The IDRC and “Open Development”: ICT4D by and for the New Middle Class

Posted on December 1, 2010


I’m interested to note that the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) (or at least the Information and Communications Technology for Development—ICT4D—folks at the IDRC) have decided to hitch their wagon, and not incidentally their not inconsiderable resources to the “Open” movement and launch a campaign for an Open ICT4D meme.

The major document in this initiative defines “Openness” and “Open ICT4D” as follows:

…as a way of organizing social activities for  development benefits that favour: a) universal over restricted access to communication tools and information; b) universal over restricted participation in informal and formal groups/institutions; and c) collaborative over centralized production of cultural, economic, or other content.

Certainly it is very hard to fault (or even disagree) with any of the above except that this definition and the following paper seem to not understand that lack of access in most developmental contexts isn’t simply a failure of reasonable people to understand that they should proceed in an “open” rather than a “closed/restrictive” fashion.  The lack of access in many if not most cases serves the interests of some quite well including many who gain considerable advantage from lack of transparency, restrictions on use of government data, the use of security designations in inappropriate contexts. In these instances a lack of access is most frequently a function of a lack of power in a particular social and economic context and that articulating the good feelings attendant on an “openness” strategy are as unlikely to change those restrictions as were the thinking of good thoughts sufficient to stop the flow of oil from the BP Gulf catastrophe.

The paper further seems to suggest that “open” as in “access” is equivalent to “universal access”.  This would appear to be a conceptual mistake since “Open” as a term presents a condition or state of “access” while “Universal” as a term provides a definition of how and by whom this state i.e. “access” may be actualized.  In fact, the notion of “universal” here would suggest that efforts have been made to ensure that all (the universe of) those to whom the access is available have the means to obtain such access.

Further to this it should be argued that “open access” is not as the definition implies, the opposite of “closed or restricted access” but rather that “open (or available) access” is the opposite of unavailable access with the unavailability having multiple possible sources including cost, skills and so on. Those authoring the paper don’t seem to have considered that restrictions on access may exist (or that “access” may be unavailable) not because those involved haven’t yet had a chance to listen to the gurus from Harvard and Yale but rather that they may be sitting on the other side of structures of power and control where to attempt to remove or change those restrictions involves conflicts and challenges.  Those structures may be invisible to those who benefit from the privileges of status, nationality, occupation or technical skill whether in academe or government; but that they exist is most certainly visible to those who are subject to them and who suffer when they attempt to resist or to insist on things like “openness”.

One of the significant difficulties of a “peer to peer” approach when linked organically to the “openness” standard is that those going into the peer relations have quite significant differences in power and prestige and access to resources. It is very difficult to conceive of a true “peer-to-peer” relationship as enabling or supporting “openness” when there are marked and systematic economic and social differences between the “peers” as for example, is pervasive within developing countries and particularly acute between developed countries and developing countries.

What for example, does a peer-to-peer approach mean when there is widespread illiteracy among much of the population.  In what sense can an illiterate person be an information “peer” in influencing the direction of economic or social development; with a literate person particularly one armed with access to computers and the Internet unless there are already in place measures to ensure/enforce structures of decision making which give force and value to the voices and concerns of those without literacy or numeracy skills.

The paper goes on to talk about “universal over restricted participation” and proceeds elsewhere to talk as though “openness” somehow was synonymous with “universal participation”.  As I understand the notion of “openness” and the (here) associated concept of “access” these are essentially descriptors of passive relationships or characteristics.  I have elsewhere argued that without the more active notions of “effective use” or in this case “effective” participation  , the notions of access or participation are little more than surrogates for the status quo since in most instances those currently without access or who are not participating are unlikely to become actively involved in the absence of some intervention in the form of training, facilitation, the making available and visible of specific desirable outcomes and so on.

