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Development Studies Association Conference

Examination Schools, University of Oxford 12-14 September, 2016

Power, politics and digital development [Information, Technology and Development Study Group]
Location East Schools (Examination Schools)
Date and Start Time 13 September, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 4


  • Richard Heeks (University of Manchester) email
  • Mark Graham (University of Oxford) email
  • Ben Ramalingam (Institute of Development Studies) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

Covers the broad intersection of power, politics and digital development including both directionalities - the impact of power and politics on design, diffusion, implementation and outcomes of ICT application; and the impact of ICT application on power and politics - and their mutual interaction.

Long Abstract

Digital Dividends" - the 2016 World Development Report - finds the benefits of digital development to be unevenly distributed, and identifies emergent "digital ills". The cause in both cases is inequalities of power in economic and political arenas including vested interests, digital monopolies, lack of citizen voice vis-a-vis the state, and other factors.

This panel invites papers at the broad intersection of power, politics and digital development including both directionalities - the impact of power and politics on design, diffusion, implementation and outcomes of ICT application; and the impact of ICT application on power and politics - and their mutual interaction.

We welcome work anywhere along the spectrum from the micro-exercise of power within individual ICT4D initiatives through the politics of national ICT-using organisations and institutions to global Internet governance. Other topics for papers might include but are not limited to:

- The organisational politics of ICT4D

- Digital resources as foundations of power in development

- Reproduction and transformation of power and inequality through digital development

- Digital development discourse as a source and reflection of power

- The institutional logics that conflict and contest to shape digital development

- How national and international ICT policies address and express issues of power

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Critical agency in digital development

Author: Tony Roberts (Sussex University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper uses critical theory to extend Sen's capability approach and to argue that key to digital development should be enhancing people's critical-agency i.e. their ability to critique and act upon any power and political constraints on their development.

Long Abstract

Amartya Sen's capabilities approach offers significant benefits for understanding digital development and is increasingly popular as a research framework. Sen's approach requires researchers to decentre technology and to evaluate the extent to which digital development interventions increase people's freedom and ability to realise their own idea of development.

However this paper argues that Sen's approach also has significant weaknesses that limit its value in addressing the intersections of power, politics, and digital development. Sen's liberal individualism and the absence of any sustained analysis of power in his work are problematic for critical researchers.

There are some less-explored aspects of Sen's work which may offer a way forward. Most capabilities approach research has focused on Sen's concepts of 'capabilities' and 'functionings' at the expense of his concepts of 'unfreedoms' and 'critical-agency'.

Sen describes development as a process of expanding people's freedoms, and removing 'unfreedoms' such as social deprivation and political tyranny. He also insists that people's 'critical-agency' is key to any participatory development process, by which he means people's freedom and ability to question dominant norms and values. Having identified tackling unfreedoms as central to development, and emphasising 'critical-agency', regrettably Sen leaves the concepts undefined and under-theorised.

This paper contributes a definition of critical-agency and its contents, and draws upon critical theories to provide recommendations for how people can use ICTs to enhance their critical-agency to remove the unfreedoms that constrain their development. It concludes that critical-agency and the removal of unfreedoms should be core elements in future digital development initiatives.

Digital politics, institutional logics and development

Author: Richard Heeks (University of Manchester)  email

Short Abstract

This paper illustrates, explains and draws conclusions from the six patterns that emerge from growth of digital politics in the global South; patterns of Copy, Spread, Curve, Boost, Shift and Hybrid between dominant competitive and subordinate cooperative institutional logics.

Long Abstract

Politics can be understood as the site of contestation between two different institutional logics: a closed competitive logic of control and hierarchy, and an open cooperative logic of collaboration and community. As ICTs diffuse ever-further into developing countries, they increasingly support and even mediate the political processes that contest these logics, creating a "digital politics".

Digital politics is associated with six different outcomes in the contestation between the dominant competitive logic and subordinate cooperative logic of politics: Copy (simple reproduction of the dominant logic); Spread (diffusion of the dominant logic into new political spaces); Curve (mutation of the form but not substance of the dominant logic); Boost (intensification of the dominant logic); Shift (strengthening of the subordinate logic); Hybrid (some combination of the other five patterns).

