Why migrant technology research needs ‘values’ at its core

In a world where the fundamental human values of liberty, equality and fraternity are being challenged by digital technologies, research on how these technologies impact inequality and migration has never been more pressing.

Digital technologies are often implicated in stories around migration. Mobiles and mobile apps offer a lifeline for migrants in vulnerable situations; a means to connect with their past and to engage with their present.

But in many countries, digital technologies are also at the centre of state surveillance and anti-migrant propaganda. Access to technologies and capacity to use them effectively also vary across communities and individuals. Digital technologies create a kind of paradox: they empower but also create vulnerabilities and even inequalities.

How we use digital technologies to address the migration-inequality-development nexus matters. The values that underpin these efforts matter more. Migrant technology can only genuinely claim to address migrant concerns when it starts and ends with those affected by these technologies – the migrant themselves.

But this raises a couple of questions. How are the problems that migrants face being addressed by digital technologies? Will these technologies create other problems, vulnerabilities or inequalities? How can we fundamentally shift the focus of migrant technology research from the technologies that underpin it to the values that underpin their use?

Answers to these difficult questions aren’t easy. As we embark on a five-year project to understand the role Information Communication Technology (ICT) can play in addressing inequalities in the context of South-South migration, here are three key principles driving us:

  • There is nothing inherently good about digital technology. It can be used to do good or harm.
  • Digital development interventions are often technologically deterministic and have unintended social consequences. Both can lead to failure. Therefore, we must address not just the technological aspects, important as they are, but also the social processes that underpin their use in particular contexts. Different migration contexts may have different needs, and may likely need different kinds of technological interventions.
  • Development outcomes and meaningful user engagement are not inevitable in technology-related interventions. We must find ways to engage users in their context to ensure that interventions are both relevant and sustainable, while maximising positive outcomes and minimising negative social impacts.

Migrant technology research needs to put values at its core. It must reflect the values that we privilege, particularly when we are required to make difficult trade-offs.

When freedom of choice is constrained by the socio-political and legal context, when equality of access is constrained by the cultural context, or when fraternity is impeded by privacy concerns in risky and vulnerable contexts – these values will be integral.

Ultimately, recognising the multifaceted nature of the migrant context means being particularly mindful of the values we may seek to promote through technology interventions.

 

[Originally posted on MIDEQ site on 31 August 2019]

Participating in IFLA’s President’s Meeting and Ministerial Forum, Buenos Aires, 22-23 May 2019

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) convened a Forum of Ministers and Secretaries of Culture of Latin America and the Caribbean on 22nd May, followed by its 2019 President’s meeting on the theme of Motors of change: libraries and sustainable development on 23rd May, both in Buenos Aires.  These important meetings provided a valuable opportunity for those actively involved in the role of libraries in contributing to the development of Latin American and Caribbean countries to share ideas and experiences, and agree on ways through which their work can be further enhanced.  Tim Unwin, as Chairholder of our UNESCO Chair in ICT4D, was honoured to have been invited to give a keynote address, and was delighted to have participated in both days of discussions.

Ministers ForumThe Forum of Minister and Secretaries of Culture was held in the very impressive Congress of the Argentine Nation, and provided an excellent opportunity for senior government officials from across the region to share presentations and discuss the theme of Libraries, Access to Information and the Sustainable Development Goals.  Welcoming participants, IFLA President Glòria Pérez-Salmerón reminded them of the theme of her presidency – Motors of Change – and underlined the difference that libraries can make, for so many people, in so many ways.  IFLA Secretary-General Gerald Leitner stressed to the ministers of the power they had in their hands, and made the case for ensuring that they – and libraries – are included fully in national development plans.  A key outcome of the meeting was the signing of the Buenos Aires Declaration which affirmed participating governments’ commitment to the UN 2030 Agenda, and to the power of libraries and access to information to achieve it.  The meeting also saw the launch of the second edition of the Development and Access to Information Report produced by IFLA and the Technology and Social Change Group (TASCHA) at the University of Washington, focusing especially on SDG4 (education), SDG8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG10 (inequalities), SDG13 (climate chage) and SDG16 (peace, justice and strong institutions), and edited by Stephen Wyber and Maria Garrido.

In the evening, there was a Cultural Gala in the Public Hall of the Library of the National Congress, which consisted of three main elements:

  • NachaA dance performance in two parts by the Arte Ballet Compañía: the Don Quijote suite, and Tiempos de Tango, with ideation, choreography and direction by María Fernanda Blanco.
  • Music played by the Chamber Orchestra of the Honorable Argentine Chamber of Deputies with a repertoire dedicated to the Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, featuruing especially the saxophone soloist Jorge Retamoza.
  • A wonderful closing sequence of songs by the famous Argentine artist Nacha Guevara.

