“Lost in Afghanistan: Can the World Take ICT4D Seriously?”
Communications of the ACM, July 2023, Vol. 66 No. 7, Pages 32-34
By Tariq Zaman
“The CHI and ICT4D community has extensively highlighted the importance of a responsible exit strategy for avoiding software and hardware suppliers’ hostage situations.”
In August 2021, I was reading Lt. Gen. Sami Sadat’s article in the NY Times, and it reminded me of the lyrics of Billy Hill’s song: “I tried and I tried and I tried and I tried. To make them understand. I tried and I tried and I tried and I tried. But they just can’t understand.” Like any other Pashtun, I also consider Afghanistan my “Loy Kor” or “Greater Homeland.” Therefore, the early days of Afghanistan’s fall were full of terrible surprises. There are many more questions in my mind than answers; consequently, it is normal to reflect on the situation from my own academic and professional background in information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) and computer-human interaction (CHI).
ICT4D is an interdisciplinary field that has emerged in the 1990s when mobile phones, PCs, and Web services became cheaper and accessible in developing countries, and governments and international organizations heavily funded ICT-based initiatives as the tools for achieving development goals. In the early days, ICT4D research and practices were influenced by the technology diffusion models and overlooked the integration of co-design and factors of social embeddedness of ICTs, and therefore failed to contribute toward the achievement of inclusive development. However, the lessons learned are well documented and have led to developing specific guidelines and new watchwords. Based on my academic and ethnic background and recent fieldwork in the northwest part of Pakistan, I present my reflections on the Afghanistan fiasco in this Viewpoint. Following the sutra of effective communication, I restrict my reflections to three main points.
The imperative of a defined exit strategy. The U.S. did not have an exit strategy for withdrawal from Afghanistan. In December 2018, the Taliban announced their meeting with U.S. officials to find a “roadmap to peace” but refused to hold official talks with the Afghan government. The U.S. government subsequently signed the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan (2020) and made the situation worse by not making the Afghan government (their own ally) a party to the agreement.
The CHI and ICT4D community has extensively highlighted the importance of a responsible exit strategy for avoiding software and hardware suppliers’ hostage situations, maintaining the secrecy and confidentiality of vulnerable populations, establishing the participants’ willingness and capability for taking over the project, and controlling the dependencies and expectations of the stakeholders. Luke Jordan, in his recent guidebook (which I think is a must-read for anyone in the field of ICT4D), says, “a product that looks wildly different at the end than at the beginning could mean a terrible starting point.” Carl Gunnstam and Carl Johan Nordquist highlighted the need for an exit strategy in ICT4D interventions. They reported, “a well-designed exit plan that is agreed upon by all stakeholders diminishes the risk that the project is untimely abandoned by a stakeholder, and thereby increases the likelihood of a sustainable project.”
In 2016, during my field study in the forests of Malaysian Borneo, an indigenous Penan village headman explained to me some important aspects of “Smart Villages,” including the need to engage partners from the early stages of the project’s planning to discuss the long-term sustainability of the interventions. While the Penans are more concerned about the health and safety implications of non-functioning solar-powered batteries of the telecenter project, an Afghan artist sent 20 tons of rubbish collected from Bagram airbase, labeling it as art and “A gift to the American people.”
Open source software (OSS) vs. proprietary software. It was shocking to learn that as soon as the U.S. troops started to withdraw, the U.S.-hired contractors took proprietary software and weapons systems with them. By July 2021, most of the 17,000 contractors had left, and with them, access to the software which the Afghan Army relied on to track their vehicles, weapons, and personnel also disappeared. As a result, the whole food and ammunition supply system collapsed.
About the Author:
Tariq Zaman is an associate professor in the School of Computing and Creative Media, and Head of the Advanced Centre for Sustainable Socio-Economic and Technological Development (ASSET) University of Technology Sarawak (UTS) Jalan Universiti, Sarawak, Malaysia.
(Image: An Afghan policeman sits near private cellphone antenna in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Photo by Javed Tanveer/AFP via Getty Images.)