Marrying the Capability Approach, Appropriate Technology and STS: The Case of Podcasting Devices in Zimbabwe

  • Ilse Oosterlaken
  • David J. Grimshaw
  • Pim Janssen
Part of the Philosophy of Engineering and Technology book series (POET, volume 5)


How can our knowledge of technology, including its design, be used to enhance the capabilities of all people? What is an appropriate technology? Can the choices people make about technology be embedded into the design process? Can the capability approach contribute to sustainable, appropriate technological solutions for development challenges? These are just some of the key questions posed in this chapter. First we position ICT development interventions as a useful vehicle for exploring the added value of the capability approach. Second we introduce the case of podcasting in Zimbabwe to provide a practical example. We explain what a capability approach of such a case would entail. This is then rooted in the appropriate technology movement, to which the capability approach may contribute its theoretical framework. Next, it is discussed how insights and theories from science and technology studies may be helpful in better understanding the complex dynamics between technology and human capabilities. These discussions then lead to a section about technology choice, for which well-being and agency are important considerations. It is argued that deliberate technology choice is the key to answering the questions posed earlier.


Cattle Management Capability Approach Practical Action Technical Artefact Human Capability 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

7.1 Introduction

The expansion of valuable, individual human capabilities is, according to the ­capability approach, a central aim of development interventions. Capabilities are the real opportunities or positive freedoms to achieve valuable ‘functionings’ or ‘being and doings’, examples of which are being healthy, participating in community life or travelling. One of the rationales behind this focus on expanding someone’s human capabilities, is that this means empowering this person to be an agent, to be someone who is able to make choices and undertake actions in line with one’s own ideals and ideas about a good human life. This may be either actions or choices that increase the persons’s own well-being, or that contribute to other goals that the person finds important. Both well-being and agency are held to be centrally important in the capability approach. Because the capability approach is, says Johnstone (2007),

essentially naturalistic and functionalist in orientation, capability analyses are able to integrate descriptive and normative dimensions in a way that is particularly appropriate to technological domains.

The capability approach provides a development perspective that allows one to quite naturally make a connection between on the one hand technology choice and the details of engineering design – which may have a direct impact on what capabilities a technical artefact contributes to – and on the other hand the ultimate aims of development. The sparse body of literature that has so far made a link between the capability approach and technology is focused on ICT.1 One explanation for this might be found in the “multi-purpose, multi-choice nature” (Kleine 2011) of ICTs, which can – at least in principle – simultaneously contribute to expanding many different capabilities and leave it up to the empowered user which ‘functionings’2 to realize. This, says Kleine (2011), makes ‘ICT for Development’ (ICT4D) “particularly well-suited to be a test-case for the choice paradigm in development evaluation, execution and planning.” In reality, of course, tensions sometimes arise between the goals that development organizations or NGOs attempt to achieve and the choices that people make. An example is when so-called ‘ICT telecenters’ are being used for entertainment purposes – which could be seen as an exercise of these users’ agency – while the NGOs intended the centers to be used for achieving pre-determined well-being goals, such as better health or improved livelihoods (Ratan and Bailur 2007). This raises a dilemma for the NGO to either respect people’s choices and not meet their organizational goals, or to become paternalistic in its interventions. When reviewing the literature (Oosterlaken 2009), it becomes clear that challenges in or criticism of the mainstream practice of ICT4D – such as a tension between well-being and agency goals, too much emphasis on resource distribution and the dominance of an economic perspective – are amongst the reasons for authors to turn to the capability approach, in search of critical and fundamental reflection.
We believe that the capability approach does indeed have added value for ICT4D. However, in order to realize this potential it is very important to investigate the ­connections that may fruitfully be made with other approaches, theories and insights. As Zheng (2007) has noted, “many issues unveiled by applying the capability approach are not new to e-development.” According to her a lot of existing perspectives and approaches within ICT4D, such as ‘social inclusion’, ‘information culture’ and ‘information infrastructure’, can “be used compatibly with the capability approach perspective of e-development.” It is even desirable that such connections are made, as the capability approach

is not a theory that can explain poverty, inequality or well-being […] Applying the capability approach to issues of policy and social change will therefore often require the addition of explanatory theories. (Robeyns 2005)

What the capability approach can do is provide “a tool and a framework within which to conceptualize and evaluate these phenomena” (Robeyns 2005), it is “able to surface a set of key concerns, systematically and coherently, on an explicit ­philosophical foundation” (Zheng 2007). But “the capability approach offers little about understanding details of technology and their relationship with social processes” (Zheng 2007).

In this chapter we aim to illustrate both (a) what the added value of the capability approach for reflecting on technological development projects could be and (b) how the capability approach so applied could benefit from insights of existing theories and approaches with respect to technology. For this purpose we will use the case of the Local Content, Local Voice project, during which podcasting devices were introduced in Zimbabwe by the non-governmental organization Practical Action.3 In Sect. 7.2 we will discuss what taking a capability approach towards the case would entail – to which aspects of the project would it draw attention? In Sect. 7.3 we will discuss how the capability approach relates to the ideas behind and experiences of the Appropriate Technology (AT) movement. To fully understand the complex and dynamic interaction between technology and human capabilities, so we will argue in Sect. 7.4, the capability approach should also pay attention to theories and insights from Science and Technology Studies (STS). Aspects of the case feature throughout these two sections as an illustration. In Sect. 7.5 we will discuss the topic of technology choice for our project case and we will argue that the capability approach allows us to conceptualize considerations of agency and well-being that play a role in such a choice. Let us first briefly introduce the case.

