ICT4D in decoloniality efforts

ICT4D in decoloniality efforts

  1.  Introduction

15 years ago, my thesis for my undergraduate degree proposed the necessity to positively brand African countries, and whilst doing this use CRM technology to tailor communication messages to tourists, investors and the diaspora (Wanjiru, 2006). The thesis was written at a time when leading Western media represented stereotypes of Africans and the African continent as wild, primitive and hopeless. For example, in a job advertisement by New York Times for a Nairobi Bureau Chief (New York Times, 1999) and The Economist branding Africa ‘The Hopeless Continent’ (The Economist, 2000). I reflect back to this dissertation this because fundamentally the paper was advocating the need to decolonise the African image and asserting that ICT (Information Communication Technologies) could play in this. Decolonisation has long been an interest of mine and I am fortunate to have been able to explore this topic a little bit further through my recent blogging experience.

Decolonisation is about the undoing of colonialism and restoring justice in the countries and peoples of former colonies that till today are measured as inferior in relation to the West.  It is about challenging white superiority which determines whose knowledge is privileged and held as the truth. Decoloniality is a specific type of decolonisation, it involves practices to divest and delink from colonial powers and Eurocentrism (Tamale, 2020). For example, by disrupting colonial legacies of binary and hierarchy, and rectifying the material, political and social exclusion of people and their histories (McEwan, 2018). It involves critiquing the production of knowledge based on European experiences and imagining alternatives contributing towards the removal of enduring forms of colonial domination (McEwan, 2018).

Whilst ICT is concerned with devices and techniques which provide access to information and communicate data, this article focuses on Information communication technologies for development (ICT4D). ICT4D is defined by Heeks (2017, p. 10) as’ the application of any entity that processes or communicates digital data in order to deliver some part of the international development agenda in a developing country’. Consequently ICT4D can play a role in facilitating solutions aiming to counter coloniality and white supremacy. Through its core functionalities and application features, it enables affordances which are the outcomes when individuals interact with ICT systems. Examples of affordances include communication, transaction, collaboration and automation. Affordances create capabilities which enable and enhance freedoms that empower individuals to pursue the life they value (Heeks, 2017).

The subsequent paragraphs are extracts from my previous blog posts covering decoloniality in indigenous languages. They include examples of how ICT4D is contributing towards the struggles to empower indigenous languages in learning and online. These examples feature digital tools produced for development outcomes and impact,  falling under the classification of what Roberts (2016) terms as ‘digital for development’. Also included in this article are a few paragraphs about a new form of domination and exploitation in the digital space: data/digital colonialism. It warrants attention because of how data is extracted, analysed and applied, and the possible implications for the poor and marginalised.

  1. Indigenous Languages

‘Language was the most important vehicle through which that power fascinated and held the soul prisoner. The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation.’ (Wa Thiong’o, 1986, p. 9)

The above quote by Kenyan author and decolonial activist speaks of the psychological ways in which British colonisers sought to indoctrinate Kenyans during the colonial era. Through colonising the mind, they sought to devalue Kenyan culture, indigenous knowledge and ways of being. Whilst the author speaks about the Kenyan perspective and their experience with the British, it can be argued that similar psychological colonialism was experienced in other colonised countries, and the remnants of this type of colonialism are still present and visible in former colonised countries today. For example, in legal and educational institutions, religion and language which mirrors that of the coloniser.

Language is important in producing knowledge and the English language de-centers and marginalises indigenous heritage and practices through promoting Eurocentric perspectives. This according to Thiong’o (1986) is because the British colonisers exploded a cultural bomb.

‘The effect of the cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves, for instance, with other peoples’ languages rather than their own.’ (p. 9)

2.1 Empowering Indigenous Languages in Learning

In rural Kenya, despite language policy mandating indigenous language instruction in the first three years of primary school; English dominates as the principal language of instruction. Kenya’s colonial history gives the English language a perceived value: English is the gatekeeper holding a promise for the future, a panacea capable of emancipating the poor. Knowledge of English is a marker of class and intelligence.

