Citizen centric approaches in ICT for development (ICTD)

Aarhus2015In the coming week I will be attending the 5th Decennial Aarhus conference “Critical Alternative 2015”, where I will take part in the ICTD workshop to learn more about the crucial importance of “citizen centric approaches” for achieving success in ICTD project.

ICTD (sometimes also called ICT4D), focuses on the use of ICT for improving local, regional and/or national development. Many ICTD projects are targeted for implementation in areas where there is minimal, or no, reliable support infrastructure such as electricity of telephony networks and are typically targeted at serving economically poor communities. This often poses a special challenge for developing sustainable solutions that do not evaporate like a fog in the sunlight as soon as they are exposed to the realities of daily life once the installation team has left the areas. In practice, such sustainability usually requires that there is a true engagement with the local communities, whom these projects are meant to be serving. All too often however it is still the case that ICTD projects are designed from a technology perspective, where some foreign  tech-solution is parachuted into the local community and somehow expected to solve their needs, without any direct involvement of said community in the development of the tool. A classic example is the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, which falsely assumed that the mere access to cheap and smart technical devices would uplift the education system of the  developing  world. An assumption which has since been  proved  to  be  faulty.

The following are some brief extracts from a couple of the abstract that were submitted to the ICTD workshop, each of them highlighting the importance of “citizen centric approaches” for achieving true impact in meeting community needs.

To be sustainable and authentic, developmental programmes in marginalized communities of the global south require the participation of local communities themselves. Without their input, development endeavors will not be fully owned by the people for whom interventions are planned, nor respond to development needs as defined by people themselves. Therefore, ideally, development interventions should be identified, designed and driven by the people that will be affected by the intervention. It is often the case that development interventionist strategies focus on short term impact at the expense of deeper more authentic outcomes and impact based on community driven contextualization and conceptualization. The latter seems to take more time to achieve and requires greater investment in building a local critical voice and social capital. [H. McCarrick & K.B. Abraham]

Making everyone part of the team that conceives of technologies is more than meeting a pragmatic need to design well for use, it is a newly-developing – unrecognised – human right. Most decisions on how we live are now being shaped by how our technologies work with us (hard-wired into our infrastructures). Therefore participatory design, in its fullest sense, is a democratic imperative. [A. Light]

The way in which we approach various sector of human life in the context of “ICT for “ ….[whatever! ]– the aged, the disabled, the poor, etc].. is deeply problematic, IMHO. The frame of reference assumes that whatever the problem, technology is the solution. This technocentric approach sets us off on the wrong path. Rather than attempting to understand people and their activities in the local context, we arrive with a set of explicit or perhaps implicit notion of of how our technology will benefit them, irrespective of the local conditions. Some of these issues are not unique to development type studies … we can find them in any rollout of technology-led programmes in Europe and elsewhere. [L.J. Bannon]

It will be interesting to hear from people with experience in co-producing ICTD how they would implement the public engagement component of the EU’s Responsible Research and Innovation agenda. And what about Internet.org, which just like the OLPC project, also doesn’t seem to have real community level input?

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