By Richard Heeks
Around the time of the MDGs, ICT4D became the focus for a critical mass of activity; a “sidestreaming” approach that saw specialist ICT4D units arise in a number of international and national organisations. Following the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), this was largely mainstreamed with specialist units being disbanded or shrinking, and ICT4D expertise seen as diffused into the main development sectors. There is a logic to mainstreaming – if done right – in ensuring integration of ICTs into a broad range of development goals.
But there are also many dangers of just mainstreaming, as I have previously summarised: you lose the focus for learning about ICT4D; you hide or downplay technological innovation which can be a source of motivation and hope, and a lever for change; you lose sight of the ICT sector and digital economy roles in development; you silo ICT into individual development sectors and thus miss the technology’s cross-cutting, integrative capabilities; and there is no “Development 2.0” or other vision for ICTs as a force for transformative change.
So alongside mainstreaming, there needs to be some sidestreaming: retaining and supporting specialist ICT4D units within … the UN system overall; individual UN organisations; international development agencies; national development agencies; national governments; international NGOs; etc. But ICT4D seems to spend more time making arguments for mainstreaming than for sidestreaming: in a recent analysis of WSIS+10 documentation, mainstreaming was found to be mentioned on a fairly regular basis but the need for sidestreaming – very much present if one cared to draw it out – was only implicit.
The case for specialist concentrations of expertise will require evidence of the past benefits of, and continuing future necessity for, sidestreamed structures at all levels within development. That should associate the value of sidestreaming just identified – learning, motivation, hope, change, ICT-based livelihoods, integration, transformation, etc – not just with the positive impacts of ICT4D but also the negative: as development becomes ever-more digital, we will require a focused effort to address ICT’s dark side.
As noted, this applies at various levels but the structuring at the level of the UN system mirrors that one would find at the level of individual countries and organisations. Essentially you have a technology-focused structure – the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in the case of the UN; equivalent to a Ministry of ICT at national level or the IT department at organisational level. Its future is never in doubt and it remains the bastion of sidestreaming. But these structures have a problem: they are full of engineers with a techno-centric worldview who find it difficult to understand development language and concepts.
We can characterise the issue in terms of the ICT4D value chain. Technical structures are good at dealing with the technical components of ‘readiness’, and the technical deliverables of ‘availability’. But they are not so good at dealing with the non-technical elements of both stages, nor with the issues of ‘uptake’ and ‘impact’. That would be a problem in itself but it is exacerbated because, over time and as ICT diffuses ever-further into international development, there is a shift in focus from just being concerned about readiness and availability to being equally – if not more – concerned with uptake and impact.
The solution here is that, over time, one places less emphasis on technical personnel and technology-dominated structures, and greater emphasis on ICT4D hybrids: socio-technical people and structures who combine an understanding of informatics (data, information, ICTs, information systems) with an equal understanding of development. In theory, the UN system has this via the UN Group on the Information Society, which was set up in 2006 in the wake of WSIS 2005 to draw together those with ICT4D interests and responsibilities from across the UN system. However, the extent to which UNGIS members are actually hybrids is unclear, and more generally, UNGIS seems to have limited power and reach in part due to its lack of independent resources.
So what of the future for ICT4D structures in the UN system? One could argue for a hybridisation of the ITU: a broadening of its scope to turn it from a technical into a socio-technical organisation that can cover all parts of the ICT4D value chain. But that could be self-defeating in terms of politics and impact: it could create an ICT4D silo that was isolated from development; all sidestream and no mainstream. And it would also be impractical given the focus and interests of ITU’s membership. Far better for ITU to stick to the readiness and availability issues that it does best – infrastructure, standards, access, bridging the digital divide – and instead to strengthen UNGIS with its own clear and independent mandate, funding, and secretariat. It would also make sense to draw other and emergent UN actors into UNGIS, such as Global Pulse.
This would create an appropriate ICT4D structure within the UN system (see figure below) with ITU providing the broad foundation of ICT expertise, and UNGIS providing the hybrid spearhead that connects out to all of development.
Structuring ICT4D Within the UN System
This would also ensure one further essential aspect of ICT4D’s future within the UN system, which is the continuation of WSIS beyond 2015.
[This blog entry is a modified excerpt from the working paper: “ICT4D 2016: New Priorities for ICT4D Policy, Practice and WSIS in a Post-2015 World”.]
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