Posted to the Ethnos Project by on May 27th, 2011


Information and communication technology(ies) (ICT) is tipped to play an increasingly enabling role in the inclusion and exclusion of groups from participation in the discourse of ‘development’, with material consequences. In affecting how ‘development’ is framed, discussed and practised, the conception and use of such technologies itself thus becomes an important field of discourse for the analysis of power relations in the ‘developmental’ field. This paper shows how a recent ICT-related initiative by the World Bank Group can be seen as an attempt to replicate its position of strength within the predominant, technocratic discourse of development, to the exclusion of alternative views of technology, and even of ‘development’ itself. Using a method of critical discourse analysis, the paper then examines a recent speech on ICT by the Bank’s president, which provides a detailed example of the way in which existing, macro-level power structures are replicated at the micro-level of discursive practice.

‘Development’ & ICT as Contested Domains

At a time when attempts to ‘span the digital divide’ between developed and less-developed countries (LDCs) are opening up a fresh domain for ‘developmental’ intervention (see, for example,, this paper seeks to demonstrate the importance of maintaining a parallel, critical awareness of an important result of such activity: the increasingly intertwined relationship between ICT and ‘developmental’ discourse. The paper is organised into three sections. First, there is a brief introduction to the subject of ‘developmental’ discourse and the ability of ICT both to mediate, and to form the focus of, existing power relations within the ‘developmental’ field. Second, the main part of the paper demonstrates this linkage: both at a macro-level – where there is a critical discussion of the World Bank’s recently implemented development internet portal – and at a micro-level, where there is a critical discourse analysis of sections of a recent ICT-related speech by its president. The intention is to make clearly visible the way in which the underlying power relations leading to such macro-level initiatives as the Bank’s development portal are drawn upon and replicated at the level of everyday discursive practice. Third, a short conclusion summarises some key implications arising from these analyses concerning the critical monitoring of the emerging interrelationship between ICT and ‘development’.

‘Development’ as Discourse

With its ability to define ‘others’, identify their ‘problems’, and to legitimise ‘professional’ intervention in their daily lives, the field of ‘development’ has proved a particularly rewarding subject in the 1990s for critical analysis. Following Foucault, who defined discourse as ‘the interplay of the rules that make possible the appearance of objects during a given period of time’ (1972:33), various critical writers on ‘development’ have used the theoretical relationship between power and knowledge addressed by discourse analysis to attain ‘a radical reading of subjectivity in the sense that through discourses individuals become subjects’ (Said, 1978, in Mohan, 1997). In questioning the legitimacy of the developmental professional ‘gaze’ (Sachs, 1992) to define and thus subjectify recipients of aid, critics of development have highlighted instead the importance of situated, local knowledge as opposed to the representational knowledge of professionals (Chambers et al. 1989; Hobart, 1993; Long and Long, 1992; Pottier, 1993), but stressed that, all too often, it is the latter which, as ‘legitimate’ discourse, comes to shape interventions (Gardner and Lewis, 1996).

In exposing the co-evolution of ‘the problematisation of poverty’ and ‘development’ with the growth, professionalisation and institutionalisation of expertise about the ‘Third World’, Escobar (1995) reflects on the maintenance of such legitimation, as ‘the result of the establishment of a set of relations among these elements, institutions, and practices and of the systematisation of these relations to form a whole’ (1995:40). The above writers have argued in various ways that such discursive relations have had a major psychological and material impact on the lives of the majority of the world’s population classed as ‘developing’ – calling, as a result, for the development of a critical awareness of the way in which such (linked) cognitive and material domination is maintained in practice, by identifying and challenging the interrelations between the various components of ‘development’ (Dahl and Hjort, 1984). Such components are manifest in the spoken and unspoken assumptions of ‘developmental’ rhetoric, whose every instance, they argue, serves to replicate marginality – and is thus drenched in relations of power.

ICT & Development Discourse

If developmental discourse is an important topic for study because of the unequal power relations it embodies, then the power relations surrounding the development and use of ICT in developmental contexts can be seen as an important element of such discourse. Approaches to the relationship between technology and peoples’ behaviour vary from technologically determinist at one extreme, where ICT is seen as having the power directly to affect peoples’ actions, through relativist positions, to social constructivist views at the other (for a useful summary, see Grint and Woolgar, 1997). In the view of this author, three key links between ICT and developmental power relations stand out within this continuum, the first two of which, like the analyses of ‘development’, clearly show the influence of Foucault.

