Vignette 5 | The importance of widespread adoption via grassroots networks

Mario Marais and Sara Vannini

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The journey to widespread adoption of any ICT for Development (ICT4D) initiative can use different approaches. High level networks between entities concerned with self-sovereign identity has been discussed. The importance of individual decisions for open, fair, self-sovereignty has been emphasised. A key issue for self-sovereignty, though, is the role of grassroots networks to make people aware of the choices they can make on an individual level, which remains an understudied area. Awareness creation and the diffusion of ideas, concepts and practices, i.e. adoption, is a space in which “‘intelligent intermediaries” (Gopakumar, 2007), ‘social connectors’ (Díaz Andrade & Urquhart, 2010), ‘infomediaries’ (Gomez, Fawcett, & Turner, 2012) and, especially, ‘local champions’ (Renken & Heeks, 2019) have played a large role. The focus on champions can either be intensely individually based, or more nuanced and placed in a community context. Choice exists to prioritise the individual’s actualisation versus their loyalty towards being part of a community. A pertinent question here is whether the idea of champions as single individuals, or a shift to a more collective role of championship may be a better fit for this kind of development initiative.

In a recent paper, Marais and Vannini (2021) argue that more attention should be paid not only to the family of ICT4D approaches that follow bottom-up, participatory strategies in ICT4D (e.g.: Bentley, Nemer, & Vannini, 2017; Heeks, 2010), but also to possible differences in value systems and frameworks that leverage communities’ self-organisation, and that build on existing relationships within and between communities rather than relying solely on single individuals. In the communities, these existing relationships may already have resulted in innovation, development, and social transformation. Because they are founded on existing and enhanced social capital (Marais, 2012) facilitated by shared value systems, they may be more resilient and sustainable over time.

Marais and Vannini (2021) propose a network approach that builds on existing grassroots experiences and that scales up community-level development initiatives already led by a variety of actors, including local champions and less visible individuals, as well as Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), Faith-Based Organisations (FBOs) and Community-Based Organisations (CBO)s. Intentionally enabling networks within the systems in which ICT4D projects operate requires adopting a relationship based and social capital approach as one of the foundations for sustainable development. The practice of ‘network weaving’ (Holley, 2013) is therefore proposed, combined with adoption of the value system on which it is built (Marais & Vannini, 2021).

The concept and practice of network weaving was started by June Holley (2013a; 2013b) to help low-income entrepreneurs in the Appalachian region in Ohio, one of the poorest regions of the U.S., create networks that would bring opportunities and social change to their communities. According to Holley’s framework (2013b), networks are complex sets of relationships among people and communities. Networks have the ability to address power imbalances both by encouraging intentional peer relationships which recognise the value and contribution that individuals can make, and by considering every individual to be a potential leader in the network, who has the ability to connect and initiate collaborations. In this way, ‘power is distributed, not concentrated’ (ibid., 10). Finally, the framework recognises inclusion of all stakeholder voices in the process of generating change as an important way to redistribute power. The potential of network weaving to complement and advance the development approaches advocated in this article are summarised below.

First, network weaving focuses on co-creation processes and on all stakeholders’ participation. Networks include diverse stakeholders, each with their different perspectives. Stakeholders are like nodes of networks, and, in network weaving, they are organised in a non-hierarchical way. Having a network mindset, then, implies decentralised decision-making and collective action, requiring that local communities participate in development strategy decisions that are usually made by governments and large organisations. A network mindset requires contextual development strategies, where the diversity of interests is represented, and where the space is held for multiple ways of achieving outcomes in which indigenous knowledges, various value systems, and so-called expert knowledge can interact and evolve.

Second, network weaving expands on the relevance of intermediaries, infomediaries, and champions that has already been established in the literature. By stating that anybody can be a network weaver, the focus on leadership is transferred to a shared, collective idea of ‘championship’, which is more inclusive, more sensitive to collective dynamics and value systems that are more widespread in non-Western communities, and possibly more sustainable in the long term. This different idea of leadership is especially relevant when it comes to focusing on women’s participation in development leadership. Women who are leaders and champions are frequently overlooked. For example, schools in South Africa rely heavily on women teachers, yet school principals are overwhelmingly male (Skosana, 2018).

Third, network weaving is empowering for communities, not only because they have more access to decision-making and to lead the change they want to see, but also because it enables them to be aware of the networks they are embedded in, and of the power they have to influence decisions. This increased awareness brings with it more exposure to a plurality of ideas and more peer learning, which contributes to promoting community empowerment, and, ultimately, more agency.

Finally, the approach emphasises the role of ICTs in development as tools (not agents) to foster transparency and to achieve social justice (Smith, 2014). A network approach encourages sharing by default, including not only sharing outcomes and approaches from different projects, but also sharing networks themselves, so that they can grow and evolve. Networks are inherently flexible: they often lack defined boundaries; they have great potential to grow. This natural evolution of networks is beneficial to ensure dissemination of good practices: while projects can come and go, and academic findings seldom reach communities outside of researchers’ own influence spheres, networks’ learning exchanges at the community level can be self-sustaining as new members become involved.

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