A little less internet, a little more radio please.
When discussing the use, effects and possibilities of ICTs in Africa, one needs to follow the ICT4Development (ICT4D) discourse. Professor Richard Heeks coined the term in the late 90s. In a recent paper named ‘the ICT4D 2.0 Manifesto’ Professor Heeks reevaluates ICT4D and discusses the lessons learnt from 10 years of ICT4D activity. According to Professor Heeks, ICT4D is moving into a next phase where new technologies, new approaches to innovation and implementation and new intellectual perspectives will change the way ICTs are used to improve the livelihoods of the world’s poor. As one of the founding academics developing the field of ICT4D, Heeks is a heavyweight academic and has a clear and influential view on the development of the academic discourse covering ICT4D.
Professor Heeks believes that within the new approach of ICT4D 2.0, some rebalancing will take place in the way the needs of the poor will be addressed through the use of ICTs. Instead of a rigorous hands-on approach in providing ICT hardware for the poor, more recognition will be given to the importance of collaboration with local partners and issues of governance in shaping the outcomes of ICT4D. Whereas the rural tele-centre was seen as the quick and ‘off-the-shelf’ solution in the ICT4D 1.0 era, ICT4D 2.0 will use the lessons learnt from this period and adhere to the watchwords of sustainability, scalability and evaluation to avoid the trap of replicating Western ICT models for a quick fix in the development of poor countries.
The obsession of technology-as-invention and the little focus on technology-in-use which was characteristic of the initial approach to ICT4D has lead to an ‘invention-down’ approach of ICT4D instead of the more effective ‘use-up’ solutions. In practice this implies that ICT4D 2.0 will put less emphasis on the use of internet and PCs in developing countries and more emphasis on the current use of mobile, radio and television. There will be more emphasis on evaluating the way popular technologies are used and how to scale them up for maximum impact. Clearly, mobile phones, which serve two thirds of the African population, will get a preference over the PC which only links up 0.5% of the Africans. As another characteristic of ICT4D 2.0, Professor Heeks predicts a reinterpretation and re-appreciation of the use of radio and television in the context of ICT4D. With some 80% of the population in Africa having access to a radio and 50% to television, convergence of this old media into forms which make use of new media seems inevitable.
This does not suggest that New Media in Africa should be given less priority, it does suggest that in order to reach the African population radio networks should not be overlooked in the process of introducing new technologies. Information and Communication Technologies evolve over time and use older technologies as stepping stones to introduce new media. In new media literature this is referred to as remediation. Following from the shift towards a more user based development of ICT in Africa, a new way of innovation of the technologies according to the specific needs of the people will be the norm in ICT4D 2.0. Instead of innovations made on behalf of poor people, Heeks sees that collaborative innovation, where communities work alongside developers, holds the key in ICT4D 2.0. Innovation by and within communities is starting to become a possibility as we see the first ‘techies’ graduating from African universities and new business models being developed by local African entrepreneurs.
The shift to a more bottom-up perspective in the field of ICT for development is related to research methods proposed by social scientist William Easterly who, in his book ‘The White Man’s Burden’, calls for searchers instead of planners. Planners are the top down strategists who study systems and will try to implement schemes of development onto a dysfunctional society. Searchers are the ones who apply a bottom up perspective, searching for demand and homegrown solutions. Radio and mobile telephony are clearly more engrained in African society and should therefor be at the center of attention when thinking about development through ICT in Africa.
You can download the ICT4D 2.0 manifesto here.