The lost sheep of ICT4D research

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There are several epistemological shortcomings within Information Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) literature. The literature is overly optimistic, highly western, multidisciplinary, and atheoretical. It fails to draw extensively on a breadth of research in other fields such as media and communications studies. Why something is being researched is as important as what one is researching. Imagine if researchers applied theories from other fields of study to research on African telecentres and mobile telephony. New perspectives surely would emerge. New models should exist beyond qualitative and quantitative analysis in order to understand the impact, benefits, limitations, risks, and goals of implementing ICTs in developing nations. Current ICT4D research investigates areas including telecentres, technological infrastructure, telephone incumbents, VoIP, mobile telephony, digital education, and the digital divide. Social science research methods often involve questionnaires, ethnography, face-to-face interviews, focus groups, or administrative research (Bauer and Gaskell 2000).

These tools are proven to be successful, but are they the best methods for research on developing nations? What are the goals of ICT4D research? Does it try to lead toward policy change? Does it seek to inform other academics? Will it affect work by NGOs, the UNDP, or the World Bank? In short, a section of Handel’s Messiah comes to mind: ‘All we like sheep have gone astray!’ ICT4D literature feels like a flock of lost sheep.

A multidisciplinary field should have multidiscipline authors. ICT4D represents a multidisciplinary field of study (Warschauer 2003) whose authorship comes from across the social sciences. One problem is that many authors have more knowledge of development literature than of ICT literature. Fundamental questions abound over the consequences and hindrances of deploying ICTs, which is in stark contrast to studying why people use new media (Haddon 2004). After surveying much literature on mobile telephony in sub-Saharan Africa, it is safe to say that much research has little influence from media studies. This should not be the case. There is a wealth of literature on ICTs in everyday life that is often absent in most ICT4D literature. Combining the literature of everyday life is an example of how ICT4D literature could share ideas with its multidisciplinary partners.

If changes are to be made, perhaps an approach like that of Peter Golding and Graham Murdock (1978) could work. Their seminal essay trumpeted a change within communication research. They decreed that new research models be employed, that there was an overemphasis on quantitative effects driven research, and that they were tired of reading the same research article using the same research methods yielding the same results.

Their Political Economy of Communication and Culture (PECC) led to more active audience studies and ethnographic research. Annabelle Sreberny (2005) and Colin Sparks (2005) have posed a similar call to arms for global media research asking for authors to increase self-reflexivity in their writings. If one reads a dozen articles, on a cursory level it is the same as reading fifty or a hundred. The structure of hypotheses, data, and conclusions creates redundancies. The research indicates some consistent commonalities. People in developing nations who are given access to technologies in developing nations use them (Hudson 1984; Butcher 1998; Warschauer 2003; Castells et al. 2004; Wilson 2004). The proliferation of mobile telephony exemplifies this (Kibati and Krairit 1999; Mbarika 2002; Hamilton 2003; Donner 2005a,  2005b; Goodman 2005). Over the past decade, the increases in both mobile telephone density and penetration are astounding.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to developing countries but is also a global one (Katz 2003; Ling 2004). The mobile phone in sub-Saharan Africa has succeeded where traditional PSTN landline phones failed (Banerjee and Ros 2004; Rouvinen 2004; Panos Institute 2004). Above all though, there is a consumer desire for instant communication (Dholakia and Kshetri 2001; Gamos 2003; King 2004; Donner 2005c). I advocate that a biannual global summit on ICT4D be established in a developing nation to debate the purpose of the literature. The field should be divided into sub sections in the way that media studies has subsets that include media effects research, audience studies, everyday life studies, media power, media democracy, symbolic power, policy, and public opinion. Subdividing ICT4D authorship coupled with substantial multidisciplinary background research and theories would help solidify the purpose in writing academic ICT4D literature.

ICT4D is part of larger puzzle of development
ICT4D faces a sizeable limitation in that it acknowledges that it is a piece of a larger puzzle regarding development. Research has discussed how ICT4D can increase education, which is a main goal for development. Hawkins (2002) writes of this for the World Bank in terms of ‘Ten Lessons for ICT and Education in the Developing World.’ The problem with his article is that his recommendations are easier said than done. However, policy changes are necessary to fuse public and private sectors together for ICT4D deployment (Wallsten 2001). The literature typically acknowledges that it is difficult to measure and quantify the influences of ICT4D because few data existed before the conducted research (Hudson 2001).

The points of comparison are therefore small. Moreover, there is no ‘magic bullet’ or ‘hypodermic needle’ of ICT4D impact. ICT4D will not provide food, clean water, affordable health care, civil rights, or peace. This is in no way to downplay what I believe to be the significance of media power. Nevertheless, technologies that facilitate communications increase people’s ability to learn and interact. Communication allows information to spread across time and space at faster and faster rates. Marshall McLuhan’s (1994 [1964]) interest in the potential for electronics to lead toward a ‘global village.’

Although ICT4D may not be a cure-all for the needs of developing countries, the literature has well documented its many successes from aiding rural farmers to increasing literacy and facilitating communal communication. But do we want people in developing nations to be connected to this digital grid because it is in their interests to facilitate social uplift, or is the reason so that a global information network can truly be global? In other words, is the ICT4D literature itself benefiting Western scholars?

Who is to blame?
The blame does not rest entirely on ICT4D scholarship. Media studies authors are also to blame. Amid recent arguments to ‘de-Westernise’ media studies (Curran and Park 2000), the primarily Anglo-American cavalcade of media authors have delved into research on Asia (Lull 1991; Moran and Keane 2004) as well as continuing the tradition of research in South America. Africa, the second-largest continent, is relatively absent from de-Westernising literature. This may be why ICT4D literature draws more upon development studies than upon media studies (Lardner 1993; Wiseman 1995, 1996; Dibie and Agiri 2001; Harrison 2002; Neto, Niang and Ampah 2005; Ukaga 2005). Tertiary education comes from a Western tradition.

The social sciences are relatively new compared to other academic areas. Canons of literature arise. Lydia Goehr (1992) put forth these now seminal notions in relation to musicology, but the implications for academic canon formation cut across disciplines. In short, Goehr argues aesthetic judgements based primarily on nineteenth-century rationales define academic canons. ICT4D is in the process of establishing a canon, but the influences of Western research in many ways colonises African studies by imposing Western academic aesthetics on African research. It is for similar reasons that Raul Roman (2004) has questioned the atheoretical nature of ICT4D literature while considering the tradition of grand theories (Peet and Hartwick 1999).

The lack of theory in the literature bodes a question: what is the point of the literature? If it is to present scientific inquiry into phenomena in order to build upon a body of literature,then surely the citation and implementation of theories would abound in the literature. If the goal, instead, is to demonstrate how technologies could ‘leapfrog’ past societal limitations (Davidson et al.2000; Steinmueller 2001), theories are not necessarily required. Both political and infrastructural limitations hinder sub-Saharan Africa from being part of the media studies canon of democratisation. As Harrison (2002, 84

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