Emancipation and the failure of the Sustainable Development Goals

Cover of the Open Working Group Proposal for Sustainable Development Goals

Tim Unwin has written a terrific critical article on the Sustainable Development Goals (PDF) entitled ICTs and the failure of the Sustainable Development Goals. As can be inferred from its title, the main criticism — which I fully share — is about the almost total oblivion in what relates to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), and some other issues concerning the design itself of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), how poverty is defined (and how development and the Economy are defined too), how the United Nations System works.

I want to borrow Tim Unwin’s title to go a little bit further on his analysis. In my opinion, the problem is not (only) a total disdain for ICTs and all their potential in enabling, articulating, fostering or multiplying any other initiative against poverty or for sustainable development. The problem, I believe, is that this disdain for ICTs is just a symptom of the real, direst problem: a total disdain for emancipation.

There is only one goal out of 17 that deals, in general, about peace, freedom, rights and the government:

Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

When one drills down to the 12 targets and sub-goals, some of them are clearly what one would expect to see under the general goal. Some of them are mixed. And some others make one rethink about the previous ones. Indeed, an accurate reading of Goal 16 and its 12 targets and sub-goals raises a shadow of suspicion: is it about people that Goal 16 is talking about, or is it talking about maintaining things in order so that everything (the economy, trade) runs smoothly?


  • Sub-goal 16.a reads Strengthen relevant national institutions […] to prevent violence and combat terrorism and crime. That is, strengthening institutions is not a matter of peace, equality, progress… but to combat terrorism, which is what richest countries care about: their own safetey.
  • Sub-goal 16.b reads Promote and enforce non-discriminatory laws and policies for sustainable development. That is, the problem with discrimination is… development. Sustainable development. It is true: it is known that inequality damages economic growth. But one would expect that the direct goal would be inequality itself, and that the indirect one would be growth. Not the other way round.

After that, as it was said before, one becomes suspicious about some well phrased goals that, under a new paranoid light, can be read with different meanings. Such as target 16.3, which speaks of the rule of law: is it really to achieve justice for all, or is the rule of law good in itself at the national and international levels (which is were trade happens)?

Now, on a more serious note, I think there are at least three big omissions in the way the Sustainable Development Goals are stated that are compatible with a vision that

  1. The Sustainable Development Goals are especially about economic development, and not about individual and social development.
  2. The Sustainable Development Goals are especially about institutional development, and not about personal emancipation.

And these three issues that are omitted in the SDGs are, again in my opinion, closely related with the potential that ICTs can deploy if thoroughly applied. I’d dare say even more: if ICTs have any role in development, I believe that it is in the three following issues. It is not surprising, thus, that ICTs and our three issues are all missing in the 16 Sustainable Development Goals. Issues are:

  • Freedom, civil rights, citizen rights, political freedoms, freedom rights… many names for the very same concept. Freedom — or free — is mostly missing in the SDGs. It is only explicitly referred in target 16.10, and mixed up with public access to information… in accordance with national legislation. Well, according to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2015, 54% of the countries surveyed were partly free or not free… in accordance with their respective national legislations. Freedom is simply not a seriously taken issue in the SDGs.
  • Empowerment is a step beyond freedom. If freedom is about the lack of constraints to think or do one’s own will, empowerment is about strengthening the capability to think or do that will of one’s own. Not only can you do whatever you want within the system, but you will be helped to. Again, empowerment, or capabilities, are widely mentioned in the formalities of the declaration, but are limited to gender and inequalities. This is quite a bit, for sure, but it is not enough. There is no way that development can be sustainable if it is not endogenous, and there is no way for endogenous development without empowerment. In my opinion, empowerment is paramount to development. Only one step below governance.
  • Governance, democracy, political participation, deliberation, co-decision. If freedom is do one’s own will, and empowerment is doing it with multiplied strength, governance is way above that: it is not thought and action within the system, but over the system. Governance is shaping the system to one’s needs (or the collective needs, more appropriately), instead of shaping one-self to the system. This is why it is so important… and so surprisingly missing from the SDGs. Yes, decision-making is in there, but always as a way to have a certain influence on institutions. But no words on changing institutions, on transforming them, substituting them by other ones, or even getting rid of them.