The 2019 President’s Meeting on 23rd May built on the themes of the Development and Access to Information Report, and began with a session of welcoming speeches by IFLA President Glòria Pérez-Salmerón, IFLA Secretary-General Gerald Leitner, Alejandro Lorenzo César Santa (General Coordinating Director, Library of the National Congress), and Rene Mauricio Valdes (United Nations Resident Coordinator, Argentina).  This was followed by Tim Unwin’s keynote speech on Libraries and Sustainable Development: challenges of inequality in a digital world (.pdf of slide deck), which:

  • Screenshot 2019-05-25 at 21.00.54Challenged those who believe that the SDGs will deliver on their aspirations;
  • Highlighted the role of digital technologies in leading to increasing inequalities;
  • Explored issues around power, knowledge and content;
  • Advocated for the important role that libraries can serve as open places and communal resource centres; and
  • Concluded by encouraging participants to have the will to make a difference.

In the afternoon, there were three sets of discussions and presentations by the authors of the Development and Access to Information Report and others on the following themes:

  • A Library Response to Global Challenges: What Can Libraries Contribute to International Efforts to Tackle the Issues that Affect the Planet?
  • Driving Development at a Local Level: Libraries Making a Difference to People’s Lives
  • Improving Decision-Making and Accountability: Libraries as Pillars of Democracy and Good Governance

These two days of lively and interesting discussion provided a wealth of ideas for all those participating from governments and libraries to implement on return to their own countries.  It was also a very valuable opportunity to build a network of people working at the interface between libaries and international development, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean.  Very many thanks are due to the hard work and hospitality of colleagues from IFLA and our Argentian hosts.

 

Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development

Volume 2    Issue 6    June 2017

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have immense potential.  However, they are created by people for specific purposes; they reflect the interests of individuals and the companies, or organisations, for which they work.  They can be used to do good, or to do evil.  They usually have unintended consequences.

In the context of debates over “development”, ICTs can thus be used for enhancing economic growth, or for reducing inequality.  However, can they be used to do both at the same time?  Much evidence exists to suggest that with the emphasis over the last 20 years on economic growth as the mantra of “development”, embedded in the MDGs and now the SDGs, ICTs have played an important role in enhancing development (Unwin, 2009).  At the same time, though, their design, implementation and use have led to significantly increased inequalities in the world: between the rich and the poor, between men and women, between those with fewer “disabilities” and those with more “disabilities”, between richer countries and poorer countries, between those living in rural and urban areas …  Despite their potential to be used anarchically and disruptively, ICTs therefore seem to have been used primarily to reinforce existing power differences and inequalities – both by design and by accident.  At its simplest, ICTs usually act primarily as accelerators, both of growth and of inequality.

What we mean by “ICT for Development” (ICT4D) depends fundamentally on what we consider “development” should be.  If reducing inequality does not matter, and economic growth is indeed the aim of “development”, then ICT4D has been successful.  However, for those who are concerned about the implications of an ever more unequal world, as reflected in part in the commitments made towards SDG 10 (Reducing inequality within and among countries), then ICT4D has largely failed.

Based on my practice and research over the last 20 years, I have therefore crafted a different kind of book about ICT4D, intended to encourage everyone to reflect on their own roles in ICT4D, and to reclaim the moral agenda about using ICTs to enable poor and marginalised people to empower themselves.  It is called simply Reclaiming ICT4D (OUP, 2017).  In concept, it draws heavily on Jürgen Habermas’s Critical Theory focusing on interests, on empowerment and emancipation, on the complex intertwining of theory and practice, and on the power of self-reflection.

Reclaiming ICT4D calls for a radical rethinking of ICT4D and advocates the need for six transformations:

  • Designing and implementing technical solutions that prioritise the poorest and most marginalised people and communities
  • Reshaping the role of government and regulation
  • Crafting effective multi-stakeholder partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society
  • Ensuring that digital systems are resilient in the face of security threats
  • Paying greater attention to effective learning and understanding at all levels and in all sectors
  • Placing the poor at the centre of all that we do – working with the poor, and not just for them.

For those attending the 2017 WSIS Forum in Geneva, the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D is convening a workshop on Reclaiming ICT4D at 11.00 on Friday 16th June (Room Popov 1).  Do join us to discuss these issues, and to develop an agenda that will enable the poorest and most marginalised to be empowered through the appropriate use of ICTs.  Outputs will be reported on the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D platform.

Above all, ICT4D is a moral agenda.  It is about what is right and what is wrong.  It is about what each of us does to make a difference.

