news and opinions. Some degree of what can be called as the alternative media is also taking shape. At the same, time, there seems to be a greater consolidation across mainstream media. Vertical mergers, for instance between telecoms and content companies, are also being seen. As more and more younger people turn to consuming even TV in an asynchronous manner over Youtube, the all-important visual media may be being transported to a monopoly platform. The overall picture therefore is mixed. There is no doubt, however, that there is some degree of horizontlaisation of media and a greater access of people and groups to shaping it. At the same time, considerable new forms of controls over the new media are being devised by both the statist and corporatist forces. Social change actors have to understand these new kinds of controls as well as be able to organise to resist them. This may require opportunistic tactical alliances, at times with digital corporates, and at other times with governments.


It is difficult to say that the voice and participation of marginalized groups has appreciably increased in the emerging 'networked public sphere'. Some marginalized groups like LGBT communities indeed have found new avenues for connecting, and forming new media spaces for themselves. Others, like disability groups, have used ICTs to network and obtain important advocacy gains15. Most marginalized groups, however, have seen little improvement in media participation; leaving aside a few community media and participatory video projects, some of which have made online linkages. Some individuals from marginalized sections participating selectively and marginally in online or new media, within dominant framings that are alien to their contexts, cannot constitute improved participation of marginalsed groups. For genuine participation, larger group level efforts are needed, in sync with offline mobilizing. This also requires shaping of ICT enabled platforms in a manner that primarily and actively supports such voices and participation from below.


Some empowering possibilities of ICTs


A lot of hard work by many practitioners in the field have contributed to exposition of a large range of ICT enabled possibilities for empowerment and progressive social transformation. Below, we will briefly visit some of them, arranged in a few generic sets. In this categorization, which is illustrative and by no means exhaustive, the focus is on the kind of possible empowering outcomes rather than on the involved artifacts.

Community information centre

Such centres can use ICTs, especially Internet-enabled computers, to collect, assemble and present a whole lot of information relevant to the community. Such information may pertain to the community itself, or be about public services and outside economic opportunities. Such a rich information ecology triggers a new level and kind of informational awareness and behavior in the community (comparable to how search engines changed ours). These changes in behavior and expectations can then further feed into the design of the Centre's informational activities and processes building a very powerful virtuous spiral. There also exist many new possibilities to invigorate local and traditional knowledges in this paradigm of community informatics16. It is very important to understand and appreciate the public goods quality of most community informational processes. Many ICTD projects have tried individual-focused revenue model based systems, which is one of the main reasons for their limited success.

Community generated information

User-generated content is a very common term today, and it is the basis of the Web 2.0 phenomenon. Such content or information is solicited, and its applications developed, largely in a commercial model catering to individual needs. For any community, access to information and statistics about itself is very valuable for undertaking micro-planning (thus strengthening self-governance) and to claim collective and individual entitlements from the state. Use of open street mapping for developing a user-generated map of the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya, is a well known example of how communities can generate useful information about themselves and their social ecologies. Some tribal communities (in Philippines, for instance) have successfully employed community-generated maps developed from collective memory and knowledge to claim lands which were being usurped. Mobiles can be used as very efficient data collection devices for statistical information (household surveys) as well as for geo-positioning to develop Geographical Information Systems. Who designs a data collection process, who collects the data, what platforms are used, and how the generated information is used are central question which determine the empowerment potential of such efforts. The role of any corporate intermediary as well as well as outside ICT evangelists, and their relative power with respect to community based actors, needs to be interrogated and made explicit. A vision of what these experiments are supposed to lead to and what kind of social systems they are seen as contributing to remains of underlying importance.

Local media/ public sphere

If employed appropriately, ICTs can turn the tide against alienating mass communication systems, that began with the print media and were consolidated by broadcast media. But, this cannot be considered as an autonomous process. Left to themselves, digital technologies tend to globalise media even further, in hands of a fewer oligopolies than ever before. Deliberate and sustained investments have to be made to make effective ICT enabled local/community media possible. Production of audio and video material has become much cheaper, whereby community radio and participatory video can sustain a very vibrant local public sphere. Many mobile based opportunities are also presenting themselves. SMS based local information networks and use of voice-based interactive possibilities over mobile add to the increasingly large repository at hand for developing a multi-dimensional local media. As Internet on mobiles become inexpensive (possible through community wifi networks), streaming audio and video should take over as the prime sites of community media. Such a shift to a converged Internet-protocol based communication system is inevitable. However, it is yet to be seen17 whether such a converged system will be based on community networks providing inexpensive, net-neutral18, Internet, or it will be dominated by oligopolistic telecos that under-serve marginalised communities' Further, big telcos may not only priortise select commercial content, but possibly also provide it at a lower price then other kinds of content19. Such a very possible future of the Internet will be the death knell for local or community media possibilities. This is one of the starkest instances of how the manner of development of ICTs in the near future will determine whether they will be empowering or disempowering for marginalized communities.

