Positioning the University in the Global South – ICT4D Research

By Caroline Khene

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I have been a researcher in the field of ICT4D for the past 14 years in South Africa. I chose to focus in this particular field, because I really believed that through knowledge and applied research, we can address at least some of the many challenges we are confronted with in our context. When I first became an academic, right after my PhD, it was surprising to observe how removed our curriculum and research are from engaging with the realities of our context. Our field was extremely, and still is (although improved a bit) business driven. The concept on ICT4D was not given the true attention naturally needed in our context, but was seen as a side-lined research community engagement (“charity”) activity unaligned with the conventional focus of our curriculum and research. Despite these views and challenges, ICT4D began to emerge as a significant research focus area among many of my South African colleagues, and given the kind of students and contexts we practice in, this is seen as a vantage point to truly develop the meaning of African Theory in Information Systems.

The ICT4D field is currently dominated by the global north, which is most likely the case given the resources available and key networks. I quite enjoyed reading the editors piece of the recent special issue of JAIS (Journal of the Association of Information Systems) – ICT4D: The next grand challenge for information systems. I can certainly agree with most of the aspects highlighted in that paper, as the proposal to create that explicit link between mainstream IS and ICT4D is so vital for IS academic departments in developing countries, who still rely on curricula guidelines predominantly developed by stakeholders originating from outside our contexts. What the editors indicate in this particular special issue, is that the selected papers for the journal issue do not necessarily originate from academics from universities in the global South

“Consequently, we have the stark reality that researchers based in institutions located in developing countries make limited contributions to both the mainstream and ICT4D disciplines. Tellingly, none of the authors of the papers in this special issue come from institutions in developing countries.”

The editors indicate that the special issue does not focus on understanding why this is the case, but have flagged this as an issue. Nonetheless, what is paramount is that they argue that:

“Arguably, insights developed by researchers who are situated in a context are richer than those developed by researchers located at a distance (both geographically and culturally).”

Considering these comments, this really calls for a need to investigate why this is the case for researchers located in institutions in the global south, and what challenges exist for exclusion. The editors mention that these relate to “limited access to literature and communities of practice and even basic training in information systems”. I believe this is certainly the case in many African and developing countries which need support and better collaborations that empower their voice as authors in academic papers, rather that passive participants. Furthermore, coming from a South African university, the challenges highlighted are hardly the case in key universities, where access to literature databases and libraries, communities of practices, and industry standard training in information systems is available. Nonetheless, we still do welcome the key international collaborations in developing research among our students and peers; but also desire the acknowledgement that collaborations are not a one-way activity, but two-way activities where both universities from the global north, and the global south can actually learn from each other. For example, the Erasmus programme in Europe has allowed some academics to visit each other’s universities, to share perspectives and teach at each other’s institutions. In 2016, the University of Limerick sent one of its academics from the Kemmy Business School to teach on project management in international development projects. Students from South Africa also shared their perspectives with the academic, which became a mutual insightful exercise for both parties. Subsequently, an academic from South Africa visited the University of Limerick to lecture students on an ICT4D e-governance perspective on project management – also resulting in insightful shared perspectives. This Erasmus engagement resulted in the publication of a paper between the two academics, sharing their knowledge and experience both theoretically (rigor) and in practice (relevance). Furthermore, one of the African students who was doing a Masters degree in Project Management at the University of Limerick at that time, informed his NGO about the ICT4D e-governance initiative in South Africa, leading to a recent key partnership to implement a similar initiative using applied research.

