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.or.ke (Submitted Feb 27, 2009 to the Young Researchers Workshop for the ICTD Conference, Doha, Qatar, April 2009)
As a young researcher living in Africa and specializing in African economic development through ICTs, I have invariably seen great enthusiasm for multidisciplinary ICTD research. However, such eagerness has occasionally been obscured by major obstacles, such as weak capacity, gender inequality and research isolationism. Nevertheless, the exponential growth of the usage of newly available information and communication devices, applications and processes in Africa, enables computer science professors and economists to converge on fascinating studies in unwritten terrain. The space and opportunities for such transdisciplinary interaction by young researchers are vital for the future of ICTD work, as is the concerted effort towards gender equality and the advocacy for improved funding for secondary and tertiary education for Africans. The above interventions have allowed me to be involved with a diverse group of African research colleagues investigating the economic and social implications of technologies on the continent’s society. In the last two years, I have focused upon addressing poverty effects through technology by measuring indicators in two areas: 1) substitutions made for mobile phone ownership and 2) the reaction to and cost of vulnerable situations with regards access to emergency hotline systems. Despite the limitation of resources and expertise in Africa, the measurement of poverty through adoption of ICTs has emerged as an alternative African perspective of development, with more than willing academics and practitioners converging upon this rapidly evolving field of study. I finally figured that the field of behavioural economics could be my niche research area, as little previous exploration has been done within the African context. My interest was piqued after reading Research ICT! Africa’s 2003 e-usage survey which stated that Africans were spending 10 % of their expenditure budget on ICT expenses while the rest of the world was spending an average of 2-3 % in the same area (Gillwald, 2005: 13). I was drawn to research which examines how this high spending could be possible for the poor and what African citizens were willing to substitute in order to gain access to mobile phone services. My recent Ugandan case study (Diga, 2007) revealed household substitutions for low income families were uneven. Low-income household respondents with property in their asset
portfolio substituted store-bought food with food grown in their gardens. On the other hand, landless apartment-block tenants were going without food on certain days in order to ensure some airtime credit remained on their phone. Ultimately, daily spending decisions and weighing out household strategies for a service or goods are negotiated in hopes of deriving the greatest value in the long-run. Mobile phones, and in some cases internet access, have ensured a future healthy debate as to what we can identify as true developmental needs in the context of rural communities. While my dissertation work is still a small piece of the puzzle that is poised to reveal the exorbitant costs of communications in Africa for low income households, much more rigorous research and effort is required to influence policy change calling for universal affordable communication access. Since my Uganda case study, a more recent 2007-08 survey of 17 African countries (23,000 households), found that households’ monthly mobile telephony expenditure as a share of their income was between 7.1 % (in Ethiopia) to 16.7 % (in Kenya) (RIA! 2008). Another forthcoming study in East Africa will also review panel data over an 18 month period as to how ICTs have changed the poverty levels for poor households in urban and rural communities (PICTURE Africa, 2006). Active dialogue and trust building between researchers, policy makers, telecommunication regulators and the media are most necessary to build a platform for debate on research recommendations. Only evidence combined with other strategies will help change-makers convince policymakers to drive regulation for affordable access. Besides evidence to affordable access, my new area of study is the cost effectiveness of technology in assisting the disadvantaged to alleviate vulnerability and risk. I looked at how existing emergency hotline (911) systems have gained perceptions of ineffectiveness to rural communities. Such systems are designed to provide citizens with immediate access to and assistance from the police, fire or ambulance services if an accident or acute emergency occurs. In my recent 2008 Ghana study, initial findings reveal perceptions of a highly inefficient and ineffective emergency hotline system. Respondents stated uncertainty as to the correct number for emergency services. Others would call the emergency number but only experience busy signals when trying to reach the operator. During a visit to the local fire station, one senior respondent stated that nearly 30 prank or false calls are received daily at the station. Further rigorous research on the effective implementation and of policy surrounding emergency hotlines would help to provide improved policy choices for more effective systems. While having this opportunity to do the above research with a funding institution based in an African regional office, I have also had the privilege to encounter the many challenges of ICTD research, including capacity building of young ICTD African researchers, breaking isolationism of research, and gender discrepancy.
