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Harvard Forum – are we settling for too little?

Canada’s International Development Research Center and Harvard’s Berkman Center are convening a conversation today and tomorrow at Harvard on the future of information and communication technology and development (ICT4D). Global Voices will be participating in the event as a media partner, and I and Jen Brea will be twittering and live-blogging the event. You can find out far more about who’s around the table and what we’re planning on talking about on the Global Voices special coverage page, which includes links to the background papers prepared by participants.

We’re here in part so that you can have a voice in the discussions. Please feel free to post questions on Twitter, using the #idrc09 tag, or as comments on Global Voices posts – we’ll try hard to work those questions into the coversation here at Harvard. You may also want to use Berkman’s “question tool“, which will be used to put questions to the panelists at a public event this evening.

Had enough ICT for development? Me neither. But Professor Spence may have. He introduces the question for our last closed session, “Can we agree?” He suspects the answer is no, and invites us to go out for cocktails. But first he suggests we identify questions that are top research priorities for the ICT for development field.

Berkman Center’s Yochai Benkler wants us to clearly identify our goals as concerns ICT and development. Are we seeking income growth in relation to relative poverty? Use of ICT that enables a sense of self, of well-being in the world, knowledge creation?
Important tension that we need to deal with in defining research agendas is how much of the agenda needs to be defining a range of plausible goals.

He sees an intriguing tension between systems that favor openness and freedom through a decentralized systems versus the relatively rapid diffusion of devices that enable communications through more centralized networks. We can think of this as mobile versus internet systems, or carriers versus open wireless networks. Again, to study this
research agenda involves how strong assumptions about what questions we’re trying to solve.

In our discussions today, we’ve seen a shift to thinking of knowledge, learning and innovation processes as social and economic practices. ICT is part of these processesm but it’s layered on top of these social structures. In the past, we tended to think of knowledge and development as being about diffusion from high-knowledge to low-knowledge parts of the world. We now realize that creativity and insight happens everywhere in the world. Knowledge is always a creative reappropriation of what worked in one place into another, not a simple translation of a practice in one place to another.

Finally, Yochai offers a thorny question: are ICT issues simply a small part of much larger issues like gender and power relationship, povery and class relationships? If they are, must we solve these larger issues before addressing the ICT component. Or is
there a legitimate way of influencing these other systems through smart ICT interventions?

Rohan Samarajiva of LIRNE.net feels like he can agree with one of the people in the room, Nobel-winning economist Michael Spence, who believes we need to embrace the success of market forces in combatting poverty. Poverty reduction has occured through global markets, the spread of knowledge, the development of infrastructure and the establishment of “learning cultures”.

These are critical foundations for a knowledge-based economy: personal security, infrastructure, and learnign culture. But then we should leave application development up to actors in different countries. We need to embrace multiple innovation practives, letting computers and users innovate. “Who are we to decree who and how we innovate?”

Mobile networks are the networks for innovation for the developing world. Directly addressing my concerns that mobile networks are centrally controlled and less generative than open networks, he points to My Gamma, a social network for mobile phones. The company managing the network has users in 86 countries, without agreements from mobile phone networks. It is ad supported, without marketing salespeople, just based on online ad sales. He tells us that the service’s inventor observed, “I don’t aim to serve the blue-collar guys, but they seem to be using my service.”

(MyGamma, as it happens, is a web service running over WAP on data-enabled phones. In other words, the reason it works in 86 countries is because it’s running on open protocols on a decentralized network.)

The evidence seems to be showing us that poor people won’t be connected by anything other than wireless networks. ICT4D projects shouldn’t build wireless networks – even telecentres are now connecting on the 3G networks. We need to embrace this wireless future.

Hernan Galperin offers some ideas we all shoudl be able to agree on:

– ICT matters to countries at the aggregate level.
– On a general level, we know what policies need to be in place to promote ICT investment and adoption.
– We cannot outperform the private sector in terms of scaling of communication networks.

There’s a vast amount we don’t agree on. We don’t know what the true effect of ICT on poverty, and we don’t know which policies are most important to building successful ICT policies. He critiques “the Benkler standard” – the idea of connectivity that’s affordable, neutral, generative, open – as an unrealistic gold standard that describes no more than 10% of the reality of the developing world (Yochai interjects, “That much?”) He believes we need to embrace and celebrate technologies that might be less open but have greater reach, like indigenous programming on Brazilian satellite television. It’s broadcast, not interactive media, but maybe it’s the right way to reach large audiences.

We need to think more carefully about what we’re trying to achieve. There are huge sunk costs in developing any of these paths – they require huge investments to build infrastructure, and it’s hard to change path once we’ve gone in certain directions.