This paper will illustrate these six patterns using case evidence from the global South, and consider their implications for political development, and their implications for those designing and implementing politics-related ICT4D applications. It will also consider how best we might conceptualise an understanding of the causes of these patterns.

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The digital politics of development and anonymous online power

Author: Brett Matulis (University of Leicester)  email

Short Abstract

Development is an inherently political act that is both promoted and disputed through online media. With the rise of the “darknet” and anonymous digital activism, we are witnessing an important shift in power relations and a new phase in digital political resistance to development projects.

Long Abstract

Development is an inherently political act that is frequently met with contentious debate and vigorous opposition. The "surface web" and social media are now ubiquitous in organizing political action around development projects. Critiques of new-media-based social movements, however, have suggested that digital activism is too deeply embedded in the ideologies of neoliberalism - and too deeply exploited under cognitive capitalism - for it to foster genuinely transformative politics. In light of this important critique, digital activists have been taking to the so-called "darknet" (an underworld of technologically untraceable communication) to engage in collective political activism. In this paper, I argue that these technologies and emerging spaces of virtual discourse are producing new social relations, new modes of social organization and, thus, new articulations of power. Going beyond John Allen's assessment that ICT constitute a shift in the *means* of power, I suggest that digital technologies (and especially new *anonymous* digital technologies) constitute a more fundamental transformation of power relations and their geography. I elaborate on Mark Haugaard's brief sketch of this transformation by adding important (empirical and conceptual) detail to theories concerning the spatiality of digital power. I do so specifically through the context of darknet activism around contested pipeline development in Canada. This example illustrates the way that we must re-think the operation (and indeed spatiality) of power for the current era, in which actions can be coordinated and carried out from unknown and unfixed locations simply by connecting to computer networks and exploiting vulnerabilities in network security.

The dialectics of open development

Authors: Yingqin Zheng (Royal Holloway University of London)  email
Becky Faith (Institute of Development Studies)  email

Short Abstract

This paper aims to provide a critical literature review on open development, explore the ideological assumptions, political foundations and economic forces behind open development, examine the challenges and unintended consequences, and consider the dialectics of boundaries in openness.

Long Abstract

In recent years open development initiatives have spread across many sectors; including open data, open government, open education, etc. There is often a normative assumption in the discourse that openness is good in and of itself. Nevertheless, the literature on open development shows a distinct absence of evidence of impact.

The societal impact of open development is also challenged by asymmetries in digital infrastructure and access to supportive resources on a global and local level. Indeed, diffusing technologies in societies without addressing underlying inequalities due to gender, class and various forms of social barriers may serve to reinforce inequalities and consolidate segregation. For example, without sufficient technical and institutional protection to safeguard individual privacy and interests, participating and sharing on open platforms may render users inadvertent victims of commercial interests seeking profits from big data.

Drawing upon the tradition of critical theory, this paper aims to provide a critical literature review on open development across a range of sectors, e.g. open data, open education, open government, etc., seeking to examine the following questions:

- What are the ideological, political and economic assumptions behind claims made about openness?

- What are the driving forces behind open initiatives?

- What are the standards adopted in openness and who sets them?

- Whose interests does openness serve and what is the evidence of developmental impact?

- What are the challenges and unintended consequences of open development?

- Which boundaries should be broken and which should be preserved to alleviate the effect of structural inequalities in openness?

Identity, transparency and other visibilities: A liquid surveillance perspective of biometric identity.

Author: Shyam Krishna (Royal Holloway, University of London)  email

Short Abstract

This paper studies 'Aadhar' - India's national biometric digital identity program under a 'liquid surveillance' lens exploring surveillant power and associated politics of the project which seeks a seeming trade-off between citizen privacy and its modernist and developmentalist purpose.

