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Conference, “From Climate Change to Environmental Sustainability: Challenges and Opportunities for Africa and Canada”

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I recently had the opportunity to present some preliminary findings from my Banting post-doctoral research at a Conference held at Carleton University, Ottawa. The conference, titled From Climate Change to Environmental Sustainability: Challenges and Opportunities for Africa and Canada, was organized by the Institute of African Studies (IAS) at Carleton University, in partnership with two other Carleton institutions, the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and the Bachelor of Global and International Studies –  and the African Ambassadors in Ottawa. Conference sponsors also included the Ottawa-based think-tank, Africa Study Group, and the Pan-African Affairs Division of Global Affairs Canada.

In a pre-conference blog post, Yiagadeesen Samy, Associate Professor of International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, noted that the timing of the conference was good, particularly in light of the continuing excitement at the outcome of the Paris Agreement on climate change which was adopted in December 2015. Indeed, the Ambassador of France to Canada, Nicolas Chapuis, provided a very useful summary of the outcomes of the Paris meeting (COP 21) and the process that led to the Paris Agreement.

16-089 African Studies Climate change event poster v1

The conference featured excellent presentations by academics, diplomats and personnel from non-governmental organizations, as well as some very informed and useful debate between audience members and presenters.

Some elements of my presentation were included in a blog by Dan Rubinstein on the Carleton University website. My presentation was a shorter version of a talk I gave at the  Institute for African Development – Cornell University in late April.

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Broadly, in both presentations I pointed out that critical development theorists have only recently engaged with the role of ICTs in the agricultural sector, it is clear that the information communication technology for development (ICT4D) literature is generally under-theorized. Much of the existing literature is descriptive in nature, rather than analytical. The majority of the literature is poorly informed by development theory and tends to implicitly rely on problematic ideas of linear, deterministic forms of ‘modernisation’. Where conceptual underpinnings of ICT4D narratives are apparent, these tend to reflect uncritical analysis of the benefits of ‘connection’ associated with simplistic views of globalization as a ‘flattening’ and ‘equalizing’ force.

Critical scholars, on the other hand, argue that information flow is not necessarily ‘good’ but should be analyzed as part of broader structural dimensions; and that ICT has the capacity to amplify existing inequities as well as changing power relations. Theories of power in ICT studies tend to be focused on the individual, however, rather than individuals in relations to others.

Particularly given the emphasis not only on the individual as the unit of analysis, but also the idea that information flow is always a positive thing, that the ICT4D tends to create the figure of the ‘connected individual’ as a new model of success within the global ‘knowledge economy’, a new kind of ideal subject, to use Foucauldian terminology. This process of subjectification – the creation of new kinds of subjects – becomes still clearer when ICTs are used to promote particular types of agricultural adaptation. In emphasizing the need for farmers to adapt to shifting circumstances – from market penetration of rural economies to the impacts of climate change – such approaches tend to create the assumption that such changes are inevitable, and that particular forms of adaptation are the only option. An increasingly rich literature has examined the ways in which ideas of resilience implicitly seek to create new kinds of adaptive subjects, through processes of ‘responsibilization’.

There are important gender dimensions to these processes. Women are increasingly targeted by mobile-based development projects, and are often situated not only as a social category in need of agricultural information, but also as a consumer segment that could generate significant profits for mobile phone operators and other businesses involved in ‘mobile farming’ applications. Women are also targeted because they are seen as more likely than men to invest farm profits in family assets (such as those related to education and health), and typically spend more time than men on subsistence agriculture and unpaid care work in their household. Projects therefore seen to change women’s behavior (typically by promoting forms of commercial agricultural production) in order to have household-level impacts. However, there is evidence that agricultural commercialization and intensification can place even more demands on women, and/or lead to capture of the benefits by men. Learning from the literature on projects which seek to ‘empower’ women, we should be aware of processes which, rather than drawing critical attention to existing exploitation of women’s labour, situate them as ideal neoliberal subjects, willing to ‘cope’ with extra burdens and take on the risks of exposure to the market.

I am currently developing these ideas, and developing a special journal issue bringing together several articles on related themes. Please email me at cdhuggins@gmail.com if you would like to find out more about contributing to the special issue.

I would like to acknowledge the support of a Banting-Vanier post-doctoral Fellowship, and the School of International Policy and Governance,  Wilfrid Laurier University in my research.

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