Towards the determinist end of the scale, the first link, that of surveillance, was developed by Zuboff (1988), who illustrated the way in which ICT ‘informate’, or render employees’ activities more visible to others, and thus may come in time to affect their behaviour as people self-regulate, or moderate their actions in response to their perceptions of increased visibility, as in Foucault’s panopticon (1979). Within a developmental context, this can be seen, for example, in the placing of recipients of ‘development’ under the ‘expert’ scrutiny of ICT-enabled developmental metrics to which they themselves may not have agreed: for example, the detailed monitoring of adherence to IMF structural adjustment programmes. As can be seen in the altered trajectories of those countries, such as Ghana, which have been ‘successful’ in the IMF’s terms, increased visibility (and detailed monitoring) has affected the course of ‘development’ itself. Towards the social constructivist end of the scale, the second link between ICT and developmental power relations, as mediators of discourse, appears clearly in the words of Bloomfield and Coombs (1992):

… an information system embodies a particular view or model of the world … thus in contrast to the earlier views of computers and power, we must shift our focus … to consider the meaning of information systems, the visibilities … whose creation and mobilization they make possible within organizations … and thus their role in classifying, ordering, and constructing reality (1992:467, original emphasis).

Rather than being inherently ‘top down’ in nature, the operation of power within ICT in the above sense lies in their mediation of the contested domain of what becomes visible and ‘real’. Within the developmental environment, this entails an especial danger, since

The computer evolved overwhelmingly in the West in a manner compatible with Western mentality, cultural and political values. When IT is injected into cultures such as those of North Africa, it comes loaded with an embedded virtual value system (Danowitz, 1995:28).

In their role in mediating what, and how, aspects of development become visible, there is, in this view, a real danger that the ‘frozen discourse’ of ICT may assist in replicating a wider discourse of marginalisation unless there is real sensitivity to their local meanings (e.g. Avgerou, 2000; Bhatnagar, 2000; Thompson, 2002).

The Merging of Developmental & ICT Discourse

To technology’s roles as ‘informator’ and ‘mediator’ of developmental power relations, can be added a third significant role: that of integrator of communities into wider, uneven networks of power. Although usually remaining on the periphery of ‘flows’ of knowledge and wealth, less-developed countries (LDCs) are nonetheless integrated involuntarily within global networks of capital, production, trade and communication, increasingly mediated by ICT (Castells, 1998). This recognition has resulted in the inclusion of such technologies as important elements of developmental strategies and interventions (e.g. Gillespie, 1997; UNESCO, 1996; UNCTAD, 1997). Moreover, ICT integrate various strands of developmental discourse itself: it has been argued, for example, that ICT networking has become a tool for addressing the entire ‘African development problem’ – the ‘seven D’s’ of demography, desertification, drought, dependency, disequilibrium, debt and destabilisation (Adedeji, 1986) through its ability to facilitate a mix of accountability, education, informed decisions, resource management, trade, performance monitoring, and competitiveness (Adam, 1996).

This increasingly perceived importance of ICT as components – even drivers – of development has resulted in unprecedented levels of investment in ICT by major developmental donors, often at the expense of alternative forms of initiative (Jensen, 2001, provides a useful summary of some recent investment figures). In affecting what funds are available to spend elsewhere and even how they are spent (i.e. often to complement or ‘leverage’ existing ICT investments), it is not just ICT being shaped by developmental requirements – increasingly, the inverse is also true: developmental policy options are becoming linked to the shape of technological evolution (Perez, 1988). Perhaps the most visible current example of this phenomenon is the attention currently being accorded to the development of national ‘e-readiness’ as a cornerstone of capacity-building (, the discourse surrounding ICT has thus become part of developmental discourse itself.

The planning, justification, implementation and evaluation of ICT within the contested discourse of development should therefore become a pressing concern for millions of people living in LDCs around the world; although not a citizen of an LDC, it is a similar concern which motivates this author. In seeking to demonstrate the implication of ICT within developmental power relations, the chosen approach will be a critical discussion (below) of a particularly high-profile developmental ICT initiative by arguably the most powerful organisation within developmental discourse (Sikkink, 1991): the World Bank. It will be shown that this initiative is inseparably linked with ‘legitimate’ discourse which underlies dominant developmental power relations, to the concern of many stakeholders who feel marginalised or even threatened by recent developments. This is followed by a micro-level, critical analysis of sections of a recent speech on ICT and development given by the Bank’s president, which provides an example of how the discourse leading to such initiatives is actually legitimised and replicated in practice.

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About the author

Mark Thompson is a University Lecturer in Information Systems at the Cambridge Judge Business School at University of Cambridge.

Dr. Thompson has sixteen years of information systems and change management consultancy experience, including four years with Andersen Consulting (Accenture). He is currently a Director of Methods Consulting, a UK top 20 business and IS consultancy. He is also a Main Board Member of Intellect, the UK’s leading technology trade association.

In 2007-8 Dr. Thompson was a senior adviser to the UK Shadow Cabinet under George Osborne, for whom he delivered a report outlining policy initiatives that include the increased use of open source IT and procurement infrastructures across UK government, as well as ways of addressing the ‘digital divide’.

His research interests include the interrelationship between information systems and concepts of the self and society, and its practical implications for organisational design and use of information and communication technologies.

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