SMSes for information, participation and accountability

We have mentioned earlier how local SMS networks can be used to provide contextual information to pre-registered members. SMSes have been used to track public service activities – for instance, movement of trucks carrying provisions for Public Distribution System (PDS) in some states in India. SMS alerts are sent to those who register themselves to receive such alerts for a particular PDS point in the community. Similar SMS alerts, that auto-generate from online processes, can be used for seeking accountability from a large range of public service activities. SMSes can also be used to enhance participation in new digital meso-structures like those that crowd-source information about the parts of the city judged unsafe for women, or collecting and presenting reports on incidences of electoral violence. Plotting such information over maps, and through other kinds of presentation techniques, can be very useful for the community. Benefits aimed at specific individuals can be delivered, for instance, by sending SMS alerts to a new mother with regular periodicity for immunising her child at the right time or to a farmer to apply fertilizers in her fields. However, the nature of meso and macro- structures that get built through subscribing individuals and communities to such services must be a paramount consideration. Who exercises real power and whose interests are primarily being served, in the short as well as the long term, are issues that require critical examination.


Increased access to outside institutions


ICTs can help communities get increased access to outside institutions and, in general, cultivate a better nexus with them. New ways of providing public services in a community-centric manner can be devised. New forms of access to outside markets and other kinds of economic opportunities like banking, employment, etc may also be made possible. It is often summarily assumed that ICTs can simply extend such opportunities to remote communities by cutting out the distance factor, It seldom happens in this fashion. Such institutional linkages require an appropriate set of new community and meso-level processes to be developed, mostly in a public goods mode. They are needed not just to ensure relatively uniform accessibility within the community but also to ensure that the power dynamics emerging in any such new relationship with outside institutions can empower the community rather than dis-empower it.20. The initial design of any project or intervention should consciously take such considerations into account rather than hoping that things will generally work out towards more empowerment as the community begins to use ICTs.

General ICT Community Centres

Apart from aiming at specific community uses for ICTs as discussed above, a more open or general approach, based on the generative qualities of the new ICTs, is also required. Community ICT Centres should allow individuals and community groups to use and experiment with new ICTs in different ways. One project in India found that rather than have village-level elected self- government representative use only ICTs in groups at training sessions, encouraging them to take netbooks home (loaning them on a library model) showed a greatly enhanced pattern of usage. It included exploration of new uses that were not covered in the formal training. With tablets now available for around 100 USD, loading them with locally produced videos on various topics of self government and allowing, say, women representatives to take them home and watch them at their leisure can be a very powerful new form of pedagogy (as is being tried in another project in India). Basic skills in using ICTs is as important an empowering tool for the emerging society as literacy was in the last few centuries. Focused public effort needs to go into making people and communities ICT- efficient in a variety of empowering ways. An important lesson from literacy programs in developing countries is that such 'technical' skills are useful and survive only when a suitable ecology is simultaneously provided which enables empowering use of the learnt technologies in a regular and ongoing manner. Not all of such an enabling environment can be left to the markets to provide.


The table21 below lists some potential ICT-enabled community empowerment possibilities, using a 'capabilities framework'. It shows how appropriate application of ICTs can strengthen so many basic community processes, potentially resulting in a while range of positive outcomes.


