ICT4D 4 D

A two-and-a-half week trip to India was very productive for the Jester. He gave talks at an ICT4D summer school, spent quality time with friends and NGOs, and consumed six months’ worth of genuine Indian food, to make up for the six months since he was last there.

During this time, and in the synchronicitous ways of the world, the Jester encountered many groups of people who were tremendously excited about ICT4D. The summer school was attended by 70-odd students and would-be ICT4D-ers all eager to learn about ICT4D. And, many of the NGOs the Jester visited were beginning or continuing experiments with ICT4D. Although it was rumored that the Jester’s musings on “10 Myths of ICT4D” convinced one or two souls in the summer-school audience to reconsider ICT4D altogether, most seemed invigorated, perhaps in the manner of reckless, young, race-car drivers who taste adrenaline at the sight of crash and burn.

Their excitement was captured best by an e-mail the Jester received. In a strange juxtaposition of technological irony and global serendipity, the message was received while he was in India, but it came from America, and it was written by an Indian. The subject line announced, “Request for Guidance!” In it, the author (let us call him “Abhishek”) says… “During my final year at [university], I started to ask myself the question ‘What is the purpose/ultimate goal of my life?’ After a lot of thought process I came up with an answer like ‘do work which impacts the lives of millions in the poor communities’. What I am now trying to figure out is the suitable path through [which] I can contribute most effectively to these developing communities.” Earnestness like this, you can’t buy at a chai stall!

It turns out that Abhishek has recently joined a US technology company, but he feels that he can best achieve his purpose in life through ICT4D. Although there are some kinds of puffing-up the Jester enjoys deflating, he finds no joy in mocking sincere seekers. (Not much joy, anyway.) Too, it seems wrong to shut the gate on those who walk the path the Jester trod not too long ago. After all, as a great king of jesters once said, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” What then, does the Jester say, to the excited ICT4D newbie?

Jump in!!! And, jump into direct experience, not piles of books, papers, and other second-hand accounts. The most important thing, if one is interested in impacting other people’s lives, is to become intimately familiar with what their lives are really like. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a visit is worth a million. Whatever it is, the Jester encourages any way to actually get involved with work that requires very close contact with the people one hopes to impact. This could be done in a number of ways, through volunteering, internships, jobs, etc. Many such opportunities are often posted on online websites (e.g., www.devex.com), as well as mailing lists (e.g., the TIER mailing list: http://tier.cs.berkeley.edu ), and a good fraction seek people with technical skills. The important thing is to sign up for an opportunity that involves significant engagement with poor communities – the more time with them, the better; don’t take a job that only involves coding in an air-conditioned office, especially if it’s in a rich city in the developed world. Then, once in the job (or internship or volunteer opportunity), keep volunteering for work that requires working with relevant groups. Find out as much as possible through questions, observation, living with them, etc. Do not complain to the Jester about language differences, cultural barriers, inconvenient weather, or guerillas brandishing guns. (Hmm, perhaps the latter are a valid reason for concern.) Where there’s a will, there’s a way. ICT4D intervention is a good entry point to development for those with technical ability. It can be used as a way to get an understanding for real development issues.

Meanwhile, the Jester recommends reading as much as possible about international development. Books, websites, papers, etc. Reading is valuable not so much because it describes what development really is (that sense – often a very personal one – is best gained through direct experience), but so that one becomes comfortable with the jargon and discourse of development. Among the most enlightening of writings is an obscure blog known as the ICT4D Jester. The Jester recommends reading every post. Thrice.

In short, ICT4D is the perfect entrance for technologists interested in development. (The key phrase here is “for technologists.” For those coming from a development background, the Jester says, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter ICT4D!”) It offers a means to engage with the complex, multi-faceted endeavor of development, while allowing a technologist to contribute a little technical support here, or a bit of electronic innovation there. ICT4D is a broad perch from which to learn about development, because technology’s tendrils can extend into every domain of development, whether it’s education, agriculture, microfinance, governance, livelihoods, gender issues, et cetera.

The Jester thus encourages a foray into ICT4D for technologists, albeit with the hope that wanderers will not stop there, but continue onto even more meaningful aspects of development. For technologists, ICT4D is a step in the right direction. (The Jester only requests that those taking this step remember his Golden Rule:  If your goal is to accomplish something in development, then work with people who are already doing competent work in development; then, apply your technical skills to support those people.)

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