In Search of the Elusive ICT4D
The mainstream Tanzanian press equals development with ICT and ICT with development.
Why is there such a hype? Is there a hype cycle? Why is there this media portrayal of ICT and development? How has research covered the topic?
One of the strongest claims made are that you do
fight poverty with cell phones, and that mobiles bring people money quite quickly through a
mobile revolution, or create a lot of jobs, because the
role of technology in development is well known and is a
key to economic growth, the revolution is sustainable and
there are no downsides, because
mobile phones are better than aid and even
better than aid.
There is good research backing this, but there’s also good research being critique with some euphoric statements.
A survey on 12 rural villages in Tanzania wiht 400 respondents showed that a majority earned $41-$83 and spent a third of the income in phone bills. Notwithstanding, it has to be said that there is a lot of informal economy, goods exchange, etc. so these figures should be taken with a grain of salt.
In fact, 75.25% disagreed that cost of mobile phones was justified by the benefits, while they reduced time and concentration from other important activities and making them forgo other important things.
So, what is happening in there? Don’t people in Africa read headlines?
A second set of interviews were performed asking why people owned a cell phone, what for, how did it affect their own lives, what were the costs, what was the relationship with benefits, and whether there was a choice at all (in using, in supporting costs, etc.)
First of all, there is a huge difference between rural and urban Iringa (Tanzania). In rural Iringa people pay for airtime vouchers but also for recharging the batteries of their mobile phones, a cost you have to bear even if you only get calls. And it was a high cost indeed.
One of the main reasons to own a phone, despite costs, is that it precisely saves other (higher) costs, like travelling… though the trade-off was neither clear nor always in the same sense.
Same with time: on the one hand, you save time for not travelling around, but you have to walk to a power centre to recharge the phone,
instead of working in my shamba and attending my cattle.
There was no evidence of high rates of phone sharing, for matters of availability, of privacy, etc. And beeping can be found
disturbing and, over all, consumes a lot of battery.
At the social level, many people stated the dangers or the negative effects of phone usage: corrupts children if not well monitored, destructive if not well used, lying through phones…
On the other hand, people state that they give up things because of the phone, but just few of them could list exactly what.
So, why phones:
- Because they want to communicate, to talk to each other… like everywhere else in the world.
- They want to be in touch with the world, not to be disconnected.
- They want, too, to simplify communications,
thereby improving my living standards.
About job creation, it looks like there is more job redistribution than creation: if the demand for plumbing services does not rise, what the phone will do is not create more plumbing jobs, but channel them to the one plumber that is reachable (i.e. has a phone). On the other fact, it is also true that there is a direct impact on jobs, in the ICT and mobile sectors.
- A side outcome of mobile telephony is that people who have never been part of the formal economy now become a part of it an even start to pay taxes (VAT), because they pay bills in real money (no goods exchange allowed with telcos, mind you).
- Saves money but costs money.
- Saves time but takes time.
- When investikng a significant portion of their income in mobiles, people’s capability to invest in other things is reduced, which may hinder development.
Three dogmas that we should challenge:
- Delusion of universality of technology: technology is not value-free, not culturally neutral, not universal; local contingencies do matter.
- Belief in progress through technology: technology does not progess in the course of time; progress is not inevitable; and progress has not a direction. We do have a choice.
- Faith in liberation: some kinds of technology not inevitably create benevolent social forms; technology not always empowers people and liberates them from oppression and poverty.
(side note: Matti Tedre consciously took a very provocative approach and forgetting that his speech has a specific relaxed, friendly context would be really unfair ;) The discussion that followed — unquotable here — was very rich and constructive)