The prepaid electric meter: Rights, relationships and reification in Unguja, Tanzania

Journal Paper
Veronica Jacome and Isha Ray
World Development. DOI: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2018.01.007
Publication year: 2018

Abstract

Sustainable Development Goal 7, with the light bulb and power button as its symbols, in effect promotes the universal right to basic electricity services. Access for all demands both affordability and cost-recovery, and utilities (and donors) increasingly require users to shoulder the greater burden of cost-recovery. We argue that the electricity system is underpinned by a set of relationships among user, provider and the service itself: these relationships are mediated by the meter, the technology of commodification. Using a constant-comparison approach, and based on a year of interviews and document analysis, we compare postpaid and prepaid meter regimes in Unguja, Tanzania. We ask: what difference does the mode of payment make to the (residential) user, the utility, and to the prospects for meeting SDG 7? We find that the prepaid meter becomes reified with its automated monitoring and measurement mechanism, rendering the once-familiar meter reader obsolete, and shutting off the flow of electricity as soon as the customer’s “units” have run down. Reification makes the utility more invisible to the customer, who now blames the meter rather than the utility for poor service or high bills. Our interviews reveal broad support for the prepaid meter, however, because economically vulnerable users expressed greater fear of debt than of the dark, and were willing to cede control of their consumption to the new meter. These findings undermine the common accusation of a “culture of nonpayment” in Africa. We also find that prepaid meters may incentivize the partial return to biomass-based fuels when cash is not available – exactly the behavior that universal access to electricity is supposed to prevent. We conclude that, if access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa becomes entirely contingent on payment prior to use, this is not fully compatible with a commitment to universal basic access.

Poverty and profits in the information age

Journal Paper
Isha Ray & Renee Kuriyan
Information Technology and International Development, 8 (1): iii - viii.
Publication year: 2012

Information Technologies and Economic Capital Since the 2004 publication of C. K. Prahalad’s remarkably influential The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits, the term “BoP” has become commonplace among development practitioners and corporations. This work argued that, rather than relying upon inefficient governments to provide the poor (i.e., the BoP) with necessary goods and services, the for-profit sector, and especially multinational companies, could play a central role in creating demand and supplying low-cost goods (Prahalad, 2004). “The BoP” entered development discourse and practice at about the same time that information and communication technologies for development, or ICTD, rose to prominence as a key tool of poverty alleviation (Prahalad & Hammond, 2001). By the turn of the millennium, corporations and other private actors had joined the poverty alleviation “business”–not as a by-product of their operations, but as an explicit part of it. These institutions, along with traditional international development organizations, converged upon the idea that philanthropy and profitability are not in opposition, and that the private sector can serve the world’s poor efficiently through high-quality, low-cost products and ICT-enabled services (Hart, 2005). Thus, ICTs “for” D emerged in a joint environment of technological optimism, win-win aspirations of all stakeholders in the feld of development, and a strong reliance on sustainable business models (Gurumurthy, 2010; see also Kuriyan, Nafus, & Mainwaring, this issue; Ilahiane & Sherry, this issue). More recently, Porter and Kramer’s (2011) concept of shared value points to the opportunities that arise from serving disadvantaged communities and developing countries. Reminiscent of Prahalad, they argue that re-conceiving products and markets to address societal concerns can yield benefits to the private sector (ibid.). Research on whether, or how, the principles of development-as-business actually work for the poor has yielded mixed findings. On the one hand, several studies from Asia and Africa have reported economic and social benefits of access to information technologies (Arunachalam, 2002; Donner, 2007; Hughes & Lonie, 2007). Yet, as Gillwald points out in the pages of this journal: “There is little non-anecdotal evidence in Africa linking communications sector policy reforms … and lower costs of communications … to poverty alleviation” (2010, p. 80). Overall, case studies on the impact of cell phone ownership and usage among the poor, or at least among the near-poor, have been positive (Donner, 2007; Jensen, 2007), whereas those on the impact of community-based computer kiosks or telecenters have mainly been discouraging (e.g. Kuriyan, Ray, &Toyama, 2008). Recent work has further revealed that low-income individuals may use ICTs in conventional ways, but these ICTs are also key sites of innovation with, and re-purposing of, these technologies (e.g., Heeks, 2009; Maurer, in press). The four articles presented here seek to increase our understanding of poverty and profits in the age of technology-meets-development-meets-business. All four articles use ethnographic methods, sharing the ethnographer’s attention to both the intended and the unintended, and to both the spoken and the strategically unsaid. They cover four broad stakeholder groups: the consumer, the local entrepreneur, the ICTD…

Towards Aspirations as a Development Indicator: The Case of Information and Communication Technologies

Journal Paper
Isha Ray & Renee Kuriyan
Proceedings of the 4th IEEE/ACM International Conference ICTD 2010.
Publication year: 2011

Abstract

This paper examines how changes in aspirations among the poor should be understood in the context of ICTD
interventions. We argue that aspirations associated with ICTs (or with other interventions) can be seen as interim indicators of
development when, and only when, these aspirations stem from enhanced human capabilities rather than simply from stated or
distant desires. This entails understanding if and how ICTs and ICT-enabled services open up pathways by which the aspirations
of the poor can potentially be actualized.

