The debate is probably as old as ICT4D itself. Should ICTs be 'mainstreamed' into development? Meaning should ICTs be understood as one among a number of tools seeking to achieve other development goals – poverty alleviation, health, education? Or should ICTs be 'sidestreamed'? This will mean retaining, recreating or building specialist ICT units in development organisations, aid agencies and government bodies.
In this interview, Zunia takes a closer look into this issue with Prof. Dr. Richard Heeks – one of the pioneer ICT4D researchers who is internationally renowned for his contribution in ICT4D research and practice.
Zunia: In a recent analysis, you have presented several cases against mainstreaming of ICT4D. In short, your point is ICT4D activities should operate through specialised departments/units and programs rather than being considered as one of many means to achieve broad development goals i.e. poverty reduction, health.
Then again, you have also authored a number of scholarly publications where ICTs are looked at as cross-cutting theme of larger development objectives. These include your vast contribution in e-Government, e-Commerce and your recent studies that link ICTs and climate change.
How are these works any different from mainstreaming of ICT4D?
Heeks: I'm sure no-one would argue with the idea that we should (in part) understand ICTs as tools to achieve specific, sectoral development goals. Nor that for some initial years, ICT was too isolated from those sectors within development agencies and the development field more generally. But the two questions that remain are: What is the best way to address sectoral goals via ICTs? and Should we see ICTs only as a tool serving sectoral goals?
I see dangers is saying that 'mainstreaming' is the answer to the first question; because of what mainstreaming means within development and – linked – because of what is actually being done. In cases mainstreaming in practice can just mean 'closing down our ICT4D unit in order to save money'.
Zunia: You have also pointed out that development agencies should both ‘mainstream and sidestream’. How can these two contradictory approaches co-exist within an organisation without any conflict?
How should a development organisations’ policy/strategy look like with both of these approaches weaved together?
Heeks: Fortunately, these two are not contradictory, they are complementary – indeed, I'd argue they are essential complements. Mainstreaming without sidestreaming – that is dispersing ICTs responsibilities into sectoral units without retaining a central ICT4D function – leads to all the problems I identified: loss of learning, loss of motivation, loss of vision and ICTs sinking from view. Mainstreaming with sidestreaming avoids these problems and makes it more likely that ICTs will help deliver sectoral goals. You can perhaps best think of this as a hub-and-spoke model; the 'sidestreamed' central ICT4D unit reaching out into each of the sectoral units, not in a controlling sense but in a sharing and collaborating sense.
Zunia: Drawing on one of your recent comments, "Agencies have also become ignorant of ICT trends and innovations that can address development issues in new ways". Could you please elaborate further on this point?
Heeks: One problem I didn't identify in my critique of ICT4D mainstreaming is that it's coming too early. If the senior managers in sectoral development units and agencies were 'digital natives' who had grown up with ICTs and were comfortable and conversant with them, then we would have less of a problem. But – as yet – they are not. As an example, take a recent global environmental meeting. Colleagues worked on the ICT4E stand; showing the many ways in which ICTs can contribute to environmental protection and adaptation. Various Ministers and senior officials stopped by at the stand, but only because they confused it with the help desk and needed assistance getting their mobile phones or laptops working. ICTs were just not on their mental map as a key tool for their development sector. When shown around the stand, they sounded interested. But this was all new to them.
I hear similar stories from ICT4Ders who attend other high-level development sector meetings – they find themselves having to start with the absolute basics. So it's not just that agencies are ignorant of the latest ICT trends that will affect their sector; they are ignorant of what ICTs can already do. This is not a context in which one would confidently devolve ICT responsibilities to those agencies.
Zunia: Evidently ‘Sidestreaming’ comes at a cost. Given the price tag associated with technology and technically skilled human resource needed for sidestreaming of ICT4D, this cost is likely to be much higher than sidestreaming of any other development agenda i.e. gender, aid effectiveness.
Is the cost-benefit ratio worth the risk today when the world is so severely hit by economic downturn along with humanitarian, political and environmental crisis?
Heeks: Certainly, as I noted, if agencies face a budget crunch, it's tempting to close down dedicated ICT4D programmes and units. In part, ICT4D itself is to blame – for too long it relied on hype, for too long it failed to talk the language of the development mainstream. That's a slightly different matter from the cost of the technology within development – in any case, the great majority of development projects these days involve ICTs in some way. The risk is that those investments in ICTs are sub-optimal if the 'sidestream' is absent; i.e. if development agencies have no central node that can build and retain knowledge about ICT best practice, about ICT trends, etc.
Zunia: Right or wrong, aid agencies and development organisations i.e. DFID, Swiss SDC are continuously siding for mainstreaming of ICT4D than sidestreaming. Assuming this trend continues, what role is ICT4D likely to play in the development sector in future?
Heeks: It would be a mistake to identify some unified downward trend – the development sector is subject to an ongoing cycle of fads and fashions. As an example, DFID's major collaborative research bids came round the summer – ICT4D was one of its three priority themes. If we step back and ask – What role will ICTs play in development over the next few decades? – it is quite certain that the answer will be: "an increasingly large role". ICTs are still diffusing very fast into developing countries; new applications in development are emerging all the time; ICTs are becoming an ever-greater part of human life; and human life is increasingly dematerialised and digital. Given that, development agencies should – logically – have some central ICT4D function to coordinate this.
Because of the politics, economics, fashions, etc, then some will and some won't – some will open new ICT4D units, some will close down old ones – sometimes on the whim of the organisational head . Most of all, those of us working in ICT4D will have to learn to surf the waves of development fashion; identifying the new labels and new entry points into development agendas and development structures.
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Richard Heeks is Professor of Development Informatics at the Institute for Development Policy and Management, University of Manchester; and Director of the Centre for Development Informatics. He is the founder of the MSc programme in ICTs for Development, and has been consulting and researching on ICTs and development for 30 years. He has a PhD in Indian IT industry development.
His book publications include India's Software Industry (1996), Reinventing Government in the Information Age (1999), and Implementing and Managing eGovernment (2006). His research interests are IT industry development, IT social enterprise, informatics and innovation, and ICTs and climate change.
He runs the ICT for Development blog and can be contacted at: email@example.com