Indicators for Community Empowerment (through ICT use) - Social Capabilities strengthened




Outcome indicator


To improve access to information and informational capabilities

  • traditional information system strengthened

  • information flows within community improve

  • horizontal knowledge exchanges with

    other communities strengthened vertical knowledge exchanges with the state,

    donors, NGOs strengthened


To strengthen organizational


  • transparent selection of leaders

  • increased efficiency

  • improved information flows

  • better coordination among different organizations

  • networks with other indigenous

    organizations strengthened a

Social Development

To improve access to basic social


  • improved access to formal and non-

    formal education (i.e. e-learning)

  • improved access to health services

    (improved knowledge about health

    practices and traditional medicine)

  • improved knowledge and access social

    programs of the government (e -

    government services)

Economic Development

To promote economic


  • improved access to markets and

    commercialization of products

  • improve productive activities through

    enhanced knowledge (i.e. better

    knowledge about agricultural practices)

  • enhanced capacity mobilize resources

    from outside donors

  • improved access to remittances through

    improved communication with migrant workers

Political Participation

To improve participation in the

political system

To enhance transparency within


To improve participation in the

political system

To enhance transparency within


  • improved ‘voice’ and participation in development process

  • improved transparency of political

    community institutions (e-government)

  • enhance decision-making power in political system political process

  • better coordination of political activities community enhanced transparency of information flows within community

  • direct participation in international policy dialogue (UN permanent forum

Cultural Identity

To strengthen the communities

cultural identity

  • indigenous languages strengthened

  • indigenous knowledge strengthened

  • improved dissemination of communities

    own culture


Some specific issues about current ICTD practice


It is difficult to consider ICTD as a field of development in the same way as, for instance, democratic governance, gender, education, health etc. These latter fields are characterized by a relatively clear normative framework of what is sought to be achieved. Whereas, ICTD seems to include almost every application of ICTs to any kind of social and public function, as long as the context is a developing country. At the most, ICTD is considered as the application of ICTs to any development activity. If by ICTD is meant providing ICT services to different sectors of development, then it should clearly be articulated as such; as a development support area, and not as a field of development. On the other hand, if ICTD is supposed to be a specific area of development thinking and practice, a much greater conceptual clarity is required about it. What is sought to be achieved, and how, has to be clearer, along with specification of what ICTD is not. An ActionAid report, in 2004, 'ICTs for Development: Empowerment or Exploitation'22 posed the right question in its title. The report further avers; “Any ICTD project needs to be clearly located on a spectrum between exploitation and empowerment...”.


Second, as discussed earlier, ICTD projects focus mostly on immediate practical objectives rather than the longer term strategic needs and implications with respect to the people and communities they work with. This is contrary to much of contemporary development practice in all other fields. It is imperative that ICTD projects are located in a critical structural analysis framework . In fact, in many other fields, the macro-structures may be relatively less dynamic, and correspondingly, a focus on the micro may just be relatively less problematic. ICTD practice, on the other hand, is taking place at the same time as the new macro-structures of the emerging information society are being constructed. The micro-actions of ICTD project proponents actively contribute to shaping the ongoing new macro-social constructions. They do not just take place within them23. This, incidentally, is the reason for the extraordinary interest that digital businesses show in ICTD projects, as compared to other business sectors.


To take an example; getting SMS reminders like when to immunize a child, or when to apply fertilizers, is quite evidently beneficial to people in areas of life that are of basic importance. Certainly, more and more people should be given access to such services, and this would immediately benefit them. However, quite likely, such SMS alerts are a part of a larger process of development of new kinds of social systems – respectively, of facilitating community health, and supporting agriculture. What is the nature of these new systems; who are the key actors and what is their longterm vision and motive; on what terms is the inclusion of people into these new systems being sought; and, what participative power can be exercised by the included people to actually influence these systems? These are not trivial questions. Further: Is some kind of replacement of public support systems with private systems underway here? Are pharmaceutical companies and fertilizer manufacturers important actors in these new systems, whether directly or behind the scene? Beyond availing SMS reminder facilities as an immediate ICTD benefit, it is in asking and addressing such deeper questions that one would simultaneously be considering practical and strategic issues involved in employing ICTs for empowerment.


Thirdly, ICTD practice is very upbeat on partnerships. In the network age, not to have a focus on partnerships and networks is very under-optimal, if not impractical. Partnerships and networks mean different kinds of actors working together. Each actor may have a different orientation, motive, skill and expectation. Most importantly, in any given situation, each has different power. Unlike what much of dominant ICTD practice likes to believe, partnerships and networks do not obliterate power differentials because of the oft-quoted 'win-win' formula. They are significant sites of expression of power, resistance, struggle and possible accommodation. A techie coming from a university with his fancy technology, or the corporate social responsibility executive with his funds, and an MBA style flourish, brings to bear enormous power in a very unequal relationship with local NGOs, CBOs and community members. Not making visible, and accounting for, the power differentials implicit in such relationship is one of the biggest reasons of failure of many ICTD projects.


