From Openness to Participation

Full title: From Openness to Participation – A Movement from Technology to Development Discourse

Access, participation and collaboration are cornerstones of development thought. Given their basic characteristics of enhanced reach and interactivity, new ICTs can potentially enable greater access (to communication tools and information) participation (in groups/ institutions) and collaboration (for production), as postulated in IDRC's working draft on 'Open ICT4D'1. However, whether or not they actually do so depends on many factors.

One key factor is whether the construction of these technologies itself is open and participative – the area of 'technology governance'. Different regimes of technology governance will lead the evolution of ICTs in different directions. Who controls this evolution, and what are the options for preserving the egalitarian possibilities of the new ICTs? Between private and statist governance models, are there possibilities that are more democratic? In a fast changing technology scenario, who takes key public interest decisions? For instance, is it desirable to allow mobile companies to jettison the principle of 'network neutrality' as they spread basic access? How are trade-offs between different class interests, between short term and long term social gains and losses, and even between different forms of 'openness' mediated? When the ICT paradigm is essentially global, what are the national and local level policy choices available? Correspondingly, what are the avenues and possibilities for democratic global technology governance? The proposed paper will explore these issues.

Secondly, since social change is mediated through institutions, the real impact of ICTs needs to be examined through their role in institutional change. Do ICTs necessarily make for more open institutions? Institutional change depends as much on norms and power relationships as on technological changes. An over-emphasis on the technology aspect can minimise the role of normative and power-related issues in institutional change. This has been true of most dominant ICTD discourse, and the proposed concept of 'Open ICT4D', if not nuanced adequately, may only take this distortion further. In this light, ICT-induced institutional change will be examined in three areas – multistakeholder policy models, e-governance and media – with respect to 'openness' related outcomes.

Thirdly, and connected to the role of norms in institutional change mentioned above, is the issue of discourse shaping in times of rapid ICT-induced social change. It is not as if access, participation and collaboration are terms unique to ICTD. The concept of participation especially has a rich history in the discourses of democracy and of development, and it is necessary to examine its use in 'open ICT4D' from these vantages. Terms like beneficiary, consumer and citizen to which, in the ICTD context, one may add the category of 'user') have been well analysed in their differential implications for 'participation'.2 Such an analysis needs to be extended to the concept of 'open ICT4D'.

The proposed paper will examine some key hypotheses of the 'open ICT4D' model from the standpoint of the above three issues – technology governance, institutional change, and the concept of 'participation' as discussed in current theories of democracy and of development.

Authors: Parminder Jeet Singh and Anita Gurumurthy

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