2.1.1 Innovative solutions for indigenous educational content

There are a number of initiatives such as eKitabu, M-Lugha and African Storybook delivering educational content in indigenous languages. eKitabu (Kiswahili for eBooks) delivers digitised books directly to schools (eKitabu, n.d.). M-Lugha (Kiswahili for M-Language) is an interactive, offline app designed for rural and pastoral communities that translates the Kenyan syllabus into indigenous languages (m-Lugha, n.d.). African Storybook (ASb) produces and distributes African language books via internet, mobile app services, and some print (African Storybook, n.d.) . Whilst the focus of these solutions is to improve learning outcomes, they also are upholding Kenyan indigenous languages and empowering young learners to better understand their cultures and identities.

A project by ASb aiming to create literacy awareness within rural pastoralist communities in Turkana County confirms a contrast between what is learnt in school and indigenous practices at home (African Storybook, 2017). Children within this community are heavily involved in herding livestock. English instruction in schools denies children the opportunity to develop literacy from their way of life and family environment. To counter this, an intervention involving six schools was developed encouraging children to take home printed Turkana storybooks to read. Children also collected oral stories from their elders and parents, and brought to the teachers who together turned the stories into illustrated books. ASb worked with the teachers to publish the books in Turkana on ASb web and app platforms and also made print copies for the schools use.

2.1.2 Language, knowledge and identity

Language carries values through which we understand ourselves and our place in the world. It expresses and constructs identities and connects to cultures and beliefs. As can be seen in the above ASb example, empowering the use of indigenous languages in learning enables history, traditions, and beliefs to be passed down. Through such stories children can draw on narratives for decision making and establishing boundaries within cultural norms and rules; but also reinforce indigenous knowledge such as the importance of respecting nature, food and water supply management and medicinal plants. Another perspective for maintaining indigenous languages is that it affirms culture and identities, and highlights the inability of the colonial project to totally annihilate indigenous people’s spirit.

2.2 Empowering Indigenous Languages for Digital Inclusion

75% of the world’s internet users are from the Global South and yet the internet – through its language and imagery – is ‘so white and western’ (Graham & Sengupta, 2017). With an average internet penetration of 79% (Internet World Stats, 2020), Europe and North America is reaching saturation. The next one billion internet users will come from the Global South. With western languages taking centre stage, indigenous languages are at the back, resulting in challenges with inclusivity and leading to a gap between those who can access the internet and those who cannot, i.e. digital divides.

2.2.1 Digital inclusion and why language matters

Digital divides reinforce existing inequalities that already impact marginalised people. As their ability to access, assess, apply information and take action online is limited, it prevents them from reaping the benefits of the internet (Heeks, 2017). These include educational and social benefits but also enabling people to more fully exercise their human rights, such as freedom of speech and access to information. Digital inclusion is about the practical approaches that address the individual and community needs to bridge digital divides. Addressing factors such as availability of adequate ICT infrastructure, affordability of data and devices, digital literacy and availability of relevant content in indigenous languages facilitate digital inclusion.

The language one speaks affects how the internet is experienced, how to search and navigate; but also, search query responses change depending on one’s language (Graham & Zook, 2013). Therefore, those who can access and use the Internet in the dominant languages continue to benefit and the indigenous language speakers are left behind. As mentioned previously, language carries values through which we understand ourselves and our place in the world. If language is a marker of our identity, the dominance of western languages masks the wide diversity of identities online and homogenises individuals with otherwise a rich and varied culture. This further highlights issues about homogenisation of knowledge, power and privilege: What is diffused on the internet is created by people with western perspectives, further strengthening the western hegemony.

2.2.2 Contributions centring indigenous languages

There are a number of efforts aiming to bridge the digital divide through empowering indigenous languages and voices on the internet. Earlier in the year, Global Voices sub-Saharan Africa ran a 5 week African language outreach campaign on Twitter. Topics included how threats to net neutrality marginalize digital content in African languages and the importance of and challenges for the right to access information in digital spaces in African languages (Global Voices sub-Saharan Africa, 2020). Localization Lab translates safety tools and tutorials that address security, privacy and anonymity online by ensuring that indigenous language activists have safe spaces for accessing information online (Localization Lab, n.d.). Whose Knowledge? is re-imagining and re-designing the internet through centring the knowledge of marginalized communities. Among their initiatives is the ‘Decolonise the Internet Languages’ conference about how to diversify the production of knowledge on the internet (Whose Knowledge?, n.d.).