7.2 A Machine with Knowledge of Cattle Management

According to some the idea of appropriate technology “has not yet gained much ground in the area of ICT” (Van Reijswoud 2009). But our case, the Local Content, Local Voice project, is an example of an ICT project resulting from the appropriate technology movement. Practical Action only adopted its current name a few years ago and was formerly known as ITDG, the Intermediate Technology and Development Group. Established in 1966 by economists E.F. Schumacher (e.g. 1973) and others, this NGO has played a crucial role in the ‘intermediate’ or ‘appropriate’ technology movement that reached its peak in the 1970s and early 1980s. Since the last decade or so Practical Action is also explicitly paying attention to new and emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology and ICT. Our case is but one of Practical Action’s activities in this area.

In 2007 Practical Action and its local partner organization LGDA have introduced mp3 players and podcasts in the Mbire district in the Lower Guruve area in Zimbabwe. ‘Kamuchina kemombe’ is the name that local people have given to these mp3 players. The literal translation of this is ‘a machine with knowledge of cattle management’ (Grimshaw and Gudza 2010). The lessons on cattle management made available in this way have, according to project evaluation reports from Practical Action (Mika 2009; Gudza 2009), led to an increase in agricultural productivity and hence improved livelihoods for the local people. The introduction of this technical artefact took place as part of the pilot project Local Content, Local Voice, which builds on earlier work within Practical Action on the question of how to ‘connect the first mile’ – how to deal with the challenge of

sharing information with people who have little experience of ICTs, low levels of literacy, little time or money, and highly contextualized knowledge and language requirements. (Talyarkhan et al. 2005)

Such challenges also apply to the Lower Guruve area. Literacy, for example, is 75%. In many other respects, the development challenges are big in this semi-arid area: livelihoods are mainly dependent on small-scale subsistence farming (livestock production and drought resistant crop cultivation); and the district’s infrastructure services in the district are poor (no electricity, running water, telephone landline, mobile phone network or FM radio network). Traditional agricultural extension ­services4 had ceased to be reliable because of poor transport and other economic reasons. One of the bottlenecks was, for example, that governmental livestock officers did not have enough time to properly train the animators interacting with the villagers. After consultation with local stakeholders the mp3 players were viewed as an additional channel for knowledge sharing rather than a replacement. Hence the process of sharing knowledge came to be regarded as “digital extension”.

The Local Content, Local Voice project was part of a larger EC Block Grant project with the objective to improve livestock health and product value of resource poor households in the Mbire District. In the preparation phase, local people made a prioritization of possible interventions within the scope of this project. Also at later stages opportunities for participation were present. Participation was also built into the process of the sub-project Local Content, Local Voice. People were, for example, consulted on the proposed technical solution. This led to changes, such as the addition of loudspeakers to the device in order to enable collective listening while sitting under a tree in the village. Thus, a way of information sharing was made possible that is very much in line with local cultural practices. One of the key drivers of this approach was to minimize the impact of the technology on the power balance in the communities, in order to increase its chances of success (Grimshaw and Gudza 2010). Explicit attention was also paid to the podcasts themselves, ­making sure that their contents would be understandable and relevant to local ­people. It was furthermore investigated what would be the best way to deal with the infrastructural challenges, for example using solar cells or batteries that would regularly need to be re-charged elsewhere.

7.3 A Capability Approach of the Case

So what would it mean to take a capability approach towards this case? Well, first and foremost it would mean recognizing that a successful development project is not a matter of merely giving access to resources like mp3 players. These are just means, and the capability approach would ask if they contribute to the expansion of valuable human capabilities. What are people now able to do and be, which they could not do and be before this project was implemented? The capability approach furthermore holds that poverty and well-being are multidimensional, an evaluation in line with the capability approach could thus take a wide range of things into account as relevant. The current project evaluation reports, however, limit ­themselves largely to outcomes in terms of the number of podcasts recorded and distributed, “a decrease in animal mortality”, “increased milk yields from the animals” and “increased crop productivity” (Mika 2009). Of course strengthening people’s livelihoods means strengthening their ability to support themselves. If successful, it would imply increasing people’s basic capabilities, their “freedom to do some basic things that are necessary for survival and to escape poverty” (Robeyns 2005). As capabilities can be both an end in themselves as well as a means for the expansion of other capabilities, this may – in a positive spiral – also contribute to the expansion of further capabilities. As one farmer said: “because of my increased number of cattle and increased crop yields, I am now able to pay school fees for my children.” Receiving more education may be valuable in its own right, yet it may also contribute to the expansion of more capabilities. Yet there may be other, less tangible project impacts. For example, according to another local farmer the mp3 players fostered “group work and group harmony which did not exist before. When groups ask for lessons we share experiences and ideas.” So the technology seems to have improved farmers’ relations with each other and with the development agents. The project also seems to have given farmers more self-esteem, as expressed by yet another farmer when asked about the project’s benefits: “before the technology, if an animal was dying then I could not take action [lack of agency!], but now I can. I am happy since I am a full farmer now!” (Janssen 2010, pp. 70–71). If one attaches importance to both well-being and agency, as the capability approach does, such impacts are certainly worth taking into consideration. In short, the capability approach could provide a conceptual framework for a more comprehensive evaluation of the project.

