Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Better Beware the White Elephants

allAfrica -- Development agencies, the UN and poor countries are clamouring for the wonders of information and communication technology to cure the ills of the developing world: rich people have computers, poor people do not, therefore giving poor people computers will make them richer.

At the World Summit of the Information Society in Tunis from November 16-18, these ICT lobbyists will bemoan the "digital divide" and call for a Digital Solidarity Fund.

Dazzled by the allure of e-commerce, the global information society, e-learning and other buzzwords, they believe that new technology will allow them to leap-frog decades of incompetence and corruption and achieve rapid development.

But the barriers to technological development are exactly the same as the barriers to any economic development: market restrictions, lack of contract law, state controls, customs duties, bureaucracy, and corruption.

With these still in place, diverting resources to ICT is just another white elephant - the contemporary equivalent of the dams, highways and aluminium smelters that were going to drag Africa up by its infrastructural bootstraps in earlier decades. It is not ICT that has made wealthy countries rich; it is open economies that have allowed ICT to bloom and flourish.

To determine whether an economy is capable of developing, we need to ask about its business freedoms, its laws, its courts and its investments rules.

For ICT specifically, we also need to know if the country allows private Internet Service Providers, if its telecommunications system allows competition, and what access citizens have now or may have to commercial providers.

In Ethiopia, for example, without competition, Ethiopia's state communications monopoly is not forced to improve its service or decrease costs. Ethiopia is Africa's largest recipient of foreign aid, but it still charges the average Ethiopian - who earns roughly $700 a year - just under $100 to subscribe to a local mobile phone provider.

For anyone lucky enough to have a telephone line, the prohibitive cost of using the Internet - almost $200 a year - makes joining the network economy impossible, despite the benefits it might bring.

In reality, there are not only all the usual economic and legal obstacles but also, in many countries, the political obstacles set up by regimes that are terrified of their people getting free access to information. Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and others will be pushing for regulation of the Internet at the Tunis summit.

Even where ICT is welcome, few policy-makers understand how to help the e-commerce, e-learning and even e-healthcare that could allow their people to gain access to the markets and resources of the world.

Just look at the telephone: more than half the world's population has never made a phone call and there is nothing new or complicated about telephone services. One-third of the world's population has no access to electricity.

Often, technology is wrongly seen as an end, rather than a means to an end, and the agencies offering solutions this month to the digital divide have tended to hinder rather than help the deployment of ICT.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in ICT/education projects, not least in rich countries, where the overwhelming focus is almost always on buying computers, and not on teacher training, curriculum design or actually improving learning. Without clear objectives, it is difficult to measure results.

Moreover, development agencies seldom learn from these mistakes. Projects that receive funding now were most likely designed several years ago. In the meantime, needs have changed, flaws have been identified, and the project is doomed.

But there is a glimmer of hope. The radio remains the most widespread application of communication technology in poor countries today but the rapid spread of mobile phones in some African countries does show that enthusiastic local entrepreneurs can indeed leap-frog, by wireless transmission, the infrastructural failures of governments that have failed to provide telephone or electrical lines and have prevented entrepreneurs from providing them.

High-profile international meetings about the digital divide can be used to bring attention to the real barriers to economic and ICT growth: state control, regulation and excessive taxation of the economy in general and ICT in particular. That is what the poor of the world need. That is the great divide we must bridge.

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