Long Abstract

Given its exceptional scale and speed of implementation, and the inclusion and development promised, 'Aadhaar', the national biometric digital identity program of India is abound with controversies, as with many biometric identity projects before. While biometrics has been widely studied as an instrument of state's panoptic surveillance, this paper presents a reading of Aadhaar using 'liquid surveillance' as its lens. Aadhaar in such a view ostensibly operationalises state's surveillant visibility over the citizen. At the same time, a seeming counter visibility to this is wielded by the citizen, presented as the transparency facilitated by Aadhaar. Further, newer and more liquid forms of surveillance emerge as citizen-to-citizen visibility is also enabled by private use of Aadhaar facilitated biometric screening. The individuals ultimately play multiple roles from being the watched to the watcher and in certain cases being both.

The paper explores the aspect surveillance in both policy and media discourses associated with Aadhaar. The discussion seeks to juxtapose the inherent surveillant power that the state exercises and the claimed benefit of transparency and governmental efficiency afforded to the citizens. Power in this surveillant and modernist project manifests itself as a trade-off between voluntary surrender of citizen privacy and subsequent identification in exchange for the benefit of effective and transparent governmental services.

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Unique identification number to a billion Indians: Envisioning Aadhaar as a promoter of governance and development

Authors: Shirin Madon (LSE)  email
Ranjini Canchi Raghavendra  email

Short Abstract

The paper focusses on the role of local government in using the Aadhaar platform to develop and implement applications for poverty alleviation.

Long Abstract

National ID systems can be considered the latest in e-governance innovations the world over. In the majority of middle-income countries such as Brazil, India and South Africa and many low-incolme countries these systems are used as a platform for implementing cash transfer programmes as part of large scale anti-poverty programmes. This innovation is based on the assumption that the inability of poor marginalised communities to prove their identity has been a major 'structural void' that has prevented this section of the population from being included in the benefits of growth and development.

As the current discourse moves away from enrolment and authentication through the use of sophisticated biometric targeting, there is need to address more substantive questions relative to strengthening the governance aspects related to social welfare programmes and poverty alleviation. Focusing on Aadhaar, India's biometric ID system, we commence by identifying the vision that underlies this project in terms of poverty alleviation. We then draw on the concept of inclusive development and its focus on locality and sector-specific development together renewed interest on the notion of the 'local developmental state' and its focus on strengthening local capabilities such as linkages and markets, infrastructure, service delivery in the pursuit of welfare gains. Based on fieldwork in Andhra Pradesh, we consider the opportunities and challenges facing one district authority as it uses Aadhaar as a platform for developing its own application for fertiliser distribution to poor farmers.

From open data to empowerment: lessons from Indonesia and the Philippines

Author: Michael Canares (World Wide Web Foundation)  email

Short Abstract

Using case studies in the Philippines and Indonesia, this paper explains how and why open data can affect the spaces, places, and forms of power and how it provides avenues for citizens to exert efforts to reclaim its space in decision-making, agenda-setting, and meaning-making.

Long Abstract

The rhetoric on open data in recent years has concentrated on opening up of government data sets that citizens can access (Davies et al 2013). The assumption is that when government open up data sets, the public will use it to advance political, economic, and social gains (Hogge, 2015). However, this assumption is intensely flawed especially in the context of developing countries (Mutuku and Mahihu 2014,; Canares, 2014). Despite these evidences, supply-side and government-centric interventions on open data policy still persist.

This research investigates four case studies, two each from Indonesia and the Philippines, by looking at the immediate result of opening up of data in the sub-national governments. Using John Gaventa's "power cube" (2006),we use the cases to explain how and why open data can affect the spaces, places, and forms of power and how it provides avenues for citizens to exert efforts to reclaim its space in decision-making, agenda-setting, and meaning-making. Without this initial process, the political, economic, and social gains expected to result from open data will not materialize. We argue however, that this is the initial and immediate effect of open data, only made possible through a mediated process of making data visible, interesting, and useful, and using data to be the platform for discussion between the government and the governed. This echo earlier work that highlights the role of intermediaries (Van Schalkwyk et al, 2015) play in the open data landscape, that hastens the process of achieving impact through open data.