And, as I see it, increased freedom, empowerment and governance are the biggest potential outcomes of ICTs for development. When Tim Unwin says he misses ICTs in the Sustainable Development Goals, not only I agree, but wonder whether the SDGs are also missing what I believe are the main reasons to apply ICTs for sustainable development, for instance: ICTs applied to Health increase one’s own degree of freedom; ICTs applied to Education improve one’s capabilities and empowerment to achieve higher goals; ICTs applied to Politics can lead to better governance.

I, for one, believe that people behind the writing and wording of the Sustainable Development Goals are neither stupid, nor ignorant. A thorough reading of the SDGs is inspiring and every statement is perfectly grounded on evidence.


It’s the approach. It’s industrial. It belongs, in my opinion, to the Industrial Age. It does not, I think, take into account the digital revolution and, more important, the many social revolutions that we have witnessed in recent years. And no, I am not (only) talking about the Arab Spring, or the 15M Spanish Indignados Movement. It’s about the revisiting of the commons and the digital commons; about free software and open educational resources and free hardware and open science and free knowledge; about e-government and open data and open government; about liquid democracy and hybrid democracy and e-participation; about personal learning environments and cMOOCs and communities of learning and communities of practice; about innovation hubs and co-working spaces and open innovation and social innovation and open social innovation; and peer-to-peer whatever and dis-intermediation wherever. Almost nothing about this is in the Sustainable Development Goals, which are to last current until 2030. We are not only ignoring the last 15 years of development, but making them last 15 years more. All in all, the Sustainable Development Goals do not seem to belong to the Information Age.


SIF13 (V). A free and open internet for global inclusive growth

Notes from the Stockholm Internet Forum on Internet Freedom for Global Development, held at Münchenbryggeriet (The Brewery) at Södermalm in Stockholm, Sweden, May 22-23, 2013. More notes on this event: #sif13.

A free and open internet for global inclusive growth

Moderator: Rebecca Mackinnon, Senior Fellow, New America Foundation, Author.

Panelists: Tim Unwin, Secretary General, Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation; Anne Jellema, CEO, World Wide Web Foundation; Anna-Karin Hatt, Swedish Minister for Information Technology and Energy; Parminder Singh, Executive Director, IT for Change; Grace Githaiga, Associate, Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet).

It’s not just the pipes, it’s what we deliver; it’s not just the Internet, it’s what we use it for and how we use it. How can we commit to the goal that the more marginalized, the more in risk of exclusion, can benefit from the tremendous potential of the Internet, mobile phones and mobile broadband. The market will deliver for many many people, but it won’t deliver for them all.

There’s a lot of innovation but the quality of broadband is a challenge. There’s also diversity in use of technologies.

Lots of innovations in the South are being captured by companies in the North, where they have more power to make them grow and establish a market power. More protection for South innovators should be a priority.

How can governments put focus on what technology can do? Transparency, open data, e-government or e-democracy are good ways to.

How can developing countries have a say in the global Internet Governance issues? Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach should be taken into consideration to broaden the importance and potential of the Internet, out of just economic issues and more into human issues. And this will change the way we approach Internet Governance. First of all internet is a public good. It’s not a choice between market and public.

Universality and accessibility of the net goes hand in hand.

Is Facebook Zero a good or a bad thing? Is it good because it provides access to the Internet at zero cost for the user? Or is it a bad thing because it de facto reduces the Internet to Facebook? There is another danger that the free as in free beer Internet is the commercial one, and the free as in freedom of speech Internet is expensive and will be killed, just like some Internet is killing community radio. People not only want to communicate with their peers through social networking sites, but there also is hunger for information.

Affordability has to be addressed urgently in many places in the world. Until prices do not come down — while keeping up quality — e-inclusion will be but a nice word. And this goes by designing a better regulation that breaks monopolies, or at least monopolistic practices — in some areas, monopolies are natural monopolies, so it makes no sense to include competition, though this lack of competition, of course, should not go against the citizens.

We have not to use rights and rights advocacy to avoid our own responsibilities, responsibilities that are shared between governments but also citizens.

If choosing in between the fast and easy to shadow internet, better to have slow,but secure.

My personal take on these issues: ICTs for accessing agricultural market information or to stop food speculation? ICTs for e-health apps or to stop medicines speculation and health system corruption? ICTs to reduce the cost of judicial procedures or to avoid governments tampering on justice? ICTs to make polling easier or to promote direct, deliberative and participative democracy? Grassroots approaches are OK, but we have to focus also on changing the whole system.


