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IT: An Opportunity for Developing Countries?

The Southern View on Information Technology

A whole new world seemed to open up to developing countries with the promise of Information Technology (IT). This world it seemed would offer jobs and put developing countries on a fast track to export-led growth. Even as the IT revolution did open up new job avenues, and IT-enabled outsourcing seemed to finally hark in the promise of a level playing field of a globalised world, the experience of many developing countries can at best be described as mixed, writes Anita Gurumurthy.

* Highly concentrated
The IT phenomenon is true for only a few countries, and even within such countries, like India, while growth has occurred through new jobs in the IT sector (which includes IT enabled services), the impact has been geographically highly concentrated and shows few linkages to the domestic economy. The number of workers in software and IT services which at the most optimum estimates is over a million, amounts to just one quarter of one per cent of all workers in India. Even if India’s share of outsourcing revenues remains high, the net benefits of this are still unclear because of the dominance of a few firms and the fact that foreign exchange earnings of the sector has to account for repatriation of profits and other payments abroad.

The economic opportunity poised on IT was a guesstimate of the early times. Alongside existed another hope – of using the immense potential of IT for social and developmental purposes. One such opportunity has been of refurbished governments, thanks to e-governance and the new possibilities for ‘reaching’ citizens. Many developing countries have attempted to use the IT opportunity for transacting more efficiently with citizens, and many examples of enhanced government responsiveness to citizens do exist. Yet, even where IT has facilitated increased responsiveness on the part of governments, the makeover has not been good enough to reach disadvantaged communities. Most e-governance efforts are concentrated in urban areas and government departments concerned with rural development in developing countries are unwilling to venture into IT solutions with their limited budgets and scepticism about what IT can do for their domains.

As developing countries continue to repose their faith in the promise of IT, the IT opportunity is mired in great contradictions, requiring a re-examination of the ‘playing field’ that will determine how and in whose favour the IT opportunity is poised to unfold. The question is – can the South be an equal contender to the benefits of what is an epochal shift as captured in the concept of information society?

* Technology infrastructure as social infrastructure
The absence of basic information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure in most parts of the developing world is known to be the fundamental stumbling block that prevents a good part of humanity from becoming aspirants to the promise of the information age. The diffusion of digital technologies has been market-led, and prescriptions for enabling the countries of the South to catch up have been led by and large by neo-liberal enthusiasts who have seen markets as a logical harbinger of information age goodies to the South. Some critical voices at the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) platform have urged the global community to take cognisance of the fact that the richest countries of the world required public investments in telecom to catapult their societies into the information age. They have also strongly exhorted that, in view of the basic enabler role of the new technologies, access to technology infrastructure be constructed as a global public good.

The conceptual significance of such rhetoric notwithstanding, countries of the South continue to struggle with resource mobilisation imperatives that can make way for IT to be experienced as a meaningful tool by communities in the South for their own vision and efforts towards social change. For many countries, this struggle is a zero sum game – involving practically no real choice in investment decisions between basic welfare intervention and telecommunications infrastructure.

* The eternal question of resources
Resources are required not just for technological infrastructure; they are key for local capacity building, for software localisation efforts, and to enable local governments and communities to deploy IT in context specific applications, all of which call for considerable innovation, expertise and co-ordination. The question of financing commitments for IT development in the least developed countries first came up during the first phase of WSIS, and got scuttled. Through Phase 1 and 2 of WSIS, the posture of most developed countries has been to push for market based IT diffusion and even though many developing countries have argued the inadequacy of market mechanisms in pursuing considerations of equity, WSIS has seen a stern dismissal of legitimate concerns for financing IT based development, and the need for a global mechanism that can raise resources.

Aid from multilateral agencies in the past 10 years, came into heavily funded pilots and many of these led either to impressive outcomes in small enclaves or to initiatives that were conceptually inflexible, and which by and large have downloaded technology solutions sans community processes and pushed heavily for revenue models to demonstrate what funders have believed must happen in ICTD (information and communication technologies for development) models. Meanwhile, recently, aid agencies like the UN Development Programme (UNDP) also realigned their funding strategies, shifting their commitment out of a distinct “ICT for development” sector and emphasising the need for ICT strategies in core development sectors.