What one would further want to look at, from the perspective of the capability approach, is the process that led to these development impacts. The capability approach resists viewing people living in poverty as passive patients to be helped, but rather pictures them as human agents able to shape their own lives. Hence, the literature on the capability approach pays a lot of attention to participative processes and democratic deliberation (e.g. Crocker 2008). Of course participatory methods have been part of development discourse and practice for quite some time now, and interesting parallels between this body of literature and the capability approach can be drawn (Frediani unknown date). The appropriate technology movement, in turn, has emphasized the importance of enabling people to choose a technology that will suit their needs. Practitioners like Practical Action advocate the empowerment of people to participate in the development process, so that they can choose an appropriate technology.5 In the case of podcasting in Zimbabwe the participation of a wide range of stakeholders – including agricultural and veterinary agencies, local government, local development associations, community workers, and local village chiefs – has, according to Practical Action, been an important factor in bringing about ownership, empowerment and a high degree of uptake of the technology. Indeed it could be observed that the technology has been woven into the fabric of village life. We should note, however, that in the view of the capability approach participation is not just of instrumental importance for reaching pre-set goals such as technology adoption or even increased well-being (Frediani unknown date). Participation in collective deliberation and decision-making is first and foremost seen as being important for normative reasons; it is respectful of human agency to put people in the driver’s seat of policies and projects that concern them. To determine to which degree this was realized in a case like ours, one could – for example – make usage of Crocker’s classification of modes of participations (Crocker 2008,  chapter 10), which this author himself applies to a case study of a small-scale development project as described by Alkire (2002). Such a detailed analysis of the degree of participation might, when applied to our case study, reveal that there is room for improvement.

Finally, the capability approach would draw attention to the differences that might exist between categories of individuals, in so far as these could influence the impact of a policy or project on the expansion of human capabilities. The valuable capabilities it proposes to promote “are sought for each and every person, not, in the first instance, for groups or families or states or other corporate bodies” (Nussbaum 2000, p. 74). However, the so-called ‘conversion factors’ could be such that a technology does not lead to a capability expansion for each and every individual. In our case it was acknowledged, for example, that the impact of ICT may be different for literate and illiterate people and by choosing for a voice-based rather than a text-based technology it was ensured that both groups would benefit. Another difference that may be relevant is that between males and females. This also applies to our case. For example, during group meetings men were seated close to the (mostly male) animator and the mp3 player. They were also more actively involved in the discussion after the broadcast. Sometimes their speaking volume was impossible to hear for the women who were sitting approximately 10m away. Furthermore, women sometimes needed to ask their husbands permission to individually go on a visit to the animator in order to listen to a podcast (Janssen 2010, p. 72). Such factors may, however subtle, influence the conversion of a technology into valuable human capabilities. From a capability perspective this may thus be worth investigating in more detail. More contextual conversion factors have received plenty of attention from the appropriate technology movement. Thus, this movement has a wealth of knowledge and experience to offer that is relevant from the perspective of the capability approach. It is to this topic that we now turn.

7.4 Appropriate Technology: Taking Conversion Factors Seriously

It is hard to accurately capture the ideas behind the heterogeneous appropriate technology movement in a few words. Nieusma (2004) summarizes it as follows:

In part as a response to failures of technology transfer approaches, ‘appropriate technologists’ argued that context suitability should be central to identifying technologies relevant to poor people of the Third World and other marginalized social groups. […] Attention to contextual particularities became one of the guiding approaches to appropriate technology and, hence, unlike technology transfer scholars, appropriate technology thinking took design as the point of intervention. (Nieusma 2004)

This focus on design does not mean that appropriate technology always needs to concern a tailor-made design solution. It may also mean that the design features of existing technological artefacts play a central role in technology choice for a specific context of application. In our case in Zimbabwe, for example, research was done into developing an innovative technological solution using Bluetooth technology and solar energy panels. The latter were considered because of the lack of an electricity network in the region. The Bluetooth technology would enable podcasts being exchanged between people passing each other. However, this technology gave rise to several difficulties and in the end this solution was not chosen for several reasons (which will be discussed in Sect. 7.5). The podcasting devices introduced instead by Practical Action were quite ordinary, existing devices. The important thing is, however, that this decision was only taken after different technical alternatives had been investigated in light of the context of application. There was no unreflected assumption that transferring some state-of-the art technology from the West would be the solution to the local development challenges.

Nieusma’s view on appropriate technology is an example of what Willoughby (1990, 2005) calls the “general principles approach” to appropriate technology. This conceptualization of appropriate technology leads to a rather formal definition of what appropriate technology is. It merely “emphasizes the universal importance of examining the appropriateness of technology in each set of circumstances” (Willoughby 2005). It thus stays close to the daily meaning of the adjective ‘­appropriate’; something – a technological artefact in this case – is always appropriate for something else. Such appropriateness may have many different dimensions, thus we should always ask ‘appropriate for what?’ A technology may be culturally appropriate, as when loud-speakers are added to enable collective listening in line with African practices. It may be appropriate for specific user groups, as when a choice is made for a voice-based technology in an area with a lot of illiteracy. It may be appropriate for an area lacking certain infrastructure, as when solar-powered devices are chosen for an area without an electricity network. And technology may be appropriate in an economic, political, ecological or other sense. The important thing to note is that the general principle approach makes no choice yet for one or the other type of appropriateness, it just claims that appropriateness is a very important consideration in all our dealings with technology.

