ICT4Bad: A Reflection on Critical ICT4D Discourse

ICT4Bad: A Reflection on Critical ICT4D Discourse

According to Richard Heeks in Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D), in ICT4D, technology “is used to help deliver on the international development agenda” (Heeks, 2017:18).  Such technologies, could provide added benefits or affordances to developing societies such as digital information and new forms of communication as well as other benefits on the paradigm of making significant changes to human interaction and behavior within other critical sectors (i.e., e-health and e-finance) (Heeks, 2017: 13-17). Essentially, international development agendas aim to influence social, economic and environmental changes in “developing” countries. Within the context of this course, New Media, ICT and Development, I decided to approach ICT4D discourse from lens of ICT4Bad as a critical thematic framework through exploring technologies and technological pathways geared towards the Global Goals or the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda, particularly SDG 9. SDG 9—build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization and foster innovation—and its target 9C, aims to increase access to ICTs and create universal and affordable access to the internet (Heeks 2017 and UN, 2015a).

Considering SDG 9, critical ICT4D discourse tends to recognize the positive aspects of ICTs, but also the unintended consequences or challenges of these innovations under the umbrella of three critiques, technical, instrumental and structural (Heeks, 2017: 24-25). The technical critiques refer to failed implementation processes; instrumental critiques emphasize the uneven distribution of ICT benefits; and structural critiques analyze how ICTs replicate political, social and/or economic power imbalances and inequalities. Most of the cases that I selected to discuss for this course, implicitly incorporated one or more of the three critiques where ICT4D solutions and platforms deployed in development countries resulted in negative consequences, ICT4Bad. Overall, each article argued how current and controversial ICTs and digital platforms contributed to limited availability to, accessibility to, adoption of or application of the technologies.

My first article, An African Feminist Perspective: Online gender-based violence, focused on structural critiques of the internet through the issue of online gender-based violence (GBV), which unfairly targets women globally. In development discourse, the internet is one mechanism promoted to close the gender equality gap and the digital divide for women, especially in Sub-saharan Africa (Heeks, 2017 and Tamale, 2020). In this context, SDG 9 is intersected with SDG 5, which intends to achieve gender equality and empower all girls (UN, 2015b). However, pathways towards closing this gap could be ineffective because when women encounter online GBV, their online behavior is less frequent or completely abandoned, which is consistent with the application divide (Heeks, 2017). To support this argument, I discussed the recent release of a case study by the civic research and advocacy firm, POLLICY, which used an African-feminist perspective to review internet-based policies in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Senegal and South Africa and to conduct surveys, focus groups and interviews with women. Similar to Heeks (2017) arguments on gender and the digital divide, POLLICY’s study found some positive attributes of the internet and social media including, representing spaces for women to share their ideas, build safe communities and start businesses. Alternatively, when these women encountered stalking and sexual harassment online it limited their interactions on digital platforms, such as Facebook. Also, Facebook was the most popular platform for perpetrators to harass women.

In spite of these attacks, most women reported that they did not report these offenses to local authorities, because of limited legal mechanisms to remedy online GBV. Whereas, in cases when women did report the offenses, local authorities facetiously responded to the cases. For example, I presented secondary cases of how victims of revenge porn were prosecuted instead of the perpetrators of the crime. Therefore, the article concluded with a few probing questions and a call for more discussions on the intersections between justice and online GBV in development discourse. Overall, online GBV reflects how structural issues such as unequal gendered power relations manifest and reproduce from physical spaces to digital spaces.

Similarly, my second article, Uganda, Internet Death and Taxes, focused on structural and instrumental critiques of internet access in Uganda. The SDG linked to this topic is SDG 16—promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies (UN, 2015c). In contrast, the introduction of digital taxes in Uganda is far from this inclusive mission.  Further SDG 16, target 16.10, intends to ensure public access to information, which protect fundamental human rights. Indeed, the internet is a mechanism for catalyzing action towards this target and promoting economic and social development (Murphy and Carmody, 2015), but the intended results for Uganda could be far from successful with the introduction of a new fee to post content online and other digital taxes.

