Technology and Developing Countries


This week we will be looking at the impact of information technology on developing countries and considering perspectives on whether technology will make a positive or negative contribution. We will look at examples of technology application and consider what might be necessary for technology to contribute positively. If technology is to be focused on development in ways that will maximise its positive impact it will be important to remember the United Nations`8 Millennium Development Goals:

The digital divide

There is a significant and dramatic digital divide between developed countries and the third world in terms of access to the internet. As the following two charts show:

We can see here that the most connected country in the world in 2008 was Iceland which had 90.6 percent of its population able to access the internet, while in the least connected country, Myanmar, only 0.2 percent of the population had internet access. If we accept that the internet has a significant contribution to make to development then there would be an urgent need to tackle this issue.

We can see this issue more broadly in the following chart:

So, is lack of access to the internet an issue that we should be concerned about. The United Nations have said that there is a direct link between access to information technology and development (Annan, 2000). There are many organisations that seek to address this issue and governments of developed countries have made efforts to contribute aid that is designed to reduce this digital divide. However, many also believe that technology will not have a positive effect in the third world. They believe that information technology will make the existing gap between developed and developing countries worse.

There are a number of factors that have led to the creation of the digital divide. The price of internet access has been a significant factor. Computer hardware and then access to the internet (where this even exists) is typically an expense that few people in third world countries can afford. There is a significant shortage of telephone lines and wired access. A lack of electricity in rural areas is common. Today mobile access through cellular phones is increasing dramatically but access via desktop or laptop computers remains scarce in most third world countries. Finally, the dominant language of the internet is english which is often not the local language.

One Laptop Per Child

The “One Laptop Per Child” project was launched in 2006. It aimed to create a low cost laptop that could be distributed to children in the third world. The project was the brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The following video is of Negroponte talking about the project in 2006.

He argued that the project would “help children learn to think” as they learned to use the laptop and were able to work with the software code. The laptop would not need a power source as it had a hand crank, weakness of internet connectivity was tackled with a “mesh” network that would mean that laptops that were in the same area would gain connectivity through connections with each other. The laptop would use free and open source software and be rugged – able to withstand harsh environments.

In the fall of 2007 a scheme was announced to encourage people in developing countries to buy a computer at a price that would also allow purchase a second laptop to be sent to the third world. New Your Times journalist David Pogue discussed the programme:

The programme continues today and you can visit their website to get an update. However, the programme has been criticised by others who argue that it is inappropriate.

The critics point to issues that have emerged in the implementation of One Laptop per child. The original aim was to develop a laptop that would cost $100 – in the end it cost $188 which could be a significant issue in terms of its affordability. The organisation aimed to ship ten million laptops by 2007 and in fact had only shipped 250,000 by 2008. Their relationship with Intel (who were a big financial contributor to the project) broke up and Intel went on to develop a competitor called “classmate”. They also faced a $20 million lawsuit in Nigeria. Business difficulties have continued for One Laptop Per Child.

Criticism also appeared based on the cost of the computer versus other expenditure. In Kenya, for example, it was pointed out that providing every child with one laptop would cost 75 % of gross national income.

There were a number of other factors too. The impact of low IT skill levels in students and teachers may have been underestimated, teachers traditionally in developing countries have taught using “rote – learning” and may have difficulty with the transition to using the laptop in the classroom.

By 2010 further criticism of the project appeared. The core argument (James, 2010) was that the project would divert resources from other important projects that may be of higher priority and have more impact on development. James also questioned whether every child needed to have a laptop – couldn’t they be shared as students in developed countries share computers in their schools. The programme now appeared more reliant on buy one get one and to ate only 1.8 million devices have been distributed.

At the 2011 Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas OLPC announced the latest version of their laptop which was designed to reduce the power needed to run it – an issue that had been a significant problem in the past.

In 2010 Negroponte continued to argue that the project was successful:

The theoretical background:

Theory on third world development has been discussed for many years. In the 1950’s theory focussed on the need to modernise, to try to get third world countries to be more like developed countries by adopting our institutions and technologies. By the 1960s, this approach was questioned with moves towards more appropriate technologies, that were more suitable to developing countries.

There is a lot of emphasis today on the role that technology can play in development. NetHope brings together the technology people from the World’s leading aid organisations:

However, views on whether technology can have a positive impact on development are divided. Optimists argue that there will be convergence. Over time societies will become more similar as technology adoption moves from developed countries to the developing world. A process of normalisation will take place with developing countries slowly following developed countries.