To be successful, a community project has to be driven by those closest to the community. No doubt, some level of ICT evangelizing and outside skills may be needed. These elements have to be exercised within an explicit pro-community power configuration. Just developing opportunistic relationships with select members of the community, however, does not transfer power to the community. ICT projects should be driven by community based organizations, or other organizational forms closest to the community. The relationships with these groups must be based on complete transparency of the intentions and expectations of all actors.


Fourth, as mentioned earlier, much of the current ICTD practice has failed to focus sufficiently on meso-structures, possibly due to resource constraints but also because of lack of a vision in this regard. ICTs typically tend to strengthen meso-level structures, and are most effective in relation to them. Such structures are the next higher level than the primary, community-level structures. Some examples of existing meso-structures are local public service delivery systems, local governance bodies, and local cooperatives aimed at economic ends. ICTs can facilitate new kinds of trans-local peer to peer networks, while strengthening existing ones. Other possible ICT-enabled meso-structures are local technology services, local content production and distribution networks, community media networks, local area data and information services (that help collect, analyze and present local data and information), and so on. Such structures can support a wide range of community based action for empowerment.


Stressing the role of meso-structures is not meant to undermine communities as the primary sites of social action. Appropriate meso-structures, that are designed to support effective community-based action, can help communities resist annihilation into social systems that get controlled from distant levels, as forces of globalization are prone to lead towards. Developing new forms of community or civil society networks and support-structures with possible help from public bodies is not something that has been given adequate attention. (Admittedly, public systems are not easy to work with in areas such as those involving new technologies.) Local businesses are also expected to play an important role in an empowering meso-structural ecology.


As soon as one attempts to embed any ICTD project into the larger picture, ideological issues concerning relative proclivities towards corporate-mediated or public systems-mediated social framework may become apparent. Apparently, most exogenous ICTD actors driving community initiatives seem to take a rather dim view of public systems and their future. This is unlike development practice in most other sectors where it is mostly recognized that sustainable changes need to plug into relevant public systems.


Lastly, ICTD has had limited success in evolving appropriate research and evaluation methodologies. This logically follows from the mentioned deficit with regard to framing a robust enough picture of how ICTs really impact social change. It should be obvious from the earlier discussions – for instance, on 'productivity paradox' – that, in most cases, it may not be very fruitful to look at real measurable gains from one-off ICT applications. The evaluation framework must be expansive as well as forward looking. It needs to extrapolate from what is observed to picture how a particular techno-social process being developed will finally contribute to an evolving larger social system. The extent of success of an intervention in shaping the desired techno-social process, as well as the nature of the referent larger social system, which is likely to be in a flux, should both go into the evaluation framework. Research methodologies should be able to look across space as well as time, beyond the specific location of the intervention. They should pay sufficient attention to the attributes of the larger social system getting formed, and the fact that real impact may only fructify in the future.


Some pointers for an organization contemplating its role in ICTs for empowerment and social transformation


Based on the above analysis, this section briefly lists the priorities for any organization seeking to take up a systematic approach to using ICTs for empowerment and social transformation. Of course, the details of how to move forward on such an agenda will have to be further worked out, and will largely arise out of internal reflections within the concerned organization. This note has attempted to provide some background information and analysis that could help kick-start such a process.

Creating a knowledge centre on ICTs for empowerment

One must first ascertain the knowledge needs for effectively practicing ICTs for empowerment and social transformation, Do we need to know and understand ICTs? Of course, some level of such knowledge is necessary. But having that alone as the knowledge requirement will make it a field just for techies. Or, do we need to know how ICTs impact social structures and cause social change? If so, can we merely extrapolate the popular knowledge that exists about the use of ICTs in business, and personal and social lives of those well-served by markets, and so on? Does the manner in which ICTs interact with progressive social change needs to be a specialized field of knowledge? This note has tried to make the case that this is what is required. It is impossible to effectively practice ICTs for progressive social change without first building appropriate knowledge of this field, with a clear perspective on empowerment, development and transformation.


