Ethan Zuckerman has a post on ICT4D (Internet Communication Technology for development) on India, and Jennifer Bussell’s recent talk at the Berkman Centre on the issue. I know this isn’t about the Middle East, but thought it was worth highlighting:
“There’s a strong critique of ICT4D that argues that the importance of information is overstated and that ICT4D proponents either overvalue information technology because they’re personally attached to the tools, or more sinisterly, because they’re looking to create developing world markets for these tools. Many supporters of ICT4D – myself included – will concede that there are lots of badly thought out and poorly executed projects that do little more than drop expensive technology in areas where it’s a scarce resource and likely to stay a scarce resource for a long time to come.
Bussell argues that e-services tend to systematically reduce corruption, and that they therefore can be threatening to existing political elites. Elites have the power of transferring bureacrats, moving them from a job where it’s easy to seek bribes (the customs service) to one where it’s harder to do so. They exercise this power by demanding kickbacks from bureacrats, which they use as campaign finance. A politician whose political livelihood relies on control of bribes and rent-seeking officials is likely to be threatened by eGovernment efforts and might fight their introduction.”
It is easy to assume that the introduction of technology will not solve third-world problems, with a first-world solution. But this is unlikely to work right-away, given the differences in culture, levels of development and expertise. The introduction of mobile phones to rural India, for example, will not solve all it’s agriculture problems.
An advantage with, for example, new media in the Middle East is that it is much easier for the local population to take ownership of the technology and it’s content, using it in their own languages and their own devices.
However, we should not be put off introducing technology into the third world. When can a country be deduced as being ‘ready’ for a certain technology – at what stage can the mobile phone or Internet be introducted, and if we do decide that there is a stage when a country can be ready for certain technologies, does this not 1. means the West is ‘owning’ this technology, 2. assuming that all third-world countries will react in the same, amusingly, negative way (as the restriction of technology would be based on previous examples) and 3. is arguably a restriction to a globalised, free market. This last point is difficult, as some may argue that a free market also damages these countries.
But who is deciding what is a negative and positive development in these countries: those analysing it from the outside, those within the country – or perhaps journalists, if it is their role to make such a judgement?