In October 2020, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) officially enforced a fee that would require all online content publishers, providers and broadcasters to obtain a license before sharing content with the public. In other words, bloggers, video bloggers and social media influencers would be required to pay this fee to legally post any content online. To investigate the effects of this tax, I reviewed another recent case study from POLLICY, which focused on the fee and other digital taxes, such as the OTT tax (Over the Top Tax) on social media. Additionally, I also reviewed articles from secondary sources and UCC press releases to interpret discourse of the positive and negative aspects of these digital taxes. Overall, OTT resulted in a decline in local internet usership, which extends to adverse effects on how Ugandans access and share information on the internet. POLLICY’s report and opinions of human rights activists from secondary sources, also reflects how the reduction in internet usage was influenced by the inaccessible price of the OTT and the added suppression of freedom of expression. In conclusion, the case of ICT taxes in Uganda reflect structural and instrumental challenges in the accessibility, adoption or application of the internet and social media, which continues to have uneven economic and political implications for many Ugandans.

Likewise, my third post, Aadhaar India: When well-intentioned innovation marginalizes, also focused on SDG 16, target 16.9, which aims to provide legal identification for all (UN, 2015c). Digital identification (ID) and biometric health information is currently leading the trend towards this target. So much so that, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) digital identification project, Aadhaar, is the largest digital ID system in the world. Although, the project was proposed as a low-cost to solution to ID errors, ID fraud and effective targeting for distribution of welfare and food benefits, the platform exhibited some technical, structural and instrumental challenges. These challenges have impacted the availability, adoption and accessibility of Aadhaar to women and people representing historically marginalized groups and low socioeconomic groups, and rural living in regions. Even though Aadhaar registered 90% of India’s population, studies from development and justice research, such as Linnet Taylor discuss how Aadhaar reflects negative effects of data-enabled discrimination and inequality (Taylor, 2017). Also, secondary sources. which included review of a study from Indian economist and social scientist, Reetika Khera, and news articles argue that obtaining an Aadhar ID is a challenge. It is challenging because the platform requires access to a smartphone or mobile device and the cost amending ID data could also be financially inaccessible. This platform also reproduced inequalities present in Indian society and provided unclear legal parameters for rights to information and privacy of information. Therefore, Taylor (2017) calls for a right-based data justice framework or three pillars of justice, which is grounded in visibility, engagement and non-discrimination, which Taylor argues if adopted with the implementation process could account for reaching come structural challenges experienced by marginalized groups.

Additionally, in my fourth article, COVID-19, the digital divide and access to remote learning, I discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic continues to exacerbate the digital divide for many children around the world, which also has implications for data justice. In this context, the digital divide refers to uneven or unequal access to internet-based learning, digital learning or remote learning services. The challenges of remote learning is extremely important with regard to SDG 4—quality education—which has been set back due to unequal technical, structural and instrumental access to these technologies for students living in rural areas. To support this argument, I discussed a 110-country study conducted in partnership with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the World Bank. The study found that 463 million children could not access remote learning services within the first global wave of the pandemic (UNICEF, 2020). In particular, girls living in rural areas either had uneven access to mobile devices or computers or digital infrastructure, or could not afford mobile data or electricity.

In regards to COVID-19, Taylor et al (2020: 9-15) discusses how justice and injustice was reflected and constructed in the transitioning top digital technologies within the first wave of COVID-19 across education and other pertinent sectors. For instance, in Jordan, the transition to remote learning did not account for about 15% of students, who lack access to internet, computers or mobile devices (Taylor et al., 2020: 171-173). This reflects an instance of data injustice because some students were disproportionately prevented from accessing information, which led to a reduction in the quality of education. In contrast, Taylor et al (2020:191) also discusses an example of data justice in the Netherlands, where the platform Zoom was banned within some universities, because of data privacy concerns.