Stockholm Internet Forum on Internet Freedom for Global Development (2013)

ICTD2010 (XX). Donor Voices

Notes from the Information and Communication Technolgies and Development — ICTD2010, held at the Royal Holloway University of London, Egham, UK, on December 13-16, 2010. More notes on this event: ictd2010.

Closing Panel: Donor Voices
Chairs: Tim Unwin

Patrick Kalas, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation

SCD is moving out of ICT4D strictly speaking: there is a need to focus on the ‘D’.

We have to speak to the specialist and the non-specialist, to stress on diffusing the word of what we are doing, how and why.

Let us not focus only in one technoogy (e.g. mobiles) and dismiss other technologies that have proven to be valuable: community radio, etc.

We have to put more effort on impact research.

Christine Qiang, The World Bank

Mobile networks are transformative in many ways: reaching population, intensifying relationships, etc. Mobile applications have a strong leapfrogging nature.

ICT as a general purpose technology, is both a blessing and a curse. It empowers people, but also poses a major challenge in terms of capability. We must not invest in bubbles of expectations: evaluation should be always in everyone’s mind.

We need to be realistic on what technologies can or cannot achieve. There are issues of complementary infrastructure, human capacity, etc.

Please see the World Bank ICT Strategy open for public consultation.

Pierre Lucante, German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)

Importance of digital capabilities.

We have to mainstream ICT in other disciplines.

Laurent Elder, IDRC-CRDI

There is many people working in ICTs and development, despite they do not calling it ICT4D (or ICTD). on the other hand.

It is important that practitioners and researchers/academics come together and work side by side. Everything should be rooted in development theory.

Under resource constraints, will you choose sustainability over scalability? How do we measure impact? How should we better assess projects and their impact? These are very difficult questions. And, somewhat, they should not put that much pressure upon projects and/or the people and institutions behind them.

Don’t be critical, don’t be cynical: try to make a difference. It is much more easy to criticise and destroy than to act and build.


Q: What is the role of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in development? Lucante: it is important, but it would be desirable to be involved in a broader way that just CSR. Kalas: CSR is not the way to establish private-public partnerships, as it is a too narrow way of collaboration. Partnerships are also about sharing risks

Q: how do we encourage research in developing countries? Qiang: investing in local application or technology development (e.g. mobiles) is a way to encourage local researchers to be able to participate in topics that are of their total concern. Elder: another way to do it is that they can actually collaborate with other colleagues with more researching experience but with a genuine interest and knowledge of/in the field.

Q: Why multi-stakeholder partnerships in ICTs? Kalas: Governments alone cannot make a huge impact, there is a need to bring the private sector in. The problem is how to. Elder: ICT are not only about technologies, but also about social impact.

Q: Are funding open standards and open source enough? Elder: We need to invest in the ‘open’ because we need to know how things work, not only the outcome. On the other hand, if research/projects are paid with public funds, they should result in publicly available goods.

Personal note

A huge thank you to the organization for putting together such a great conference. Thank you very much.

More information


Information and Communication Technologies and Development (2010)

ICTD2010 (XVIII). Publishing ICT4D Research

Notes from the Information and Communication Technolgies and Development — ICTD2010, held at the Royal Holloway University of London, Egham, UK, on December 13-16, 2010. More notes on this event: ictd2010.

Publishing ICT4D Research
Chairs: G. Harindranath

Geoff Walsham
Reflections on ICT4D research publishing after a Cape Town workshop.

Where to publish:

  • Go for a portfolio approach — conferences plus a range of journals.
  • Choose your journal with care — read back issues, etc.
  • Consider co-authoring some of your papers with a more experienced author.
  • Probably avoid the so-called top journals in early career.
  • Cover (slightly) different topics and different approaches for different audiences.
  • When co-authoring, let the expert in the field of the journal lead the article, and keep your leadership for the topics/subjects/journals you’re an expert on.

The review process:

  • Key initial goal: get your paper past the SE/AE screen and about to the reviewers.
  • Cover every point made by the reviewers and say how you have responded.
  • You can disagree with particular points made by the reviewers but you need to say why.
  • Focus on the key critical points which are being raised by the reviewers and editors.

