Seminar – Digitality and the Politics of Anti-Poverty Systems

March 22nd, 2016

Venue: Centre for Development Informatics – CDI Manchester
Date: 23rd March 2016, 3.30 – 4.30 PM
Boardroom, 2nd floor, Arthur Lewis Building, University of Manchester

Within the field of information and communication technology for development (ICT4D), the study of ICT for poverty reduction has become a recent priority. In this context, a silent orthodoxy has emerged: informatisation of anti-poverty programmes has become integrated with an agenda that seeks to reduce the role of the state, enhancing the role of market mechanisms in the domain of poverty reduction efforts. The Government of India is adoptiing ICT policies that reflect such an orthodoxy, using digital technologies to dismantle the anti-poverty bureaucracy to move towards a system of direct cash transfers.

Yet this integration of ICTs and marketisation of anti-poverty systems can be challenged, and alternatives can be found. This presentation will explore the Kerala state case which offers such an alternative, in which digital technology – socially embedded in a particular policy setting and political history – is being used to protect the redistributive functioning of the country’s main food security programme. ICTs are thus active anti-poverty artefacts that embody development policy choices, but at the same time inform and shape political trajectories.

This event is free and open to all, no booking is required.

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Guest Lecture – Aadhaar and the Indian Food Security System

February 27th, 2016

Date: Tuesday, March 1st, 9-10.30am
Venue: Room 32L.LG.18, 32 Lincoln’s Inn Fields

Abstract: The Public Distribution System (PDS), the largest food security scheme in India, allows to sell primary necessity goods (mainly rice, wheat, sugar, and kerosene) at a subsidised price to households below the poverty line. Issues reported by recipients are centred on the phenomenon of ‘rice mafia’, resulting from systematic diversion of PDS goods to the open market, which results in massive reductions in the amount of subsidised commodities made available to the poor.

Interventions carried out by the central government against this are based on the Unique Identification project, UID/Aadhaar, which involves the identification of all Indian citizens through a 12-digit number and the registration of biometric details. By ensuring biometric identification of users, an Aadhaar-enabled PDS will make it difficult to subtract PDS foodgrains from the pro-poor system and sell them in the market, undermining the key mechanism behind the rice mafia. However, a shift to an Aadhaar-based PDS yields political consequences that sheer economics do not capture: first, monitoring is placed on ration dealers rather than any other actor, leaving no surveillance in the earlier and still leaky stages of the supply chain. Second, the system provides no coping mechanism for ration dealers, hence leaving their incentive to corruption untouched.

At the macro-level, Aadhaar is being used to shift from a bureaucratic PDS to a more agile system of cash transfers, reaching directly to bank accounts set up for the poor. Ethnographic research, conducted in south Indian slums and villages with PDS beneficiaries, reveals severe issues related to this measure, in terms of its ability to guarantee that people can access the subsidies they are entitled to. My presentation will focus on these issues, and more at large on the political consequences that a ‘technical fix’ like the adoption of Aadhaar in the food security system may yield.

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New Paper: Explaining Causes of Failure in ICT4D

February 25th, 2016

Built my first model in ICT4D. It is an attempt to explain the origins of failure of e-governance for development, tracing the causal chains that lie behind the “design-reality gaps” theorised by Heeks (2002). Hopes to contribute to understanding the origins of expectation failure in information systems, and to devise viable strategies to overcome its root causes. Published now on Information Technology for Development, details below :-)

The Origins of Failure: Seeking the Causes of Design–Reality Gaps
Silvia Masiero, Department of Management, LSE

Abstract: The theory of design–reality gaps is an extant framework to explain failure of information systems in developing nations. This paper problematizes the nature of failure, with a particular focus on situations in which well-implemented systems, apparently corresponding to users’ views of reality, still fail to meet the expectations of their key stakeholders. To extend existing theory on this phenomenon, I advance a diagnostic model to identify the root causes of design–reality gaps. The model is illustrated through a case study of the Ration Card Management System in Kerala, South India: by capturing the causal chains underlying design–reality gaps, the model sets to trace the origins of failure, and the processes through which it is ultimately determined. The model I propose is both explanatory and normative, as it elicits causes of failure and serves as a basis to combat them.

