Aakash Solanki | PhD Candidate in Anthropology and South Asian Studies at University of Toronto

Aakash Solanki


PhD Candidate in Anthropology and South Asian Studies at University of Toronto

Development Seminar

Note: I ran the development seminar series at the University of Toronto between 2017 and 2019 alongwith Anthropologist Tania Li, and Geographer Katherine Rankin. What follows is a concept note on the seminar for 2018-2019.

The Development Seminar is an interdisciplinary initiative at the University of Toronto which convenes to critically examine issues of global inequality, postcolonial politics, and power in the Global South. Guest speakers bring their innovative research to investigate issues including migration, infrastructure, livelihoods, gender, and politics.

In the 2017-2018 academic year, we hosted development studies scholars, working on issues at the intersection of gender and foreign aid with emphasis on aid-giving institutions in the Global North, such as CIDA in Canada, and USAID in the US.

The 2018-2019 development seminar series will take off from where we left in March on politics of numbers behind development. Numbers, or to use a more current term, data (usually connoting numerical data), are ubiquitous. Business organisations have already been talking about how ‘data is new oil’ whereas governments, transnational aid agencies, and Bretton woods organisations and others have also turned to carefully exploring ‘data’ as the new twenty-first century asset. The focus on numerical data—Big Data, and machine learning and artificial intelligence—as the bedrock of informed policy and business decision making is instrumental to understand the emerging changes in development practices. We see the influence of these newer infrastructures of knowledge, and development being invoked in the proposed smart city in Toronto, and the many AI strategy papers being put out by various governments within the last year.

There is clearly a very long history of use of computational techniques in development aid work. However, with new media technologies, creation and availability of machine readable data sets, and the building of large scale digital infrastructures, much of the work that USAID, CIDA, UKAID, Gates, MSDF, Omidyar Network, and others do is changing with particular data analytics and computing practices. This new ‘data’ moment joins the relatively older debates in ICTD, mass media such as TV, radio for development, internet for development (Facebook’s infamous efforts in Myanmar or Google Internet Balloons in Africa). Much of micro finance work now depends on fetching people’s cell phone use data to predict their financial behaviour and credit ratings—whether in Bangladesh or Kenya—using mobile money and mobile wallets to promise brick and mortar less banking in places where banks haven’t been able to reach. Development projects are increasingly monitored and evaluated based on impact investment metrics, while development impact bonds (DIB) are proliferating. Public Health work is increasingly relying on involving technology partners with the best data collection applications so that programs for malaria, and TB interventions can be monitored appropriately, while insurance companies scramble for the ‘best’ data on prospective clients.

What do we make of this ‘Smartness Mandate’ (Orit Halpern, forthcoming) within development? Does focus on audit practices of—say the Bill Gates Foundation— help us understand how calculative/computer aided practices shapes what development does, is, and becomes? The ‘Will to Improve’ that Tania Li (2007) theorised a decade ago, is now increasingly a human-computer assemblage of datasets being mined by data scientists using (un)sophisticated machine learning algorithms. Conversations in STS, information science, and more recently geography, anthropology, and environmental history have taken on ‘infrastructure’ as a matter of concern whereas STS, and more recently anthropology’s focus on multiple ontologies opens new avenues to approach older concerns in development studies.

With these reflections in mind, the theme for the 2018-2019 year is ‘Development Infrastructures’. We plan to invite a set of scholars ranging from information science, history of science, anthropology, geography, and STS to reflect on ‘smartness’, data driven development, design in development, data and global health, data and state welfare, among others.

For more, please see the seminar website