Political power and digital payments in a government social social cash programme

Author: Atika Kemal (Anglia Ruskin University UK)  email

Short Abstract

This paper investigates the effects of political power on the design and implementation of digital payments in a government social cash programme in Pakistan. It adopts an interpretive case study methodology to collect primary data through qualitative methods.

Long Abstract

The opportunities provided by digital technologies to governments in distributing digital welfare payments, or government-to-person (G2P) payments to poor citizens has had a profound effect on the inclusion agenda in many developing countries. However, paucity remains on research that investigates the motivations behind the transition from cash to digital G2P payments and its effects on institutional practices. Hence, this paper examines the specific context of a government social cash programme in Pakistan that implemented digital payments for disbursing G2P payments to women beneficiaries. It explores how the interplay of political forces with other external and institutional forces affected the design of digital payments for management practices, at the institutional level, for programme managers. Also, how it affected the power equilibrium for other political actors involved in the programme. Through an interpretive case study research, using qualitative methods, primary data was collected through interviews with programme designers and other stakeholders in the G2P programme. The findings conclude that digital technologies were socially-embedded in the organisational context for programme designers and led to the institutional strengthening of the G2P programme, albeit, diminished the power of other political actors. Therefore, the design of digital payments was a socio-political process that involved discourse and negotiation between various social actors. This paper has implications for governments and international funding agencies who are adopting digital technologies to promote the inclusion agenda for its citizens.

Keywords: Digital payments, G2P payments, design, qualitative methods, political power, developing countries, Pakistan

U.S. foreign policy and the internet: chronicling the shift from circumvention to connectivity

Author: Deniz Duru Aydin (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

This paper investigates the evolution of Internet-related U.S. foreign policy and development agenda from Internet freedom to today's Global Connect Initiative. The reasons for this policy shift are analyzed within the broader global context such as Snowden revelations and the recently adopted SDGs.

Long Abstract

Hillary Clinton's emblematic Internet freedom speech is regarded as the start of United States (U.S.) foreign policy focus on protecting and promoting Internet freedoms worldwide. This paper investigates the lesser-known foundations of such U.S. Internet freedom efforts, starting from pre-Clinton years and tracking its development until today, when the U.S. Internet freedom agenda that was based on promoting freedom of expression online mainly by funding circumvention technologies seems to be replaced by a focus on increasing global connectivity. The paper argues the reasons for this shift to be the changing international relations dynamics following Snowden revelations, the technologically deterministic international development goals tied to the newly adopted SDGs, impact of U.S. tech company lobbying, and the appearance of similar initiatives in the domestic policymaking sphere.

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What is free about free basics?

Author: Jenna Keenan-Alspector (University of Colorado - Boulder)  email

Short Abstract

Investigating how industry giants leverage power and increase inequalities, further straining the resources of the poor; a new 'digital ill' has risen: the emergence of the drug dealer of mobile broadband, Free Basics.

Long Abstract

How can we achieve social justice and equality in digital development? Access to Information. Information is Freedom, Knowledge is Power! Information is largely contained on the internet, therefore, access to the internet provides both freedom and power. As such, universal access to the internet is both a target of the Sustainable Development Goals and parroted as essential by the World Bank's Digital Dividends Report. Free Basics shares the same goal, "connecting the world," but it is not connecting the world to all information. Free Basics provides free digital broadband content to its users in developing and deeply impoverished countries. The free content is very limited, Facebook and other self-selected corporations choose whether to participate and how much content they will provide. Net neutrality violations and price differentials are inequalities inherent to the foundation of Free Basics.

Specifically, the paper proposed seeks address one aspect of this need, to build a definition of the digital divide created by "Free" services such as Free Basics. Recently, founder Mr. Zuckerberg reported Free Basics just hit over twenty-five million users. Twenty-five million users will be trapped in a perpetual inequality by either never having access to all information or lured into subscribing to data or home internet plans they couldn't afford in the first place. Development organizations, policymakers, and academics need to protect the vulnerable targets of Free Basics. The new Free Basics digital divide needs to be defined to help shape effective International ICT policies.

