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Mainstreaming ICTs in Development: The Case Against by Richard Heeks

Dear Community Members,
Here I am sharing a good argument put forward by Richard Heeks. He argues against the recent trends of mainstreaming ICT4D Units by major International Development Agencies into their other programmes. It is possible that the mainstreaming might lead to neglecting the integration of ICTs into major development areas, as it has not been accomplished satisfactorily yet. He puts forward a strong argument against this trend. Have a happy reading and don't forget to check the link below that will take you to his blog site on wordpress.

Source: ICTs for Development

ICTs should be mainstreamed into development. That’s the current conventional wisdom. And it is wrong.

Mainstreaming ICTs means they should be understood as one among a number of tools seeking to achieve other development goals – poverty alleviation, health, education – of the MDG variety. ICTs become just means, not ends, in development. Donor agencies, governments and other development organisations no longer require a specialist ICT4D group; their goal-oriented departments will all have ICTs as part of their toolkit.

Can we see signs of mainstreaming? We surely can among main donors. Where previously they “sidestreamed” by having dedicated ICT4D units; increasingly they no longer do. UK’s DFID closed down its specialist Information and Communication for Development unit in 2006. Swiss SDC largely phased out its ICT4D concentration in 2008 in favour of integration of ICTs into its other programmes. Canada’s IDRC restructured in 2009/10 to disperse its ICT4D group. No doubt you could add your own examples.

None of this should be surprising. There was a continuous discourse of integration and mainstreaming from the time ICTs emerged onto the development agenda in the late 1990s. A discourse that grew stronger during the 2000s as political economic analyses identified private sector interests in artificially ramping ICTs’ profile in development; as information systems and development studies analyses showed the historical and conceptual failure of technology-driven change and of technological determinism; and as ICTs mirrored that history in practice by failing to be a magic bullet for development. (With Manchester’s Centre for Development Informatics right in the mix of that discourse!)

So ICTs have been or are being mainstreamed; they have floated down to their proper one-colour-among-many-on-the-palette place in development, and all is well. Or not.

Because we can already identify the dangers of mainstreaming ICTs:

- Subsuming the technology into individual development goal silos means learning about ICTs becomes trapped by mainstreaming. The specialist knowledge that successful ICT4D deployment requires – about design, development, implementation, evaluation, etc. – does not flow across the silos, causing wheels to be continuously and wastefully reinvented. Hence – nearly ten years after I started analysing ICT4D failure – that failure is still widespread, and requires actions outwith the mainstreaming development actors in order to pool knowledge; e.g. ICTworks and FailFaire and others.

- You only have to hang around with ICT4D techies for a short while to see that their techno-centrism and focus on innovation generates excitement, motivation and hope that are lost if technology becomes hidden beneath other development goals. Equally lost may be the philanthropic and other funding this excitement, motivation and hope can generate. Agencies have also become ignorant of ICT trends and innovations that can address development issues in new ways.

- Jeff Beck sang, “You’re everywhere and nowhere, baby”. We can already see when mainstreaming makes ICTs everywhere, it simultaneously makes them nowhere. Mainstreaming becomes a synonym for “forgotten”; particularly with many development actors still not skilled, knowledgeable or comfortable with ICTs. The 2010 UN Information Economy Report, for example, notes the absence of ICTs in Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, and cites a UNECA review that found ICTs in only two of twenty UN Development Assistance Frameworks. Even a cursory glance at gender and development shows this would be expected. Reviews of ten years of gender mainstreaming report: “mainstreaming has effectively drowned out the project of equality between women and men” (Charlesworth 2005); “A potentially contrary outcome of this understanding is that when mainstreaming is everyone’s task, it can become nobody’s responsibility. This was the experience of the Dutch government … thus, gender mainstreaming is in crisis.” (Mehra & Gupta 2006); “mainstreaming has been co-opted as a useful dismissive device whereby departments can go back to business as usual. … Gender mainstreaming becomes a very useful, internationally sanctioned vehicle for this dismissal of women.” (Alston 2006). Just so with ICTs.

- Mainstreaming of ICTs has been driven alongside an info-centric view that conceives them as tools for handling the information and communication that development requires. This is ICTs’ “intensive” role of improving existing activities. It ignores ICTs’ “extensive” role of creating new development processes and livelihoods. As a result, for example, ICTs’ productive role gets ignored. Yet we know from the 2010 UN Information Economy Report that ICTs are creating millions of new jobs and micro-enterprises in developing countries. Which donor agency, which government, which development organisation has its eye on that ball? Answer – none of them save those very few such as UNCTAD and InfoDev/World Bank, which are hanging on as bastions of sidestreaming rather than just mainstreaming ICTs.

- Mainstreaming agencies fail to take account of ICTs’ cross-cutting, integrative capabilities: digital technology’s ability to address a whole raft of development goals at once. Mainstreaming is particularly antithetic to a Senian view of development. It means using ICTs to deliver pre-set goals. Yet, as Dorothea Kleine (2010) demonstrated, ICTs’ great value in Senian terms is in enabling choice and capabilities of individuals; a multitude of different outcomes that cannot be pre-determined. ICTs’ ability to do so is much greater than that of other development tools; affording them a special status. A special status that mainstreaming cannot recognise.

- Drawing the latter points together, any question of ICTs’ transformative potential disappears when you mainstream. The raindrops of evidence we have about Development 2.0 – about ICTs delivering radically new development models; attacking foundational development constraints; changing our view of development; enabling us to think outside the MDG box – all these find no place in a mainstreaming agenda. Just as they were with mobiles, traditional development actors will be blindsided to the ICT-enabled future if they carry on mainstreaming.