Willoughby (2005) distinguishes this “general principles approach” from the “specific characteristics approach”, which tends “to predominate within the Appropriate Technology movement itself.” In this second approach appropriate technology is given a fixed and specific interpretation, for example ecologically sound, easy to use, low-cost, low-maintenance, labor-intensive, energy efficient, etc. Some of such interpretations resulted in the appropriate technology movement as a whole getting an image of being concerned only with simple, low-cost, low-tech solutions for poor countries, such as a smoke hood or gravity ropeway. In investigating if and how modern, ‘high-tech’ ICTs can be appropriate solutions for certain development challenges, Practical Action is clearly not sticking to this approach of appropriateness. A similar concept, namely “intermediate technology”, was introduced by Schumacher and defined as “vastly superior to the primitive technology of bygone ages but at the same time much simpler, cheaper, and freer than the super-technology of the rich” (Schumacher 1999, p. 128). Schumacher (1973) put forward six criteria for determining if a technology was “intermediate”. In the case of the podcasting in Zimbabwe we can say that the technology makes use of modern knowledge, was conducive to decentralization, compatible with the laws of ecology, gentle in the use of resources, and served the human person. That is, five out of six of Schumacher’s criteria are met. The exception being production by the masses.6 According to Willoughby the specific-characteristics definition of appropriateness:

is more than a concept about the nature of technology and the way it relates to ends. It is simultaneously a normative statement (because it assumes priority for certain ends rather than others) and an empirical statement (because the practical criteria of appropriateness must be based upon some assessment of which technical means generally best serve the ends in question). Whereas the general-principles approach tends to leave the evaluation of ends and means relatively open, the specific-characteristics approach embodies the results of previous efforts to evaluate both of these factors. (Willoughby 2005)

Of course, the capability approach would ascribe one important normative goal to technology, namely the expansion of valuable human capabilities. But it would certainly not claim that this should be the only goal. And especially if one keeps it an open question which capabilities should be promoted – as Sen does – the capability approach seems perfectly compatible with the general-principles approach to appropriate technology. It can even be argued that they share an important insight. According to the latter, one should evaluate technologies and their specific design features according to their appropriateness for the set of relevant circumstances. This is very important, as the context may vary a lot from country to country or even from region to region. The capability approach likewise emphasizes human diversity. The fact of immense human diversity is indeed one of the main reasons why the capability approach focuses on the expansion of human capabilities instead of resources as the end of development. After all, due to facts of human diversity the ‘conversion factors’ may be such that a certain resource or technological artefact does not lead to an expansion of the human capabilities needed to live the life one has reason to value. The appropriate technology movement, one could say, has always taken conversion factors seriously, even though its view was not expressed with the same concepts as the capability approach.

In the case of ICTs, it may even be more important than in other domains to pay attention to appropriateness. The reason is that actually two different resources are involved here: the technological artefact and the information distributed. Both of them are resources that could be inappropriate for the context of application or the envisaged users. Thus, one often faces what Oosterlaken (2009) has called a “double conversion challenge.” Yet according to Talyarkhan, Grimshaw and Lowe:

Projects connecting the first mile often assume that improved access to ICTs leads to improved access to information, which leads to improved knowledge and decision making and therefore development outcomes. Evidence from projects suggests that in many cases the information is difficult to appropriate because it is exogenous, in an inaccessible format, or not from a source people trust (Talyarkhan et al. 2005, p. 18)

In the Local Content, Local Voice project in Zimbabwe explicit attention was paid to this challenge (Grimshaw and Gudza 2010). The information needs of the local population were thoroughly investigated in the beginning of the project. The process by which people acquired knowledge, via agricultural extension, were mapped and key stakeholders included in all the dialogues. The podcasts were created in the local language and geared towards the least educated farmers in the community, so that the information would be understandable for everybody. When it became clear during the project that villagers sometimes still had difficulties putting the information of the podcasts to use, additional demonstration meetings were organized, showing – for example – how to treat sick cattle in the way explained by the podcasts.
According to Willoughby (1990) within the appropriate technology movement “there is a great deal of confusion about the meaning of Appropriate Technology”. He sees this as one of the reasons that (p. 12) “while becoming a significant international movement Appropriate Technology has remained a minority theme within technology policy and practices.” Another

significant reason for the limits in the influence of the movement would appear to lie with the lack of a clearly articulated formal theory, the salient features of which are both universally recognized by the movement and identifiable by those outside the movement. (Willoughby 1990, p. 13)

It is to such a theoretical framework that the capability approach may be able to contribute something. It provides a general, normative view on development that is nowadays widely accepted – for example, it has been adopted by the UNDP. Moreover the capability approach, as we have argued, shares a key insight with the appropriate technology movement interpreted in Willoughby’s ‘general principle’ sense: the importance and pervasiveness of human diversity.

7.5 Understanding Capability Expansion: STS

Not only work in the area of appropriate technology is useful if one is interested in the expansion of human capabilities by means of technology. The field of science and technology studies (known as STS) also has much to offer, namely an in-depth investigation of how technology and society mutually shape each other. This enables a richer understanding of the complex ways in which technologies and human capabilities are related. The understanding enabled by STS is richer in the sense that goes beyond the linear idea of a technological artefact (like a bicycle) being instrumentally important for expanding human capabilities (like the capability to move about), if only some relevant conversion factors (like being able-bodied) are met (an example mentioned by a.o. Robeyns 2005; Sen 1983). Figure 7.1 originally depicted, “a stylized non-dynamic representation” (Robeyns 2005) of how human capabilities relate to resources. But in reality technical artefacts do not only simply and straightforwardly expand the capabilities of an individual, who is free to use or not use the artefact to realize a certain functioning. It is more complex than that. A less stylized and more realistic picture of our dynamic reality would thus include many additional arrows, such as the dashed arrows added by the authors to Robeyns’ scheme. One of these arrows indicates that the relevant conversion factors for certain categories of individuals could, if designers acknowledge them, influence the design of the artefact. And technologies also shape social practices and the social context at large, which in turn again can influence human capabilities and agency.
Fig. 7.1