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The networkers of outrage: a demographic survey of Indonesian Twitter activists

Author: Lukas Schlogl (King's College London)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores Twitter protest during a nationwide political controversy about Indonesia’s local direct elections. Drawing on novel survey data, it analyzes geo-demographic and socioeconomic determinants of political Twitter use and evaluates Twitter’s impact on Indonesia’s democracy.

Long Abstract

The influence of social media on democratization is contested in contemporary social theory. While 'cyber-utopians' welcome social media as bottom-up technology and democratizing force, skeptics point to the unequal access to and the shallowness of online engagement. This debate is particularly relevant to emerging economies where social media use is highly demographically unrepresentative.

The present paper analyses Twitter protest in the context of an electoral franchise bill passed in Indonesia in 2014 which, temporarily, abolished the country's direct local elections. A related hashtag campaign propelled into Twitter's globally 'trending topics' and contributed to the subsequent legal annulment of the bill. The paper draws on a novel dataset from a large online survey of participants in this campaign in order to explore the geo-demographic and socioeconomic determinants of Indonesian Twitter protest. Furthermore, the paper evaluates the importance of this protest for the resilience of Indonesia's young democracy.

The research finds that Twitter protesters were composed of an urban middle-class population with above-average levels of education, suggesting a digital 'class divide' in Indonesian online activism. It detects a significant overrepresentation of young and male users. Twitter engagement struggled to translate into higher-commitment activism while, nonetheless, proving politically powerful. These findings, paradoxically, lend plausibility to both techno-utopian and techno-pessimist interpretations. Implications for future research are discussed.

The struggle for digital inclusion: phones, healthcare, and sharp elbows in India

Author: Marco Haenssgen (Nuffield Department of Medicine)  email

Short Abstract

I use an India-wide household panel to explore healthcare marginalisation among digitally excluded and included groups in rural areas. I find that phone diffusion creates a struggle that sharpens the elbows of those who are able to use the devices—provided the health system permits such use.

Long Abstract

While it is increasingly acknowledged that technology diffusion can be uneven, the research on mobile phone diffusion continues to view the rapid spread of mobile phones in low- and middle-income countries as generally beneficial and the process of digital inclusion as unproblematic. This study explores healthcare marginalisation among digitally excluded and included groups in rural India, thereby aiming to contribute to an important yet surprisingly under-researched aspect of the social implications of mobile technology diffusion.

I use recent panel data from the nationwide Indian Human Development Survey. My analysis links healthcare access to changes in rural household-level phone ownership among 12,003 households 2004-2012. I find that households who do not acquire mobile phones have worse, and households with mobile phones have better, access to healthcare for major illnesses where phones have otherwise diffused widely within the same district. This indicates that the healthcare system gradually adapts to increasing mobile phone use at the expense of non-users, which suggests that rapid mobile phone diffusion can rein-force rather than ameliorate existing patterns of marginalisation.

I conclude that rapid mobile phone diffusion creates an opportunity to improve people's access to healthcare in rural India, but it also creates a struggle. It sharpens the elbows of those who are able to use phones vis-à-vis those who are not—provided the health system permits such use. Health system adapta-tion to phone use can in turn result into a "tyranny of inclusion," making the uptake of phones necessary to retain access to care.

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Institutional isomorphism and organized hypocrisy in aid information management systems (AIMS): the case of Indonesia

Author: Kyung Ryul Park (LSE )  email

Short Abstract

The study highlights the complexity of aid information management systems (AIMS), and explains its implementation and shutdown. By doing an in-depth qualitative study in Indonesia, it shows that AIMS is not mainly driven by a search for managerialistic gain, but motivated by external pressures.

Long Abstract

AIMS are ICT applications that enable donors and recipient government to share geospatial aid data. Many AIMS have been widely implemented in developing countries with hopes to improve transparency and aid coordination. In spite of heavy investments made and current trends favouring open data, the anticipated outcomes have not been achieved in many cases (Park, 2016). Little critical research, however, has been conducted in the field of digital governance in aid sector. Even within the existing research, most is from a technically rational, a-political perspective that focuses on AIMS as powerful managerial tools.

