“Forgive him Theodotus: he is a barbarian and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature”

Caesar and Cleopatra, George Bernard Shaw

In a sense, we are all barbarians believing that our personal experiences are universally applicable. This tendency is all too evident in those who intervene, often with the most noble of motives, in economic development. It appears to me that this unfortunate barbarism approaches its extreme in the context of information and communications technologies (ICT) and development of poor rural economies. The thinking goes something like this: PCs and internet are wonderfully powerful inventions which empower those who use them; the poor don’t have access to PCs and internet; that is why they are poor; therefore, if they were given PCs and internet, the poor in rural areas will become rich.

So what is wrong with the above reasoning? Lots, actually. First, there is the matter of sequencing. Then, there is the conflating of causes and effects. (For more on this problem, see myths, misconceptions, etc: you may have to scroll down a bit.) Finally, there is the problem of limited resources. All sorts of grand plans fail when one does not pay attention to sequencing. It may be terribly trivial to say that one has to build the foundation of a building before building the 10th floor, but often people do attempt something analogous when approaching development challenges.

Examples of mis-sequencing are distressingly common. For a very poor illiterate population, the foundational step has to be making them literate as fast as possible before resources are spent on making high-technology equipment available to them. Then why do they take the cart-before-the-horse approach? Perhaps because the advocates of hi-tech devices themselves have a personal agenda or for commercial gain. Or perhaps because they forget that they themselves were literate before they started using high tech tools effectively. Or perhaps because it is easier to just buy a lot of hardware and stick them into rural kiosks than to figure out the much harder problem of how to effectively make the population literate.

The undeniable fact is that literacy is the basis for all development. Literacy (and numeracy) is absolutely positively acutely necessary. You have to have a literate population for there to be any hope of any advancement—social, economic, physical, whatever. Given a literate population, even in the absence of new-fangled high tech equipment, you can have wonderful outcomes; absent a literate population, no amount of high-tech gizmos will amount to a hill of beans.

Every notable invention, every innovation, every advancement made by humans have been made by humans who have been literate and they did it without PCs and internet. That statement is obviously true until about 30 years ago. PCs and the internet have arguably enhanced the power of humans to innovate more rapidly but the preconditions are that of literacy and resources to afford those tools. The lesson for the development of India is straightforward. If you want the rural populations to benefit from the use of high technology, then you have to make them literate first. If you don’t make them literate, then you can forget about bridging the so-called “digital divide”.
(See Everybody Loves a Good Digital Divide.)

Here is my prescription: First, make the people literate. How? See my modest proposal to make India literate within a few years.) Second, figure out which of the problems admit a least cost solution which involves PCs and internet. Finally invest in PCs and internet.

{To be continued.}