Revisiting our (Disciplinary) Geographies of Development

Volume 2    Issue 5    May 2017

The fundamentals of ICT4D as an area of practice and research have been revisited several times since the early days, emphasising the limits of technological determination, as well as the problematics made invisible by simplistic definitions of the ‘4D’ (e.g. Toyama, 2015). Recent events and issues in what are considered advanced economies open up to scrutiny yet another, deeply embedded view: that advanced and developing economies can be mapped jointly onto geographical areas, separating North and South and distinguishing the advanced economies in Europe, North America and some Asian countries from emerging economies in Africa and Latin America.

This taxonomy is infused in the fundamentals of ICT4D as a discipline and has many implications. It also reinforces the donor-recipient humanitarian pattern evident from the beginnings of development practice, by assigning semi-permanent labels to countries and actors that are either on the giving or on the receiving side. The consequences of this have been amply debated, especially by Latin American scholars, noting how being on the receiving end hinders self-directed action towards change. These conceptual categories tend to render us impervious to the problems that are right on our doorstep: Europe, for instance, has been recently facing issues that are central to ICT4D practice and research. The number of people seeking refugee status in EU countries, for example, rose steadily to reach around 1.3 million in 2015 and 2016 (Eurostat). However, the migrant and refugee crisis is just one side of the coin. Europe also faces challenges that are endemic to the continent, some associated with the process of redress after the 2007/08 financial crisis. To this we can add inequalities, social exclusion and marginalisation based on gender, religion and ethnic belonging.

Since 2009, I have conducted research with disadvantaged groups in Europe, particularly one of the continent’s most vulnerable populations – the Roma minority. The Roma are widely considered to be the most discriminated and socially excluded European minority group, facing widespread poverty, low literacy and digital literacy, and lack of access to quality education and housing. Numerous efforts and programmes for social inclusion and economic redress have targeted the Roma. Outcomes are often unsustainable and limited, and true change and development have yet to be achieved. In my ICT4D research I have addressed issues around voice, social inclusion and cultural affirmation of the Roma (e.g. Sabiescu, 2013; Hagedorn-Saupe et al., 2015, Ch.5) and brought it in dialogue with the situation of other vulnerable groups across both North and South, most recently, within the EU project EduMAP, which takes a development communication lens to understand how adult education across the EU can better serve the needs of vulnerable youth. What the Roma example points out is that clear-cut distinctions and firm boundaries between developed and developing contexts are illusory. Poverty, inequality and exclusion, along with the issues posed by unequal access to technology and information literacy levels permeate both developed and developing regions. There is thus scope for ICT4D research and practice to contribute to more equal, inclusive, and tolerant societies in all parts of the world. This could be developed in collaboration, bringing together ICT4D and interdisciplinary perspectives for research and practice across regions historically targeted by development programmes, and what are considered advanced economies. It is also important to encourage cross-disciplinary dialogue and exchange through events that link across various disciplinary traditions and geographical areas of focus. These engagements will enable us to devise fresh perspectives on development and look beyond pre-defined categories and labels. Ultimately, a closer, unbiased look at our contemporary societies from multiple disciplinary perspectives compels us to acknowledge that in essence ICT4D perspectives, tools and sensibilities are equally needed across North and South, including what are traditionally considered developed and developing regions.

Information and Communication Technologies: resolving inequalities

It was great to be invited to give a lecture in the Societat Catalana de Geografia in Barcelona on the subject of “Information and Communication Technologies: resolving inequalities?” on Tuesday 4th October in the Ciclo de Conferencias Programa Jean Monnet convened by my great friend Prof. Jordi Marti Henneberg on the theme of Los Desafîos de lintegración Europea.  This was such an honour, especially since I had the privilege of following the former President of the European Union Josep Borrell’s excellent lecture earlier in the day on El Brexit y sus consequencias en la goberabilidad de la Unión Europea.

lectureThis was an opportunity for me to explore the relevance to the European context of some of my ideas about ICTs and inequality gleaned from research and practice in Africa and Asia.  In essence, my argument was that we need to balance the economic growth agenda with much greater focus on using ICTs to reduce inequalities if we are truly to use ICTs to support greater European integration.  To do this, I concluded by suggesting  that we need to concentrate on seven key actions:

  • working with the poor rather than for the poor
  • pro-poor technological innovation – not the “next billion” but the “first” billion
  • governments have a  key role to play through the use of regulation as facilitation in the interests of the poor and marginalised
  • crafting of appropriate multi-sector partnerships
  • managing security and resilience against the dark side
  • enhancing learning and understanding, both within governments and by individuals
  • working with the most disadvantaged, people with disabilities, street children, and women in patriarchal societies