In Other Words

De-Hyping IT

Information Technologies and International Development, Vol. 1, No. 3, Spring 2004, Cambridge Investors and financial columnists weren’t the only ones swept up by the dot-com frenzy of the 1990s. The development community became quite enamored with the idea that information and communications technologies (ICT) could enable poor nations to leapfrog over many slow, painful stages ...

Information Technologies and International Development, Vol. 1, No. 3, Spring 2004, Cambridge

Investors and financial columnists weren’t the only ones swept up by the dot-com frenzy of the 1990s. The development community became quite enamored with the idea that information and communications technologies (ICT) could enable poor nations to leapfrog over many slow, painful stages of social and economic growth. The concept attracted enough attention to earn itself a catchy abbreviation — ICT4D (Information and Communications Technologies for Development) — and a community of scholarly proponents. Funders salivated over project proposals that mixed the words "technology" and "development," and successes were trumpeted at conferences, in research papers, and in the media: E-government project reduces corruption! Telemedicine makes eye checkups in remote areas possible!

Now, after years of research and experience, a greater sense of realism about the potential benefits and pitfalls of ICT4D has prevailed. How useful is the Internet to the developing world’s illiterate population? Is access to technology financially sustainable? In the Fall 2003 debut of the quarterly journal Information Technologies and International Development, editors Michael Best and Ernest J. Wilson III state their intent to move past "often breathless and hyperbolic dialogue" to a more pragmatic discussion of how technology can speed development.

The journal vigorously pursues a multidisciplinary mandate in its first three issues, welcoming contributions from the fields of technical communication, finance, law, international development, economics, and sociology. This approach makes good sense. Questions such as whether governments in the developing world should use open-source or proprietary software would benefit from input by policymakers, technical experts, and economists. Essay topics are similarly varied, including developing an indigenous software industry, e-signature legislation in emerging-market economies, industry offshoring, and global ICT governance. Regionally focused analyses look at ICT in Uzbekistan, Kosovo, India, China, and North Korea.

In their article "ICT Development in North Korea: Changes and Challenges," Heejin Lee of the University of Melbourne’s department of information systems and Jaeho Hwang of South Korea’s Sogang University say that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s enthusiasm for ICT may provide a partial solution to the country’s dire economic situation. Although North Korea has created a government ministry responsible for ICT, university computer science departments, and national programming competitions, the country suffers from a short supply of telecommunications infrastructure, basic hardware, and capital — not to mention its position as an international pariah. South Korea, which could transfer technologies to the North and provide a market for the North’s goods and services, is the best candidate to help North Korea further develop its ICT4D programs, the authors conclude.

Another essay in the Spring 2004 issue, "eChoupals: A Study on the Financial Sustainability of Village Internet Centers in Rural Madhya Pradesh," examines one of the knottier problems with ICT4D by asking what makes a "telecenter" (a community access point to technology) financially sustainable. Author Richa Kumar, a graduate student in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, points out that telecenters often fail when they run out of donor funding. One way to generate revenue, Kumar suggests, is to focus on helping businesses become more efficient. For example, farmers in India began using Internet village kiosks called e-Choupals to sell soybeans directly to large export companies. Sixteen months later, the e-Choupals are turning a profit.

One underrepresented voice in the journal is that of engineers. Best and Wilson make a special plea in the first issue for more essays on the technical dimensions of ICT and development. They’ve got good timing. First World university departments are increasingly examining how to apply computer sciences in the developing world. Their expertise is invaluable for creating solutions such as user interfaces for the illiterate and affordable computers for the world’s poorest citizens. Give the engineers a few years, and Information Technologies and International Development will undoubtedly tap their expertise, just as the publication has successfully done with other professions.

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