Why am I only now discovering the ICT4D Jester? Oh, lost hero, how well you express my doubts and fears about ICTs and development. One of the reasons I no longer actively blog about technology for development and in developing contexts is because I feel like an asshole when I criticize some of the big movers and shakers in the sector. There are occasionally other critical voices, but many (and by no means all) of these critical voices come across as assholes, jealous of others’ success.
It’s true that I am, in fact, an asshole, but not because I mindlessly criticize others who are more popular and successful than I am. My view on ICTs is formed by my experience as a business owner who doesn’t work with the bottom billion. Or even the second bottom billion. Our clients are firmly in the middle billion, and that’s OK. Our clients’ employees are in the second billion, and some of them (orphanages, schools, etc) have clients in the bottom billion.
But we never interact with them because it’s really fucking hard to scale revenue from people who only make a few dollars a day.
I’m an asshole because it’s easier for me to bow out of the discussion and just run my business than it is for me to jump right in and tell you why you’re wrong. Here’s the thing: nobody’s going to inner-city Baltimore and handing out iPads and iPhones and whosits and whatsits galore. Nobody’s saying that better access to technology is the panacea. Nobody’s saying that better bandwidth is key to a higher standard of living. And certainly, programs that make wild claims about their impacts, based on limited short-term results, aren’t taken terribly seriously.
The problem in Baltimore isn’t access to technology. But when you make a statement like the above one, except you replace Baltimore with, oh, the DRC, Nairobi, or another city of choice, everyone jumps in to tell you, “No, Theresa! It’s not like that! Small scale projects! Social entrepreneurship! Empowering communities!”
I don’t doubt that the road to hell is paved with the best intentions. There are some wicked cool tools out there, but I see many of the best minds in America struggling with issues of technology, power, consent, and decision making … in America. Linda Raftree has written some very smart articles on these dynamics in the developing world, but from where I’m sitting, I see a lot more “cool toy” out there than, “how can community members harness existing resources to make their lives better?”
Here’s what I know: Wealthy young West Africans are on Facebook. There aren’t very many wealthy young West Africans. All of the mobile monitoring and Facebook use in West Africa in the world didn’t change the international community’s opinion of election results in Nigeria or Benin.