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What is the Role of ICT4D in the Sustainable Development Goals?

By Ritse Erumi on June 10, 2016

Now the Sustainable Development Goals are with us, what are the implications for ICT4D? A recent discussion held by members of the Centre for Development Informatics gave some pointers.

The MDGs have run their course, achieving a mixed bag of success. The post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – an ambitious set of 17 goals and 169 targets – take over the proverbial baton in the global race towards achieving, what has been described as “the world we want”.

There are criticisms of the efficacy of these types of goals and the processes by which they are derived. But they provide a starting point and framework around which actors with varied mandates can gather. Indeed, the SDGs have already begun to shape the development discourse, development models and development funding mechanisms.

ICT4D Omission a Mistake?

The discussion was initially motivated by a blog post from Tim Unwin where he critiques the limited role of ICTs within the SDGs. While several discussants sympathised with many of the points raised in Unwin’s article, others took an alternate view.

Too great a presence for ICTs could risk re-kindling the ICT4D hype-cycles that generated unrealistic expectations in the 1990s and early 2000s. If the telecentre age taught us anything, it is that overemphasising the ability of ICTs to generate development outcomes is counterproductive for developing communities, as well as for donor and ICT communities.

Or an Advantage?

Others argued that the low profile for ICTs was encouraging because it reflected the times in which the SDGs were written: a recognition of the embeddedness and pervasiveness of ICTs within a progressively digital society. Consequently, not only are ICTs now seen as instrumental, they have become a platform through which development activities are increasingly mediated.

For instance, even if not explicitly mentioned, it is impossible to conceive effective environmental monitoring that does not involve sensors, satellite imaging, and a solid infrastructure to handle the data generated. Additionally, ICTs are now raising development issues of their very own: digital identities, digital exclusion, privacy and security come to mind.

What About Research?

Another theme we tackled was the relationship between the SDGs and ICT4D research. The questions considered included: “Do we obtain our research agenda from the SDGs or from what we see happening in the world of ICTs? Should the engagement of the ICT4D academic community with our peers in policy and practice be informed by the SDGs?”.

There was consensus that, while the SDGs might not necessarily drive ICT4D research agendas, they can provide a vehicle and language through which we can make more explicit linkages between our research and the development issues of our day. Developmental progress is often seen to result from changes in behaviour. Identifying and fostering the factors that cause or inhibit behavioural change are, therefore, integral to development planning and policy-making.

ICT4D researchers can improve the support we offer to policy, practitioner and entrepreneurial colleagues by providing better evidence of how ICTs impact behavioural changes that are aligned with the realisation of the SDGs. Therefore, we discussed the need for ICT4D researchers to become more adept at discerning issues of causality around human behaviour and ICTs.

The Wider Research Needs

As researchers motivated by global inequality and pressing social concerns, we felt our work should not just focus on addressing knowledge gaps but development gaps. Here, the SDGs provide guidance. Case in point, Goal 13 calls for urgent action against climate change and its impacts and a recent survey of ICT4D research identified significant gaps in our knowledge about ICTs, the environment and climate change. So, if you have a particular concern for the environment (perhaps we all should?) and are keen on starting a PhD, this might be an area on which to focus.

The example above highlights bigger questions about the relationship between knowledge gaps and development priorities and how knowledge gaps around particular development priorities, such as climate change, have remained scarcely addressed within our field. On this theme, we focused on how the SDGs can be used to bridge these gaps and priorities.

One practical approach for academics and anyone interested in addressing development priorities within the ICT4D space – practitioner, policy maker, entrepreneur or combination – is to use the SDGs as a stepping stone to find that unique point where the wider social concerns of development, our desire to make a difference (personal actualisation), and sustainable mechanisms (through business, NGO, public agency, etc) intersect.
ICT4D Brown Bag Priorities
On Addressing Development Priorities through­ ICT4D
These are just a few ideas. We are curious to hear what others have to say and welcome your thoughts in the comments section.

Written by T. Ritse Erumi, Juan Gomez and Ryo Seo-Zindy (CDI PhD Researchers) and originally published as Discussing ICTs and the SDGs

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2 Comments to “What is the Role of ICT4D in the Sustainable Development Goals?”

  1. alex s. watila says:

    i have been concerned that many times ict specialists are left out when ict4d is being discussed.

  2. Manuel Acevedo says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful post on an issue that is often treated somewhat superficially.

    I’d like to contribute to the discussion by referring to the integrated nature of the SDGs, i.e., the influence that the Goals have on each other. One issue that I don´t think has been sufficiently studied are networking effects through interventions that explicitly address a number of goals. Projects are gradually incorporating the widely shared, though seldom instrumented, belief that development areas/topics cannot be considered in isolation (e.g. environment, health, governance) since they exert influence on the others.

    I think that specific uses/exploration of ICTs aimed to stimulate positive network effects (e.g. processes to link community monitoring of environmental standards to participatory governance and policy-making) could improve many SDG-related interventions. And not only through clever, efficient technical means to facilitate the multidimensional use of data or information, but also via collaborative processes. As you rightfully point out, factors driving behavioural change are key for development actions and planning, and thus “(…) ICT4D researchers can improve the support we offer to policy, practitioner and entrepreneurial colleagues by providing better evidence of how ICTs impact behavioural changes that are aligned with the realisation of the SDGs”. Therefore, some ICT action research could be directed towards studying collaborative networked action to make it more effective and efficient. In my opinion, there is a better chance to achieve SDGs at the national or global scale if networks and networked action are at the core of implementation strategies; the proper leveraging of ICT-driven processes will be essential for that purpose.