View the full paper on Information Technology for Development

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Panel Session: ICTs & Markets in Developing Countries

February 20th, 2016

I am participating in this exciting panel session, organised by the brilliant LSE Information Systems Research Forum and chaired by colleague Kari Koskinen, LSE Department of Management. The session will feature two great experts such as Laura Mann (LSE) and Elisa Oreglia (SOAS), and I am flattered to be contributing some insights too. Thanks so much to the organisers, and really looking forward to it!

ICTs, Information, and Markets in the Developing World:
A Round Table Discussion

Thursday, 17th March 2016, 3-5pm

Room 4.21, New Academic Building, LSE Campus
54, Lincoln’s inn Fields, London WC2A 3LJ

Research on the role of ICTs in socio-economic development (ICT4D) has acquired a paramount position in the Information Systems domain. In this context, a somewhat silent orthodoxy has emerged: that ICTs, improving information and communication across actors, lie behind the creation of more accountable markets in the developing world. Stories of mobile phone usage in agriculture and fisheries, as well as narratives of ICTs enabling banking and entrepreneurship in previously isolated regions, are becoming ubiquitous in the literature. However evidence in this respect is mixed, and the link between ICTs and developing country markets needs to be examined in its own right.

In this session, the role of information systems in developing country markets will be discussed by three experts in the field. Different geographic foci, as well as diverse theoretical perspectives, will lead us to rediscuss the existing orthodoxy on the topic, and propose alternative explanations to it. The session will be structured as a round table, aimed at mapping existing knowledge on this timely theme and build cross-disciplinary synergies around it.

Participants:

Laura Mann is a lecturer in International Development at LSE. Her research focuses on the political economy of African markets, and on the role of new technologies within them.

Elisa Oreglia is a lecturer in Global Digital Culture at the Centre for Media Studies, SOAS, University of London. She studies the appropriation of digital media among marginal users in China and Myanmar, with a focus on local knowledge production and information sharing practices in markets.

Silvia Masiero is a teaching fellow in Management and International Development at LSE. Her research focuses on ICTs and poverty reduction, with a focus on food security and social policy schemes in India.

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LSE Policy Seminar: ICTs and Food Security in India

February 11th, 2016

Venue: London School of Economics and Political Sciences (LSE)
Address: 32 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Room G3 (1st floor)
Date: 11 February 2016, 5.30 to 7:00 PM
Type of Event: Lecture, Policy in Practice Seminar Series

Abstract: The ongoing effort of computerisation in the Indian food security system is meant to prepare a shift from below-poverty-line subsidies to cash transfers, and therefore rebuild the existing anti-poverty system. This change is openly framed as a way to tackle market distortions and leaky supply chains, and its core technological object, known as ‘JAM Trinity’ (an acronym for Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhaar, and mobile payments) is aimed to fit exactly this purpose.

The three components of the JAM platform could work in isolation from each other, however each of them, in the light of anti-poverty mechanisms, acquires a precise and finalistic meaning. Jan Dhan Yojana is a financial inclusion programme that aims to provide each household with a bank account, making it possible to transfer benefits to those entitled. The biometric Aadhaar system will enable identification and recognition of genuinely entitled users. Finally, mobiles can have many uses in social safety nets, ranging from notification of bank transfers to systems of information provision and grievance redressal. Taken together, the three JAM technologies form a full composite unit, built with the purpose of shifting from the current Public Distribution System (PDS) to the direct transfer of benefits.

However, fieldwork conducted in the states of Kerala (2011 onwards) and Karnataka (2014-2015) reveals that the association between JAM and destruction of the PDS is problematic, and in fact the relation can be flowing in the opposite direction too. If inscribed in an anti-leakage policy framework, the very same technologies can play a role in combating the illegal diversion of goods, and strengthen the present food security system rather than dismantling it. In my presentation I explore this opportunity, looking at Kerala and Karnataka’s efforts to strengthen their food security systems through ICTs. Based on these two state-level experiences, I draw lessons for other states using ICTs to improve their social safety schemes.

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Guest Lecture: The Politics of Anti-Poverty Artefacts

January 22nd, 2016

Venue: School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
Address: Room G3, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG
Date: 3 February 2016, 5.00 to 7:00 PM
Type of Event: Lecture, CMFS Seminar Series

Abstract:

The study of information technology for poverty reduction has become a research priority in the field of ICTs for development. In this context, a somehow silent orthodoxy has emerged: informatisation of anti-poverty programmes has been lumped with reduction of the state’s role, and with the simultaneous enhancement of market mechanisms in their functioning. The current Government of India, in office since May 2014, has embraced a policy agenda of this kind: informatisation is being used to promote a shift from bureaucracy to a leaner system, based on cash transfers to below-poverty-line households. However, little evidence qualifies technology as a route to marketisation, and the link between IT and social safety nets needs to be examined and theorised in its own right.

