ICTs and Development Theories – II

Linking ICTs to development

External researchers and experts poking for the first time into ICTD might assume that the field has, 30 years after its birth, a cohesive theory on how ICTs impact development. Unfortunately, that is not the case. If ICTD was a digital platform, we could conclude that its middleware seems to be missing or malfunctioning in the best-case scenario. The linkages between inputs (ICTs) and outputs (development) are not sharply defined nor directly measurable. That applies to both development theories and the actual impact ICTs have had on the ground, where failures are reportedly pervasive.

Not that ICTD researchers are oblivious to such defective or invisible middleware. On the contrary, many leading researchers have already explored ways to address the theoretical gap. However, agreement on the various development models has yet to be reached, while the four depicted in the previous post have not been considered in tandem.

Development approaches mentioned by ICTD researchers include economic growth, modernization, distributional justice, socio-economic transformation, freedom, social inclusion, increasing productivity, overall well-being, neoclassical economic growth and human development.  These rubrics can be subsumed under one or more of the broad development models described previously.

Paradoxically, few researchers explicitly mention either WC or PWC, arguably the dominant global development models in the last few decades. However, a closer look at the predominant ICTD perspective that centers on access and diffusion of digital technologies is revealing. Access includes infrastructure, while diffusion brings in human skills and competencies. The dynamic envisaged here is straightforward: foster both and then develop inexorably. Telecoms liberalization, further privatization, more deregulation, less taxation, and a passive national state are vital ingredients in this formula.

On the other hand, the Human Development approach, usually referred to as the Capabilities Approach (CA), has gained considerable ground in the last decade. Such an evolution provides a sound alternative to the access and diffusion agenda that finds additional fuel with almost every new digital technology rising on the innovation horizon – with the notable exceptions of AI/ML and Blockchains.

Being that as it may, one thing is to identify or endorse development theories. Another very different story is to have a theory of change or a similar framework that details how ICTs enhance any given development framework. Using Human Development as an example, the question then is how can ICTs foster its five interconnected freedoms. However, CA already has a built-in theory of change. Consequently, defining a new one is not the optimal way to sort this puzzle.

Part of the answer stems from how ICTs and digital technologies are characterized from the onset. Being a mix of several technologies and sectors, ICTs can assume different personalities. More so, if ICTD researchers comprise experts from various disciplines ranging from technology and Information Sciences to economics and political science.

The first, and perhaps most well-known, is ICT as infrastructure, albeit not limited to telecommunications, hardware/software and networks but also including the required individual skills and environment to use them effectively. Indeed, that is the overall focus of the access and diffusion agenda and is primarily technology-driven. In this light, this agenda is close to Modernization Theory as development happens in sequential steps. And it is in partnership with WC/PWC in public policy terms with its repeated calls for more privatization and deregulation and less taxation.

The second instance sees ICTs as mainly information and media. Access to information (and misinformation) and knowledge, open and big data, and social media are critical and interrelated components. In a sense, this approach complements the first one. The fundamental question here is how individuals can strategically use the gazillions of information and data points once they are connected and have the necessary skills to do so. Here, human rights – albeit limited to civil and political rights, capacity development and empowerment are prime drivers. This approach can then be correlated with the Human Development paradigm, sans its socio-economic freedoms.

ICT as a sector is the third alternative. Countries like China, India, Singapore, South Korea, Brazil, and Costa Rica have successfully supported the development of such a sector to gain new global competitive advantages. The emphasis here is on industrialization and economic growth, pillars of Modernization Theory but also part of some of the other development models. Interestingly, this option opens the door for the potential development of public policies that promote digital sovereignty – not to be confused with digital independence.

The last option defines ICTs as enablers. The intrinsic value of ICTs is not infrastructure, information, or economic potential. Instead, its relevance stems from its potential to amplify or augment development processes. ICTs can indeed furnish new options and solutions to issues and bottlenecks that have proven to be resilient throughout the years. Innovation thus plays a role here. Nevertheless, ICTs are not a panacea as their applicability is not universal, while their dark side introduces new and unexpected challenges. In this light, ICTs could be of extreme value in enhancing the Human Development paradigm.

In this light, a new theory of change or development does not seem to be absolutely unnecessary. Instead, exploring how ICTs can impact the theories of change of the various development models is the way to go. Nevertheless, digital technologies could also disrupt long-standing development models and paradigms by changing on-the-ground conditions and triggering new developmental challenges that were not on the radar screen before. That might be the case for AI/ML and new technologies such as Blockchains.

Some conclusions

ICTD practitioners are less concerned about using any specific development theory when they go to the field. Unfortunately, in many cases, the approach is straightforward. It consists of finding a particular community where a given digital technology can be deployed to tackle some challenge, usually the underprovision of some private good. As a long-time practitioner, I learned that any ICTD intervention must fulfill at least three conditions 1. It has to be demand-driven. The target population sees the effort as a direct response to their needs and priorities. Here, a  pure “disruptive innovation” approach fails as local contexts are usually ignored. 2. Ownership. The community must own any such initiative and not the donor agency or ICTD practitioner. It is THEIR initiative, not ours. Creating ownership is feasible here. This goes hand in hand with 1. And 3. It has to be participatory from the very start. Community members must be involved in the design and implementation process from the beginning (and not at the tail end, as is usually the case if it happens at all). This strengthens ownership while fostering transparency and accountability. No decision should be made without community involvement.

It is also essential to address the difference between public and private goods (and services). The latter are usually the most prominent due to the prevailing theories that underpin most development efforts. Private goods, by default, can be easily marketed. Take food, which is an essential good but is private, that is, producers sell it in the market for a profit. On the other hand, public goods lack such links and are thus more challenging to produce and sustain. In this light, closing a private good gap is much easier than closing it for any public good such as access to justice, education and health (public goods in most developing countries). That is really really relevant for the poorest populations that usually lack access to such public goods that cannot be provided by “social entrepreneurs.” This is relevant for both practitioners and researchers.

Perhaps more relevant for ICTD researchers is the need to be highly familiar with the many development theories that are out there. In my previous post, I described a few which seem the most commonly used in theory and practice. The critical point here is that all those theories operate in a very hierarchical space where the most dominant ones become critical inputs to national and local policymaking. The rest do not seem to be relevant at that level and thus have no actual impact on the ground. Acknowledging such a hierarchy will also help researchers trying to influence local policymaking to understand the theoretical underpinnings of proposed policies amid specific political and power distribution structures. Digital technologies also operate in that space and cannot just “disrupt” it with a quick technical fix or state-of-the-art solution. 

Cheers, Raúl

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