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Rich ethnographic reports about the uses of ICT in low-income communities

19 July, 2007

I lately came across a number of exciting papers I would like to share. Let me get started with one of these today, a long report initiated by the UK Department for Development, written by a number of researchers from British and Australian Universities, about the social and economic benefits of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in low-income communities in Jamaica, India, South Africa and Ghana.

The working papers strongly re-enforce the benefits of an ethnographic approach for the wider world – something which we have explored at some length on Culture Matters regarding the corporate world (especially in product design and marketing) – but which is also increasingly seen as contributing to sound development policies.

One of the most convincing by Daniel Miller and Heather Horst (PDF) juxtaposes conventional ICT policy making in Jamaica with ethnographic findings and uncovers that the assumptions concerning internet use held by the government as well as international NGOs diverge hugely from the realities. The background to the study was that, while the cell phone is very popular in Jamaica (with an average of 3 phones per household), the Internet is not so (only 3% of the population were online in 2004). In order to boost internet access (and implicitly solve all sorts of problems the country has – primarily in the crisis-ridden primary and secondary educational sector), the government plans to use a special tax to finance computers and virtual teaching resources and has applied for funding to several international organisations.

Let me juxtapose some of the current policies with Miller’s and Horst’s recommendations:

Instead of more computers in secondary schools invest in post-educational training for young adults
Merely putting computers into schools will not of itself be of any great benefit. Miller and Horst interviewed school children and found that due to security fears, computer access in schools was highly restricted and only available to high achieving children, many of whom came from higher income families and had access to the Internet anyhow. Despite school policies which stated that all children would have at least weekly access to computers, in actual fact, many had not been granted access to the computer lab in months. Secondary school children in Jamaica are often very badly motivated and drop out of school early. Yet the same people resume their interest in schooling when they have reached their late 20s and early 30s. “We witnessed a deep thirst for gaining qualifications and secure employment … long after they have left school”. Thus the authors propose that the government puts more resources into tertiary education (evening schools, day-time TV). “Jamaica has a huge demand for skills training and general education at the post-educational level, quite beyond that of other countries, and one that does not fit the global pattern of education as child-centered. Use of cable-TV and the Internet in adult education (hospitality industry, basic literacy, typing, office procedures and IT skills such as Microsoft office as well as general education) would do justice to the specific nature of Jamaican society and would transform the effective skills base of the society.”

Instead of investing into expensive high-end computers invest in low-price computers without gaming facilities
Studies worldwide show that personal computers are more used for gaming than for any other single purpose. Many manufacturers therefore strive to optimize technology mainly to create a satisfactory gaming experience. But from an educational perspective this sophistication is unnecessary (even detrimental). Thus the Jamaican government should consider investing in low-tech, low-price computers.

Instead of investing in new educational content, create trustworthy portals
Instead of creating their own educational and informational content at high costs, a lot of money can be saved by kitemarking, i.e. creating portals which identify useful and high-quality web resources.

Instead of investing in community computers, offer Internet access via individual mobile phones
Currently the main influence on the direction on ICT investment are well-meaning bodies such as NGOs and aid agencies who see an important role for ICTs in supporting what they call ‘community’. Large loans to the Jamaican government by the Inter-American Bank and the UNDP are destined to set up community computers.

“Many millions of US$ have been, or will be, dedicated to community computing. However, the emphasis on community centers for computing represents what we would call global rather than local thinking. The same recommendations may be found regardless of whether we are in Croatia or India. Aid agencies want to fund communities since it justifies expenditure as a social rather than as individual benefit and because they want to encourage communities per se. But this may result in a tendency to see ‘communities’ as uncritically positive or useful sites for disseminating information and access to computing and to wish them into existence even when there is no evidence for them.”

Yet not only did Miller and Horst find little evidence for the vibrancy of ‘community’ in highly individualistic Jamaica, they go so far as to state that there is “evidence that most Jamaicans possess a negative view of ICTs that must be shared and instead stressed the need for private ownership. ‘Community’ is associated with churches (who sometimes offer computer access), yet these were seen as exclusive rather than inclusive points of access. Similarly, there are ‘community events’, often sponsored by local elites, which are seen to serve their own interests rather than a broader community. Lastly, there are neighbourhoods which could be constructed as ‘communities’, yet there is little emphasis on sharing consumer goods. Past provisions of community computers in post offices and libraries have been singularly ineffective in Jamaica. Miller and Horst found several Internet access points that had never been used.

