"Death of ICT4D" - Tony Roberts, Ken Banks and me.

Tony Robert's blog on Death of ICT4D 'Greatly Exaggerated' and the reference he makes to Ken Banks sounding the death knell of ICT4D for several years, prompts me to add my perspective on ICT4D.

A non-academic perspective

I'm not part of academia, or any other "expenses paying" organisation. This means that if I do go to any ICT4D conferences I have to foot the bills myself and I have to go in my own time, so I don't usually go.

December 2010 was an exception. ICTD conferences are held about every 18 months and move from country to country. ICTD2010 was held in London and had an emphasis on making connections between academia and practitioners. If ever I was going to make it to an ICTD conference this was it.

The story I'm going to tell you has to do with that conference and informs my take on the "Death of ICT4D" debate. I'll explain elsewhere how I fit in the ICT4D spectrum. For now I'll simply call myself an ICT4D practitioner.

ICTD 2010 - Wednesday morning - Keynote session

In December 2010 I was at a keynote session at ICTD2010. I think it was Wednesday. Anyhow it was the day of the week that we normally held our UK-Nigeria weekly meetings. The keynote and the online meeting were going to overlap, but I thought I could manage both.

Picture the scene. We are in an impressive university lecture theatre. I'm sitting towards the back looking down, over the rows of participants, towards the emeritus professor who is giving the keynote. My laptop is open.

I am on Skype. Not talking, just typing. I'm typing to John Dada and his team in Nigeria, and reading what they're typing. It's a normal, online, team meeting. We never use speech, the bandwidth on the Nigerian side can't handle it. We're used to our typed meetings and usually get through a lot of business during the one hour we're together (I think speech would slow us down). We always start with a "meet and greet" before we get down to business. We can't do eye contact, or see if someone looks happy or downcast, so we always exchange a bit of news, to get a sense of how people are feeling and their current situation.

I mention that I'm at ICTD2010 and giving some of my attention to a speaker, so may not participate 100%. That will be okay. On the Nigerian side people often get interrupted by unexpected visitors or other distractions and have to dip in and out of the meeting. With a typed meeting it's easy to quickly catch up by reading what's been going on while your attention has been elsewhere.

Remember that the speaker I'm listening to is an emeritus professor. He is free to speak his mind without worrying about upsetting people who can help him to develop his career. He speaks from experience, with humour but with truth, about the greasy pole of academic advancement. He explains why ICT4D is such a problematic area for academics. Academic advancement is all about publications. Academics have to publish, and they have to publish in reputable journals. Reputable journals tend to be specialist journals. They are not cross- disciplinary. ICT4D is cross disciplinary. He goes into considerable detail. The essence of his message is that academics can't connect across disciplines. ICT4D is therefore doomed.

I share some of his key points with the team in Nigeria. We're using ICT. We're discussing local integrated community development - and our discussions are practical. Ours is needs-led, community development, in action, with a UK-Nigeria ICT dimension.

Here I am at an ICTD conference in order to explore collaboration between academics and practitioners. I'm being told, from the front, that the ICT4D academics can't even collaborate with each other - what hope then that they will collaborate with us? The irony of the situation in not lost on us.  

There are other tales I could tell you about ICTD2010 from a practitioners viewpoint, but one will suffice. By the time I left I was so discouraged that (after nearly ten years of effort) I gave up trying to create collaborations with academia. I still lurk sometimes. I connect with some academics. I go to ICT4D meetings in London when I can and I appreciate those opportunities, but I understand now that the relationship I imagined and hoped for isn't one that ICT4D academia is seeking.

Is the death of ICT4D greatly exaggerated?

So - is the Death of ICT4D 'Greatly Exaggerated'?

From what Tony says ICT4D is still thriving as a discipline in academia and elsewhere, and I have no reason to doubt him. ICT is also still very much at the centre of all we do in Dadamac regarding UK and Africa and practical community development. I see that as integrated ICT4D in practice. So we are agreed that ICT4D isn't dead, but I'm more concerned with its vitality than its mere survival..

What seems unhealthy to me, in the long term, is the disconnect between ICT4D in academia and ICT4D in practice. I don't know how it looks from the academic side, but it seems similar to the disconnect I described in It's not just me! - Hear Binyavanga Wainaina on "development".

I'm a practitioner selfishly wanting academics to help me by researching what I need to know but don't have enough time to think about. I'm saddened and often distressed by how irrelevant (and often trivial or obvious) most ICT4D research seems to be. What a waste of all those brains, and all that time and money. Why is it that after all these years I can't think of a single piece of ICT4D research that has really helped or informed me except for Stephen Musgrave's work on areas of confluence?

Is it that the academic ICT4D world is another example of top-down, tick-list, target-driven culture that struggles to connect with "messiness", dynamism, and fluidity of the "real" world?