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Two Blind Spots that Threaten Your ICT4D Project Success

By Wayan Vota on October 31, 2019

ict4d mistrust

One of the basic assumptions within the dominant development discourse is that new information and communication technology have a great potential for boosting democratisation processes all over the world, giving people access to information and thereby empowering them to demand more accountability and transparency of authorities, and the executive powers of the state.

However, in light of repressive political contexts in Africa and beyond, political empowerment and democratisation are highly problematic ideas. Moreover, mobile phone usage and perceptions appear to be rather ambiguous.

Research in Togo and Rwanda by Dr. Roos Keja and Dr. Kathrin Knodel in Mistrust and Social Hierarchies as Blind Spots of ICT4D Projects revealed that, in order to get a better insight into people’s possibilities to access and use information, it is crucial to take the respective socio-political background into account.

Two aspects of socio-political background in both countries was striking: the reigning mistrust and the existing social hierarchies.

In both countries, the mistrust vis-à-vis local and national authorities is widespread, albeit embedded within different historical and social settings. The same can be said for social relations; it has even proven to be dangerous to trust one’s own neighbour.

  • In Rwanda, the genocide in 1994 killed over 800,000 people, which created an atmosphere of mistrust still prevalent today, as neighbours and friends were caused to kill each other.
  • In Togo, where one family has reigned since 1967, popular discontent is ‘silenced’ in many ways; from intimidation and bribery to out-right violence and incarceration.

The researchers looked at getting a detailed picture of people’s perceptions and usage of mobile phones on the one hand, and their general relations and communication with local authorities on the other hand. They strived for a balanced representation of society, but it is important to note a slight tendency towards younger and male persons.

Impact of Social Hierarchies and Power Differences

The first nuance they found is an aspect which is all too often overlooked by ICT4D projects, or simply categorised as a ‘cultural issue’ to be resolved locally: the aspect of social hierarchies and power differences. This aspect, which also has some economic implications, will reveal the existence of horizontal and vertical communication that structure and determine mobile phone usage.

In the politically constrained contexts they studied, people do not believe in the anonymity of mobile communication. Especially ICT4D projects that aim for digital civic engagement should take this concern into account. In a context in which the right of expression is under pressure, these concerns are not merely theoretical.

In general, people prefer face-to-face discussions about important subjects, which is not only driven by issues of anonymity, but also simply because of the high costs of telecommunication. The persons who are considered to be wealthier (superiors, chiefs, etc.), are expected to be the ones carrying most of the costs of mobile communication.

Taking an ever closer look at people’s mobile communication behaviour, it becomes evident that it largely depends on their position in society and on their networks. As also noted elsewhere, the mobile phone is mostly used for “micro-coordination”, as a prelude to face-to-face encounters. People mostly communicate with their beloved ones and peers, and when it concerns professional relations, they can call their direct superiors.

However, it is not common to directly call someone in a higher position. Even if someone knows the number of the chief or mayor, they would usually only reach these persons through an intermediary.

Both in Rwanda and Togo, people seem to be strongly locally oriented in their communication and problem-solving.

  • In Rwanda, most problems are addressed at the level of the umudugudu or municipality, and it is not recommended to go directly to the next higher administrative level (i. e. the cell), let alone the sector, district or provincial level.
  • In Togo, the image seems to be bleaker; in case they have a problem that affects the community, people may turn to the customary chief in their area, as the municipal councils suffer from a lack of legitimacy, and the prefecture is often a bridge too far for the population and has a mandate on a different level.

The general image of the municipality is that “they are thieves” and hardly anything good is expected to come from those authorities.

Even though the hierarchies discussed above are far more complex than we can spell out here, these settings can be summarized in the Rwandan expression “We don’t skip a level”. Skipping the lower level would be considered as indirect criticism of that level, which is absolutely not anchored in people’s habits. As a result, most people never have contact with higher levels of government, whose responsibilities are often unknown.

Understanding Mistrust as an ICT4D Influencer

Albeit in very different ways, both Togo and Rwanda have a recent past of social, political and economic instability, and everyday life has been politicised to such an extent that information exchange is often affected by concerns about direct repression or other negative consequences.

Under these politically constrained conditions, people have an interest in practicing self-censorship and, at times, misrepresenting information, as was evident in their interviews and observations. In such an environment, one’s own neighbours and even one’s most intimate contacts cannot be trusted.

  • In Rwanda, the researchers noticed that people avoid discussing subjects related to politics, and there is particular sensitivity in relation to ethnicity.
  • In Togo, spiritual reasons were also mentioned for keeping one’s intentions to oneself. People take care with whom to share their travel plans, or plans for the future, as they want to avoid that someone’s jealousy may be aroused, which may then lead to encountering ‘bad luck’ on their road.

These common assumptions justify referring to mistrust as an organising principle of society, which is interlinked with trust, but can be considered as being more than its mere antithesis.

Although the introduction of the mobile phone in such constrained and codified communication landscapes as in Togo and Rwanda has provided new possibilities for connectivity, in several domains the researchers also noticed a deepening of the already existing levels of mistrust.

Most people pointed to the possibility of betraying others with the help of a mobile phone, exemplified by the exclamation “the phone has turned all of us into liars”, expressed by people from different layers of society in Togo.

How to Mitigate Power Differences and Mistrust

The researchers argue for shifting the focus from technologies as such to the people who make use of these technologies to mitigate the potential risk of blind spots in the planning and implementation of ICT4D projects that might hinder or reduce their success.

Implementers should aim for a deep understanding of the importance of social hierarchies and mistrust in a society, with a participatory approach in the design process of ICT4D projects so that they can be carefully constructed within the context of the users.

These complex local constellations, in which power differences and widespread mistrust are key issues to be taken into account, demand flexibility on behalf of ICT4D practitioners and projects.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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One Comment to “Two Blind Spots that Threaten Your ICT4D Project Success”

  1. Roos Keja says:

    Thank you for sharing our article in your blog; we are happy to see parts of our text reaching a broader audience, because we are eager to exchange on these themes with practitioners.