A stylized representation of the relation between technical artefacts and human capabilities (Source: Robeyns 2005) with dashed arrows added by one of the authors (source: Janssen 2010)

For example, power is an issue that is obviously important for anyone interested in expanding human capabilities and agency, in other words empowering people. And power is one of the issues at stake in the dynamics between technology and society. In the case of ICTs it is not only the technology per se, but also the knowledge that is communicated using the technology, which can change power relations. Danowitz et al. (1995) referred to ICT as being “loaded with an embedded virtual value system”. Knowledge contains meaning which is dependent on context for its interpretation and understanding (Grimshaw et al. 1997). Implicit assumptions are made when that knowledge is codified and these are typically dependent on the dominant paradigm of the culture of the society where the knowledge originates. Thompson (2004) draws attention to a further dimension of the power balance with respect to ICTs; the way in which less developed countries become “locked-in” to the global networks of capital, production, trade and communications. Both media type and content source should be acknowledged as determinants of changes in the global power balance. In cases where the Internet predominates in the delivery of text based media the balance of power is away from local people. However, for technologies such as hand held voice devices which can record local content the power balance is tipped towards local people. The issue of the capability approach, power and ICT is extensively addressed by Zheng and Stahl (2011). They conclude that Critical Theory (CT), one of the streams existing within both STS and information systems research, is very useful in this respect, as it “explicitly and directly addresses the issue of technology and the distribution of power, which is exactly what is lacking in the capability approach.”

Furthermore, it is important to realize that human capabilities do not only reside in human beings. This becomes clear when reading the work of Nussbaum (2000, pp. 84–85), who makes a distinction between the innate/internal capacities of a person and so-called ‘combined capabilities’. The latter come about when innate/internal capacities are combined with suitable external conditions for the exercise of the functioning in question. As the capability approach is concerned with what people are realistically able to do and be, it takes such combined capabilities as the ends of development interventions. Similarly, Smith and Seward (2009) argue that the ontology of Sen’s capability approach is “relational”, as an individual’s capabilities “emerge from the combination and interaction of individual-level capacities and the individual’s relative position vis-à-vis social structures.” However, not only individuals and social structures, but also technical artefacts are important constituents of human capabilities. The field of STS, which encompasses Actor-Network Theory (ANT), can help to gain insight in these complex and dynamic relationships between individuals, technology and social structures.7 ANT considers both humans and technical artefacts to be ‘actors’ in a complex network that is continuously changing over time as these actors exert their influence on each other. The identities, characteristics and powers of these actors – or, what we are interested in, the capabilities of the humans in the network – depend on the precise network of relations in which they stand.8

In our case as well, it is not merely the podcasting device that expands human capabilities. Rather, as Janssen (2010) has described, an extensive actor network had to be created around these devices. The old network in which information ­dissemination took place was quite simple, the elements being notebooks, pencils, livestock officers, animators, community members and group representatives. That the podcasting devices were able to expand human capabilities as compared to the old situation was due to a new and more extensive network (see Fig. 7.2). This network includes – amongst others – the podcasting devices, the loudspeakers, the laptop with the database with podcast, the batteries, the charger at the head office of LGDA, the car to transport the batteries, the electricity grid available there (which is lacking, as mentioned, in the pilot area), the different government departments involved in providing the contents of the podcasts, employees of LGDA and Practical Action and the person with the right local dialect who is able to record clear podcasts. And the exact composition of and relations within the network turned out to matter for the expansion of human capabilities.9 For example, the new and expensive cattle treatments recommended by the podcasts, such as vaccinations, were not always available or affordable for all the farmers and this was a limiting factor for the impact of the podcasts on human capabilities. Partly as a result of this, local people requested that indigenous knowledge be captured in podcasts as well. This was done (without verifying this knowledge in any scientific way). Furthermore, certain practices had to be developed within the network after the introduction of the devices. For example, the lessons were better understood once demonstrations accompanying the mp3 player were introduced.
Fig. 7.2

Network surrounding the mp3 player in period April–July 2010 (source: Janssen 2010)

As somebody’s human capabilities arise in a complex interaction of this person, technical artefacts and social structures, the capability approach does not seem to support ontological individualism – the claim “that only individuals and their properties exist, and that all social entities and properties can be identified by reducing them to individuals and their properties” (Robeyns 2005).10 Yet as mentioned, the capability approach in the end cares about the capabilities of each and every individual to lead the lives they have reason to value, not the capabilities of groups or societies at large. It thus embraces ethical individualism, as it makes individuals the central unit of moral concern. Because of this, a certain form of methodological individualism may sometimes – so Smith and Seward (2009) argue – be recommendable. The idea is that our “analysis must focus on the relative positioning of the individuals within the social structure to understand for whom different structures are differentially causal” and thus for whom – for example – certain essential capabilities may sink under some acceptable threshold level. Also in the case of technology, one should sometimes resort to such methodological individualism in order to assess technologies on their merits for different categories of individuals.

