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…