Adapting Rischard’s framework cited by Manuel Acevedo (2009) we can say that mainstreaming will leave development organisations:

- weak at the operational level of projects due to inability to build ICT good practice, and due to sidelining of ICTs.

- very weak at the strategic level of policies and programmes due to ignorance about ICT trends and innovations, about ICTs’ “extensive” role, and about ICTs’ cross-cutting role, and due to ICTs’ generally low profile.

- completely lacking any vision for development that encompasses the present and future impact of ICTs.

All this is not an argument for isolationism. ICTs should not be sealed into pods within development agencies. But the opposite road – just popping those pods and stirring into the general mix – is equally wrong. Development agencies must both mainstream and sidestream. This will mean retaining, recreating or building specialist ICT units. Without the sidestream, they will be less efficient, less effective and wandering blindfold into the future of development.

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Comment by Shipra Sharma on November 3, 2010 at 11:48am
Thanks Kiringai and Jan for appreciating the article and sharing your thoughts on it. I agree with Kiringai; yes mainstreaming ICTs is the need of the hour and this can be achieved only through the bottom up approach with the involvement of grassroots innovators. Given an opportunity, they are the ones who can help in integrating ICTs in the daily life of the village communities across the world. In fact, they are better placed to achieve it because they understand the conditions on the ground as well as the major challenges.
In the context of what Richard Heeks is trying to emphasise is that this trend of - (I am quoting Kiringai) "innovation on the basis of ICT-based opportunities identified to drive development" will suffer if the donors don't have a dedicated Unit to address this issue. As he has explained through examples, now, instead of having a dedicated ICT4D department, most of these Agencies are moving towards integrating the ICT4D unit in their different programme areas. In his own words, "traditional development actors will be blindsided to the ICT-enabled future if they carry on (this) mainstreaming. It is possible that these ground level ICT innovations will suffer since there will not be any dedicated department to support these activities. This is where his conclusions seem to be the way forward.
Comment by Jan Herder on November 2, 2010 at 1:44am
Great article--thanks Shipra. I enjoy Kiringal's reaction to the argument that by "mainstreaming" we have "side-lined" ICTs. Yes, ironic. But I feel a similar response as Kiringal's--I am excited by the bottom up feature of ICT empowerment. "mainstream" is a supply side idea--top down. That's the difference. Bottom up will be the new "mainstream"--the practice of web 2.0 and its continued disruptive innovations. I am embracing the lessons I am learning here among this group of ICT4D practitioners to re-learn the lessons and apply them hyperlocally--in my back yard. This dynamic between the global and the local will continue to feed wealth and literacy for an emergent "mainstream" generation of ICT users. All the more reason for telecenters to develop entrepreneurial models to ween themselves of mainstream, supply side trends.
Consider developing your own media ecology, develop a knowledge base, and leverage ICT's self sufficiently. Here is an attempt I made to explain it: egyankendra media ecology


Comment by Kiringai Kamau on November 1, 2010 at 11:33pm
Dear Shipra,
This post from Richard Heeks, whose work provides good insights in ICT4D, is to me as interesting as it is confusing. It is interesting in that a new terminology has been born to my world – side-streaming. It is also interesting in that the person writing it has been engaged with ICT4D for as long as it lived. What is confusing me is the thought that pops thus: “Does mainstreaming mean the death of innovation”? I am doubtful.

In the realm of knowledge management, the more we infuse technology into a process, even at the vulnerable community level, one gathers data which leads to information and as it grows from all dimensions, it creates knowledge. The outcomes of this are enormous gains.

I come from Kenya and would like to give an over-research subject of mobile money. At the moment, Kenya is slowly finding a positioning as an innovation country for mobile phone. I am sure the mobile revolution will change what we know as retail banking, very, very soon. In my view, the integration of the phone in the pro-poor arena of micro payment approaches provides a technology innovation known out of the mainstreaming of the phone to the financial lives of many.

It keeps evolving while at the same time driving innovation in mobile solutions. More mobile apps are being developed by students in Kenya than they are engaged in institutional software. Why? The ICT4D that is mobile has been mainstreamed into the thinking of the youth who are also mainstreaming the poor into the formal financial system. They save their pennies and receive the pounds and can become mega savers with time. As we appreciate, the all development is about getting people out of poverty, which can only come if the level of savings increases…this technology is not being side-streamed, it is being mainstreamed. Shipra I beg to differ with Rich on this one!

Following the foregoing argument, one forms the view that it is possible to identify pathways out of poverty only if innovation on the basis of ICT-based opportunities is identified to drive development. Let me explain here, if knowledgeable youths are provided with the ICT infrastructure in their rural areas to develop solutions that they can deploy in people’s computers and phone through the internet, they earn as they provide knowledgeable company to the rural people. The level of knowledge that comes from interaction is achieved in ways that are complex to describe, but an understanding of diffusion helps here.

If donors can think institution, if they can deliver their programmes through telecentres and have them manned not by expensive experts but by local telecentre based techies, then we can say we are slowly realizing development through mainstreaming of ICTs through a development initiative called a telecentre. Put agricultural services, telemedicine, and tele-everything else at the telecentre and we have unified the development landscape. This model is what is called the bottom up model that will challenge all top-down thinkers. The reason why the ground up perspective that ICT mainstreaming assumes beats any other model is because we can finally commoditize knowledge. Capacity building of the people at the grassroots of development efforts is now possible and one does not have to go to a costly university but can get the best education when living in a shack in their village. They only need a angle to visit them and pay their fee and they will be getting the best that all others get. Trust me we can only realize sustainable development through ICT Mainstreaming. No new vocabularies please!

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