Digital technologies have seen rapid uptake, across most of our world. So are developing countries seeing the benefits? If not, why not? The World Bank recently published its World Development Report 2016 Digital Dividends. Richard Heeks considers whether this major report accurately reflects the digital revolution and its impact on global development.
Some years back, when helping run a session at the World Bank, I introduced myself to a table of participants. “Oh yes”, came the sniffy response, “you’re the ICT failure guy”. This was a World Bank that believed in – and heavily promoted – the development benefits of ICTs (information and communications technologies), and had little time for any contrary evidence.
Judging from this year’s World Development Report, that rose-tinted optimism has been replaced by a much more realistic, more evidence-engaged, and somewhat downbeat, perspective on ICT4D (the use of ICTs in the fields of socioeconomic development, international development, and human rights). In my view, the Report is a tale of three divides which highlight issues of which policy makers should be mindful.
The first is an impact divide. This is the gap between the promise of the digital revolution and its actual delivery of benefits – the “digital dividends” of the title. As one would expect, the Report does a great job of laying out those dividends, particularly through pithy frameworks and graphics. It shows the way in which ICT affordances of efficiency, inclusivity and innovation have driven productivity, growth and jobs in the economic sphere, and more capable and responsive governments in the political sphere.
Yet alongside the digital dividend have come:
- a digital deficit: inequalities in the distribution of these benefits with a few “haves”, many “have nots”, and far more “have lesses”, and
- digital ills: the darker side of cybercrime and curtailment of online freedoms
The cause of this impact divide is two other divides: digital and social.
The digital divide is familiar territory. It encompasses the problems of digital illiteracy, accessibility and affordability alongside policy prescriptions for better competition and regulation. But of more interest is the strong recognition that a social divide is the main reason for digital inequality. This is the gap between the regulations, skills, and institutions needed to deliver digital dividends for all vs. the actual regulations, skills and institutions present within developing countries.
Those who believe in a contextualised, socio-technical approach to ICT4D will nod along to all this. Even the consequent prescriptions – “regulations that allow firms to connect and compete; skills that technology augments rather than replaces; and institutions that are capable and accountable” – while they have an expected flavour of neo-liberalism, constitute a broader digital policy agenda than often promoted in the past by the World Bank.
This broader agenda reflects a bigger picture issue. The report is one more marker of the transition from “ICT4D” to “digital development”. The absence of ICT4D (it gets no mentions) in favour of digital development is more than just a change in terminology but – as I’ve written in an earlier report (see here for edited version) – reflects the slow change from ICT being a tool that assists global development to its being the platform that mediates development.
The agenda for digital development will be substantially shaped by the Sustainable Development Goals (the United Nation’s new set of goals that will set the global development agenda for the next 15 years), with their three essentials of transformation, inclusion and sustainability:
- As noted above, the 2016 World Development Report identifies how much ICTs have already delivered; how reality has so far undershot the transformative potential of ICTs, due to technical and social divides; but also what the policy solutions might be
- Inclusion – or rather lack of it – is a key Report theme, citing concentration of economic and political power, state and corporate control of citizens, and inequality of economic impacts. ICTs themselves are not neutral in all this and the Report explains how the technology has facilitated digital monopolies, automation of middle-income jobs, and digital authoritarianism.
- Sustainability and its operationalisation through resilience gets a brief acknowledgement but – as I’ve noted in my “ICT4D2016”paper – much remains to be done to really get a grip on the coming e-sustainability and e-resilience agenda.
The practice of digital development will be substantially shaped by new ICT-enabled innovations that challenge existing development structures and processes: users as digital producers, the power of the crowd, digital participation, network structures, data-intensive development, and open development. In largely reviewing the existing evidence base, “Digital Dividends” has less to say about these. But they are identifiable within the Report as part of the coming flow.
The World Bank’s 1998/99 World Development Report (“Knowledge for Development“) had an important impact in kick-starting ICT4D. The latest Report faces a different world – one far more mature, and perhaps a little jaded in its experience of ICTs and development, but it reflects this evolution well and will be a vital pointer for the “digital development” future.
A version of this blog first appeared on ICTs for Development.