The case study can again illustrate (Janssen 2010) that it is – as ANT also acknowledges – important how a specific individual is positioned vis-à-vis the network as a whole. Obviously, people depending on livestock and crops for their livelihoods gained the most capabilities as a result of the introduction of the mp3 players. On the other hand, the basic capabilities of some traditional healers seemed to diminish due to the podcasting devices, as they more or less lost clientele to the device, people that would previously have gone to these healers with their health issues or sick cattle. The livestock animators benefited the most, since they closely related to the mp3 players and had access to its knowledge all the time. People who lived close to the animator went more often to him to demand individual lessons. Some female farmers had to ask permission of their relatives to attend group meetings or to ask the animator for individual re-playing. It is in such an analytic exercise of ‘isolating’ or ‘highlighting’ certain categories of individuals from the network, so we propose, that the specific conversion factors at work for different individuals can become clear.

Finally, STS is also useful to look at the processes of change leading to the introduction of a specific technology or a certain technological design, with certain implications for the expansion (or decrease) of human capabilities. Under the motto ‘follow the actor’, ANT is interested in how different actors influence the coming about of a piece of technology or scientific insight, irrespective of conventional levels of analysis ranging from global to local, from macro to micro. Also the technology and the mostly local network in our case study has been shaped partly by at least one important actor at the macro-level, namely by the President’s office of Zimbabwe. This institution supported the implementation of the ICT, but also made clear that it would hold Practical Action responsible for all disseminated content – by the way illustrating the claim made earlier that power issues matter. The original idea was to introduce a device that would allow people to record their own podcasts and disseminate them widely amongst people using Bluetooth technology. Obviously, this would make it impossible to control the dissemination of content. In the end, simple mp3 players without Bluetooth were implemented. It seems that the position of the President’s office had an influence on that course of events,11 even though technical and financial problems with respect to the original technical solution also played a role. Further research would be necessary to disentangle the factors leading up to the technology choice made.12 What is certain is that the recording function that allowed the livestock officers to create new lessons was disabled before giving the mp3 players to the animators. The interest of the President’s office has, as ANT would put it, been inscribed in the technology. This brings us to the last topic of this chapter: agency, well-being and technology choice.

7.6 Agency, Well-Being and Technology Choice

The case study of the podcasting devices introduced in Zimbabwe seems to call for some further reflection on technology choice in relation to agency and well-being. As we have mentioned, podcasts are produced and distributed on a limited number of topics only, mainly in the domains of health and cattle management. Villagers do have influence on the contents, as participatory methods were used early in the project to determine their development priorities and information needs and now that the project is running, they can make requests for new podcasting topics to the animators. Yet on the face of it, this arrangement may seem to limit the agency and capabilities of individuals in comparison with other ICT alternatives that one can imagine, of which we would like to mention two. The first was already mentioned, namely the alternative that was investigated and tested early in the project, where people would be able to directly record their own knowledge and questions, which could then – with the help of Bluetooth technology – be disseminated throughout the network of device owners. The original idea was that not only the animators, but also many of the villagers would come in the possession of a podcasting device. The second is a completely different, mainstream ICT4D alternative, namely that of the so-called ‘telecenters’ already mentioned in the introduction. A telecentre is basically an office with ICT equipment where people can get access to the wide variety of information offered on the internet.

We could place these three alternative technologies on a ‘determinism continuum’ (Fig. 7.3) as proposed by Kleine (2011), which indicates “how tightly prescribed their usage is.” She rightfully notices that

Broadly speaking, the further down on the determinism continuum a specific technology is, the more danger there is that the technology circumscribes the choices of a user-citizen more than that it widens them.

or – put differently – the higher the odds are that a technology might entail choices that do not coincide with those the individual or group of individuals would have made for themselves. This would not be judged positively from the perspective of the capability approach. Telecenters would go a long way towards the ‘open-ended’ extreme of the continuum and of the three alternatives mentioned, the restrained podcasting devices introduced by the project – with the disabled recording function – would be the most towards the ‘closed’ side of the continuum.
Fig. 7.3

Determinism continuum (Kleine 2011) with the discussed technological alternatives

Kleine proposes the idea of a determinism continuum to draw attention to the importance of deconstructing the ideologies that get embedded in a technology in its context of origination. Yet if one were to use this simple and seemingly intuitive picture unwisely – with insufficient regard for the context in which the technology is to be applied – one would risk repeating exactly the mistake that the capability approach attempts to avoid, namely an excessive focus on the resources or technologies themselves, overlooking what people can actually do or be because of them. Although one could argue that in general more open-ended technologies are to be preferred from the perspective of the capability approach, as this in principle ­contributes most to expanding human agency, this may not always be the case in a concrete context of application.13

Recall that the question whether or not human capabilities and agency are being expanded, is within the capability approach very much a matter of ‘all things considered’. In the context of the Lower Guruve area in Zimbabwe, telecenters – despite their being open-ended in principle – would in reality not contribute anything to the expansion of human capabilities of the people living there, considering conversion factors like the absence of electricity in the villages. And even when there had been electricity, it should not be overlooked that a substantial percentage of the people in this area is illiterate. Even in places where the existing ‘conversion factors’ are not so clearly prohibitive, there are often more subtle factors in play that still make that the telecenters do not live up to the expectations (Ratan and Bailur 2007). A nice example can be found in Rhodes (2009), who quotes the manager of an African telecenter which was supposed to be helpful to local entrepreneurs:

We tried, and everywhere we went, at meetings and conferences people told us how good the Internet is, how we can find customers, we felt very stupid because we know people are using the Internet to help them with business, but we could not do it. We know we can do market research with the Internet, but how can we do this, we cannot understand how. (Rhodes 2009)

Here it is not so much the technical artefact, but the information itself that seems to invoke conversion problems (recall the ‘double conversion challenge’ mentioned in Sect. 7.4). In the Local Content, Local Voice project, however, great care has been taken to ensure that the podcasts are understandable to the local people and directly applicable in their everyday life. The first evaluation results can indicate that it has led to people reaping a higher income from their livestock and improved health, which could contribute in turn to expanding people’s capabilities to lead the lives they have reason to value.

