I’ve recently been reading the excellent Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology by Kentaro Toyama – a book that some are calling a manifesto for ICT4D, and which challenges a lot of the current thinking around mobile for development and how tech can’t solve everything. I was struck by a recent quote by the author on another blog:
“Even in the United States, technology has done little to address inequality. Over the last four decades, we’ve seen a golden age of digital innovation, and the technology has penetrated far — public libraries all have Internet-connected PCs, and very poor households own smartphones. Yet, during the same time, inequality has skyrocketed. I’m not claiming one led to the other, but there’s no explanation here where the conclusion would be that technology alleviates inequality.”
To me, this struck a chord. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the gender digital divide and where we as a community working in gender and ICT should be focusing our energy. A lot of current effort focuses on what I’ve been calling the symptoms of the gender digital divide: women have lower levels of access and use to mobiles (for example) because of barriers such as cost and affordability, technical literacy or lack of relevant content, to name but a few. So programmes and projects may focus on developing VAS products that are especially developed for women’s needs (such as maternal health information services), or handsets that are women-centric (and no, I don’t mean just making the handsets pink), or specialized tariff plans for women, or mobile literacy training. These projects are commendable – and have had great success.
But at the same time, I need to ask – are we treating these barriers as symptoms of the gender digital divide without tackling the underlying causes? A number of robust empirical studies, notably by the excellent Research ICT Africa, have found if you have a data set of women’s ICT access compared to men’s and if you control for income and education, the gender digital divide disappears. That is – the gender digital divide is caused by women’s lower levels of education (and therefore income), which is turn caused by societal inequalities. I’m sure that’s no surprise to anyone who works in this field, but that also means that unless we go right back to the causes, go deep, and tackle things at a sectoral level – and work on getting more girls into education, (and thereby increasing their income, according to which development theory you subscribe to) and tackling social norms that affect their access to quality education, we can continue to treat the symptoms but the root cause is always going to be there.
This is much easier said than done – education investments are a long-term thing, and are definitely not low-hanging fruit, and require a lot of investment from different players. I also do believe we need to tackle the symptoms as well as the causes; the two go hand in hand. But it’s much easier, and cheaper, to tackle the symptoms – and if organisations have a two or three year budget, that’s what they’ll focus on. I understand that. But then who is focusing on the causes? And if, as Toyama says, technology doesn’t remove inequality (and in some cases may make actually reinforce gender norms, as in the case of social media use in Pakistan), surely we need to be talking about this more, and thinking about how to focus on the causes of the gender digital divide rather than continuing to use band-aids to treat the symptoms?