The other aspect I would like to touch on is “the way” of doing research. As I indicated earlier, IS has been dominated by a positivist approach. In contrast, the ICT4D field is mainly an intepretivist case study dominated field – now with critical realism gaining momentum. Research comes in different forms based on our chosen philosophical approach or worldviews, i.e.: Positivist, interpretivist, critical realist, pragmatist, emancipatory, etc. In the sphere of ICT4D in the global north, these have been used in different studies, producing quite interesting and relevant research. However, where we are in our progress towards development, we do not wish to simply create knowledge about knowledge, but to address the complex problems in our contexts. Why this is of value to us, is because as ICT4D researchers, we directly experience and live in these circumstances, which ignite a desire to change things. Examples include infringement on civic rights of marginalised communities, corruption, lack of access to basic services (water, sanitation, electricity), dealing with the challenges refugees experience, closing down of remote schools due to lack of access to textbooks and educational content, etc. ICT is not a panacea for addressing these challenges, but have been seen to play a key role in addressing these issues. These issues remain complex from a social, political, economic, and ethical standpoint, which require researchers in these contexts to invest in critical, pragmatist, and emancipatory approaches to research to unravel these complexities. An academic or researcher in a global north context is positioned to invest in this approach and provide insight from experiences. Furthermore, innovation from this research exercise does not exist only in the development of an ICT4D artefact or recommendations, but in the ability to guide implementation and sustain these artefacts and recommendations. Given most study participants are already faced with resource constraints and other social-cultural constraints, the university needs to stand out as a service model to society, to address the lack of skill or insight to drive development. The university does not hold all the resources or political power to address challenges, but it is certainly positioned as a bridge to fill the gap of a lack of knowledge and insight in addressing a challenge in a particular way.

The outputs of the research process applied in this way tend to originate from the context more than typical IS theory. In my experience reviewing IS Journal and conference (locally and internationally), and examining thesis, it has been quite down heartening to have to see yet another Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) interpretation, or heavy reliance on Sen’s Capability approach. Don’t get me wrong – these theories have been quite powerful and insightful, however, at times they are insufficient to drive the interpretations of our contexts. To get a paper published in a mainstream IS journal, one is required to build their argument from popular theory – however, what does one do, if the theory does not explain the context. Are we forced to reverse engineer, and squeeze our empirical experiences into a particular theory just to get published? Or should we rather explore theory from a vast variety of disciplines (transdisciplinarity) to introduce new understanding of IS in developing countries. I choose the latter. Theory is important, because it shapes our understanding of phenomena from different angles. However, publishers, editors, academics should begin to recognise the emerging change in methodology and approach, when working in our unique contexts – this calls for the development and recognition of sensitised approaches to research in African and developing countries.

Biography: Caroline Khene is an Associate Professor of Information Systems at Rhodes University, South Africa. She is also Co-Director of the MobiSAM (Mobile Social Accountability Monitoring) project, a digital citizen engagement initiative. Her research areas of interest are in ICT4D and E-governance, with a focus on project management, evaluation, and strategy formulation. She also conducts research on higher education development in developing countries – with an aim to build capacity and sensitivity to those unique contexts.


5 thoughts on “Positioning the University in the Global South – ICT4D Research”

  1. I could not agree with you more Caroline especially this point: “publishers, editors, academics should begin to recognise the emerging change in methodology and approach, when working in our unique contexts” unfortunately disciplines such IS and Economics still labour under the illusion of positivist. There is indeed a need to shift towards a recognition that research, especially in our context where most areas our societies, economy, life are explained by theories developed in the west. How valid are these theories and their worldviews? Especially in the social sciences like Sociology, Economics. This is interesting, tx.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well said Caroline – we also struggle with this. I do think that it ought to be the task of the Global South Universities to contribute to the theories that exist. We have not done enough of that with enough confidence. Perhaps our contribution to the ICT4D debate has to be to develop theory and critiquing the existing ones using good data and good analysis. If it is relevant to our environment, it would be relevant to the global research community – or so one would think! But thanks again for putting this important point onto the agenda.


    1. Hi Ulrike. Thanks for your comment. Definitely a gap needs to be filled in 2 aspects. 1) what you have mentioned in terms of the Global South contributing to theories that exist; and 2) developing new theories confidently, using the appropriate theorizing process (this is what the special issues ISJ (Information Systems Journal) on Indigenous Theory attempts to encourage. If you are able to send some of your students, please consider sending them to the IFIP 9.4. WG Masters and Doctoral symposium in August 2018 – running as a pre-workshop of IDIA 2018. Prof Geoff Walsham will be facilitating a workshop specifically for students on ‘Succeeding in Arguing/Justifying your Application of Theory’ (http://www.wg94mds.com/). The theme of the symposium is ‘Locally Relevant Application of Theory’


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