What to do with a ‘reject’?

  • Consider carefully the reasons for rejection.
  • In most cases, revise the paper and submit it elsewhere.
  • Don’t give up, academic careers are marathons not sprints.

Planning for future writing:

  • Geenrate a realistic annual work plan.
  • Think about support mechanisms: colleagues, conferences, seminar groups, etc.
  • Try out your material on others: take every possible opportunity to do this.

Q: What about social networks an open publishing? A: This is a good approach to broaden your portfolio, but it should not be your only strategy. Indeed, still most places select or evaluate on a mainly a publishing-basis.

Cathy Urquhart
Publishing ICT4D research in the Information Systems area. Future themes in ICT4D research in Information Systems.

Collaboration with senior peers is beneficial, and you can offer the senior colleague something in exchange too (fresh ideas, more time, etc.)

You can’t put your eggs into just one basket.

Publishing ICT4D in Information Systems:

  • In Business Schools, increasing pressure to publish to the Association of Business Schools (ABS) journal rankings — many candidate journals for ICT4D not listed.
  • On the plus side, there are some mainstream Information Systems journals open to ICT4D research.
  • If we only publish in Information Systems journals, what does that do for our relationships with other areas, e.g. development studies, in what is a multidisciplinary field?
  • In a field that aims for impact, what is the consequence of only publishing in Information Systems academic journals?

Future themes in ICT4D research in information Systems:

  • Theorising ICT for Development — call for Papers in Information Systems journal: we need more theory.
  • The politics of ICT4D — call for papers in the International Journal of e-Politics: we need more policy.


Q: We are talking about publishing only in terms of academic careers. Notwithstanding, we might have other interests, as reaching the practitioner or, over all, making an impact at the policy-level. Maybe it is more important to publish in newspapers or write policy-briefs.

Shirin Madon
Publishing ICT4D Research… some personal reflections.

ICT4D is no more a ‘niche’ area. But this makes it more important to have a strategy, to know when to publish during your project, whether your article will be career-focused or impact-aimed. What kind of strategy?

Some considerations are due on whether to publish on open or closed journals, or to self-archive and to find ways to circumvent the ‘closeness’ of the system.

We should try and publish in outlets that make sense for the audiences that read them. Sometimes this includes NGO newsletters, newspapers, etc.

Tim Unwin

Nobody reads academic papers.

  • Journal papers are form or professional exclusivity. Because of the need to publish, there is a wide range of bad literature being published. The publishing norms are Anglo-Saxon-made. Peer review is not naive, it is about gate-keeping.
  • Know the rules of the place you want to be published in. Get in touch with the referees.
  • If we want to share of ideas, the Internet is the platform. Blogs get hundreds of times more read than academic papers. How do we actually fund publication? There still is a huge value in the traditional role of editors.
  • There is a conspiracy to create an ICT4D field. Do not constrain your ideas, change happen at the edges. Everyone is in their silos and do not read each others’ papers.
  • Books are hugely important. Books allow more room to include and expand ideas.
  • Never add your supervisors in your papers, unless they definitely wrote and/or contributed significantly to the paper.
  • We have to find more places where research can happen. We have to move out of the US/Europe and find innovation where it is happening.

Geoff Walsham: we have to differentiate research with dissemination. The latter includes writing in practitioner papers, newspapers, doing consultancy, etc.

Q: How do funders dictate the research agenda? Shirin Madon: It is a good thing that funders ask for a multidisciplinary approach, as this forces researchers to join forces. Tim Unwin: researchers always have the choice to refuse funding if it does not go in line with what ethics in research suggest.

More information

(NOTE: most energetic session, full of non-reportable debate).


Information and Communication Technologies and Development (2010)

ICTD2010 (I). Round table: the future of ICT4D research

Notes from the Information and Communication Technolgies and Development — ICTD2010, held at the Royal Holloway University of London, Egham, UK, on December 13-16, 2010. More notes on this event: ictd2010.

Round table: the future of ICT4D research

Tim Unwin, chairing the session, encourages the speakers to elaborate on the future (10 years ahead) of ICT4D research, what topics, fields, etc. should be on the table.

Erik Hersman, Ushahidi.

What is the point between tools and uses? Is Firefox or the Mozilla Foundation ICT4D too?

