When does Tech → Innovation? Here’s what 178 projects tell us

March 20, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Next up in Twaweza week, a realists’ guide to tech and development.

I’m basically a grumpy old technophobe who can’t even manage Excel, and whose hackles rise whenever geewhizz geeks pop up and claim that the latest digital gizmo (blockchain, clicktivism or whatever) is going to usher us all into the promised land. I dislike the implicit individualism, the blind eye to issues of power and politics, the way politicians latch onto tech solutions as an apparently cost-free way to sound modern without actually challenging or changing the status quo.

So I was delighted when Rosie McGee, a ‘scholar activist’ (her description) from IDS, presented her paper (with Duncan Edwards, Colin Anderson, Hannah Hudson and Francesca Feruglio) on the results of 178 small grants to tech projects funded under the Making All Voices Count accountability programme. Over 4.5 years, the grants went to projects for innovation, scaling up, tech hubs and research, mainly in six countries across Africa and Asia (South Africa, Kenya, Philippines, Indonesia, Ghana and Tanzania).

The paper presents its main findings as 14 messages. The first is one that governance wonks don’t need to be told, but techies apparently need to hear: there is no magic bullet

‘Message 1. Not all voices can be expressed via technologies

The rest are grouped into four clusters

Applying technologies as technical fixes to solve service delivery problems

Message 2. Technologies can play decisive roles in improving services where the problem is a lack of planning data or user feedback

Message 3. Common design flaws in tech-for-governance initiatives often limit their effectiveness or their governance outcomes

Message 4. Transparency, information or open data are not sufficient to generate accountability

Applying technologies to broader, systemic governance challenges

Message 5. Technologies can support social mobilisation and collective action by connecting citizens

Message 6. Technologies can create new spaces for engagement between citizen and state

Message 7. Technologies can help to empower citizens and strengthen their agency for engagement

Applying technologies to build the foundations of democratic and accountable governance systems

Message 8. The kinds of democratic deliberation needed to challenge a systemic lack of accountability are rarely well supported by technologies

Message 9. Technologies alone don’t foster the trusting relationships needed between governments and citizens, and within each group of actors

Message 10. The capacities needed to transform governance relationships are developed offline and in social and political processes, rather than by technologies

Message 11. Technologies can’t overturn the social norms that underpin many accountability gaps and silence some voices

Applying technologies for the public bad

Message 12. A deepening digital divide risks compounding existing exclusions

Message 13. New technologies expand the possibilities for surveillance, repression and the manufacturing of consent

Message 14. Uncritical attitudes towards new technologies, data and the online risk narrowing the frame of necessary debates about accountable governance.’

What seems to be happening is a classic hype curve. The optimism of the Arab Spring and various largely fanciful accounts that it was all down to twitter/Facebook/telegram etc are now coming under scrutiny via experience and research. What I like about the paper is that it points the way beyond a simple trashing of the hype, to the areas in which tech holds most promise of helping the struggle for accountability, such as ‘improving services where the problem is a lack of planning data or user feedback’ (message 2) or where they can act as a general multiplier/support for other strategies (messages 5-7).

But (reverting to grumpy old technophobe) – let’s be clear. Tech is not an alternative ‘short route’ to accountability. That requires deep engagement with issues of power, trust and social norms, where a smart app or whizzy online petition is only ever going to play a subsidiary role. And, as Tim Berners-Lee broadside against the online giants, the dark shadow of the downside of tech is growing ever greater. The misguided optimism of the Arab Spring seems a long way off these days.

Last word to the authors in their conclusion:

‘Looking back through four-and-a-half years of operational and research work on the assumptions that underpinned Making All Voices Count’s theory of change at the outset, it is clear that expectations about growth in access to the internet and other technologies were excessive. Seen in relation to an end goal of improving the accountability and responsiveness of governance, the contribution of tech-enabled, individual, direct voice has been weak compared to the importance of collective, organised processes that combine online and offline approaches. Put differently, the contribution of tech innovation has been less than that of tech-aware social innovation in making voices count. That tech solutions have made only a moderate contribution is due in part to design and implementation flaws, for which today’s stock of knowledge provides abundant evidence, and to which it offers more than sufficient remedies. But it is also partly due to the complexity of the task of making governance accountable, which was under-recognised by many at the outset.’

Previous Posts in this series:

Which Citizens? Which Services? Unpacking Demand for Improved Health, Education, Roads, Water etc

How can researchers and activists influence African governments? Advice from an insider

Can Evidence-based Activism still bring about change? The view from East Africa

March 20, 2018
Duncan Green