Such shifts for making ICT a cross-cutting area, even if they do come with the intention to “mainstream”, have great implications for fund allocations. In fact ‘mainstreaming’ of IT for development goals does not mean obviating the need for a dedicated focus. Successful adoption of IT for development cannot happen automatically just because of a fresh mandate to mainstream; it needs dedicated resources, expertise and co-ordination.
The global community needs to recognise that the terrain of new technologies – dynamic and fluid as it is - requires concerted public policy support, and a specialised agency with resources and authority to guide and govern real world developments ushered in by digital technologies. The absence of commitment to resource mobilisation for putting in place basic enabling conditions for developing countries to reap the gains of the information society is indeed a failure to meet the legitimate aspirations, and some would argue, the fundamental rights, of a large part of humanity.

* Who owns the Information Society?
The context of technology diffusion in most countries of the South has been one in which monopolistic multinational interests have undermined knowledge paradigms and ownership and production models of the information society that are equitable. Most countries of the South do not yet recognise the political implications of proprietary software, controlled mostly by Multinational Corporations (MNCs) based in the North. Public policy in these countries is silent on issues of FOSS (the Free and Open Source Software most often used in English-speaking military), as on open content, because of inadequate public debate on appropriate choices for public investments.

The choice for developing countries is to take charge of the immense opportunity contained in IT to leapfrog stages of development or to succumb to the temptation of the few goodies that the dominant paradigm of IT diffusion throws their way. If developing countries have to seize the opportunity, they need to put in place firm public policy mechanisms to drive the development of the Information Society in ways that are empowering to themselves, and bring equitable gains for their people. Since the stakes involved in the emerging IS are high, developing country governments and civil society, have to be pro-active in securing their own interests against powerful nations and global capital.

The contestation around Internet governance and the adamant stance of the US government against multilateralising the control over Internet governance, is one clear issue that brings home the unfair rules of the game that all countries have to contend with. This instance demonstrates how entrenched interests blatantly assert their power to safeguard their domination. Internet governance is only the first major information age contestation that faces us in our efforts to create an information society in which all nations have an equitable stake to share the benefits from the IT revolution.

* The IT opportunity reasserted
For public policy in developing countries, one lesson is clear. A virtuous cycle of benefits on cost requires a necessary gestation and a superstructure - local innovations, capacities and institutional linkages - built on the IT infrastructure, for IT to deliver value. From a development perspective, the real opportunity in IT lies in its capacity for institutional transformation and system change.

The most marginalised in developing countries are victims of institutional apathy, and institutional revamp is not an easy project. IT offers new paradigms for institutional revamp that enable the circumventing of traditional bottlenecks for effective restructuring. For instance, online platforms enable citizens to transact with public institutions more easily and reduce, if not eliminate, traditional gate keepers to public information and welfare entitlements. System change is also possible through the new paradigms of development delivery that IT makes possible – whether in health, or education or agriculture extension. Obviously, institutional efficiency and accountability are not a function of technology per se, but digital technologies make it possible to envisage people-oriented interfaces with institutions like never before, which can in the case of vigilant communities, become people-driven.

The question of opportunity contained in IT is also linked to the issue of ‘who in the South’. The elite in developing countries often have little to complain and are not on the wrong side of the digital divide. They tend to be able to control the ‘playing field’ in the early stages of IT diffusion. But marginalised community groups in the South who may want to use new technologies in their struggles for equality and justice often find the rules of the game rigged against them. In many contexts, regulatory regimes do not allow the use of new cheaper technologies, like the WiFi (Wireless Fidelity non-profit industry alliance) and the Internet telephony VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) simply because their use threatens the established dominant telecom paradigm. Such discrimination in favour of the rich and the advantaged is a travesty of public policy. The fight for equal control of the playing field to harvest the IT opportunity therefore needs to be fought not only in the international arena, between nations, but also between classes and groups within the nations. Such control of the playing field is necessary to ensure that IT opportunity brings about positive social change.

Anita Gurumurthy is a founding member of IT for Change in India (www.ITforChange.net). She is working as a research consultant with the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore.

(Posted: 2 September 2005)

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