This blog was written by Dr Sammia Poveda, a Lecturer in the Geography department at the University of Sheffield.

If Amartya Sen (and subsequent scholars) are right, and Development is Freedom, then how do you know that you are free? What does this freedom mean and how do we recognise it? I suggest that an important element of freedom is psychological – we are free when we feel freed, empowered, strengthened, supported, enlightened. But, the more we look into this, the more this seems to be a poorly recognised, or theorised aspect of development. We could do a lot more to understand psychosocial approaches to development.

Let me explain. During my research in Brazil, I was surprised by the impact that improvements in self-esteem and self-confidence had in helping people’s empowerment. This research evaluated free digital literacy trainings offered to vulnerable communities in Campinas, Brazil exploring the impact of such training in peoples’ lives. As expected, all participants improved their digital skills, which in turn helped them to benefit from public and private online services and information. Yet, after conducting in-depth interviews, it became clear that for some of the participants, improvements in how they felt and saw themselves, was as important as what they were able to get from using the internet. For instance, an elderly woman described, in her first interview, her identity and what she considered she was good at, in terms of her role as a mother and wife. To escape her abusive alcoholic husband, she would visit her children as often as possible. However, as she felt the only things she could do well were cooking and cleaning, she would use her ‘free’ time in her grown-up children’s houses, cleaning and cooking for them. During the course of the digital literacy training, her self-esteem and self-confidence increased. Her self-image also changed, she started to see herself as entitled of care-free time, giving herself time to play and enjoy the internet just for fun. With the support and encouragement from her daughter, she started changing her behaviour, especially what she did in her free time. On her last interview, six months later, she reported going to her children’s houses and using the computer instead of cleaning or cooking!

This, and other stories I heard, inspired me to explore this issue in more detail. I was intrigued by the impact that psychological wellbeing could have in the overall success of development interventions. In partnership with the Myanmar Book Aid and Preservation Foundation (MBAPF), a civil society in Myanmar, we wanted to explore the impacts of a digital literacy training, which parted from common practices, and focused on the use of mobile phones as primary devices to access the internet. Myanmar was an interesting case to explore the impacts of such training in both the social and psychological wellbeing of the participants. After several decades of armed conflict, political oppression, religious discrimination, and many other social challenges, the elected 2010 government (accused by many of electoral fraud), made dramatic democratic reforms that brought significant political, economic and social changes to Myanmar. In 2016, Myanmar elected their first democratic government, which further the changes experienced by its citizens. For instance: the government started to modernise its apparatus; economically, Myanmar opened up to the international market; socially, heavy censorship has stopped, and previously persecuted opposition, many of whom had left the country, are starting to return.

The telecommunication sector has been one of the sectors experiencing unprecedented changes. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), in the last decade, mobile phone penetration has gone from less than 0.5% in 2006 to over 89% in 2016; the number of Internet users grew from 0.18% in 2006 to over 25% in 2016; and the cost of SIM cards dropped from over $2,000 before 2011 to $250 in 2013 and to $1.50 in 2015. From once a heavily censored environment, Myanmars were finding themselves with increased unrestricted access to information, via a variety of social media. In this environment, a digital literacy program, which aimed to equip citizens with skills to evaluate, consume, generate and disseminate information, offered a transforming opportunity for those attending the training. My research, aimed to explore how this training was helping participants to challenge and change attitudes and behaviours towards information, better equipping them to take advantage of their relatively new access to the internet (read full paper here).

Working in partnership with the MBAPF, librarians were trained in how to become Mobile Information Literacy trainers themselves, to put into practice when returning to their libraries across the country. Data collection methods were designed to investigate the impact in both the psychological and social wellbeing of participants.

In terms of psychological wellbeing, five traits where studied: positive relations with others, autonomy, personal growth, purpose in life and self-acceptance. Findings identified behaviours that were limiting their growth in all five traits. Constraining gender roles were limiting women’s autonomy and personal growth; limited critical skills were distorting participants’ relations with others; and self-censorship and fear of authority were constraining participants’ autonomy, personal growth and purpose in life.

In terms of social wellbeing, improvements in the participants’ digital skills were very positive, and participants also benefited from building a community of support among peers. But it was not a straightforward process. With the reduction in prices of both devices and connectivity packages, each day more and more Myanmar citizens are joining the digital world. This in itself causes difficulties. Among the challenges, we can summarise here two. Firstly, people start intuitively using their devices and seeking guidance and help from family and friends, who also have limited knowledge. Yet many, included participants of the training courses, felt they were proficient in their use of technology, which makes teaching them new skills a bit challenging. Secondly, the connectivity packages currently offered in Myanmar usually offer access for free to specific social media, such as Viber or Facebook Messenger. This has created an overdependence in these social media platforms, and even knowledge about other ways to use the internet is hard to apply when content is not available in the local language.

Reflecting on both social and psychological wellbeing in conjunction provided an additional layer of analysis, and I argue that not acknowledging the psychological constraints of both students and teachers in the design of the course constrained its positive outcomes. The psychological behaviours enumerated above, limited how teachers and students related to information and how they were choosing to use their devices and the internet. For instance, an important issue, such as hate speech, which was occurring at the time of this research, was not discussed or addressed at all. Teachers own self-censorship attitudes stopped them from engaging in discussions about this topic with students, missing an opportunity to put in practice the theory shared in the training about evaluating and consuming information from social media.

Regardless, the outcomes of this project are very positive, but I argue that an appreciation of both social and psychological wellbeing and how they interact with each other, will benefit projects using new Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D), in particular bringing a new understanding of long-term impacts which relay on attitudes and behavioural change.


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