Reflecting: Gender, race, ethnicity… in ICT4D?

I am now waiting for my next flight, and inspiration just hit.. why let this opportunity go away. For those few who have read my blog, you may have noticed that I do not write much.. it is not often that inspiration comes and I feel like blogging.. But today I am here waiting and thinking back at a great session I chaired days ago at the ICTD 2016 International Conference in Ann Arbor. Together with my colleague and friend Tony Roberts, we organised a session about Intersectionality in ICT4D, and surprisingly we had a very good turn out.. more than 30 people came to the session. 1/3 already knowing they disagreed with the session proposal, another 1/3 not knowing what intersectionality meant, and the rest interested in the conversation. We had enthusiastic and passionate conversations, overall touching on a subject hardly heard in this context… changing social structures!

Intersectionality was a new concept to me too a few months ago, and I came to see it as a tool to try to understand complexity. Namely, when we try to understand reality, we are faced with a complex mess.. nothing is straight forward, and even if we design the best research, we tend to focus on one or few things we are interested in understanding from that mess… In this context, intersectionality encourages to stop and acknowledge that while we might be interested in understanding a few layers of the complexity, the other layers do not disappear… individuals are the sum of layers: their race, gender, ethnicity, age, abilities or disabilities, class, religion, level of education, etc, etc, etc… while we might understand how their gender is enhancing or constraining their development, we might have underestimated how their class or race expands or limits such development, and on top of that, their religion or education, may also influence this..  and so on, and so on… Here is where I see the value of qualitative in-depth research. I totally understand that we cannot collect these kind of data about everyone, all the time, everywhere.. it is impossible and unsustainable.. policy makers want straight forward advice that will enable them to make decisions about how to allocate resources or what projects may lead to greater impacts. Time, financial and human resources are limited, and trying to understand complexity for every situation does not seem efficient.

But, nonetheless, understanding, or more realistically, having a glance on similar situations, that will make us aware how the complexity affects human beings, is indispensable, in particular to stop believing in silver bullet solutions. Putting this into an ICT4D context, new technologies are powerful tools. These have the capacity, in particular if these are connected to the internet, to allow individuals to access information, education, financial advice, health content, and so on… that all this is ONLY A POTENCIAL. A person will use ICTs for some or all of these uses and more only:

…IF they can afford an smartphone
…IF they can afford internet connection (assuming the connection they are paying for is good on the first place)
…IF they can find content in a language they are fluent on
…IF they know how to read and write
…IF they know how to use ICT for these purposes
…IF …IF …….IF

but most of all … IF THEY CHOOSE TO.

What if they are prohibited to do so due to gender constraints, or they are blind and there are no apps that attend their needs, or if the advice they find is not context /cultural appropriate, or if they do not have the time, or if they have never valued education and they can’t be bothered to study as their lives and those of their family and friends have proved to them that is better to focus on finding work and earning money that loosing time studying…

I feel as if I am blabbing.. but I guess my message for this post is twofold. First, when researching ICT4D, we need to remember the complexity of human live and the need for us to find ways to incorporate this complexity in our analysis. Intersectionality may be used as a tool to explore those moments in which different layers intersect explaining the reasons behind disadvantage. But there are also other ways, and what is important is to find what way resonates with our work and incorporate it, even if it makes our work a bit more complicated. As the participants of the session said: “resist the pressure to simplify”.

Second, that we need to stop seeing ICT as the solution, and re-contextualise these as tools that PEOPLE might use to solve problems and to improve their own lives. We need to focus more on people, how to reach them and how we might support them, or even, how we need to get out of their way..

 

Finally, to finish this little reflection post.. I want to repeat a phrase I heard now a couple of times: ‘we will realise we have done great work when we suddenly realise we are no longer needed and consequently unemployed!’.

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