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Bits and Atoms: ICTs in Areas of Limited Statehood

Uwimana Basaninyenzi's picture

Imagine that you’re a citizen of a country that has just experienced one of the worst earthquakes in history. You, your neighbors, and fellow country-men are immediately thrown into danger, chaos, and destitution. As one of the fortunate survivors, you wait for authorities to provide medical care, shelter, food, and other immediate needs, but you receive little or no help. Yet, to your surprise, a large group of ordinary citizens begin organizing a massive disaster response by using blogs, twitter, Facebook, and other social media networks. Their efforts have provided you with life-saving resources. And all of a sudden, within days, digital technologies have facilitated an entire social movement around this earthquake. These are the types of stories that Steven Livingston and Gregor Walter-Drop examine in their new edited series, Bits and Atoms: Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood.
If you are interested in digital media and politics, there is a plethora of literature on the role of ICTs in powerful political systems in the industrialized world. However, there has been very little focus on the role of digital technology in weak states with inadequate governance systems. Bits and Atoms is a comprehensive volume that examines the extent to which ICTs can help fill governance voids in a number of countries in Eastern Europe, Sub-Sahara Africa, and the Middle East. A distinguished group of scholars attempt to answer some important questions like, “Can ICTs help fill the gap between pressing human needs and weak states’ ability to meet them? Can communities use ICTs to meet challenges such as indiscriminate violence, disease, drought, famine, crime, and other problems arising from deficient and non-responsive state institutions? How does ICT affect the legitimacy of the state?”

When thinking about weak states, one may immediately think of failed, fragile, and/or conflict states, but the editors of this book use a different construct by examining “areas of limited statehood.” They view the idea of statehood as a continuous variable that can range from fully consolidated states like those found Scandinavia to states with low levels of consolidation like Somalia. But as the authors point out, most states fall somewhere in between this spectrum. As noted in the book, those on the lower end, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, have central institutions that are unable to exercise a monopoly on the use of force, let alone implement political decisions. However, those that fall in the middle of the continuum have an ability to marshal force, despite their inability to provide basic services.
The central point of the book is that limited and even failing statehood does not necessarily translate into the absence of governance. In fact, the volume argues that in weak states, there is an enormous amount of governance potential that can be found in ICTs. This potential is explored by contributors like J.P. Singh, who examines how E-government programs in India have been used to improve service delivery. He finds mixed results, where the Indian state is better at providing bits (information such as online land records) rather than atoms (material goods such as offline judicial procedures). Other contributors such as Primoz Kovacic and Jamie Lundine examine how mapping platforms have empowered residents in the slums of Nairobi. Here, Kovacic and Lundine show how a small group of citizens with limited resources gather data on health, education, sanitation, and security issues to through online platforms like Ushahidi to share stories about these slums to the world. In spite of this success, the authors question the sustainability these efforts that are often done in isolation of government programs.
Taken together, the case studies in this book provide a compelling story of both the power and limitations of ICTs in areas of limited statehood. It does a fascinating job of bringing to life the various roles that ICTs can play in the complex process of governing.

Cover Photo by Oxford University Press
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Submitted by Timothy Kelly on

A further piece of Bank research which is relevant here is the infoDev study of the use of ICTs in post-conflict reconstruction (see: which presents case studies from Afghanistan, Liberia, Rwanda, Timor-leste and Tunisia,

Submitted by Uwi Basaninyenzi on

Thanks for pointing out this piece of research, Timothy. Very interesting.

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