Something similar might be argued for podcasting devices with a recording function and Bluetooth technology; this technology is more open-ended in principle and can thus be placed more towards the desirable end of Kleine’s determinism continuum. As compared to the technological alternative actually introduced in the Mbire area, it has the potential to contribute more to the agency of local people, as this alternative would allow them to record and disseminate their own knowledge and messages, without having to depend on the willingness of some employee of an NGO to grant a request to address a certain topic in a new podcast. However, in reality these potential agency benefits may never have been fully realized, considering the pending pressure of the President’s office to intervene with the work of the NGO and the distribution of the devices in case of unwelcome recordings of a political nature. Strategically speaking, the devices that have actually been introduced by Practical Action may not be optimal from the agency perspective, but they are arguably better from the well-being perspective, as they seem to contribute in a durable way to the enhancement of local livelihoods and thus to the expansion of a range of capabilities and so-called ‘functionings’. However, Kleine rightfully notices, for more closed applications the litmus test should be whether the choices embedded in the technology align with the choices of the end users. To achieve this, Kleine argues that especially for more closed-ended technologies, there should be user participation in the decision-making process: “the more users’ choices will later be locked in by the technology, the more the users’ choices must already be integrated in the design process” (Kleine 2011). Participation is thus central if we want to respect people’s agency, also in the process of engineering design and technological choice. Note though that this may make the ‘scaling up’ of a solution developed and tested in a project more problematic, as the new context of application may differ substantially from the context of origination.

Of course, the question which of the technical alternatives discussed would overall have been the best technology – taking into account practical, strategic and normative considerations – remains a question open for further debate. Around the world, ICTs have also proved their value in changing unjust and corrupt regimes, being a force of change that these regimes have found hard to control. The most important point of this short discussion on technology choice is not that a certain technology choice is definitely the best in this case. Rather, the point is that the capability approach offers a useful framework for conceptualizing and discussing such dilemmas of agency and well-being. Ratan and Bailur (2007) uncovered that such dilemmas may arise after implementation, in the usage of technology – recall their case of telecenters that are being used for entertainment purposes instead of for increasing certain forms of well-being, as the development organization intended. We have likewise revealed that such dilemmas also exist in the phase of engineering design or technology choice.

7.7 Conclusions and Recommendations

In the case studied we saw there was a certain degree of local participation in and ownership of the development process and the project went beyond making available mere resources (podcasting devices in this case). The main ‘conversion factors’ which could influence the development outcomes were anticipated in this project. The project has thus resulted in improved livelihoods and hence an expansion of basic capabilities of local people. Although Local Content, Local Voice was never explicitly conceptualized, implemented or evaluated by Practical Action in terms of the capability approach, the project thus seems – on the face of it – to be doing quite all right from this perspective. This should not surprise us, considering Zheng’s observation that “many issues unveiled by applying the capability approach are not new to e-development.”

A full evaluation in line with the capability approach – so we have argued (Sect. 7.3) – would take into account the multidimensionality of poverty and well-being, the degree of local participation in and control over the development process and the possible differences in development impacts between categories of individuals. Furthermore, the capability approach’s concepts of agency and well-being – so we have attempted to show (Sect. 7.6) – are useful to bring out some of the issues at stake in technology choice. We also saw (Sect. 7.4) that the capability approach and the appropriate technology movement share an important insight: the importance of human diversity. What the appropriate technology movement has to offer to the capability approach is a wealth of knowledge and experience on how conversion factors can be taken into account in such a way that a technology does have the intended development impact. What the capability approach has, in turn, to offer to the appropriate technology movement is a powerful perspective on what good development is, one that has already had a widespread influence on both the theory and practice of development. In making a connection with the capability approach, the appropriate technology movement may be able to find a ‘fresh’ and rich conceptual framework in which to convincingly bring across its message. The capability approach can not only be enriched by the practical experiences of the appropriate technology movement, but also by the theoretical insights from science and technology studies (Sect. 7.5). Theories and approaches from this field would allow a richer understanding of how individuals, social structures and technological artefacts interact over time and co-shape human capabilities.

With the help of our case we thus hope to have illustrated both (a) what the added value of a capability approach could be and (b) how the capability approach could benefit from insights of existing theories and approaches with respect to technology. On a more practical level, the case study discussed in this chapter contains a number of lessons:
  • A wide range of conversion factors may influence whether or not the introduction of a technology leads to the expansion of human capabilities. Some of these factors may be obvious, such as the absence of electricity. Other factors may be less obvious, such as women having difficulties to hear the podcasts because they are seated ‘second row’ during village meetings. It is best to address these factors as much as possible in the phase of engineering design or technology choice, for example by making the devices solar-powered or including a strong loudspeaker.

  • It should especially be noted that ICTs often give rise to a ‘double conversion challenge’, as both the technology and the information to which it gives access are resources that may not always and for everybody result in an expansion of human capabilities. Attention should thus be paid not only to technology choice and engineering design, but also to the information itself. In our case, for example, the information was made available in the local language and adjusted to make it directly relevant for and applicable to the daily lives of people.