My presentation explores the link between IT adoption and transformation of anti-poverty programmes, focusing on the nature of the change brought by computerisation. The notion of technology as socially embedded constitutes my point of departure: adding to it, I adopt a lens that qualifies context in historical terms, and focuses on the interaction between anti-poverty systems and the historical bloc to which they belong. On this basis, I devise a historicised conception of anti-poverty artefacts, which carry the signs of the development models behind them – and in turn, of the political history that informed their construction. Most crucially, technology plays an active part in this tangle, reflecting development policy choices and informing, in turn, the course of history.

Event details on SOAS website

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Book Review – Public Access ICT across Cultures

January 14th, 2016

In an era characterised by proliferation of works on public access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and socio-economic development, Francisco Proenza’s edited book makes a major theoretical contribution, whose nature is explanatory and normative at the same time. From an explanatory point of view, the book unpacks the mechanisms flowing from public access to ICTs to several dimensions of development, observed from the perspective of individual capabilities, social networks and gender empowerment. From a normative point of view, the contributors propose practical suggestions to enhance the impact of access on development, and “make a better world” (as in Walsham, 2012) through ICT diffusion by doing so.

The book consists in the systematic assessment of the impact of public access to ICTs across ten countries, scattered across three different continents. The book is articulated in three parts, each of which corresponds to one of the domains in which ICT access yields its consequences on development: the first part, focused on the ICT-based enhancement of individual capabilities, collects case studies of public access venues in Jordan, Rwanda, China and Cameroon. The second part, looking at the impact of access on society and networks, presents studies of Argentina, Malaysia and Peru. The third part focuses on gender, and on the affordances unleashed by ICT access for women: this section includes cases from India, Chile and Thailand, before a conclusion that wraps up the main findings from the diverse cases and their policy implications.

Proliferation of material on public access makes it hard to review the literature comprehensively, and to disentangle the novelty of contributions as they appear in this important field. Yet, there are at least three domains that make this edited book a special one, whose helpfulness to the novice as well as the more experienced researcher is maximum in today’s scenario. The domains that make the book special are (1) its detailed problematisation of the notion of “impact”, (2) its accuracy in tracing the mechanisms generating such impact, and (3) its comprehensive geographic variety, which does not prevent the authors from formulating general arguments on the themes dealt with.

Problematisation of the notion of “impact” is much needed in contemporary ICT4D (Qureshi, 2015). Beyond the simplifications implicit in the reduction of this notion to quantitative variables, the book combines ethnographic methods (adopted in all the case studies) with surveys on the themes of interest, revealing important aspects of the capabilities expansion implied by ICT adoption in the different cases. What results from this is a notion of “impact” as multidimensional, and including people’s individual capabilities (as in Sen, 2001) as well as the formation of collective capabilities, which may affect communities in a broader sense (Thapa et al., 2012). The gender dimension occupies a dedicated section in the book, tracing the processes through which ICT access may enable or constrain gender development, and enquiring the roots of inequality in cases such as that of Uttar Pradesh (India), where in a sample of 300 users, only 12 were women. Such a multifaceted notion of impact constitutes one of the main strengths of the book, which allows the reader to observe the effect of greater access under a set of diverse angles.

Tracing mechanisms of impact, i.e. looking at “what leads to what” in the pursuit of better lives through ICT access, is something that this book does with a degree of accuracy that should be taken as a model by fellow contributors. For each country case study, the paper combines quantitative and qualitative methods to produce a convincing narrative of what is happening, and to trace exactly the processes that lead from a certain configuration of access to a certain outcome. Importantly, the book does not refrain from discussing the unintended consequences of access – for example, adverse effects on school performance (Cameroon) and on personal life spheres (China). This exploration of perverse effects is conducted through rigorous process tracing, and yields important lessons for countries who wish to embark in enhancement of their public access capabilities (Madon, 2005).

