The Tangled Web – Part 9

Chennai Policy Makers’ Conference Oct 2003

Date: 10th October, 2003.

The digital divide seems to be all the rage these days. Take for instance the recent two days I spent in Chennai. The M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) had organized a Policy Makers’ Workshop at their campus in Chennai on October 8th and 9th. The workshop was supported by two “Canadian crown corporations”, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). (Those two have a budget of about Canadian $100 million.)

The workshop was a great opportunity to meet many people from the government ranks, the private sector, and various NGOs. It was an honor to meet Prof. M.S.Swaminathan, of course. Two days is sufficient time to get to know at least a couple of people well. I was fortunate that I met many people who I would like to follow up with.

The information package for the workshop asked (among other questions):

Can ICTs be useful for rural and remote areas of developing countries, especially the poverty-stricken regions?

The two days gave me an opportunity to reflect on the issues that the participants raised. I think it would be useful for me to create a framework within which I can discuss the various specifics of debated by the participants of the workshop. I will do so in a seemingly roundabout way because what I would like to do is not what a journalist or a reporter would do. I am seeking to explain something that is not trivial, neither in its conception or its impact. So it may be many days before I can say that I have made the point that I have set out to make.

The ICT Question

Date: 11th Oct 2003: Yesterday I noted one question posed at the Policy Makers’ Workshop:

Can ICTs be useful for rural and remote areas of developing countries, especially the poverty-stricken regions?

We need to examine that question for a moment. At one level of analysis, it is hard to not answer that question in the affirmative. At another level, it is a meaningless question. Merely because it is syntactically correct does not imply that it has any content.
Consider the question:

Can magnetic levitation superfast monorail transportation systems be useful for rural and remote areas of developing countries, especially the poverty-stricken regions?

Clearly, yes. Not just magnetic levitation superfast monorail transportation systems, but an almost unending variety of things would be useful for the development of poverty-stricken remote areas. Not merely for those areas, all of those unending variety of things would be useful for the development of not so remote and not so poverty-stricken areas of any developing country. Thus that question is actually content-free.

It is hard to argue that ICT, or anything else for that matter, cannot be useful in development. There are only two problems:

  • Our resources are limited. Anyone who does not keep that in mind is clearly out of touch with reality.
  • Prioritizing the needs and sequencing the required intervention is an impossible task unless considerable thinking goes into the analysis of the problem.

Therefore a meaningful question would be: How appropriate is ICT for rural and remote areas of developing countries, especially the poverty-stricken regions?

Or, how should we sequence the use of ICT, both temporally as well as spatially, for economic development? That is, should we take our resources and thinly distribute it all across the country or should we focus on some areas first and then move to other areas? Should we use our limited resources to bring ICT tools to the most remote and the poverty-stricken areas of the country and neglect other areas? Should we concentrate on ICT for remote and poverty-stricken areas before we concentrate on other needs of those areas?

These are important questions and need to be debated and discussed before we waste any more resources than we already do with the gazillions of ICT for development conferences and initatives.

Myths and Misconceptions

To confront the cliches and shibboleths of one’s age is neither easy nor rewarding. The emperor’s new clothes exist only in the imagination of those committed to maintaining an obvious falsehood for fear of falling out of favor. I believe it is time that we examine some of the ICT related myths that drape the development emperor. I will categorize them as myths, misunderstandings, misconceptions, and misapprehensions and number them randomly. I may even intersperse them with some facts.

Misapprehension #78: There is a digital divide and it is the cause of retarded development. Hence, if we bridge the digital divide, development will occur.

The reference is to the fact that broadly speaking, the rich have computers and cell phones and the poor do not. No argument there: the rich have not just that, but they have cars, and airconditioners, and washing machines, and toilets, and medicines, and excess food. So what is so astonishing about them having more digital gizmos? And why is that digital divide more important than the other scores of divides such as the airconditioner divide or the toilet divide or the food divide?

Fact #84: ICT is neither necessary nor sufficient for development.

The rich countries developed long before the fathers of digital revolutions were born. There are many reasons why developed nations developed and when and how they developed; and none of those reasons have anything remotely to do with the digital domain.