Similarly, I also discussed a secondary case from the Brookings Institute on Educate!, an internet skills and learning organization, which designed accessible learning according to the student’s home environment and the availability of digital and/or broadcast devices, during the pandemic (Angelica and Nabbuye, 2020). This pre-deployment research undertaken by Educate! helped the organization to determine how best to disseminate learning modules as per student’s access and adoption, which could be linked to Taylor’s data justice pillar of engagement and non-discrimination. Basically, Educate! accounted for both pillars because the organization determined how and when to share learning modules and  the preferred mechanism of dissemination, which prevented biases and challenges in the students  accessing the modules. For example, Educate! found that it would be more advantageous for students, who were required to complete agricultural label on weekdays, to receive radio broadcast lessons on the weekends, which is an example of reflexive data justice, in terms of non-discrimination and promoting engagement with the technology.

Therefore, this article showed how a critical approach on ICT4D from a data justice framework, could also present some positive and negative consequences of digital technologies.


 Overall, this course and its requirement to discuss and interpret ICT4D and Communication for Development discourses in a non-academic format was both challenging and exciting. I believe the main challenge was translating discourses, which tend to exist mostly in academic spaces, for a non-academic or general audience. This pushed me to think beyond the main arguments of ICT4Bad and focus on different methods of communicating these issues to a more diverse audience. Therefore, I examined a few ICT4D-based case studies that were released within the course timeline to align with current issues such as, the new digital tax in Uganda. Additionally, I appreciated the ability to use a more conversational tone in articulating these issues, which allowed space to design a lively narratives, whereby the audience could answer discussion questions at the end of the article.

Another challenge that I found, which was also reflected in Denskus (2019) and Denskus and Papan (2013), is that I  spent a lot of time ensuring that the links and sources were qualified, diverse and balanced. So, I tried to provide both peer-reviewed and secondary sources to support my arguments. Finally, I valued the ability to incorporate new media approaches in posts such as, videos, pictures and disseminating the posts across social media platforms. In conclusion, as the blogosphere within international development discourses continues to grow and transform, this course could be a prototype for how to approach developing a blog for an audience interested in critical discourses on international development, digital development and humanitarian issues.


Angelica, A and Nabbuye, H. (August 7, 2020). Taking distance learning ‘offline’: Lessons learned from navigating the digital divide during COVID-19. Retrieved from: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/education-plus-development/2020/08/07/taking-distance-learning-offline-lessons-learned-from-navigating-the-digital-divide-during-covid-19/

Denskus, T. (2019). Blogging and curating content as strategies to diversify discussions and communicate development differently, Aidnography, 17 December

Denskus, T. & Papan, A. (2013). Reflexive engagements: the international development blogging evolution and its challenges Development in Practice 23:4, 435-447

Heeks, R. (2017). Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D). Taylor & Francis Group

Khera, Reetika. (September 29, 2017). Impact of Aadhaar in Welfare Programmes. Retrieved from : https://ssrn.com/abstract=3045235

Murphy, J. T., & Carmody, P. (2015). Africa’s information revolution: technical regimes and production networks in South Africa and Tanzania. John Wiley & Sons

Read, R., Taithe, B. & Mac Ginty, R. (2016). Data hubris? Humanitarian information systems and the mirage of technology, Third World Quarterly, 37:8, 1314-1331

Tamale, S. (2020). Decolonization and Afro-Feminism. Daraja Press. 1-40, 385-395

Taylor, L. (2017). What is data justice? The case for connecting digital rights and freedoms globally. Big Data & Society, 4(2)

Taylor, L., Sharma, G., Martin, A. & Jameson, S. (2020). Data Justice and COVID-19: Global Perspectives (Links to an external site.), Meatspace Press

UNICEF. (2020). Factsheet: COVID-19: Are children able to continue learning during school closures? Retrieved from: https://data.unicef.org/resources/remote-learning-reachability-factsheet/

United Nations. (2016).  Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved from: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment

  1. Sustainable Development Goal 16: Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies. Retrieved from: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/peace-justice/
  2. Sustainable Development Goal 4: Quality Education. Retrieved from: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/education/
  3. Sustainable Development Goal 5: Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Retrieved from: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/gender-equality/
  4. Sustainable Development Goal 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization and foster innovation. Retrieved from: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/infrastructure-industrialization/