There is too much focus on the PC and not as much on mobile phones, which so far seem the ones that have made a deeper change in poorer communities.

Anriette Esterhuysen, Association for Progressive Communications

ICT4D research is too much often disentangled from what practitioners are doing. And when it approaches the field, it is quite often “market analysis” for telecom companies rather than real research.

There is a strong need for deeper analysis and, especially, focus on policy, on strategy. more analytical thinking. And an analysis that is based on hard data that practitioners cannot usually extract and analyse.

Indeed, to reach policy makers, research should also be about blogging, about communicating, about reaching out.

Stop looking at the solution (e.g. mobiles for development) and look instead at the problems (e.g. lack of drinkable water).

Anita Gurumurthy, IT for Change

Many research is not related with the “community factor” of reality. Thus, it fails at linking the importance of the community with empowerment, solidarity, progress, development.

How we make sense of the models, the numbers, and translate them into real application at the political, democratic, macroeconomic level.

On the other hand, how do we train or engage practitioners in the academic dialogue, in the ethos of research.

Ken Banks, Kiwanja / FrontlineSMS

How do we measure and look up at data? What should we be looking for to measure impact?

We should make some research that lists the tools to do research and the tools to measure the impact of that research. There also is a need for an organized directory of Who works on ICT4D, where, how. And, a list of projects and their impacts.

Indrajit Banerjee, Information Society Division, UNESCO

We spend too many time isolating the “ICT factor” of projects that work. We should shift the focus to what is the context where these ICTs worked, because that might be the actual success factor.

On the other hand, academics should cluster together and create bigger research groups that somehow stepping out of the structures of Academia. Academics cannot be just reporting on the work that practitioners are doing; they’re behind the curve, amateur journalists, if that is all they do.


Q: What happens with ICT governance? Anita Gurumurthy: Definitely the UN should be having a word on that.

Q: What should the role be of local communities in ICT4D? Ken Banks: local communities should be the ones leading the implementation of projects and solutions. Erik Hersman: Indeed, there are many innovations that rise amongst local communities.

Q: We need all components: practitioners, academics, different disciplines and approaches…

Q: There should be bridges between academics and practitioners. The former should be more aware of what happens down on the terrain; the latter should be more knowledgeable about methodology, impact assessment, etc.

Q: There is a big issue in ICT4D concerning non-accessibility for disabled people, including illiterate people that never went to school. The accessibility factor should be urgently addressed in ICT4D research agenda.


Information and Communication Technologies and Development (2010)

Fifth Annual ICT4D Postgraduate Symposium (I). Tim Unwin: Impact Assessment

Notes from the Fifth IPID ICT4D Postgraduate Symposium 2010, held at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain, on September 9-10th, 2010. More notes on this event: ipid2010.

Impact Assessment
Tim Unwin.

We need to know who is driving impact assessment and what for.

  • Impact: what has changed. Long term change.
  • Output: what we did. Goods or services produced.
  • Outcome: what happened. Changes in the use of those outputs.

The Logic Model: inputs are put to work in activities, generating outputs and, at the end, outcomes. The log frame approach crosses goals, purposes, outputs and outcomes and analyzes them during the different processes, with different indicators, etc.

Impact would include the long-term intended and unintended consequences of our action, of the outcomes.

The problem with some impact assessment models is that they might measure the performance in managerial terms, but not much in developmental terms. in fact, impact assessment might end up in programme evaluation, not in impact evaluation itself, thus making ends often driving the means. On the other hand, criteria might be set in advance by the evaluation promoter.

Terry Smutylo’s Output Outcome Downstream Impact Blues.

But there are reasons for focus on impact, like where and when to scale a pilot project.

Cause and effect are very difficult to establish, especially attribution, that is, identifying what is the cause. If the impact is placed in the (very) long-term, things get even more difficult. Indeed, experimenting in the field of ICT4D can neither be possible nor be ethically accepted (i.e. “are you going to experiment with people’s welfare?”), making research and measuring the impact of that research really challenging.

In development, quite often it is more about the “why” rather than the “what” happened. This is especially relevant when different contexts might bring different impacts for the same cause given.

If nevertheless impact assessment is to be done, we need to have a clear benchmark of what has been done, test with different samples and contexts, etc.


Fifth Annual ICT4D Postgraduate Symposium (2010)