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Notes from the Harvard Forum on ICT4D

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.

The Harvard Forum event is convened by Nobel Laureates Amartya Sen and Michael Spence along with Randy Spence and Matthew Smith, who developed IDRC’s position paper, framing the discussion.

Professor Sen reminds us of the long history of ICT and international development with the story of a gift made to the Dehli School of Economics in the 1960s. Someone asked him, “Would you like to have an IBM 1620?” He didn’t know whether this was a personal gift, perhaps to put on his desk. So he asked, “How big is it?” The answer: “You’ll need a couple of rooms.”

The computer was transformational for his students, he tells us, because theywere mathematically skilled but had no access to technology. At the same time, he wonders whether technology can function as a replacement for schooling. “Anything that keeps you at home in front of a box doesn’t put you in front of the children from other families that don’t share the prejudices your family had.”

Michael Spence outlines two critical factors that have transformed many developing economies, leading to 7-10% economic growth in some societies, poverty reduction at astonishing rates – though not everywhere – but prospectively for 3.5 billion people. These inputs are political leadership that establishes inclusive governance, and access to a global economy. This global economy includes the influence of entrepreneurship, bottom-up and market based innovation, as well as a gigantic global market where businesses can expand, and most critically, knowledge.

Michael offers us a choice – would we rather see a society face complete destruction of its infrastructure while retaining its knowledge, or face some sort of massive amnesia which destroyed accumulated knowledge but left the buildings standing? His answer – it’s easy: choose to lose your buildings. “The state of an economy is what it knows how to do.” Countries that are engaging in very rapid growth, like China and India, have found ways to learn very quickly as well.

Prior to our event, participants have submitted two-page papers (you can read them here), and Randy Spence offers a quick overview of the themes identified, focused on the question of “What’s changed?” in the past six years of ICT and development. His highlights:

– We’ve seen a dramatic increase in mobile phone usage. Usage is up to 90% in some developing economies, and there doesn’t seem to be large gender or income gaps in usage. That’s the good news. But we’re seeing monopolization and increasing prices. And there’s no guarantee that mobile phones are a smooth path towards full inclusion in the internet.

– Issues of digital rights raise key questions about openness of knowledge. There are open questions about what needs to be done in terms of policy to ensure expansion of apropriate access and protection of the ability to participate.

– We’re starting to see the benefits of increased access to ICT. There’s more evidence and these benefits seem to be substantial, even if they are uneven. The ability to communicate and organize is particularly important in political terms.

– ICT has become holistically integrated into other development and community action projects, recognizing that ICT is a critical part of development strategies, not a stand-alone activity.

– We need to be careful about cybercrime and other vulnerabilities associated with our digital age and need to minimize these negative impacts.

Michael Spence offers the observation that what’s important is not just access, but “access to capability services… what we used to call ‘applications.'” He wonders what the obstacles are to building these useful applications – what’s really getting in the way. Bill Melody offers his diagnosis. Discussions about the regulatory environment in the Asia Pacific region show that a protectionist logic are coming into play, especially as regards the US’s inflexibility on intellectual property rights.

Yochai Benkler, who’s been studying the access to knowledge movement, suggests that we need to consider more than technological structures, but also social structures that encourage experimentation and making mistakes. The focus on ICT4D, he tells us, tends to focus us on technical structures – we need to focus on flows of knowledge, the social and intellectual structures that support learning and innovation. This, in turn, means that patents and copyrights need to be introduced into our debate, as well as the development of a clear understanding of how ICT for development becomes embedded in social structures.

Michael Spence suggests that we need a practical set of solutions to intellectual property questions. We might go down a road that encourages intellectual property owners to engage in multi-tiered property systems as well as government subsidy to encourage this new pricing flexibility.

Rohan Samarajiva urges us not to forget “the basics” as we move into discussions of intellectual property. He points out that Myanmar has only 375,000 mobile phones, fewer lines than fixed telephony lines. When we consider post-cyclone recovery, it’s hard to know what we can do in such infrastructure-poor environments. This isn’t just North Korea and Myanmar – this includes Ethiopia, Eritrea, Papua New Guinea, Cuba and other environments.