Influencing attitudes towards carbon capture and sequestration: A social marketing approach

Journal Paper
Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, Hadi Dowlatabadi, Tim McDaniels & Isha Ray
Environmental Science and Technology, 45: 6743 – 6751
Publication year: 2011

Abstract

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), while controversial, is seen as promising because it will allow the United States to continue using its vast fossil fuel resources in a carbon-constrained world. The public is an important stakeholder in the national debate about whether or not the U.S. should include CCS as a significant part of its climate change strategy. Understanding how to effectively engage with the public about CCS has become important in recent years, as interest in the technology has intensified. We argue that engagement efforts should be focused on places where CCS will first be deployed, i.e., places with many “energy veteran” (EV) citizens. We also argue that, in addition to information on CCS, messages with emotional appeal may be necessary in order to engage the public. In this paper we take a citizen-guided social marketing approach toward understanding how to (positively or negatively) influence EV citizens’ attitudes toward CCS. We develop open-ended interview protocols, and a “CCS campaign activity”, for Wyoming residents from Gillette and Rock Springs. We conclude that our participants believed expert-informed CCS messages, embedded within an emotionally self-referent (ESR) framework that was relevant to Wyoming, to be more persuasive than the expert messages alone. The appeal to core values of Wyomingites played a significant role in the citizen-guided CCS messages.

The role of social factors in shaping public perceptions of CCS: Results of multi-state focus group interviews in the US

Journal Paper
Judith Bradbury, Isha Ray, Tarla Rai Peterson, Sarah Wade, Gabrielle Wong-Parodi & Andrea Feldpausch
Energy Procedia 1: 4665 – 4672
Publication year: 2009

Abstract

Three of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnerships analyzed community perspectives on carbon capture and storage (CCS) through focus groups and interviews in five communities. These perspectives were analyzed in the context of each community’s history and its social and economic characteristics. The results were considered for their insights into specific concerns within each region, as well as to assess inter-region commonalities. In all cases, factors such as past experience with government, existing low socioeconomic status, desire for compensation, and/or perceived benefit to the community were of greater concern than the concern about the risks of the technology itself. This paper discusses the findings from the joint review of the focus groups and the potential lessons for application to CCS deployment.

Outsourcing the state? Public-private partnerships and information technologies in India

Journal Paper
Renee Kuriyan & Isha Ray
World Development, 37: 1663 – 1673
Publication year: 2009

Summary

This paper examines public–private partnerships (PPPs) for development through the example of telecenters in two Indian states. How might a developmental state position itself with respect to civil society under a PPP model of service delivery? We find that each state’s political economy is reflected in its PPP strategy, but that in both states the emerging middle classes rather than the poor benefit most from ongoing telecenter projects. Outsourcing development services to private entities need not “privatize” the state but does alter the way in which citizens “see” the state. Service delivery through telecenters becomes a symbol of government efficiency and responsiveness.

E for “Express”: Seeing the Indian State Through ICTD

Journal Paper
Renee Kuriyan & Isha Ray
Proceedings of the 3rd IEEE/ACM International Conference ICTD 2009: 66 – 73
Publication year: 2009

Abstract:

This paper examines how, in their attempts to liberalize and modernize their operations, Indian states are using ICTD e-governance services to represent themselves in a new way to their citizens. It reveals how states come to be seen by their citizens through their everyday interactions at ICTD telecenters. The research finds that, with its e-governance services, the state is trying to recast its image to fit market-friendly principles such as economic efficiency, accountability and effectiveness. Citizens simultaneously trust the government as credible and are disillusioned with it as inefficient. Telecenter-provided e-governance services are partially re-shaping the boundaries between state, civil society and markets.

Community perceptions of carbon sequestration: Insights from California

Journal Paper
Gabrielle Wong-Parodi & Isha Ray
Environmental Research Letters, 4
Publication year: 2009

Abstract

Over the last decade, many energy experts have supported carbon sequestration as a viable technological response to climate change. Given the potential importance of sequestration in US energy policy, what might explain the views of communities that may be directly impacted by the siting of this technology? To answer this question, we conducted focus groups in two communities who were potentially pilot project sites for California’s DOE-funded West Coast Regional Partnership (WESTCARB). We find that communities want a voice in defining the risks to be mitigated as well as the justice of the procedures by which the technology is implemented. We argue that a community’s sense of empowerment is key to understanding its range of carbon sequestration opinions, where ’empowerment’ includes the ability to mitigate community-defined risks of the technology. This sense of empowerment protects the community against the downside risk of government or corporate neglect, a risk that is rarely identified in risk assessments but that should be factored into assessment and communication strategies.