Finally, we need new indicators, beyond the small set of indicators that seem to have worked for the past few years. How do we define access? If I’ve got a telecentre 5km from my home – is that access? How does it compare to 10mbit/sec at home? How do we consider if communications are affordable? How do we measure people’s skills? We need to answer these questions so we can see how we’re doing in the long run.

Alison Gillwald acknowledges that mobiles are the default platform for the poor. But she wonders, “Is that all poor people are entitled to? Are we not creating greater equity issues between them and those who have access to high bandwidth?”

Before we accept the current situation, we need much better research and understanding of potential impacts of ICT. We need to understand what the high costs of communications in developing nations are doing not just in terms of personal usage, but on marginalized economies as a whole. Costs of bandwidth in Africa are orders of magnitude more than in the rest of the world. What does this mean for African development in the long run? Will it increase the gap between Africa and other developing nations?

Gillwald agrees that there’s a basic set of good governance practices we can all agree to. She wonders why so few African nations have implemented them. “We’re just reiterating the same solutions without understanding why they’re not being implemented.” We need to look at the factors that make it so difficult to put these policies actually into place.

She notes that we have the tendency to celebrate people’s creativity, innovating from constraint, inventing techniques like flashing. “Should we be satisfied with them? Perhaps this is all that’s possible at the moment, but should we be content with this state?”

She worries that, in developing ICT4D policies, we tend to assume a functional state capable of managing processes of innovation – what’s missing in the literature is discussion of large-scale institutional failure providing massive bottlenecks and constraints.

In South Africa, she worries about the rise of the state in terms of provisioning and operating communication services. “The historical record in this isn’t good.” There’s a backlash against markets due to economic crisis. She asks, “Wwhat’s the role of the state in deploying ICTs for economic recovery? Is it spending state money on building a multi-million Rand backbone, or for creating an investment environment that enables this sort of development?”

Bill Melody of LIRNE.net takes his stab at a statement with “unquestioned agreement”: Poverty reduction is the empowerment of individuals and institutions in communities in poverty. Communication tools are powerful tools of empowerment.

But we disagree on appopriate uses of these technologies. We’ve remarkably bad at predicting how these technologies will be used. Based on study of the literature, it seems that use for communication is roughly ten times what was predicted by network designers. No one predicts where the communication will be – they usually expect users to connect to the capital city, but they tend to connect to one another in rural areas. The economic and social uses are different than what’s predicted, and most predictions are totally wrong.

That’s what we learned with the explosion of mobile telephony. We claim that mobile phone companies opened this market – that’s totally false. The mobile networks were the innovation of poor people when they were enabled to use it the way they wanted to. Poor people spent much more income than we ever thought they would.

Melody revisits the old parable of teaching a man to fish so he eats forever, to make a comment on regulation and business: “If you teach a man to fish, that means he needs fishing equipment, which means he needs a business model to pay off the loans, and he needs a license and ways of dealing with quotas.”

He offers this story as a way of considering universal service funds, funds taxed from mobile phone operators to provide connectivity in rural areas. In many cases, these funds can’t go to support community wireless networks. We celebrate openness and liberalization, but participation hasn’t made it down all the way to local people.

The process of regulatory reform is a complex one. We all tend to recommend reforming the telecom industry, then the ICT sector. But communications providers are “anchor tenants”, who make it possible to extend networks to underserved areas. And while everyone wants a free, open market until they get in, once everyone is established in business, they then want to close the doors behind them.

Melody ends with kind words for our sponsor, IDRC, who he describes as the most farsighted funder in the ICT4D space.

Michael Spence offers the observation that economies that grow by building inclusive economies, economies that encourage involvement in multiple dimensions. He asks what IT has to do with inclusiveness, and suggests that it has “something to do with knowledge, and something to do with access to crucial services, like savings channels, access to credit.” There’s great potential for entrepreneurship in poor populations – the issue is that there are missing pieces of economies that prevent that instinct from being exercised, like credit facilities.

Addressing the issues I raised in my paper and presentation, Spence says he doesn’t dismiss the notion that technology choices should be made with an eye to the capacity to control, interfere with and shut down these network. (I’m suggesting, of course, that we choose tech that’s hard to shut down and interfere with.) While he agrees that this consideration is “not crazy”, he suggests we not overfocus on this. “There are institutional failures all over the place – they’re the main cause of stalled growth… If you’re in a state that shuts down communication channels, there’s something larger wrong.”

(He admits that this sets up an intersting paradox, as China is growing incredibly quickly, but shows extremely high willingness to control these communication channels.)

Spence offers the observation that our discussions may center on a very simple idea – we’re seeing insufficient investment in infrastructure. If an average commitment of public sector resources to critical infrastructures, including education, might be 3 to 4% of government spending, the countries that are experiencing the most significant and sustained growth are spending 5 to 7%. The private sector can help, but if you don’t see that high level of government spending, you won’t see the improvements in infrastructure, education, and capacity necessary to sustain growth over long periods of time.

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