David Malone, the president of IDRC, talks about a proposed project to create a “university of the north”, connecting people in circumpolar regions. Politicians were excited about the idea because they saw it as cheap way of delivering education. Unfortunately, these projects often demand huge investment – we need politicians to be realistic about the costs.

Malone suggests that students around the world are often ill-served by professors at second and third-tier universities who “haven’t had an original thought since their graduate studies.” These students turn to the Internet to feed their curiosity, and he warns that few people have the knowledge to navigate the poorly organized universe of online knowledge.

Alison Gillwald notes that countries know about the solutions associated with ICT4D and have “rhetorically committed” to pursuing them, but haven’t liberalized markets or created independent regulators that would enable these solutions to be deployed. Connectivity is critical for any of these interventions, especially in Africa where home internet penetration is below 1% – “Can we have discussions about internet governance if we don’t have internet?” On the other hand, developing countries need to be involved with debates around intellectual property, or they risk being locked out of these discussions in the long run.

Hernan Galperin offers a distinction between tacit and codified knowledge. He wonders whether IP is really a critical issue on the ground in all the countries we’re considering. He points to software and media businesses in the developing world that aren’t based on patenting and copyrighting. Intellectual property addresses a specific set of codified knowledge issues – this may not be as relevant in all nations and economies as in some where codified knowledge is the key point.

Ophelia Mascarenhas and Michael Best continue this line of questioning – is intellectual property the key set of issues to consider when we think of ICT4D? Mascarenhas notes that we need to be considering the capacity for developing local knowedge, not just accessing knowledge from the outside. Mike Best references some past research he’s conducted in Tamil Nadu that suggests that communication technologies like instant messaging and voice calls are 2 to 4 more times as popular as knowledge-seeking activities online. In Ghana, his evidence suggests that email is the number one activity.

Amartya Sen wonders whether we run the risk of overemphasizing the importance of culture in isolation. He notes that UNESCO had previously emphasized the development and preservation of local culture over global, which “ended up being disastrous.” There is “no such thing as ‘unaided culture’,” culture that exists in isolation.

He goes on to suggest we might consider success stories involving technology and governance. There was widespread apathy about Pakistan’s deal with the Taliban in the Swat valley, he tells us – people consider Swat to be very far away and almost irrelavent. But when an activist shot video of a young woman being caned on a mobile phone, that video forced action from the Pakistani human rights commission, and went onto national television, generating a great deal of interest and anger. He references Mo Ibrahim, a succesful telecoms entrepreneur on the African continent, who argues for the importance of governance, offering a prize for good governance. But Ibrahim’s story suggests that we dismiss the view that nothing can happen until political leadership changes – the massive profitability of his own operations suggest the possibility of positive change through technology.

Reflecting on his childhood in Burma, Sen wonders whether Myanmar might be surprisingly well positioned to engage in a future internet revolution. Not only does the country enjoy a high rate of literacy, but it’s been the most literate country in Asia for centuries. He wonders what transformations are possible through “monks wielding internet-connected telephones.” At the same time, he acknowledges that the governing regime is well aware that this level of connection would threaten their authority and is therefore unlikely to allow it to happen.

Yochai is concerned that some “talking past” is taking place regarding intellectual property. There’s both local knowledge and learning across borders. IP is important in the wrong ways, he argues – it’s important to let a software service company in Argentina or Brazil to compete with a US company because both companies use open source software. As for Mike Best’s point about the importance of communications over content – Yochai argues that this demands protection from overagressive IP laws of the ability to innovate and create new communication forms.

Anita Gurumurthy argues that it’s a false dichotomy to oppose the importance of access and the terms of access. She takes a swing at Mike Best, arguing that saying that people want communications not content is like saying that Indian girls want to learn to cook and clean, not to learn in school. Randy Spence defends Mike’s distinction, listing several critical forms of interaction that involve little knowledge transfer – the transmission of money across a network, the phonecall that includes a job offer. This is clearly a complex issue – Michael Spence offers a closing comment, wondering if there are really policy issues associated with recognizing the importance of communication as well as content. “My own personal view is that, unlike the intellectual property sector, this [communications] is a sector that’s doing just fine.”

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