Reading List for Researchers and Practitioners in Development: Gender, Development, and Technology in the Global South



Information Technology

Research and Development

2021-05-05 12:46:30 1699 0

There have been many iterations of theories and practices that revolve around women, gender dynamics, inequalities, and development. Earlier versions of these have been criticized by activists and scholars (such as Chandra Mohanty and Maria Lugones) as orientalist and racist, among other critiques. The more recent iterations provided below strive to include more critical, complex, and nuanced perspectives. This includes looking at context, not speaking on behalf of others, acknowledging the concepts of decolonization in the Global South, even beyond agency and empowerment, and more broadly, including key aspects of feminism and feminist methodologies. Or so we thought. Of course, while a substantial amount of scholarship does strive to do that, the impact is not felt on the ground in terms of development projects. Below are some of the key pieces of literature that look at the intersection of gender, development, and technology, specifically focused on and from the Global South, with case studies from Mexico and the African and Asian continents. Whether this is your first involvement into these topics or your hundredth, you will find timely, relevant, and essential arguments, critiques, and analyses spanning almost two decades – all arguing that gender relations should be acknowledged as a key component of international development. The reading list is organized in a timeline format, in order to facilitate tracing the arguments made from the early 2000s – present. Swasti Mitter, Globalization, ICTs, and Economic Empowerment: A Feminist Critique, 2004 Mitter’s comprehensive article fits well with the overall theme of this reading list. It criticizes the hegemonic perspective of the Global North regarding ICTs as an essential tool for modernity, as well as its ubiquity in all aspects of life due to globalization and trade. Mitter uses both qualitative (case studies) and quantitative data (graphs) to emphasize the other side of the ‘technology-as-modernity/utopia’ coin, namely the labor conditions in the Global South regarding ICTs. She looks at women in call centers in India, men in a ‘digital sweatshop’ in Ghana, and how these unequal relations are now facilitated by corporates. Additionally, Mitter’s article looks at the complexities of women’s lives and how this relates to ICTs, while concluding, as many of the sources in this reading list have, that empowerment is not simply achieved by a “women + ICTs = empowerment” formula. Ultimately, Mitter’s work is comprehensive in its coverage, but the most interesting and important point is that we should not claim to speak for others, and that “the discussion of globalization and ICTs does not address the needs and aspirations of the majority of people who live in rural areas and below the poverty line. It tends to have an elitist focus.” Leda Cooks and Kirsten Isgro, The “Cyber Summit” and Women: Incorporating Gender into Information and Communication Technology UN Policies, 2005 In this article, Cooks and Isgro conceptualize four quadrants that lie on the intersection between the technical and the social, based on a spectrum ranging from ‘determinism’, ‘technology as change agent’, ‘context as filter’, and ‘integration’. These quadrants are conceptual frameworks for other scholars wishing to carry out research at the intersection of gender, development, and technology. The most useful conceptualization for any project that is rooted in social sciences is Quadrant Four: Integration. This integration refers to integrating the social with the technological; as such they argue that “gender, development, and ICT are all socially constructed meaning that even as contexts for understanding gender and development differ, so, too, do the uses and understandings of technology.” According to them, those aiming for a participatory model of development focus on how communities create and implement programs that address their own needs. The article also analyses UN policies and the overall discourse regarding gender and ICTs in order to further clarify the quadrants and how they work. Micky Lee, What’s Missing in Feminist Research in New Information and Communication Technologies? 2006 This article is a great resource as it gives an overview of the many the approaches taken by scholars looking at gender and ICTs. Lee is troubled by the fact that most scholars “study how women interact with technologies… without questioning… why women come into interaction with technologies.” For her, women are central to global processes of capital related to information technology; that is, they should be recognized as “resources” in every process, from the production, distribution, and consumption of information and ICTs. Lee extensively examines the scholarship around gender, ICT, and development, criticizing the discourses that this scholarship has in effect created, which can be summarized into 3 groups. These are a) focusing on women’s consumption of ICTs; b) focusing on the barriers women have either using technologies or working in the ICT industries; and finally, c) a lack of attention given to the political economy of ICT and development, especially as this is of concern to feminists. Gwendolyn Beetham and Justina Demetriades, Feminist Research Methodologies and Development: Overview and Practical Application, 2007 Gwendolyn Beetham and Justina Demetriades build on a wealth of feminist work that demonstrated the significance of integrating socio-political contexts and lived realities in research. They clearly define what it means to have a Gender and Development (GAD) perspective. They chart the movement from the previous predominant paradigm, Women in Development (WID), to GAD. Originally, WID lacked complexity and garnered substantial criticism from postcolonial feminists, with GAD being much more sensitive to the nuances and complexities of gender relations and the field of development. An important point to emphasize is the idea of measurements and indicators. For the authors, measuring progress is political, because “By choosing what to measure, the policy-maker, advocate, researcher, or practitioner can choose the story he or she wants to tell.” SIDA Gender Toolbox Brief – Gender and ICT, March 2015 The SIDA Gender Toolbox Brief on Gender and ICT from 2015 addresses development and ICT from a gendered perspective. The first section looks at issues of poverty, education, barriers to being online, and digital safety for women and activists. They highlight that women are increasingly using the internet as a platform to exercise political and social rights, and use examples and case studies to highlight this. In the second section on decision-making, the brief argues that it is important to support conditions where digital technologies give