Optimists point to the use of cell phones in the third world. Cell phone usage has increased dramatically in the past decade and it is anticipated that by 2012, 90 % of the population of sub Saharan Africa will have access to a mobile phone. Kiosks and community phones will spread the social impact of mobile technology as they improve access for many poorer people.

Mobile is argued to have the potential overcome three types of exclusion – social. political and economic. Social includes access to education, healthcare and government services. Political means increasing transparency and accountability of government. Economic exclusion refers to access to markets for products and finance:

Cell phones enable improvements in communication and commerce with work now being done on education, health and economic services that use mobile technology:

The cellphone industry has also become a business itself that employs many people in the delivery of services. Here is one example:

and another:

Pessimists, on the other hand, argue that technology will have two impacts. First, diffusionists argue that the rich will maintain their advantage. As developing countries adopt new technologies these will be used to reinforce the gap between rich and poor. They argue that technology will mean that multi national corporations will be less dependent on local resources in the countries that they operate because technology will allow work to be done elsewhere, also increasing competition to reduce wages and taxes paid in host countries. This will be exacerbated by weaker local infrastructures that will make it preferable to undertake technology oriented activity in more developed countries. Thus, pessimists argue, information technology will increase the gap between developed and developing countries.

Overall the economic impact of technology in third world countries is frequently debated. Bill Brindley, the Chief Executive Officer of NetHope argues that there will be a substantial economic impact from the use of technology. He argues that outsourcing and the use of shared services will have a significant impact:

The IMF – competition

The International Monetary Fund note that in developed countries the percent of information technology spending increases as Gross Domestic Product rises. In developing countries this is not consistent – it rises in some but not others. Referring to the cellphone market they argue that competition has led to greater proliferation and assert that in countries where competition has been less, there has been less proliferation. They call for the removal of market restrictions to increase IT proliferation.

What are the IT community saying

The IT community by and large accepts the assumption that the optimists are correct and there appears to be a growing belief that IT will be able to make a significant positive contribution to development. They have many ideas on how this can be done, including in disaster relief:

Moving beyond the current attention on mobile they consider the full range of technologies including robotic tools, powerful computers, desktops and laptops, PDAs, wireless networks, radio and television and the use and development of various software components, including the use of artificial intelligence.

They include questions  around how user interfaces can be designed for people who are semi literate or illiterate or visually impaired and this raises a wider question of what computers in developing countries might look like.

When computers first appeared they were huge machines that filled rooms and and were accessible to very few people. The next wave in computing mad them available at home in developed countries and accessible to about one fifth of the world`s population. Some refer to the next wave of computing being the extension of access to all five billion people in the world:

In order to address the world`s development issues it will be necessary for technologists to work together with scientists from a wide range of background to enable all of the knowledge necessary to be shared and applied successfully. These scientists will include, sociologists, ethnographers, anthropologists, economists and social scientsists who will bring wider knowledge of people, communities and markets that will allow these to be integrated with the IT specialists knowledge of the technologies.

This is likely to also involve people from the private and public sectors working together: practitioners, government representatives, multi – lateral organisations like the UN, non – profits, non governmental organisations and the private sector. NetHope helps to bring together these groups:

Finally, initiatives are also appearing from the private sector.

Many challenges will need to be faced as technology is used assist the achievement of the UN`s 8 Millennium goals. These include unfamiliar cultures and traditions, accessibility to local languages, varying levels of literacy, misinformation about and mistrust of technology, local infrastructure, bandwidth and environmental issues.

Projects that are undertaken will need to be sustainable, producing enough income to cover all operating costs, being able to be maintained largely locally, provided with appropriate training and ideally able to be replicated elsewhere. These will be important criteria with which to judge the success of future initiatives.

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8 Responses to Technology and Developing Countries

  1. maven social says:

    Wow, amazing…thanks for sharing!!! So much to ingest!

  2. Pingback: 2012: The Year of the Mobile Phone Part 2: Third World Countries & the Mobile Device « MavenSocial

  3. Naz says:

    Where are your references list? (The United Nations have said that there is a direct link between access to information technology and development (Annan, 2000).)

  4. Pingback: Sustainability and Educating Women and Girls | sustainability advocate

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