A Dialogue on ICTs, Human Development, Growth, and Poverty Reduction

(updated 3/4/10) In addition to my own quick responses below, see also the pletora of responses, including one by my friend Michael Best to this essay that have arisen since its publication last year.

(first posted 9/30/09)
As a background paper to the 2nd IDRC-Harvard Forum (which I announced recently), posted their above-titled essay on the Publius Project on September 21 2009, with the purpose of surveying the wide variety of research and action regarding ICTs and development that has surged since the 1st pre-WSIS Forum in 2003.

Acknowledging subjectivity, they claim that current literature comes in the following five following 'stories': universal access, economic and social services, openness, human development and innovation. Below I provide a summary of that essay and also my own responses.

  • Universal Access: The first story is the dramatic increase in ICT connectivity and use globally, with usage nearing universal in many developing as well as advanced countries.
  • Economic and social services: A second story is that of economic and social services enabled or facilitated by connectivity, referred to above – financial, business and distribution, employment, personal and public services.
  • Openness and open access: The third story is one that started before ‘open software’ and ‘access to knowledge,’ and has become a movement that pushes for openness in all the ‘layers’ of society: social, economic, legal, and technological (infrastructure, software/logic, content).
  • Human development and capable access: The fourth story is one greater attention to individual, external and group capabilities and freedoms, as highest-level development objectives.
  • Innovation and creative access: The fifth story is one of innovation, increasingly regarded as fundamental to development.

My immediate responses are:
  • Wow, really positive! And I agree that much has changed since 2003 with ICT and Development.
  • However, the more cynical, practitioner side of me says that there are also stories of politics drowning ICT potential, ineffective design and implementation, project failure, negative unintended consequences, many of which should be (but are usually not) documented as part of the literature.
  • Moreover, I wonder if ICT4D should permeate other fields (like 'training' does), as opposed to taking about 'ICT4D' literature as a field (like 'Training' Literature)
  • In addition, there remains much more to learn and experiment before the real potential of ICT can be used for poverty alleviation. I think that we are only just slowly gearing up to learn more. Especially in my field, which is the use of ICT in Law for Development.
  • I caution against too much positive hype giving rise to too many ICT projects, in dear that there might be an ICT4D-bust (like the dot-com bust) before the ineffective projects will be weeded out.

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