Information and communication technologies for development: The bottom of the pyramid model in practice

Journal Paper
Renee Kuriyan, Isha Ray & Kentaro Toyama
The Information Society, 24: 93 – 104
Publication year: 2008

The currently influential model for information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) is based on increasing the well-being of the poor through market-based solutions, and by using low-cost but advanced technologies. Using ethnographic methods, we chart out the contradictions that could arise when such a development-through-entrepreneurship model is implemented. We examine the Akshaya project, a franchise of computer-service kiosks in Kerala, India, which strives simultaneously for social development through access to computers and financial viability through cost recovery and entrepreneurship. We show that tensions within the state and among entrepreneurs and perceptions of public versus private among consumers make it challenging to meet the twin goals of commercial profitability and social development.

How to use technology to spur development

Other Writings
Renee Kuriyan, Isha Ray & Daniel Kammen
Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2008: 70 – 74
Publication year: 2008

Merging technology and entrepreneurialism to meet the needs of the poor and improve their productivity has obvious appeal, but such efforts need more careful study and planning to deliver on their potential.

Environmental non-government organizations' perceptions of geologic sequestration

Journal Paper
Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, Isha Ray & Alexander Farrell
Environmental Research Letters, 3.
Publication year: 2008

Abstract

Environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been influential in shaping public perceptions of environmental problems, their causes and potential solutions. Over the last decade, carbon capture and storage (CCS) has emerged as a potentially important technological response to climate change. In this paper we investigate how leading US NGOs perceive geologic sequestration, a potentially controversial part of CCS. We examine how and why their perceptions and strategies might differ, and if and how they plan to shape public perceptions of geologic sequestration. We approach these questions through semi-structured interviews with representatives from a range of NGOs, supplemented by content analysis of their documents. We find that while all the NGOs are committed to combating climate change, their views on CCS as a mitigation strategy vary considerably. We find that these views are correlated with NGOs’ histories of activism and advocacy, as well as with their sources of funding. Overall, most of these NGOs accept the necessity of geologic sequestration, while only a small fraction do not.

Private Public Partnerships and Information Technologies for Development in India

Journal Paper
Renee Kuriyan & Isha Ray
Proceedings of the 2nd IEEE/ACM International Conference ICTD 2007: 310 – 320
Publication year: 2007

Abstract:

This paper critically examines the theory and practice of public-private partnerships (PPPs) through the example of information and communication technologies and development (ICT4D) in India. The paper compares the roles of, and relationships between, the state and small scale entrepreneurs in ICT4D efforts in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Through this comparison it shows how the political economy within which PPP models operate, and in particular the state’s relative emphasis on financial versus social goals, determines who benefits most from current ICT4D projects. It finds that, despite pro-poor intentions, and regardless of levels of state involvement in projects, the benefits of these projects are mainly captured by the middle classes. Micro-entrepreneurs who run ICT enabled businesses and maintain close connections with the state are also likely to benefit from PPPs through increased incomes. The paper further argues that, through these ICT4D projects, states in India are trying to reshape themselves into market friendly, efficient entities that traditionally defined the private sector. It finds that in this negotiation, the state is not dasiaprivatizedpsila, but retains a sense of its own development agenda and remains necessary for the credibility of PPPs in civil society.

Integrating Social Development and Financial Sustainability: The Social and Political Challenges of Kiosks

Journal Paper
Renee Kuriyan, Kentaro Toyama, & Isha Ray
Proceedings of IEEE International Conference ICTD 2006: 121 – 130
Publication year: 2006

Abstract:

This paper examines the social and political challenges related to the implementation of information and communication technology (ICT) kiosk projects for rural development in India. Specifically, the paper focuses on the Akshaya project, a franchise of rural computer-service kiosks, which was implemented in Kerala as a public-private sector collaboration. The Akshaya project has the twin goals of social development through increased access to computers for rural people and financial viability through market-driven entrepreneurship. Using interview and participant observation methods, we examine the challenges that state actors and entrepreneurs face in simultaneously addressing social and financial sustainability. The preliminary evidence suggests that there is a tension between these goals at a macro level (within the state) and a micro level (for entrepreneurs and potential consumers) that makes it difficult to run a financially self-sustaining ICT kiosk project that also meets social development goals. The paper demonstrates that the implementation of ICTs for development is not simply a technical process of delivering services to the poor, but is a highly political process that involves tradeoffs and prioritization of particular goals to attain sustainability. Branding this project is a challenge for the state and entrepreneurs due to consumer perceptions of what development is, with particular expectations of state provided services, versus what business is