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Do We Still Need to be Doing ICT4D Academic Research?

By Guest Writer on July 14, 2022

digital development vs ict4d

The field of Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) has a history that dates back some 35–40 years (Avgerou, 2017; Heeks, 2014).

The first works linking ICTs to development were authored, Heeks (2014:24) notes, between the 1960s and the mid-1980s: the origins of ICT4D are linked to the diffusion of computers across countries (Avgerou, 2017) and to the early conferences in the area, such as the first International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) Working Group 9.4 conference in New Delhi in 1988 (Walsham, 2017).

Back then centred on the “Social Implications of Computers in Developing Countries,” the conference lies at the origins of a distinctive field: from the time when “the entire literature on IS and developing countries would struggle to fill a single bookshelf” (Heeks, 2002:102), ICT4D has developed its own conferences, journals, dedicated courses and textbooks (Heeks, 2019; Walsham, 2017).

We started the paper, “Should we still be doing ICT4D research?” by eliciting the inner assumptions of ICT4D, fleshed out from landscape papers that made the history of our field. We have then illustrated the limits of those assumptions as applied to today’s world, bringing to light a theoretical crisis of the field and illustrating, against this backdrop, three reasons for the renewed importance of ICT4D research today. In the light of the above, what is next for ICT4D?

Embrace Crisis of Assumptions

We suggest, to start with, that the field should openly embrace the crisis of its assumptions. Sticking to research on “developing countries,” without problematizing the term or acknowledging its limits, is likely to perpetuate the theoretical crisis and limit our opportunities of dialogue with other fields.

This does not imply a thorough dismissal of our concepts: what is needed is an informed problematization that recognizes their limitations, taking into account other framings of the same ideas. In this light, the original view of ICT4D as a subfield of IS (Avgerou & Walsham, 2000) should, we believe, be augmented with the interdisciplinarity advocated by Walsham (2017): notions from fields such as critical data studies but also HCI, Internet research and development studies are essential to provide a full picture of the objects of our research.

Embrace New Theories

Second, the multitheoretical nature of our field provides fertile ground for embracing new theories. The presence, in some of the latest IFIP 9.4 conferences, of a track called “Pushing boundaries – New and innovative philosophical, theoretical and methodological approaches to researching ICT4D” is an indicator of the field’s willingness to engage new approaches, coming from beyond IS and enlarging the theoretical landscape that papers such as Walsham and Sahay (2006) had summarized.

Drawing again on Davison and Díaz Andrade (2018), we suggest that multilingual approaches—transcending the establishment of English as lingua franca in the academic community—can contribute significantly to theoretical expansion, embracing the decolonial logic that Jimenez and Roberts (2019) and van Stam (2019) advocate. The presence, in the upcoming IFIP 9.4 2022 conference, of tracks in Spanish and Portuguese (the conference was originally scheduled to take place in Lima) is an important move in this direction.

More at large, despite its theoretical crisis, ICT4D has moved important steps on interdisciplinarity (as suggested in Walsham, 2017) and on the establishment of dialogue with other fields. The First IFIP 9.4 Virtual Conference, featuring 13 tracks including data justice, the role of ICTs in achieving social justice, feminist and queer approaches to ICT4D is paradigmatic of the field’s broadened conceptual agenda.

It is, we believe, this route of openness that will benefit the field and lead it to overcome, in the light of its renewed relevance, the crisis of its assumptions. The increased participation of ICT4D researchers in forums such as the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) and the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) is another important step on the route of openness.

The End is Not in Sight

In conclusion, we do not believe the end of ICT4D research is anywhere in sight. We restate, however, the core point of this paper: overcoming the field’s theoretical crisis means embracing renewal, by openly problematizing the original assumptions on which the field was built. Such a problematization, conducted through open dialogue with other fields, is essential to the conduct of research that, in the current datafied world, has become more relevant than ever.

A lightly edited conclusion to “Should we still be doing ICT4D research?” – an academic paper by Silvia Masiero, Associate Professor of Information Systems at the University of Oslo. 

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2 Comments to “Do We Still Need to be Doing ICT4D Academic Research?”

  1. Phillippa Biggs says:

    Yes, absolutely we need more research into ICT4D, as it represents the future economy for all countries, developing and developed. But I have often been struck by the difference btwn what people think the Internet could or should be used for (e-banking, online sales platforms, knowledge and research) and what it actually gets used for (chatting, porn and online gaming, by large numbers of Internet users, apparently very popular). So research should be more honest. Also, I am not sure we should go around recommending online banking and payment, when these tools get misused widely (fraud etc.) among even quite computer-savvy, computer-literate populations… We need honest research into the dangers & risks & abuses, as well as the internet community promoting all the benefits!

  2. Clearly more research is needed – and urgently. Take the example of GovTech / eGovernment (where spending is on track to reach $1 trillion by 2025). Research found that only 15% of projects fully meet their objectives (ie 85% fail fully or partially).

    However, that research dates back to 2003 and 2016….

    From a quick review of the research on this topic, there seem to be some promising areas for researchers and practitioners to collaborate around an agenda. Read the full blog here if you’d like to know more – https://kwantu.net/portal/kwantu/circular/602faa76e14abdb53447cfdf/62c34e3708f86b7e7c7fa0da