Any effective and sustainable ICTD intervention must be informed of the larger structural location of the intervention in the fast shifting information society landscape. It should be cognizant of conceptual frameworks of how ICTs impact social systems and structures, and be designed accordingly. Any agency seeking to use ICTs for empowerment and social transformation must internalize an adequate level of specialized knowledge in this area. Undertaking sectoral project interventions with the application of such a specialized knowledge alone can be termed as ICTD mainstreaming. ICTD mainstreaming is often misunderstood as leaving it to different sectors of development to apply ICTs as they deem fit, without any kind of support provided through specialized knowledge of this area. (Lessons from the very well-developed debate on mainstreaming versus specialized approaches in the area of gender is instructive here.)


It is understandable why some may be uncomfortable to elevate an instrumental reality like ICTs, and its impact on development, to the same level as substantive realities, like gender, governance and climate change. However, the current social flux caused by ICTs is of extraordinary extent and depth. This makes it important for social change actors to stay well-versed with the generic nature and directions of these shifts. It should therefore be considered as a distinct area and subject of social change. Any development work undertaken without such a knowledge will be highly under-optimal. It is important to observe and study from the perspective of progressive social change, how ICTs tend to impact social processes and structures. Such knowledge should then be systematically employed for designing projects using ICTs. At the same time, knowledge arising from ICT projects should be ploughed back into this specialized body of knowledge. Currently, by and large, there exist either academic discourses on the larger ICT-induced structural shifts, or, what are mostly, questionable accounts of techno-enthusiasts from the field. The middle ground of such knowledge that can guide practical action of social change actors in this field needs to be developed.


Development of specialized knowledge and praxis (which is the best way of knowledge generation in this formative and fast moving area) of a field of social change first requires casting the field within specific normative frameworks. For this, the vocabulary of that field must be appropriated. We have discussed earlier that 'ICTD', being a loose hold-all term, has not lent itself well to any specific normative framework. Any useful concept should not only be clear about what it includes but also what it does not – something which is difficult to articulate with any degree of certainty about ICTD. For the purpose of this note, the description 'ICTs for empowerment and social transformation' was chosen to denote the subject area of inquiry and the desired social outcomes, but perhaps, a pithier term is needed.


It is tentatively suggested that the field of Community informatics may be a useful candidate to appropriately cover the ICTs for empowerment landscape. Community informatics has been defined as “the application of information and communications technology (ICT) to enable and empower community processes”24. Larger structural issues of ICTs and social transformation can be captured in a 'development in the network society' framework.

Understanding different kinds of ICT projects

Proceeding to the level of actual action that may be required to be undertaken in this field, it is useful to draw a typology for possible action areas. These different types require different kinds of approach in terms of what kind of actors should design and lead the project, what kind of partnerships may be employed, and what kind of results can be expected.


Some emerging or mature technologies may need to be tested in typical 'development' situations. Going forward, some of these tested technologies will have to be applied in limited contexts, creating new socio-technical processes that contribute to specific social outcomes. Next, with these knowledges in hand, one can approach larger interventions to make development action more effective in a specific sector, like health, education, livelihood and so on. Since ICTs are general purpose technologies, projects that implant generic ICT-based techno-social skills and practices in the community, within an empowerment paradigm, are also required. Finally, as mentioned earlier, such is the logic of the network society that a range of supporting meso-structures will also have to be invested in.


Accordingly, one can typify five kinds of project level activities.


  1. Where the main purpose is to test out the social applicability and performance of a technology, with a view to its future use in empowerment projects. Example; putting GPS25 mapping devices in the hands of community based actors to check the possibilities for creating geo-located data for development work.

  2. Where one goes a step further and sets up an elaborate techno-social process, or processes, with a specific and clear social outcome. An example is the use of IVR (integrated voice response) systems on mobiles as a community radio platform to address local gender issues.


  1. Where a complete social sub-system with clear set of development objectives is involved; for instance, using community radio/ video, local information centres, hand-held data collection devices, SMS networks, and tele-health facilities, along with complementing social process innovations, to address health needs of a community in an integrated fashion.

  2. Where the community is enabled to use a series of different ICTs in an empowering manner, with the generic aim to transform local informational, communicational and associational possibilities. Such a transformation can allow the community to address a wide array of community issues and objectives in different areas. A community ICT centre working with such community- oriented objectives can become a very effective development institution in the community. (It is important to note that most community ICT centres in ICTD have been principally oriented to individual users needs.)

