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ICT4What? – Using the Choice Framework to operationalise the Capability Approach to Development (2008)

Posted on:
February 22, 2020

Identifying the particular contribution of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to specific development goals has proven to be extremely difficult. This paper
argues that instead of trying to make ICTs fit with a linear conceptualisation of impacts and an often economistic view of development, the field of information and communication technologies
for development (ICT4D) should be used as a prime example of a development process which has to be analysed in a systemic and holistic way. Amartya Sen’s capability approach offers a way of thinking about development not as economic growth, but as individual freedom. The Choice Framework is presented as a way of operationalising this approach and visualising the elements of a systemic conceptualisation of the development process. An individual case study, related to telecentres in rural Chile, is used to demonstrate the way the Choice Framework can be applied as a guide to a systemic and holistic analysis.

(Editorial comment: Sen's capability approach and Choice Framework, if focused on Settlement Practitioners as "end users" or "clients" can illuminate an approach, when combined with additional ideas of informational capabilities, that could be used to create a useful framework for the immigrant and refugee-serving sector to build and evaluate settlement agencies' capacity to use technology to serve clients.)


The paradox is this: ICTs and particularly the Internet are widely regarded as groundbreaking inventions that have changed the way millions of people live their lives, and yet researchers and practitioners in the field of ICT and development often struggle to prove specific impacts of the technology to funders.

There may be specific reasons why particular projects fail, even some generalisable patterns of failure, but the overall degree to which the information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) community has to struggle when trying to legitimise its work to funders is astonishing in the context of a general discourse about how much these  technologies have changed our lives.

This paper tries to unravel the reasons behind this paradox by arguing two fundamental points: on a theoretical level, while there have been interesting alternative theoretical approaches to development, including Amartya Sen’s capability approach, the mainstream discourse’s conceptualisation remains heavily focused on economic growth, which is too narrow to capture the impacts of ICT. Secondly, and on a practical level, the common way of measuring impact, defining the intended development outcomes top-down and a priori is unsuitable in the context of multi-purpose technologies which could empower individuals to attain development outcomes of their own choice. Such multi-purpose technologies operate in complex and systemic development processes, which we need to conceptualise appropriately before we can understand the contribution of ICTs within such processes. Based on ethnographic work on ICTs in Chile, the paper presents the Choice Framework as a further step on this journey and a ‘living tool’ to be used and adapted in development research, planning and practice.

This paper argues that in order to properly understand the contribution of ICTs to development efforts, it is necessary to firstly, define which development paradigm we are working with and secondly, to refine our understanding of development processes to recognise their systemic nature. Only then can we understand the contribution of ICTs within the system. This paper is committed to a view of development based on Sen’s capability approach. Secondly, it recounts an attempt at translating his approach, conceptually and to a degree practically, into a systemic framework which maps the
development process. This systemic framework, the Choice Framework, emerged in parallel to and was then applied in ethnographic fieldwork on the effects of ICTs on microentrepreneurs’ livelihoods in Chile. Sen intended his approach to be combined with other theoretical approaches.

The paper is structured in seven parts. In Section 2, the author briefly introduces Sen’s capability approach before presenting, in Section 3, some important steps towards operationalising it.
Building on this body of work, Section 4 develops the Choice Framework as a further way of operationalising Sen’s approach. Implications for research and planning in the field of ICT4D are explored in Section 5 before, in Section 6, the Choice Framework is applied in a case study of one particular individual’s usage of the Internet in a telecentre in rural Chile. The final section points out limitations of the model, directions for further empirical research and calls for more theoretical work on the nature of the ‘development’ element in ICT4D. The paper concludes by highlighting some concrete implications this theoretical work may have for practitioners.

Implications for Practitioners

  1. While no technology is ever completely politically neutral ICT4D projects can be placed on a continuum of ‘directional control’. At one end, there are projects and programmes which focus on providing people with access to a technology which is recognised as multi-purpose, like some telecentre projects. On the other end of the continuum are projects and programmes which carry a much more narrow set of intentions, for example teaching microentrepreneurs to use a specific e-procurement system in order to ‘train them’ to operate in a more competitive market environment under a specific set of rules. The further down the directional control continuum a particular project and programme is located, the more risk there is that the intended outcomes of an ICT4D project diverge from the capabilities, or desired outcomes individuals in the so-called target group would choose. Thus, the more directional control is involved in the project or programme, the more participation of the set of individuals who are the intended group will be needed to reduce this gap. This would include conceptualising the development process as open-ended and the so-called target group as individuals empowered to choose the lives they themselves value. Participatory project design and participatory monitoring and evaluation techniques would be most appropriate. Important decisions will have to be made in each case whether it should be individuals’ or groups’ views, or both, leading the evaluation.
  2. There are some macro-methodologies which reflect the ethos of giving people the power to choose. Well-designed voucher schemes can be a good pragmatic way to monitor, in a heavily supply-driven development field such as ICT4D, what products (hardware, software, etc), services (training, computer repair, communication, etc) and content (economic, social, political, cultural, etc) people would, after considering their options, actually choose. From the field of participatory urban planning come methodologies for participatory budget design, where  communities get to debate and decide which of their desired outcomes to prioritise and pursue. This is a practical and democratic way to aggregate individual capabilities in order to enable collective decisionmaking, and could also be used for ICT4D.
  3. Practitioners may deduce that if the ideal is for development projects’ intended outcomes to reflect the individual’s choices, then the more individuals are aggregated to a group, the less probable it is that they can agree on a similar set of capabilities. From this follows that the further down the directional control continuum an ICT4D project is, the more sensitive/locally customised it has to be to the choices of a smaller number of people. Big, uni-directional development programmes with specific, a priori defined desired outcomes designed for a large number of people are most likely to be in contradiction to a people-centred holistic development process as proposed by Sen and expressed in the Choice Framework.


This paper argues that instead of trying to make ICTs fit with a linear conceptualisation of impacts and an often economistic view of development, the field of information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) should be used as a prime example of a development process which has to be analysed in a systemic and holistic way.