Finally, geographic variety (ten countries, three continents, hundreds of users surveyed) is another major strength of the book. But it does not prevent the authors for making general, relevant arguments that affect and interest the field as a whole. In the conclusion particularly, the book wraps up the main governance lessons from cybercafes and telecentres around the world, highlighting their relevance for users’ empowerment and again the main mechanisms through which this can be achieved. Importantly, the book’s conclusion confronts perhaps the two most timely themes with respect to public access – namely, the effects of mobile phone diffusion on the use of cybercafes and telecentres, and the type of “empowerment” processes that public access determines. On the former, the authors note that coexistence with mobile devices is a reality, but also highlight that public access to the Internet via shared premises will remain significant for the years to come. On the latter, evidence from several of the cases reviewed shows that empowerment involves a struggle to redress injustice, which requires social processes of civic engagement to happen along with ICTs diffusion.

These points, along with a general capability to theorise the impact of public access across different contexts, make this book a paramount contribution to its domain, usable by practitioners as well as academic researchers. Having read this important and illustrative material, it has been my honor to add it to my students’ list of recommended readings.

View & order the book on the IDRC Books webpage

References

Madon, S. (2005). Governance lessons from the experience of telecentres in Kerala. European Journal of Information Systems, 14(4), 401-416.

Proenza, F. (ed.) Public ICT access across cultures. New York: MIT Press.

Qureshi, S. (2015). Are we making a Better World with Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) Research? Findings from the Field and Theory Building. Information Technology for Development, 21(4), 511-522.

Sen, A. (2001). Development as freedom. London: Sage.

Thapa, D., Sein, M. K., & Sæbø, Ø. (2012). Building collective capabilities through ICT in a mountain region of Nepal: where social capital leads to collective action. Information Technology for Development, 18(1), 5-22.

Walsham, G. (2012). Are we making a better world with ICT? Reflections on a future agenda for the IS field. Journal of Information Technology, 27(2), 87-93.

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Does Computerisation Reduce PDS Leakage?

December 12th, 2015

Silvia Masiero and Amit Prakash
Economic and Political Weekly, 12th December 2015

In spite of the policy changes occurred over the last decades, the Public Distribution System (PDS) remains at the core of India’s food security agenda. Enforcement of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) is predicated on good functioning of the PDS, which has increased the programme’s relevance even more (Pritchard and Choitani 2015). Discussion of the PDS and its effectiveness is today as heated as ever: the debate between Gulati and Saini (2015) and Drèze and Khera (2015) concerns not only estimates of leakage, but also their policy implications, ranging between substitution of PDS with cash transfers and improvement of the system through state-level reform. In this historical phase it is important to examine existing policy measures, and assess their capability to maximize effectiveness of the programme.

Among the diverse streams of reform, computerization has been one of the most discussed. Over the last few years, following the all-India trend of digitalization of public infrastructure (Bhatnagar 2004, Bhatia et al. 2009, Madon 2009), many states have introduced e-governance in their PDS: end-to-end computerization of the programme, from procurement to delivery of goods in ration shops, has been linked to its greater effectiveness and accountability. In particular, computerization has been devised to combat leakage, especially in the form of illegal diversion of PDS goods to private markets. The idea of computerization as a means to increase transparency of supply chains, thereby capable to combat leakage, has been theorized, but not yet examined with reference to its practical implementation.

Our objective, as researchers on information technology (IT) for anti-poverty systems, has been that of observing the mechanisms through which computerization can detect and prevent leakage from the PDS. To do so, we needed to focus on a state with a fairly well conceived digital PDS: we have hence conducted a study of Karnataka, a state in which, in 6 districts out of 28, computerization starts from authorized wholesale dealers (AWDs) and reaches to the ration shops, equipped with biometric weighing-cum-point of sale machines. A digital PDS as mature as that of Karnataka allowed us to fulfil two tasks: first, describe the functioning of a computerized PDS, observing the extent to which its mechanisms are able to detect and prevent leakage. Second, illuminate the implications of computerization, offering lessons for the other states now embarking in the same process.