  3. Where appropriate meso-structures of an empowering ICT-enabled ecology are sought to be built, within which a range of community level initiatives can be effective and sustainable. Some instances of such meso-structures (some of them possibly as local businesses) are local technology support units, content production and distribution networks, local applications development units, local information systems, networks of domain experts available for advice, volunteer networks, cooperatives, and various other kinds of peer to peer networks.


Each kind of project above has to be conceptualized and implemented differently, with different kinds of objectives and expectations. The prime drivers for each kind of project may be different. The nature of actors involved, partnerships to be explored, and the kind of relationships between different actors, including their power dynamics, have to be worked out in each case. The role of the community, community based organizations and domain expert agencies vis-a-vis technical and possible business partners should be laid out clearly. Properly managing the role expectations and power dynamics of such partnerships is one of the most important imperatives.


Beyond project level work, two other kinds of important activities have to be undertaken. There is a need to strongly and effectively advocate for empowering ICT and information society policies that help build level playing fields in the emerging techno-social spaces, Claims of technical neutrality of ICTs can hide many a danger of contributing to exacerbating inequality. Policies should therefore also provide protective discrimination to safeguard the interests of the weaker and marginalized groups. Such policies cover many areas like telecom, intellectual property and access to knowledge, net neutrality, open standards, consumer protection, global e-trade and taxation, media regulation, privacy, data protection, freedom of expression, competition law, cultural diversity and so on. The interconnections of these policy fields in their specific relevance to use of ICTs for empowerment has to be established. The other task is to actively engage at the ideological and macro-structural levels of information society changes that impact social and economic justice, and the institutions of democracy and rights based development.


Any organization exploring action in this area faces the difficult question of managing possible conflicts between practical opportunities and strategic or larger structural issues. Working with monopoly ICT service providers who may be involved in suppressing open models of technology and free competition in the sector or, worse, engaged in problematic social engineering and policy level manipulations, is a typical case in point. It may not always be possible for practitioners to take a puritanical view when urgent imperatives in the field requires the use of the available tools. At times, some opportunistic private partnerships may also be found useful. However, larger structural issues cannot be completely divorced from practical level work. Once the agency gets its 'ICT for empowerment and social transformation' thinking and framework in place, with the basic normative guidelines and practical objectives, it should be possible to make decisions on such conflicts on a case to case basis.


It is a reality of the network age that actors participate in networks with plural and partial identities, towards flexible relationships. Still, a basic normative integrity of identity remains obviously important for any social actor. What is important is that the concerned agency undertaking social change action has a culture of ongoing open internal dialogue on the possibly contentious issues. While informal dialogues should be encouraged and ideal conditions created for them, some kind of established formal processes for a continual dialogue are also necessary. In this manner, contextual organizational positions can evolve on such issues, keeping in view the non-negotiable basic normative anchors of the agency.


While this note deliberately took a critical stance, in face of the over-celebratory tone of much of ICTD practice, as community project proponents look to the macro-structural environment, there indeed are so many positive shifts to plug into. For instance, ICT-based micro practices should be designed to support the emergence of a new participative public sphere and the movements for greater access to knowledge and for promotion of participatory democracy.

Adopting a network approach

In the network age, practices of development and social change should also get appropriately networked. What would such a network orientation mean needs to be brought out in both theoretical and practical terms. The above typology of required project interventions may make it difficult for any agency to decide on how to expend its limited resources. While an understanding of the larger social shifts and their inter-connectedness is necessary, only some kind of projects can possibly be undertaken by any agency. In doing so, it should be attempted to network with other projects done by other agencies in a particular area. One of the most effective investments will be to spend a part of one's resources on the networking element. Creating ICTs-enabled networks of local development actors, in a meso-space like a block or a district, can be a useful new development strategy. Many other kinds of peer to peer networks can also be formed that build new social capital, and leverage and magnify the impact of existing social capital and other kinds of resources. Meso level support structures like local technology services and content development and distribution networks will complement such networks.


Similarly, it is impossible for any agency to invest in following and influencing all macro-structural areas in the fast shifting information society landscape. Some examples of such areas are; those concerning politics of new ICTs, which is becoming a rather specialized field, and the emerging movements like access to knowledge and open government. Working in networks to share competencies and resources behind shared ideals and objectives is the most useful strategy in this regard as well. Most agencies with a global scope of work already engage in some forms of networks. ICTs make sustained association across space and time, and organizational boundaries, much easier, multifarious and sustainable. Accordingly, network methodologies can evolve considerably and take a more deliberate form.


