Robert Jensen and Richard Zeckhauser ("The digital provide" #54) argue for a positive reappraisal of information technology (IT) as and when applied to the contexts of developing countries.
Put briefly, in well-functioning economies, when there aren't enough eggs to meet demand, their price increases. Farmers, seeing profitable opportunities, breed more hens to produce more eggs. People want more eggs and like magic, more eggs appear. Just as important, farmers earn more income and consumers pay less for eggs. But, in developing countries farmers typically know only the local price and so cannot send their eggs to a market that commands a higher price for them. Unless for example, they have cellular phones and can then send their eggs to where they are valued most. Hence IT can help bridge the divide between a developing economy and a well-functioning economy.
The difficulties with their standpoint are numerous:
1. The basic law of supply and demand states that for goods such as eggs, demand rises as price lowers, and vice versa as eggs become more expensive people will buy less and less of them. Common experience for all of us confirms this. It also states that supply directly affects price in that if the market becomes saturated each supplier will lower their price in an effort to sell their produce. So, if all the farmers in a particular area use their phones to get "reliable" information on the best price, and then all head off to that market to sell, their arrival will swamp the market and the price will lower as they try to undercut one another.
2. Eggs are extremely fragile which makes their transportation difficult, slow and expensive. Outside of the tarai, most of Nepal is extremely difficult terrain for transportation. When it takes a day to cover a small distance without damaging your eggs, are you going to be encouraged to still head further to a particular market? Will it be financially viable without improved infrastructure?
3. To which "well-functioning economies" are we referring to here? It is well known that the farming industry in so-called developed countries is heavily subsidised by their respective governments. In order to gain economies of scale, price cartels control market prices and market supply so that they can ensure themselves against the vagaries of the so-called "free market," and thereby maximise profits. CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) in Europe, for example, has resulted in widespread unemployment and bankruptcy among small farmers as they have been priced out of the market. Those who have worked on Food For Work Programs have received the poor quality rice that is held in enormous warehouses by these cartels in order to keep market prices high. In Asia, rice, in Africa, wheat.
The economic arguments aside, introducing IT to developing countries is extremely problematic for the following reasons:
1. Both hardware and software costs are well in excess of the common man's monthly salary if not annual salary.
2. IT is not maintenance free, who's going to do the installation, train the users, fix or make adjustments when they malfunction? And what to do when the network doesn't cover your phone, or when there's no electricity?
3. Most of your target population are illiterate and IT illiterate. Symbol based software has been developed, converting text to speech that is then read out to the user, but even with the widespread dissemination of such software users still need to be trained in IT. Should this be a priority over literacy?
Finally, Jensen and Zeckhauser argue that "many public health problems can be prevented or treated through information dissemination, often at a lower cost that treating the problem afterwards. IT is the best way to deliver such information rapidly and at low cost."
This is the crunch. Anyone who has used IT, especially the Internet, will know that is full of information. Loads of information, just like a library, but most of it is completely irrelevant and of no use to you. To find what
you want needs skill and knowledge.
In the context of health provision and IT, (1) you will need existing health services to cooperate in the information that is to be provided on these "sites" (manuals and books already perform this function); (2) You will need to train local staff to understand this information and be able to apply it or communicate it, (schools and women's groups perform this function); (3) You will then have to provide the sites with supplies and equipment to deal with health issues as and when they arise.
Now, it is our experience in Nepal, that people do not access existing health services more frequently, because they cannot afford to travel the distance to get there and because they cannot afford the medication that is
prescribed. Now, we've gone some way to overcoming the first, by introducing an IT literate and trained health worker at our sites (Who's paying?), but we still haven't addressed the other main cause, namely how are these people going to pay for their medication?
In summary, IT in itself is a great tool and will continue to shape the way of the world as dramatically as it has done over the past half a century, but for anyone who has any experience of working in development in so-called developing countries, the application of IT as described by Jensen and Zeckhauser is patently absurd. When governments cannot provide adequate health and education services and its people cannot adequately feed themselves, the introduction of IT is and should not be a priority. Later yes, at this point, no.
When Peace Corps proposes to offload thousands of American computers that cannot be sold in its existing markets, we should take Bill Gates's comments regarding their development potential much more seriously.