More specifically the authors of the paper have not addressed the rather fundamental dilemma for their position of how to achieve active participation in an “open” environment in the absence of some sort of direct and effective intervention in support of this. The outcome of the current position has to be questioned from the perspective of—“openness for who”, and under what circumstances—and the answer that comes out based on the current discussion is—“openness” for those already active and participating and little or no change (or positive effect from “openness”) for everyone else.

And under it all there is a fundamental ambiguity around what is meant by “open”.  On the one hand it is clear that the paper is referring to “open” as a process—something which can be understood as partial, as distributed along a continuum, as something which is in various stages of realization. On the other hand there is “open” as an objective, an end point, a standard against which to measure other objectives—collaboratively produced content for example.

It is hard, perhaps impossible to disagree with the first—“open” as process, certainly since all the examples chosen are so positive and normatively fetching.  It is difficult to argue against an opening up of information to a wider circle of potential users.  On the other hand “open” as product or as an end goal is rather less benign—something is either “open” or it is beyond the pale—it is closed, restricted, even unhealthy and unproductive.  The first is scalar (more or less “open” i.e. open as in “(more or less) open society”); the second is binary as in “open (or closed) bottle”. It is quite possibly the case that a state of complete “openness” (for data, development processes, access and so on) will as for example is the case with completely “open markets”, lead to more inequality rather than less.

But more significantly than that, an “open process” implies an on-going activity with which a variety of persons, interests, activities can become associated. Something that is “open”, for example an open architecture or open data set, is certainly a good thing as far as it goes. Unfortunately in most instances it doesn’t go very far beyond providing a means for those already enabled as for example, with technology, technology skills, information or data analysis and processing skills to extend their resource base at someone else’s (often the public’s) expense . Again, nothing wrong with that except little or no attention is given (or resources made available or even argued for) to assist those who don’t currently have the means to make effective use of the newly opened or made available resource.

Thus for example, open data clearly is of benefit to those who to this point have been paying for access to the data (the private sector, funded researchers and so on), it is also of benefit to those who have access to or can pay for the skills of those who can select, process and analyse the newly made available data – again the private sector, funded researchers, established not-for-profits, independents with the appropriate skill mix and time on their hands for this type of activity (young, recent graduates, newly unemployed professionals, the technically sophisticated and so on).  What about for example, those who may need access to the information the most i.e. those for whom the information might be of life or death circumstance but who lack the resources—the knowledge, skill, trained staff—to make use of those resources in support of their activities. (As evidence of this point the speed with which efforts as for example those of who give voice to those without previous access to the means for recording and projecting there concerns is akin to the absorption of water by previously parched earth.)

Similarly with “Open Development”; clearly the opportunity to participate in development planning, information sharing, operational implementation will be of interest to and benefit for those already possessing the skills, background and time required to recognize this opportunity and to participate in these processes. In most Developing Countries this would include the quite rapidly developing cohort of technologically savvy recent graduates, newly employed tech workers, many elements in the Diaspora community and so on—the “New Middle Class”.

Getting these people involved in development related activities is, one assumes, overall a good thing.  However, putting one’s emphasis and resources behind these initiatives without putting commensurate resources to support participation by those most needful of benefiting from such development activities—the rural and urban poor, the landless, the illiterate, women outside the paid workforce, the physically disabled and so on is simply to further empower those already being empowered and to assist them in further distancing themselves from the most needful.

That is, “Open Development” as through for example simply having newly available “access” to information or the opportunity to “participate” does little or nothing for those without the means to make effective and organized use of those opportunities i.e. those who lack the required skills or the means to hire the skills or more profoundly without the background and training to recognize the value that such opportunities and access might provide to them.

The challenge for development is not the challenge of “open” or “closed”—“available” or “unavailable”—rather the challenge is one of ensuring that those who are the “object” of development are also its subjects…

It is hard from this paper to see how a commitment to “open development” or “open ICT4D” is much more than a commitment to further enabling the (already) enabled and empowering the (already) empowered.