The ICT4D Baby Is Out but Its Bathwater Is Making Waves

February 08, 2011 | bit-wartung | Methods & Tools |


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Patrick KalasBy Patrick Kalas
Rare snowflakes covered the Victorian rooftops of Royal Halloway College just outside of London, where over 580 international researchers and practitioners in the field of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for Development met during the impeccably organized 3rd ICTD conference. Development relevant, because ICTs are enabling tools, which can catalyze social, economic and political change processes through providing timely access to information and knowledge, facilitate knowledge-sharing and learning while amplifying voices of the voiceless. The following is a personal reflection about my perceived heartbeat of the ICT4D community at ICTD in London expanding on the previous blog post “Simple but Not Easy- Why Strategic Integration of ICTs Is Simply Not Easy”.

bluetooth-radio-wavesThe ICT4D baby is out but its bathwater is making noticeable waves. As the inspiring deliberations demonstrated, there is a current shift in discourse within the ICT4D community away from the previously criticized “silver-bullet-solution-preaching” towards pragmatic and yes, evidence-based exchanges focusing on outcome and selected impact. The resulting top-down ICT4D advocacy tone (the ICT4D baby) is being replaced and complemented by the more convincing case for bottom-up, demand-driven strategic integration of ICTs to leverage results in other sectors such as Health, Education, Rural Development, Governance or Climate Change programmes (ICT4D bathwater). Encouragingly this trend is also reflected in the ongoing consultation of the new World Bank ICT Sector Strategy which envisions emphasis on cross-sectoral mainstreaming under its “Transform” pillar.

Steady ICT4D bathwater waves are washing onto the Rural Development and Agriculture shore. ICTs- such as interactive community radios and mobile phones- enable timely access to decisive market information helping to address systemic market inefficiencies with resulting higher incomes of farmers. This includes the important role of empowering intermediaries such as knowledge extension workers and farmers associations). Very timely, the FAO launched its revamped e-Agriculture web platform during ICTD 2010 complementing initial overviews on ICTs for Rural Development and targeting this precise group through this global community of practice.

Storming ICT4D “white-caps” are curling onto the Health Sector shores, as ICTs within Health is being driven by the ongoing buzz of the Mobile Revolution (coined “M-Health”). Just in time it seemed, an interactive workshop “m-healthy messaging” explored specific issues beyond the general level discussions on how mobile phones can influence change of practice / behavioral change. Despite the real promise, continued critical reflections on good (and bad) practices are needed including the tricky issue of collaborating with the private sector.

Finally, an ICT4D “rip-current” has formed on applying ICTs within Climate Change Programmes, both within adaptation and mitigation. On mitigation, ICTs contribute to 2% of Global Emissions and efforts to optimize this are spearheaded by initiatives such as ITU’s Global e-sustainability Initiative and OECD’s Green-ICT Initiative exploring the potential of ICTs to help reduce carbon emissions through smarter and greener production processes. On adaptation, “Planting the Knowledge Seed- Adapting to Climate Change using ICTs” established concrete linkages between the “people-centred” approach of strategically integrating ICTs (including interactive media) noting that

  • ICTs have a negative influence on climate change (2% of global emissions and e-waste)
  • ICTs as tools have positive potential to reduce the risk and vulnerability at grassroots levels through
    • providing timely access to relevant information (e.g. Early Warning Systems)
    • raise awareness (particularly at grassroots level)
    • facilitate practical knowledge-sharing and learning on coping strategies
    • empowering those most vulnerable and effected by climate change to raise their voice for political accountability and tangible action
  • Current mainstreaming approaches from integrating ICTs in a people-centred, demand-driven approach into development sectors such as health, education, governance can be directly applied to Climate Change Programmes with systemic capacity development approach is needed.

Elevating the discourse further, a one-day workshop by the University of Manchester’s “Climate Change, ICTs and Innovation Project” was organized with one particularly striking conclusion- there is a systematic “bottom-up-driven” demand emerging from poor communities themselves demanding capacity development efforts to reduce their potential vulnerabilities through increased access to and sharing of information and knowledge. This is in line with the general ICT4D bathwater trend and the way forward needs to include:

  1. Focusing on adaptation and people in order to reduce vulnerabilities of the 70% of the 1.4 Billion people live on less than 1.25 dollars a day that are in rural areas and who will be most affected by the inevitable consequences of climate change;
  2. Applying the Holistic 7 C’s-approach complimentary to connectivity and access issues (see blog post “Simple but Not Easy…” for an overview on 7 C’s);
  3. Taking critical reflections on “ICT-Mainstreaming” into account (see “Mainstreaming ICTs in Development: The Case Against it”);
  4. Embedding ICTs into Standard Operating Climate Change Tools such as the OECD “Climate Proofing Tool”.



