By Fazila Farouk · 2 Jul 2008
People who work in the digital divide world, routinely over emphasize the value of information communication technology (ICT) for the poor, often forgetting that technology is nothing more than a means to an end and one that’s only of value if it increases conveniences and the quality of people's lives.
The common argument one hears for lowering the cost of broadband is that it will bridge the digital divide and increase socio-economic benefits for the poor. There’s certainly plenty of reason to advocate for reducing the cost of broadband. Cheaper Internet costs will of course bring about an aggregate benefit to society, but to draw a direct line between this and the emancipation of the poor, is stretching the truth a little too far.
For the poor, the barriers for access to ICT are extremely high and we really shouldn’t be over emphasizing its benefit when other priorities may be more pressing. But this, unfortunately, is what tends to happen in a fad crazy world, leading to all sorts of ill-conceived development projects.
The concern is not that we shouldn’t be advocating for cheaper broadband or ICT for development (ICT4D). We certainly don’t want the digital divide to get any wider than it already is, but problems emerge when we start over-promising on what technology can deliver, misrepresent who stands to gain the most and divert already limited resources away from more pressing priorities.
One thing we can be sure of is that poor Africans are not online. Yet a substantial amount of money has already been spent in the name of web 2.0 for development.
I’ve seen lots of donor money being squandered on, for example, citizen journalism –a euphemism for blogging. One only needs to start conducting a few online searches before it becomes inordinately clear that there is a historical legacy in South Africa (and the rest of Africa) that keeps poor black people offline and despite all good intentions, no amount of training and cajoling is going to turn hungry, jobless, youth into bloggers, either with or without a social conscience.
Blogging, in my view is overrated anyway and is increasingly proving to be a fad even among the well fed. It could even become a thing of the past, comments Rob Peters when he reports that blogosphere stats from Technorati founder, David Sifry, show 'a potential plateau of blogging growth'.
The plateau is maintained as a result of the opening of new blog accounts, while older blogs continue to be elbowed aside to the scrapheap of inactivity, highlighting the novelty value of the activity for many - nice when new.
Facebook is not far behind in the fad stakes. In a Technology Review article, Bryant Urstadt cites "Danah Boyd, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, (who) studies social networking as a cultural phenomenon. She describes online hot spots as though they were popular pubs. 'It's supercool when all of your friends go there,' she says. 'Then all sorts of other people come in. Even if the pub doesn't start feeling physically crowded, it starts feeling socially crowded when your ex is at the other end of the bar talking to some creep who brought his fellow gang members. How long until you say, 'Enough--I'm outta here'?"
The same article argues that social networking websites are poor generators of advertising revenue. This is their Achilles heel, which may eventually lead big investors to pull out, resulting in their demise.
I’ve digressed, but only to make the point that we need to be very careful of not falling for the bafflegab of purveyors of ICT who profit from every fast and furious fad on the Internet - in Africa’s case, in the name of development and at the expense of the poor.
When we think about ICT4D, we need first to work out the backward linkages in people’s lives to evaluate what is most needed and most appropriate. This goes for mobile technology too, which has been identified as the future of the Internet in Africa.
The issue for development agents, including governments, is one of assessing the appropriateness of interventions and of conducting accurate cost/benefit analyses to ensure that investments are sound and that they also result in applicable and durable solutions for the poor.
The durability of solutions is critical in our resource-strapped circumstances. Given the rapid pace of advancements in this field, we need to constantly be reassessing the value of technological interventions towards poverty eradication, ensuring that they truly facilitate rather than detract from the fundamental building blocks of development such as access to health care, education, jobs, water, sanitation and housing.
I for one believe that we need to give priority to the basics before anything else. Given the opportunity to provide just one thing to every poor family in the world, I would definitely choose the humble toilet, a lifesaver of note.
Adam Hart-Davis calls the toilet the greatest medical technology invention of our time. In the developed world, it has all but purged infant mortality, eliminating death from preventable diseases such as diarrhoea, dysentery, typhoid, and cholera.
Hart-Davis laments the fact that only a minute fraction of aid money is spent on sanitation in the developing world. Apparently sanitation isn’t sexy enough for donors.
That’s a real pity because these are the diseases that our children routinely die from while their mothers are being accosted, raped and sometimes even murdered, in the bushes that have become their toilets. More than forty percent of the developing world’s population (2.6 billion people) has no access to sanitation.
Fazila I completely agree with you that any worthwhile development agenda needs to address the basic needs of people within a community first. If by some miracle the availabilty of IT in an impoverished, toiletless community opens the way to it getting sanitation then IT is playing a useful role in this community otherwise IT is a pointless extravagance for this community.
Guns or butter, facebooks or toilets
I really disagree with the either/or proposition of this article. The ability to share knowledge is just as crucial for the poor as for the rich, even more crucial I would argue. Fortunately, many activists are building this infrastructure for collective learning, see http://p2pfoundation.net/Category:Design.
Not 'all' of the poor have to be able to access this type of sharing, for it to be beneficial. See for an example, how the local solar cooking communities are enabled by the collective wiki at http://solarcooking.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page, or how Chinese workers have benefitted from internet access, http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/is-the-internet-empowering-chinese-workers/2008/07/05
Why not be open to the proposition that a few blogs in a community could have transformative effects, and lead not just to better toilets, but to improvements in many different areas?
I completely disagree with the image you depict that ICTs can not do anything for the poor. You forget/oversee the fact that most African professionals DO have access to the internet. I'm always astonished to find how few professionals do NOT have good access. By using web2 these professionals can be smarter and do a better job. Not as direct as cultivating rice, maize or sorghum, but very important.