Many Jamaicans cited cultural reasons for their disregard for the internet in general, such as being part of an oral, highly individualistic culture, whose members are very private and thus don’t like sharing communication devices. Whatever the “real” reasons for the rejection of the Internet, Miller and Horst advise the government to “restrict its support and approval of commercial philanthropy to those cases that have carefully dovetailed to agreed programmes shown to be of value to low-income Jamaicans.” One promising way would be to provide limited internet access through the (highly popular) cell phone. The whole report is full of examples for ethnography’s ability to check (and often disprove) common-sense beliefs concerning the benefits of new technologies: Thus ICT doesn’t necessarily have a positive impact on employment and income generation (as is often thought). In the poor households studied the cell phone proved vital in income distribution, but not generation. More than half of the households incomes were derived through social networks and personal contacts rather than through employment or work. Phones were used to maintain and access the huge but shallow social networks, which could be called upon in times of crisis. The only people who did use ICT for entrepreneurial purposes were not the very poor, but those that already possessed regular employment. (This reminds me of Appadurai’s concept of “the capacity to aspire”, a capacity which the poor are lacking in many ways and which results in better-off members of society to benefit disproportionately from aid).

I also found the reports from Ghana by Don Slater and Janet Kwami fascinating. Again, ethnography unveiled a huge gap between policy assumptions and actual usage. On the one hand there is the widespread belief amongst governments and NGOs that the Internet is a tool of development through information distribution. Yet all Internet users in the Accra slum studied used the internet only for chat with foreigners (as well as some diasporic family members and friends). “There was exceptionally low awareness of even the existence of websites”. In internet cafes everybody is chatting with unknown foreigners, largely in the North but also in Asia, with a view of accumulating actual and symbolic goods (either on IM (Yahoo or MSN) or in Yahoo chat rooms). Internet access, although widespread and popular in Accra, is not cheap – one hour costs much more than the average kid’s lunch money – but many teenagers come several times a week, for several hours, solely to chat with foreigners.

Asma is a 14 year old girl. At one time she has 15 MSN chat windows open and cycles through them. But she rarely ever gets beyond the conventional ASL (age/sex/location) query. Even if somebody persists (as does a Midwestern American woman, who seems genuinely interested in Ghana), Asma seems keen to move on. The researchers found it difficult to find out, what she and her peers gained from these encounters. “She seems to believe that there is something intrinsically enriching about being in direct contact with foreigners and the Internet is the most direct access imaginable to innumerable legions of the foreign.” Asma is a serious student and has been coming to Internet cafes for about a year, several times a week, but she has only ever once visited a website: after the tsunami someone pointed her to CNN news, but she has never returned since. She has no awareness of the Internet in the sense of the WWW, as an information source or even multimedia entertainment. “Our Internet”, which is also the one inscribed in ICT development policies, doesn’t exist for her and most of other users encountered during a one year research period (both, in an Accra slum and a rural Ghanaian site). The only websites ever visited were college or university websites abroad, whose online applications forms were religiously filled in and sent off.

Predictably many of the authors’ recommendations focus on how to draw attention to the educational and informational benefits of the internet. They critique donor and state policy which is either focused on the provision of infrastructure and hardware without attention to the institutional and practical contexts of its use, or on the cultivation of computer literacy and software development that do not connect clearly to the way the large numbers of current users understand these media. But without knowledge about useful websites and how to access them, many of the government initiatives are doomed. How useful will large investments in e-governance (the provision of government information through websites) be, if the vast majority Ghanaian users never visit websites?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. 22 July, 2007 5:05 pm

    I have just found your blog. Am interested in creating a body of knowledge and portal around internet best practice for use by developing worlds. I would hate to see these countries go through the same mistakes the developed world has. They should not have the Web 1.0, 2.0 0r 3.0. They should just have Web Works first time and cheaply. I’m sure there is plenty of knowledge out there to share!

  2. 26 May, 2008 9:27 pm

    It seems that the website including the papers have been removed. But they are still accessible via the web archive

  3. 27 May, 2008 9:30 am

    Thanks very much for noticing this and supplying an alternative Lorenz. I’ve updated the link in the post.

  4. 1 April, 2013 10:21 am

    Reblogged this on kaapvaal and commented:
    Writing a project on this topic! Very interesting indeed!


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