Social change organizations have to systematically begin studying how networks operate. How power gets exercised in networks is as important an area to understand as how they accomplish different tasks. Understanding networks and investing in them can greatly enhance the objective-meeting capacity of social change organizations. Dominant forces seeking aggrandizement of power and resources are today highly networked. This is one of the reasons why confronting them is becoming more and more difficult. Progressive forces must get appropriately networked too. That is the only way for effective resistance and positive transformation in the network age. As someone put it so aptly 'only a network can confront a network'.


With a view to taking up ICTs for empowerment and social transformation, an organization like ActionAid may therefore need to work on three complementary areas;


  1. Develop internal capacity in terms of specialized knowledge about ICTs and progressive social change. This should include both theoretical and practical knowledge, focusing on the connection between the two. A vibrant interactive space should be established for this purpose, since most of the needed knowledge in this formative area will have to be built interactively and reiteratively:

  2. Prepare and follow a typology of different kinds of projects in this area, along with guidelines for the required kind of project design principles, project roles (nature of actors who should lead etc), partnership management, evaluation framework and sharing knowledge from project activity;

  3. Adopt a well-developed network methodology for field level work as well as at the higher organizational levels, in terms of field-building, and influencing macro level change.



1Open source software licensing model.

2In different ways, all these causative factors for the 'openness' of ICTs are being reversed by those seeking to use them for building new forms of structural power.

3An affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, which allows an individual to perform an action. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affordance

4Emergence of a certain 'globopolitan' culture (taking from the term 'metropolitan culture' which first culturally united the elites within national contexts) among dominant classes, even more evident in consumption cultures around ICTs, is of relevance here. How ICTs and such a global cultural paradigm supports and promote each other is instructive vis a vis the political economy of new ICTs.

5This is because basically mobiles just extend in a linear fashion the existing 'technique' of voice communication, which almost all human beings are adept at.

6The concept of meso-structures is used throughout this mote, and its implications should increasing become clearer.

7Books, films, TV programs and also media are considered cultural goods, to make them distinct from normal economic goods. Such goods have a strong and distinctive cultural influence and role. It may be useful to discuss whether social media is a cultural good or a normal economic good. Libraries are considered cultural goods, should search engines also be similarly designated?

8Network effect is obtained when the value of a good or service increases as more people use it.

9Walmart is often consider as a supply chain that also has front-end stores. CITE

10In this kind of ICT architecture, most software and applications lie in remote serves and users operate mostly dumb terminals.

11Whereby IT professionals tend to stick to big IT centres so that they can continually prospect better opportunities.

12With 'real democratic content' we mean that people's will is effectively translated into policies and state action.

13The liquid democracy experiment of the European pirate parties is one such instance.

14Iceland employed Internet based processes to get inputs for a new constitution, and Brazil tried drafting a new Internet policy framework in a similar manner. Both initiatives are now facing considerable parliamentary opposition.

15The recent UN convention on disability owes a lot to such networking.

16 Informatics is the science of information, the practice of information processing, and the engineering of information systems... Loosely, it can be thought of as "studying how to design a system that delivers the right information, to the right person in the right place and time, in the right way." From, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Informatics_%28academic_field%29 . 'Community Informatics' is also used in a specialized meaning which will be discussed later in this note.

17It will mostly be determined by the kind of policies that get developed, at the national and global levels.

18Net Neutrality is a foundational principle of Internet architecture which is increasingly threatened at present. Net Neutrality requires that an access provider is neutral to any content flowing on its network, and is barred from entering into commercial arrangements to favour some over other kind of content.

19Facebook and some Google products are already available cheaper or even free on some networks in some countries.

20Two examples, CSCs and agriculture corporatisation

21Taken from 'Including the Excluded- Can ICTs empower poor communities? Towards an alternative evaluation framework based on the capability approach' . Björn-Sören Gigler . 2004

23This of course is true of all social action, but the accent here is on the current structural fluidity of the information society space, and its implications.

24 WHAT IS COMMUNITY INFORMATICS (and Why Does It Matter)? , Michael Gurstein, 2007

25Global Positioning System


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