marginalized women the capacity to participate in and engage with decision-making bodies. As such, “[t]his requires an understanding of the conditions that support access and use of various platforms,” in order to replicate them. Finally, the statistics section emphasizes the importance of sex-disaggregated statistics and the different ways these statistics can be used. World Wide Web Foundation Global Report, Women’s Rights Online: Translating Access into Empowerment, 2015 This comprehensive report conducted research in Nairobi, Kampala, Lagos, Yaounde, Maputo, Bogota, New Delhi, Jakarta and Manila using a gender perspective. The most defining factors that affect the access, use, and attitudes regarding the Internet are age, education, and gender; but geographical location (i.e. rural or urban) also plays a large role. The most interesting section of the report is the analysis of how women use the Internet, and how their access, utilization, and attitudes are shaped by offline contexts. According to the report, the Internet can amplify women’s creative and political voice, enabling them to “expand their associational life beyond the boundaries of the ‘traditional’ women’s sphere, open up new opportunities to earn income or advance their education, and expand their aspirations and self-confidence.” One of the points that stood out from the analysis argues that women who are active in offline contexts are more likely to be active in online contexts as well. This is a crucial point to make as technology never exists outside social relations or contexts; and it is clear from the report that there are direct correlations between women’s material and lived contexts, and how they use the Internet. Savita Bailur and Silvia Masiero, Women’s Income Generation through Mobile Internet: A Study of Focus Group Data from Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda, 2017 Bailur and Masiero argue that while most of the discourse stipulates that ICT4D will bring greater economic prosperity and empowerment for women, things are a lot more complex and nuanced, with challenges varying from context to context. Their study looks at the link between mobile phones and income generation, and whether this necessarily translates to empowerment. Through the focus groups, they provide several examples where women’s lives and businesses are facilitated by mobile phones; such as communicating with suppliers and customers, checking prices, decreasing business related travel, and restocking merchandise. However, women in Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda also face many challenges: access to the Internet is scarce and expensive, connectivity is low in addition to other infrastructural issues, and there are patriarchal attitudes regarding women’s use of mobiles. Their paper cites Cornwall’s definition of empowerment “as involving transitions in consciousness, as well as in the formal laws and cultural norms that regulate people’s lives.” They ultimately reach the conclusion that income generation through mobiles for women does not automatically lead to their empowerment. Savita Bailur, Silvia Masiero and Jo Tacchi, Gender, Mobile and Development: The Theory and Practice of Empowerment, 2018 In this article, Bailur, Masiero, and Tacchi’s main argument builds on their previous work, arguing that “focus on access and digital literacy for women, while important, is not in itself a sufficiently meaningful criterion for empowerment through mobiles and mobile Internet.” They criticize the dominant discourse that ICT4D is a cure for all ills in the Global South, arguing that there is no direct correlation between increased access and empowerment; this is similar to the previous arguments in this list. They argue that this rhetoric is shallow and does not question what empowerment actually means for different women in different contexts, nor does it question why access is actually considered valuable or meaningful. Furthermore, the limited amount of gender-disaggregated data poses yet another challenge to critically assessing empowerment from a gender lens. Ultimately, issues of agency, intersectionality, and online harassment must be considered for studies of ICT and GAD. Gisela Pérez de Acha, What is Access? Why are Women Less Connected?, 2018 This report is an interesting case study of the digital gender gap in Mexico. It also uses an interesting methodology based on assessing secondary data and presenting the results in the form of a scorecard. The findings echo other reports and research; the two main barriers to women’s presence online are lack of knowledge and high costs. Similarly, education, geographical location (urban/rural) and age are all determining factors for how women use the Internet and their experiences online. Maintaining social ties was the most recurring internet activity. Ultimately, the report ends with recommendations for the Mexican government, including being more gender sensitive, increasing women’s participation in STEM, and ending online violence. Nagla Rizk, Stefanie Felsberger, and Nancy Salem, “Investigating Empowering Narratives around Women, Work, and Technology, 2018 This report follows a similar argument to many articles in this post, namely criticizing both technological determinism as well as providing insights on the Global South regarding women’s labour and the digital gender gap, among others. The report, through a comprehensive analysis of the relevant literature, begins by a vital definition and consequent criticism of technological determinism, followed by examples where women’s engagement with technology was not viewed as valuable or as labour, or as valuable labour. They argue, “women’s engagement with technology is routinely portrayed as unskilled and therefore low-cost labour,” (Rizk et al. 2018, 315). Additionally, they question the Eurocentric nature of the narratives around technology that have a specific focus and origin in the Global North. The authors use examples from India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, as well as Australia and Europe to examine women’s involvement and collusion with technology particularly through focusing on the different kinds of labour undertaken and the norms surrounding them. Ultimately, the authors call for more diversity in research in order to counteract hegemonic narratives that render women’s engagement with technology in the Global South invisible, hiding behind the façade of technological determinism. In conclusion, many feminists, scholars, and activists argue for a deeper and more complex understanding of what “empowerment” actually is, how gender relations are impacted by technology and simultaneously impact the use of technology, and the urgent need to be politically aware of the different contexts in the Global South. A development project that does not account for social relations, particularly gendered ones, will be severely lacking in its scope and content.