Conceptualizing AIMS as a set of socio-technical domains in which different political and institutional interests of various stakeholders inevitably collide, this study places emphasis on the complexity stakeholders face surrounding AIMS. Drawing upon institutional perspectives, the idea of isomorphism (Di Maggio and Powell 1983) and organized hypocrisy (Brunsson 1989), the study positions the implementation of AIMS in the context of external pressures that the government confronted.

Case study in Indonesia shows that gaps between government's policy and action are the contradictory outcome of power dynamics and demands imposed on the government by stakeholders: donor countries, international development agencies, and epistemic community in aid sector. By focusing on the diverging interests of powerful stakeholders and conflicting themes interpreted, the study suggests that AIMS is not mainly driven by a search for managerialistic advantage, but motivated by external institutional pressure; and provides an understanding the implementation and shutdown of AIMS and unpacking the puzzle why technology does not work.

Configuring the users adapting the system: participation and ICT4D in Afghanistan

Author: Melanie Stilz (Technical University Berlin)  email

Short Abstract

Participation is still almost exclusively defined from a donor perspective. How can those offering their help and resources enable participation by those receiving the support? In this paper I examine how “participation” is interpreted and executed in ICT project in the Afghan education sector.

Long Abstract

Currently, technological products are transferred to Afghanistan primarily by international producers and organisations. Other than Eglash (2004) and Pisani et al. (2007), however, I argue that the 'high social power' is not exclusively represented by the producers, but in the case of ICT projects in international development also by those designing the project and deciding about the technology and its configuration. Similarly to Orlikowski (2000) and Carroll (2004) I argue, that a technology in use must be treated differently from the technology as artefact. Technology appropriation in ICT projects, I demonstrate, is a combined effort of all stakeholders where multiple elements influence the outcome. This participatory appropriation, as observed in Afghanistan, not only depends on the participation of local stakeholders, but also on interacting with those in control of designing and configuring the devices. Technology introduction, therefore, is a process that is less about the technological system and more about the ensemble of users and technology that remains, sometimes more, sometimes less, in constant motion and development.

In looking at ICT4D examples within the Afghan education sector, I suggest in this paper that a supportive environment could not only encourage and support appropriation depending on capabilities, social practice and institutional context but could also play a crucial role in 'completing the design in use' (Carroll, 2004) by collaborating to adapt a technical system to the unstable physical and technical conditions.

Digital technologies, power, and intermediaries in Myanmar and India

Authors: Elisa Oreglia (SOAS University of London)  email
Janaki Srinivasan  email

Short Abstract

Digital technologies that can disintermediate markets are now common in Myanmar and India and yet intermediaries and traditional practices still dominate rural markets. We explore the resilience of intermediaries and how digital technologies reinforce, and more rarely challenge, existing power hierarchies.

Long Abstract

Why do people continue to use intermediaries such as mobile money agents, as well as cash, when they have access to more convenient alternatives, and could carry out the same operations in a cheaper and faster manner without intermediaries? This paper explores the roles played by traditional networks made of human intermediaries and cash in agricultural markets in Myanmar and India, in order to understand the practices and the power hierarchies that exist around them, the characteristics that make them resilient in a time of change, and which of these many functions and roles can or cannot be replaced or supported by digital technologies. What value do intermediaries bring to monetary and financial transactions? What value do these transactions bring to the lives of intermediaries? Are intermediaries strengthened in their position of power by digital technologies, or can digital technologies challenge existing power hierarchies? We use these questions to frame our qualitative and comparative research in a wet market in Shan State in Myanmar, and in the fish auction markets of South Kerala in India.

Our research aims at mapping out the financial and mobile phone practices of different market actors, of end-users and intermediaries, in order to uncover their differing needs and expectations. Identifying the role played by different material forms of money and by intermediaries in fulfilling these needs and expectations, we argue, can help explain why promises of disintermediation languish and both cash and financial intermediaries persist in the digital age.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.