More ICT4D Please!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011 - 16:35
This is a response to a blog post published last week by Eric Hersman, also known as the @WhiteAfrican - The Subtle Condescension of “ICT4D”.

I have been involved in a range of ICT4D issues in South Africa and beyond over the course of the 11 years I have worked for SANGONeT. Last week we hosted the 7th annual SANGONeT “ICT for Civil Society” conference in Johannesburg which focused on ICTs for rural development (ICT4RD) in Africa under the theme “Rural Realities, Real Solutions”. It is these experiences that compel me to comment on the mentioned article and respond to some of the issues Hersman raises.

Hersman begins his article with the statement:

“I have cognitive dissonance over the term “ICT4D“. The term “ICT4D” is confusing, hypocritical and has a whiff of condescension that makes me cringe. As I understand it, it’s what NGO’s do in places like Africa and Asia, but if the same things are done in poor communities in the US or Europe, it’s not called ICT4D, it’s called civil society innovation or a disruptive product.”

It is not so much what (the ICT4D issue) Hersman raises in the article - although the relevance, success and impact of ICT4D initiatives in Africa should be assessed in a critical manner - but rather, how and from which position he raises these issues.

Confronting and responding to Africa's development challenges, and technology’s role within this, is a complex and definitely not light hearted issue. Raising these issues for the sake of “testing the waters” or getting people worked up does not make sense to me. Especially if you as the author of the article is a perfect example of what ICT4D in Africa represents - coming up with great ideas which attract funding support and ultimately result in opportunities to contribute to meaningful and longterm development - or - just opportunities to “do things in the name of development” without fully understanding the issues to be addressed of the longterm commitment required to ensure meaningful impact.

For someone who has been very prominent in the African ICT4D space, Eric Hersman’s role and contribution definitely fit into the former and not latter scenario.

Development is also not simply a term “owned” by international agencies and other stakeholders to motivate and justify their presence in and support to Africa – it refers to improvement, empowerment, progress, innovation, etc. It is about moving to something better and more meaningful than what the current situation represents.

From an “international development perspective”, it is no longer what you can do for Africa but rather what you can do with Africa in support of the needs and aspirations articulated by Africans. Any different perspective on the role of international development support is problematic, to say the least.

Technology has an important role to play in the future development and prosperity of the continent. It contributes to economic growth and innovation on the one side, and supports efforts that address Africa’s historical development challenges on the other.

These two issues represent different sides to the same coin – but often require very different approaches, and different roleplayers, to achieve the desirable objectives.

Whatever you prefer to call technology is irrelevant - IT / ICT / ICT4D / ICT4RD / M4D/ Tech4Dev, etc. What really matters is the intent, the objectives and the motivation for using it.

But, technology for technology’s stake is downright stupid.

Too many technology for development projects and interventions fail because of the emphasis on the technology without understanding the development issue/s and/or what it would take to ensure the implementation of the technology will ultimately achieve success and impact. Too many technology competitions, awards and challenges place too much focus on the development of “more new tools” rather on what has been achieved.

Hersman also asks the following question:

“If an ICT4D-type project is done in a poor part of America, is it still considered ICT4D?”

In my opinion the answer is – no! Why? Because if a First World country - with all the necessary technology and resources at its disposal - wastes its resources on meaningless external political objectives, while allowing a morally bankrupt financial system to cripple its economy, and as a result of all of this, neglects the needs of its own people, then you can’t compare it to the historical situation and development challenges which characterise many African countries.

Africa has also wasted many opportunities over the past few decades to improve its socio-economic situation. There is no excuse for this and sadly, future generations will continue to suffer from this. However, this does not mean that the international community should turn their backs on Africa or use it as an excuse to disengage from the continent. It should also not be a reason to think about Africa as a great place to go test and showcase technology not relevant to the needs of the continent or to make a quick buck out of the misery of others. There is no place for these practices anywhere and they definitely have nothing to contribute to either the development or ICT4D objectives of the continent.

We need home-grown technology innovation to stimulate and drive economic growth which will impact the African economy at large. This will result in competitive and sustainable businesses, profits, job creation, etc.

We also need home-grown technology innovation to support efforts aimed at addressing social development challenges such as health, education, etc. facing the continent – so called ICT4D interventions and applications.

But while technology is the common factor, the enabling environment, support structures and related issues in dealing with these two imperatives are very different.

In recent years, a number of African countries, particularly Kenya, South Africa and others, have developed a reputation for technology innovation and success - both in terms of big mainstream businesses (e.g. MTN, etc.) as well as small, dynamic, technology start-ups. Often the latter initiatives evolve without any special government, investment or regulatory support.

However, big IT business and small start-ups alone will not ensure that all Africans benefit from the potential contribution and impact of technology. Other interventions are also required.

Governments, international development agencies, the private sector and other stakeholders continue to commit millions of dollars to technology for development – so called ICT4D – projects in Africa. Many international conferences (e.g. annual SANGONeT conference), reports, publications, panels of experts, etc. also continue to focus on ICT4D issues.

Are all these efforts a total waste of money? Why would Eric Hersman be cynical about these efforts or what they are collectively referred to if his own claim to fame – Ushahidi, etc – is build, maintained, celebrated, supported and rolled-out all over the world with funding from various key international institutions.

I call this hypocritical.

Hersman should know better than to articulate these sentiments in a way that sounds condescending and patronising, especially while he presents himself as the "White African" committed to helping Africa through the power of technology innovation.

It is true that the impact of many ICT4D initiatives is sometimes difficult to determine and their scale and scope often are too limited to have meaningful impact. However, questioning their overall intent is hugely problematic! What needs to be questioned is their focus, objectives and ultimately, impact. Africa’s development challenges remain significant, and will take many more generations to address. If technology is one of the vehicles to achieve this objective, then more should be done to nurture and expand its contribution and impact – by both local and international stakeholders.

The fact that the majority of people on the African continent today have access to a mobile phone unfortunately does not represent development and empowerment. It is a remarkable achievement, but more needs to be done for the full potential of ICTs to impact the lives of all Africans.

As highlighted in the draft National Development Plan released by South Africa’s National Planning Commission (NPC) last week, “Despite the uptake of mobile phones, growth in SA's ICT sector has not brought affordable, universal access to a full range of communications services.”

That is the real challenge.

Finally, there are now a billion people living on the African continent. Their future is closely intertwined. The success and failure of some will have a direct bearing on others. We all need to do more in ensuring a better life for all on this continent.

Many Africans go the extra mile every day in responding to the challenges facing us. They don't do it to win awards or be famous, but just to make a difference in the lives of others.

There is also more than one real “White African” serious about making a contribution to the future of this continent.