Empowerment from above, development from below, or something in between? ICT4D (ICT for Development) in China (upcoming conference)

In a recent blog, Marina has pointed to our upcoming conference on “ICT for Development (ICT4D) in China: Digital divides, empowerment strategies, and development discourses”, to take place here in Lund on October 3-4.

I would like to draw attention to the last two words of the conference theme – “development discourses”. ‘Empowerment’, ‘development’ and ‘participation’ have, sadly enough, become real buzzwords and “evoke a world where everyone gets a chance to take part in making the decisions that affect their lives, where no one goes hungry or is discriminated against, and where opportunities exist for all to thrive”, as formulated already eight years ago by Cornwall and Brock in a Programme Paper of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. (Also Wikipedia has ’empowerment’ in its ‘List of buzzwords’.)

But besides the fact that the repeated use of these auspicious terms may serve to conceal continuing discrimination and suffering among disadvantaged groups, it often also evades the question of which agenda the proclaimed goals of empowerment and development are serving. Development and empowerment on whose terms?

Almost by default, we tend to associate ‘development’ with aims to alleviate poverty, spur the local economy, and generally improve people’s lives by e.g. providing sufficient food and health services. ‘Softer’ aims include the encouragement and ’empowerment’ of grassroots organizations (thereby assuming emerging democratic governance processes) as well as civic engagement and legal empowerment.

It could amount to, if you want to be a cynic for just a few seconds, a top-down induced programming of bottom-up activities. The passive receiver of charities is thus transformed into a proactive agent, at least in the brave new world of development discourse.

What happens, however, if top and bottom development goals do not match? Or if ‘development’ is defined in ways that depart radically from what we naively assume to be a consensus? Development is, after all, a highly normative, value-laden term that is politically and historically contingent. The civilizing missions of the colonial times, for example, were seen as contributing to development (of the savage world), as was the segregated schooling of black children in the US (as framed in the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine).

Similarly, different states, governments, and interest groups can have very different notions of what development (or ‘good’ development for that matter) entails. This makes cases like China so interesting. Naturally, ‘development’ in the (officially sanctioned) Chinese sense means subscribing to the development goals of the CCP. These include of course also goals like poverty reduction and better access to education and healthcare (see e.g. the Five Year Plan for Development (2011-2015)) but also policies regarding e.g. urban planning, migration, and ethnic minorities that are at least controversial and often painful for those involved. At the same time, individuals may envision ‘development’ in diverging ways that can, but don’t have to be, at odds with Party politics and policy goals.

‘Empowerment’, as Amartya Sen so convincingly argues, should not be treated as a sort of pre-packaged set of rights and goods, but it should mean the freedom to make alternative choices – and this capability expansion, as he calls it, can only occur if the poor (or the needy) are treated as individuals. The conference presentations will therefore address both broader policy issues as well as subjectivities and creativity emerging at the grassroots level.

The conceptualization of ICT in development mirrors that of development itself. Also here, the reductionist view is widespread that technology as such is development. As much as development cannot be conceived in context-free space, ICT are also socially, politically, and culturally embedded and stand in complex interaction with their users. They do not operate according to a deterministic logic – such as some specific change being triggered automatically through the use of certain technologies – but interact with their context. This can lead to the only superficially surprising situation that the same technologies can lead to quite different outcomes.

As with ‘development’ and ’empowerment’, ICT can be used in congruence with proclaimed policy goals, but most likely they will change in the hands of the user. The target groups of the real world seldom match those of policy formulations. A complex web of state agencies, industrial organizations, entrepreneurs, NGOs, schools, academics, and the individual end users themselves all leave their imprint on the technology in use. Our conference papers take into account both policies from above and stories from below, looking at Party cadres and their use of ICT, but also at strategies that are devised at the so-called margins: unconventional or “unimagined users” who, sometimes inadvertently, develop ICT4D in ‘unintended’ directions.

About Barbara Schulte

Barbara Schulte is Associate Professor at the Institute of Sociology, Lund University
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