  • A technological artefact or information alone does not necessarily lead to an expansion of valuable human capabilities. To achieve this, it should be embedded in an appropriate network of other artefacts and human actors. For example, podcasts on the treatment of sick cattle will not be very effective unless the recommended treatments are also made available and affordable. Also, certain (collective) practices concerning the usage of technology should develop. This may be more likely to succeed if the technology is appropriate for the local culture. In our case, relying on verbal instead of written information fitted in very well with local knowledge sharing practices.

  • Open-ended ICTs in theory contribute most to expanding human agency, yet increasing well-being is also important and closed-ended technology may sometimes be very effective for this purpose. Well-being and agency should thus be explicit factors in deliberations during the phase of technology choice and design. Such evaluations should always be sensitive to the context of application and not focus too much on the technology itself. If a more closed technology is chosen, participatory processes become even more important, in order to ensure that the choices made reflect user choices closely.


  1. 1.

    A literature review in 2009 – for example – identified 18 publications in this area, of which 13 focused on ICT and 10 more in particular on ICT4D (Oosterlaken 2009).

  2. 2.

    An important distinction in the capability approach is that between functionings and capabilities, or between “the realized [functionings] and the effectively possible [capabilities]; in other words, between achievements on the one hand [functionings], and freedoms or valuable options from which one can choose on the other [capabilities]” (Robeyns 2005).

  3. 3.

    The main sources of information for the case study are documentation of Practical Action about the project, its predecessors and the ideas behind the project (Mika 2009; Gudza 2009; Talyarkhan et al. 2005), fieldwork for his master thesis by one of the co-authors in the period April-August 2010 (Janssen 2010) and experiences of another co-author with the case and its predecessors while working for Practical Action (reflected upon in Grimshaw and Gudza 2010; Grimshaw and Ara 2007).

  4. 4.

    According to Wikipedia “Agricultural extension was once known as the application of scientific research and new knowledge to agricultural practices through farmer education. The field of extension now encompasses a wider range of communication and learning activities organized for rural people by professionals from different disciplines, including agriculture, agricultural marketing, health, and business studies.” But, says Wikipedia, “there is no widely accepted definition of agricultural extension” – the page lists 10 definitions from different sources to illustrate this. Source:, retrieved on February 11th 2011.

  5. 5.

    Academics like Chambers (1997) conceptualize this as a process of participative learning and action. His approach is grounded in many years of practical experience from which he notes, “local people have capabilities of which outsiders have been largely, or totally, unaware” (Chambers 1997, p. 131).

  6. 6.

    Grimshaw (2004) attempted to relate these criteria to the case of open source software. The main reason for this was to refute the often quoted view that “new technologies” could never be “intermediate technologies”.

  7. 7.

    The example of a car can illustrate this. Basically a car remains just a specific configuration of wires, metal, nuts and bolts and so on, until it is embedded in a network with roads, gas stations, traffic rules, driving schools and the like. Only in such a network could the artefact be understood as a car, with all the powers that cars have. And only then will it be expanding people’s capabilities to move about (Oosterlaken 2011).

  8. 8.

    Note though that, as Elder-Vass (2008) points out, ANT generally denies the causal efficacy of social structures. Yet one could borrow some insights from ANT while still ascribing causal efficacy to three different entities: social structures, humans and technological artefacts.

  9. 9.

    The case can also illustrate ANT’s insight that technical artefacts can be seen as ‘actors’ in the sense that their mere presence or absence makes a difference to the course of events. For example, during the field work a health animator explained the following: “Today I gave a lesson on cholera because it was recorded in the machine” (Janssen 2010, p. 85). Thus, the mere availability of the podcast devices may ‘seduce’ the health animators to be guided by these, while in the absence of the artefacts they would perhaps have come to a decision to distribute a different lesson by word of mouth.

  10. 10.

    See Robeyns (2005, pp. 107–109) for an extensive discussion of different forms of individualism within the capability approach. Note though that Smith and Seward use the term ‘methodological individualism’ in a different way than Robeyns.

  11. 11.

    See amongst others the project evaluation by Mika (2009), which recognizes the legal and regulatory environment with respect to communication technology as a factor that may work against a positive project outcome.

  12. 12.

    How actors perceive a technical or financial problem, for example with either determination to tackle it or a readiness to admit defeat, may in this case have been influenced by the attitude of the powerful President’s office.

  13. 13.

    In her article Kleine (2011) presents not only the determinism continuum, but also her wider approach to operationalizing the work of Sen. To that end, she has developed the Choice Framework, which carefully considers aspects of the context in which technologies are applied. Kleine would thus be the first to agree that her determinism continuum needs to be used without excessive focus on the technology in isolation from the context of application.



This research has been made possible by a grant from NWO (the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research) and the kind collaboration of Practical Action, first and foremost in the person of Lawrence Gudza. We would also like to thank Dorothea Kleine and Sabine Roeser for their useful feedback on an earlier draft of this chapter.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ilse Oosterlaken
    • 1
  • David J. Grimshaw
    • 2
  • Pim Janssen
    • 3
  1. 1.Philosophy SectionDelft University of TechnologyDelftThe Netherlands
  2. 2.ICT for DevelopmentRoyal Holloway (University of London)Egham HillEngland
  3. 3.Department of InfrastructureARCADISAmsterdamThe Netherlands

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