When senior researchers are squeezing in as many activities as possible into normally limited donor funded projects, particularly during this financial crisis, one can see programs overlooking the need to train younger African academics in this new multi-disciplinary field. Many over-worked and sought after African academics have not had opportunities to transfer their knowledge to younger students, which would thus alleviate the burden of over-subscribed researchers in the ICTD area. The history of development for tertiary institutions has not helped the causes of these professors. During the time when international agencies concentrated efforts on the top priority areas of health and primary school education programs, little money filtered through to secondary and tertiary institutions. African university professors saw their infrastructure deteriorate as well as the quality of graduated secondary students. At this point, we see a worst case scenario when finding poor quality students arriving into the university system and trying to build an appropriate resource-intensive training program, which will eventually see them undertake major ICTD projects. Secondly, the art of breaking from the isolated silos of one’s institution (and department!), and starting to engage and work together with respected colleagues in Africa can be a challenge. There is a perception of an extremely fierce environment of limited resources among and within tertiary education institutions which can be the cause of jealousy of highly contentious and resourced departments. This resentfulness can most definitely build a non-collaborative “empire-building” environment. The attempt in developing a multi-disciplinary environment may also not always fit into the university environment. Such a change in university culture may not be accepted, to the point of resistance for innovation that “does not fit into the box”. Thus the gains to reach student and department collaboration can be an uphill battle. This environment of isolated offices will be difficult to breach, particularly for younger researchers who are more open to idea exchange and diversity. Gender discrepancy in Africa also finds fewer women than men in this field. This imbalance may feed from the poor mentorship continuum mentioned above. How then does one ensure that significant intervention effectively guarantees that ICTD does not become a male-dominated field in Africa? As progressive academics examining the area of development using new technologies, are we in fact strengthening particular groups for the marginalized to become worse off. A reversal of the status quo of capacity building for whoever just happens to be available is required, and I would like to see targeted ICTD training programs for the most vulnerable groups including women, the disabled and the elderly. Allowing due course to take place no longer makes gender justice sense in this case. These three major challenges of gender justice, research isolationism and capacity deficiency are threatening the successful collegiality and collaboration that I earlier identified in the field of ICTD research. Given the historical context of development in Africa, we are left in a resource-limited environment, which results in low capacity
development and even less cross-disciplinary collaboration to build research in the most innovative fashion. The challenges are daunting in the mix of social science and technology research. I am caught between several disciplines where recognition building is a constant battle, as is proving the rigour of our ICTD research. How do you develop a collaborative environment at the student level with so many factors running against it? The question remains as to how one can build support for capacity building given the difficulties of finding quality students to engage in this new area of research. In conclusion, from the last four field studies I have conducted in Uganda, Kenya and Ghana, I gained an appreciation for sharing and exploring the ideas of ICTD: from what their households are sacrificing in order to have use of mobile phone services to how mobile phones and technological services like 911 are affecting their everyday lives and during emergency situations. However, drawing up multidisciplinary teams are rare, encouraging young people to do ICTD can be tiresome, and improving female participation in perceived male-dominated technology fields makes equality feel like a long way down the road. However, the progress made on ICTD research analysis and discussion is already too rich here in Africa for there to be turning back to the old conventions. Instead, resources must concentrate on making those baby steps to influence policy on education at the national level as well as to develop the passion of young academics to explore development through ICTs. How do we ensure that our own work in this field then harmonizes with the major efforts conducted by strategic partners in advocating for high-quality high schools and university infrastructure, women’s rights and building research collaboration? Lastly, only my own way of giving back in the small efforts of face-toface meetings with prospective ICTD researchers, as well as pro-active informal and formal activities with our existing young African researchers, will be the conduit to recruit and promote ICTD’s future research.
References: Diga, K. 2007. “Mobile Cell Phones and Poverty Reduction: Technology Spending Patterns and Poverty Level Change among Households in Uganda. University of KwaZulu- Natal Dissertation paper http://ecologize.org/Diga_2007.aspx Gillwald, A. (ed.). 2005. “Towards an Africa e-Index: Household and individual ICT Access and Usage across 10 Africa countries.” The LINK Centre. School of Public and Development Management. University of the Witwatersrand. http://www.researchictafrica.net/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=artic le&sid=504 Downloaded February 25, 2009. PICTURE Africa. 2006. “Poverty and ICTs in Urban and Rural Eastern Africa: Final Proposal.” Unpublished. Submitted to International Development Research Centre.
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