Women in Africa are undeniably participating in the information and communication technology (ICT) revolution and they are doing so in many and varied ways; the changes that the use of these tools have brought about are visible everywhere. Furthermore, the prospects of ICTs for development and women’s empowerment seem promising. Yet women’s stories about their experiences and use of these tools are not heard: are their lives changing for the better because of these new technologies? If so, in what ways are they changing? Are there areas in which women could and should participate in this ICT revolution but are not, because they are women? How can women’s perspectives, insights and realities in relation to the use and potentials of ICTs be integrated into ICT policies that are currently being developed and implemented across the continent?

These were the questions that led the Acacia Programme of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), which supports research in Africa on information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D), and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) to call together in 2004 in Johannesburg, South Africa, a collective of African academics and activists known for their passionate involvement with women’s empowerment and ICTs. The perspectives of the women of Africa needed to be narrated and this knowledge needed to be brought to the world by African researchers. It was envisioned that a research network would emerge from this group of individuals that would operate as a virtual research team. The idea was accepted and GRACE (Gender Research in Africa into ICTs for Empowerment) was born. While the research teams were all encouraged to follow their individual research passions, design their own methodology and formulate their own research questions, there was a common ground and an alignment to a shared purpose.

The thinking in development studies has evolved: the idea that providing interventions in the form of infrastructure suffices in attracting the intended beneficiaries and brings about change is outdated. The trickle-down approach – which counts on the developed aspects of the economy uplifting the more disadvantaged – actually leads to greater inequalities. Rights-based approaches to inequality, however, continue to draw attention and result in forward movement. The current focus on the ‘agency’ of the intended beneficiaries themselves for the purpose of development and empowerment also seems relevant and timely. Needed in any development thinking is a questioning of how to ensure women benefit from development.

The group of academics and activists called together in Johannesburg were aligned with the purpose of women’s empowerment, and accepted that their knowledge quest needed to be grounded in efforts to understand women’s agency. The focus on agency, however, necessitated that the researchers would be able to recognize this capacity in their respondents and make it visible in their reflections and their writings. This led to an emphasis on qualitative research methods; to a commitment to continuous research learning; and to the honouring of a culture of mutual respect, sharing and support.

Challenging though this brief may have been and probably still is, it has undoubtedly been this same brief which has led to the success of GRACE as a viable researcher network contributing not only to the debates on ICT4D from a gender perspective in Africa, in the South and wider afield, but also to the pool of solid and sustainable research capacity in the field of ICT4D and gender.

This post was posted on the iknow politics website.