People First – Technology Second, Particularly in Rural Areas

  • Reality Check by IFAD’s Rural Poverty Report 20111.4 Billion people live on less than 1.25 dollars a day, 70% live in rural areas. Exploring ICTs as empowering tools to address poverty alleviation efforts in rural areas ought to remain the key focus of the research and practitioners community.

Convergence Among Different ICTs Beats Mobile Alone

  • Focus on Convergence among different ICTs – including the pivotal role of interactive radio – to obtain desired reach and foster participation for a change of practice while avoiding the technology-driven “ICT4D-Hype” mistakes within the within the ongoing “M-Hype” (including defining the role of the private sector).

Keep the Bad and Ugly About ICTs in Mind

  • Address and explore the serious flipside of the positive ICT coin including e-waste or the commercial standards of the extractive metal industry and ICTs as both issues can contribute directly to unsafe and exploitative working conditions.

Re-embracing ICT-enhanced Communication for Development Approaches for Political Empowerment and Social Accountability

  • Extraordinary events in Tunisia with regional implications indicate the catalytical role different ICTs are playing to foster political transformation, paradoxically a dimension of ICTs in risk of being considerably side-lined by other sectoral applicability such as in health and economic development. Wrongly so. ICT-enhanced “Communication for Development approaches” – a social process method based on fostering dialogue – deserve a comeback to build on established linkages to enhanced participation and inclusion of voices of the marginalized in decision-making.

Back to Basic Mysteries – Up-Scaling, Public-Private / Multi-stakeholder Partnerships and the Role of an International Donor

  • Persisting knowledge gaps on Up-scaling, PPPs / MSPs and the role of international donor agencies remain and deserve attention to explore how to move beyond “small is beautiful”, how to make PPPs and MSPs actually work sustainably with any role of a partnership Broker or what the role of international donors agencies should be, particularly within the mobile hype.

Don’t Reach for the Holy “Impact Grail”- Outcome is Enough

  • ICTs have a promising potential to facilitate the leap to a change of practice / behavioral change (i.e. Outcome level results). Despite selected case studies on ICTs and Impact, this is costly and therefore it may be more pragmatic to deepen understanding on outcome levels with appropriate tools for measurement (adjusted Outcome Mapping) while integrating these lessons learned into the ongoing project cycles.

No More Freestanding ICT4D Conferences

  • There is no more need for large, top-down ICT4D Advocacy conferences but rather continued, focused exchanges between the research and practitioners community to narrow in on evidence gap while piggy-bagging on mainstream development conferences.

What do you think? Is the ICT4D community willing and able to adapt in order to ride the current ICT4D bathwater wave for more impact within the mainstream development sector? Join the conversation, I am looking forward to hear from you.


Comments to“The ICT4D Baby Is Out but Its Bathwater Is Making Waves”

  1. Thanks for a nice posting Patrick!

    What you argue for resonates well with the conclusions and recommendations in UNCTAD’s Information Economy Report 2010 (, which makes a call for more demand-driven approaches in the area of ICTs and enterprise development to make sure that initiatives actually meet the needs of the intended beneficiaries.

    Your call for more interaction between different communities is also welcome. UNCTAD will in its next report look at how ICTs can support efforts to promote private sector development. A quick review of existing private sector development strategies suggest that the opportunities from using ICTs to address various PSD objectives are often not well reflected. This suggest there is scope and need for more interaction between the PSD community and the ICT4D crowd.


  2. Good work Patrick,

    I agree with most of your observations and I support the way you describe the conference. The choice for the baby and the bathwater is always complicated, as you say the bathwater will be thrown away and the baby will bath again and it will be totally fresh water again.

    I second the mainstreaming part of your story, it was one of the disappointing conclusion of the conference that organizations originally funding ICTD for itself now talk of mainstreaming which will make the focus on ICTD more complicated.

    I completely subscribe to your 6 of your critical conclusions (not to the last one) maybe in another order. I think I would focus more on your 3rd point of political empowerment and social accountability. It is nice to refer to Tunisia and Egypt and the role of social media in this respect and I wish change would reach everywhere that fast but ICTs will play a role in long term change as well. I think you missed the Spider Presentation on the first day of the Conference but they presented their publication: “Increasing transparency & fighting corruption through ICT” you can find it here Interesting material on Twaweza, Election Monitoring and Budget Tracking. Not mentioned yet but very promising is also the new Ushahidi project: Huduma, see here:
    It does not contradict to what you are saying but for me there is a crucial role for ICT. In this combination with the recent discussion among the donor community on the new IATI standard, the opendata discussion, the APIs of the WorldBank and DFID we are entering an area where it is difficult to predict the outcomes.

    A last remark is the role of ICT incubators in Africa, what we learned from the Worldbank is that they are focussing on content specific incubation but if I look at the experience of the iHub in Nairobi and the just launched Afrilabs initiative I think we should include this field as well.



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