Whilst there is some speculation about which continent the next billion internet users will come from (World Economic Forum, 2020), they will most certainly come from the Global South. To curtail information inequality, and transform from divide to inclusion, efforts should focus on enhancing skills of users and the quality of their access. Empowering and centring Indigenous languages is a fundamental goal for bridging the unequal representation of knowledge, people and cultures.

  1. The Scramble for Data – The New Colonialism

It is unquestionable the benefits to be gained by individuals and communities in the Global South from accessing the internet. Improved education, health and livelihoods outcomes are just a few of the areas they stand to benefit from. But as the next billion internet users are anticipated to come from the Global South, it is also important to be critical about how the Global South will be impacted by the spread of digital technology, within the frame of data colonisation and the impact that has on inequality.

According to Couldry and Mejias, data colonisation is ‘the appropriation of human life so that data can be continuously extracted from it for profit’ (2019, p. xiii). Capitalism is evolving and data collection has become a key feature. Corporations are driven by the idea that amassing data is a business and economic necessity. The ability to monitor the present, predict the future and potentially influence behaviours of whole populations is driving the quest for domination of data (Pinto, 2018). Our experiences and engagements online are the resources which are extracted, commodified and valued as properties of capitalist enterprises. People are constantly monitored and under surveillance for data extraction; and we have become a ‘resource into this capitalist production’ (Couldry & Mejias, 2019, p. xix). This compares to the colonial conquest of the past because it is driven by ‘acquiring large scale resources which economic value can be extracted’ (Couldry & Mejias, 2019, p. xi), the power of which rests in the hands of a few.

3.1 Data extraction and power imbalances

The perpetrators of this new form of colonisation are the tech giants in Silicon Valley but also in China – Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, TikTok just to name a few. The race to connect the disconnected in the Global South is apace, a number of these tech giants are running programs to provide the infrastructure and software to facilitate connection. Devices provided, such as mobile phones with registered SIM cards, is allowing for surveillance and profiling of users. Afforded with only pre-installed websites (Solon, 2017), hardware is accompanied by user agreements allowing these corporations full access to user data (Pinto, 2018). This user data is the new raw material which is fed into algorithms for Artificial Intelligence and machine learning.

Another concern is the manifesting power relations when the collectors and analysers of the data are predominantly male and mostly located in the Global North (Tamale, 2020). Their power to determine what is correct or what fits the stereotypical expectation heightens concerns about ‘Othering’ – a concept that already has implications for the Global South. Furthermore, the nature that data is collected and used can become a problem if there is algorithmic discrimination or people are nudged towards certain behaviours, e.g. technology for facial recognition used for policing minority groups. This type of influence also makes it easy to reinforce stereotypes, pushing the marginalised further to the periphery.

There are calls for the Global South to nationalise its data, to declare data a national resource and charge the tech companies for this resource (Mejias, 2019). That is a short-term measure. A long decoloniality view could be to disentangle the Global South from this new form of colonialism with a moon-shot goal of building an internet for the Global South.

  1. Final Thoughts

Keeping a blog has been a great learning process, in terms of researching and identifying noteworthy content, and maintaining a discipline of publishing content on a specified date. Through publishing about a topic that is of personal interest to me, and sticking within the boundaries of this topic, I have been able to maintain consistent narration and a red thread between blog posts.

Furthermore, this process has enabled me to educate myself profoundly in an area of interest, and by writing about it I have assimilated the knowledge on a deeper level.  A big insight from writing about such a complex topic as decolonisation has been understanding how I might contribute to the efforts more effectively and constructively.

As a national of a post-colonial country and a product of a western university, I have become more aware that my way of thinking is a particular due to colonial and western influences. And if I wish to engage with the topic and contribute more constructively to decolonisation, I will need to unlearn ideas about normative concepts such as education, religion, law, from my western experience and try to relearn from my native roots,  for example through applying a perspective and an active practice around the philosophy of Ubuntu.

Reflecting back to the blogging experience, I have also enjoyed reading comments on the blog. I value that visitors have taken time to read and ruminate on the issue, and this has affirmed that the content published has been useful and interesting.


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