Our study is grounded on participant observation of the digital PDS in Karnataka, conducted between January and September 2014. Our findings are presented here. Section 2 is a description of the IT system for the Karnataka PDS, articulated in two back-end components and a front-end one (the weighing-cum-point of sale machines in the ration shops). Section 3 explains the advantages of the IT system, consisting in a threefold accountability mechanism and in its power to signal political commitment of the government to the fight against leakage. In Section 4 we observe that the system, for well-conceived that it can be, has problems at three levels: these lie in the machines’ tamperability, in the paucity of monitoring tools before the ration shop level, and in the limited capability of reforming PDS (technology cannot, on its own, reform the system’s design). We conclude by drawing lessons for other states computerizing their PDS.

View full paper on ResearchGate

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Will the JAM Trinity Dismantle the PDS?

November 8th, 2015

Economic and Political Weekly, 7th November 2015

The platform known as the JAM Trinity (an acronym for Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhaar and mobile numbers) may enable a shift from the current Public Distribution System, based on price subsidies, to the direct transfer of benefits. However, it is incorrect to argue that JAM technologies will necessarily lead to the demise of the PDS. State-level experiences of computerisation, recounted here, reveal that the same technologies can actually be tailored to improve the PDS, by contributing to reduce the problem of leakage that affects it.

The uptake of information technologies (IT) for poverty reduction, a global trend since the mid-1990s, has recently been greatly popularized in India. Technology is conceived, in particular, as a fix to anti-poverty programmes, whose malfunctioning severely affects poorer people’s capabilities to access their entitlements. In the Public Distribution System (PDS), the core problem is that of leakage, which affects the supply chain and deprives beneficiaries of the subsidized goods reserved for them. Given the depth of leakage on a national scale, a move from the PDS to direct transfer of benefits, which would curb illegal diversion, is being framed as a quite likely policy change.

The platform known as JAM trinity, resulting from three different systems (Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhaar, and mobile numbers), has been devised to enable this policy shift. That technology can act towards the improvement of public governance is well-known (Bhatnagar 2004), but in this case we are witnessing a more radical move: technology is not there to improve existing mechanisms, but to enact deep modifications in anti-poverty policy. As the last Economic Survey (Government of India 2015) reveals, the combination of Jan Dhan’s bank accounts, Aadhaar’s unique identification, and mobile phone usage has the purpose of rebuilding the social safety system, substituting price subsidies with direct transfers to users. By doing so, the market distortions induced by subsidies would be minimised, as well as the leakage that affects the PDS supply chains across the nation.

Alongside economic justifications, reasons for preoccupation towards this move have already been discussed on EPW. However, as a scholar of IT for poverty reduction, my contribution has a different gist. What I argue, based on experiences of PDS digitalisation that I have observed in south India, is that the association between JAM and destruction of the PDS is incorrect, and in fact the relation can be flowing in the opposite direction too. If inscribed in an anti-leakage policy framework, the very same technologies can actually combat the illegal diversion of goods, and strengthen the present food security system instead of dismantling it at its very basis.

View full paper on Economic and Political Weekly – EPW Website

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Technochange and the Historical Bloc: Aadhaar and the Indian Public Distribution System

September 14th, 2015

Quadrangular Conference on Technology, Organisations and Society
Lancaster University, 14th September 2015

Despite its relevance to policy and practice, the link between e-governance and anti-poverty policy has not been openly theorised. In this context, informatisation of anti-poverty programmes has been lumped with reduction of the state’s role, and with enhancement of market mechanisms in their functioning. The current Government of India has embraced a policy agenda of this kind: as part of its plan towards poverty reduction, the Government is using informatisation to promote a shift from bureaucracy to a leaner system, based on cash transfers to below-poverty-line households. While praised for its capability of rationalisation, this strategy has also come under serious criticism: firstly, cash transfers do not preserve the entitlements guaranteed by bureaucracy, and this comes to the detriment of beneficiaries. Secondly, the link between IT and social safety nets cannot be taken for granted, and needs to be examined in its own right.

My presentation explores the link between IT adoption and transformation of anti-poverty programmes, focusing on the nature of the change brought by computerisation. The notion of social embeddedness, viewing technology as shaped by its social context, constitutes my point of departure: adding to it, I adopt a lens that qualifies context in historical terms, and focuses on the mutual interaction between anti-poverty systems and the historical bloc to which they belong. On this basis, I devise a historically contextualised conception of anti-poverty programmes: these carry the signs of the development models behind them, and of the political backgrounds that informed their construction. Technology plays an active part in this tangle, reflecting policy choices and informing, in turn, the course of history.

View conference presentation on academia.edu

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