Misconception #12: ICT is the cause of development.

The confusion between causes and effects is rampant. Part of the time it is a simple confusion between correlation and causation, such as when two things frequently occur jointly, the tendency is to believe that one is the cause of the other. But even when there is a causal link between two features, one cannot randomly assign one as the cause and the other to the effect. Confusing the cause for the effect is a distressingly common occurrence.

Why the confusion? Number of reasons, really. First, plain old fashioned inability to think through the issue.

Second, laziness. Even if one is capable of thinking, it is harder to think things through rather than to jump to a convenient

Third, even if one is not inclined to be lazy, there is the hurry to get on the bandwagon lest one gets left out on the sidewalk. So what, one may ask, is going on in the bandwagon rolling through town with the cry ICT for Development, All Aboard! Where do did they start off from and where are they headed to?

The ICT for development bandwagon starts off in Cart-Horse-ville. There people put the cart before the horse. They notice that developed (rich) countries use a lot of ICT. Ergo, they reason, ICT causes wealth. It is no use telling them that it is because that they are rich that they can afford all the digital gizmos and not the other way around. It is no use telling them that in developed countries with high wages (and labor shortages), labor saving capital-intensive goods will be cheap relative to labor and hence they would use ICT more intensively.

Analogically, one can present the case this way: in developed countries, lots of people have cars, while in poor countries very few people have cars. So they reason that cars make people rich. Ergo, they conclude, that for poor people to become rich, all they need is cars.

The horse of the cart-horse confusion is dead and there is no point in flogging it any further.

The Need to Do Arithmetic

John McCarthy of Stanford University has the following in his .signature file: Those who refuse to do arithmetic are doomed to speak nonsense.

Over the years I have seen too many instances of errant nonsense that a little bit of arithmetic would have prevented. I think that the power of arithmetic is not fully appreciated. Even people in very powerful positions utter complete nonsense when they refuse to do simple calculations.

In the recent workshop that I was at, I had presented our model we call RISC (Rural Infrastructure & Services Commons). The model is based on the recognition that the provision of infrastructure is a necessary precondition for services that are necessary for rural development. Infrastructure investment is ‘lumpy.’ You have to have at least a certain minimum amount of investment before it is of any use to anybody.

Since there is a minimum scale below which infrastructural investment is not viable, and since total investment is limited, providing infrastructure to every of the 600,000 Indian villages is not an efficient option. Therefore, RISC recommends that infrastructure investments be made in locations that are accessible by a large number of villages to start off with. Later, as economic conditions improve, village level development of infrastructure would make more sense. This, of course, implies that the facilities will not be immediately accessible to everyone. Some will incur a travel cost. Moreover, the travel cost will be relatively greater on women than on men considering that men are more inclined to travel the 10 kms or so the average facility may be located.

One participant objected to the model based on the differential travel cost. She held that the solution is that every village should have all facilities. Here is where we need to do some arithmetic. Add up all resources for infrastructure investment at our disposal. Divide that by 600,000 and you have quantity x, the available resource per village. Find out the investment cost of the minimum viable unit of infrastructure and call it y. Now compute the ratio y over x and call that number z. If z is equal to or less than 1, we can provide every village with the required infrastructure base. Otherwise, we need to invest y resources in a central location that z villages will have to share.

It is true that women would be at a disadvantage relative to men when it comes to travel. But then the answer is not that infrastructure resources should be squandered based on gender equity considerations but rather that women should be assisted in some way so that they overcome their mobility issues. (It is always more practical for Mohammed to go to the mountain than for the mountain to come to Mohammed.)

Let’s do arithmetic and persuade others to do some arithmetic as well.

{These are previously published but uncategorized posts.}

Author: Atanu Dey


4 thoughts on “The Tangled Web – Part 9”

  1. The core of this issue (IMHO) seems to be the sexiness factor. As you are aware we do LED lighting & PV power generation, that puts us in close contact with rural communities and NGO’s trying to create some wealth there. One such group brought about half a dozen youngsters to our office for them to get a feel of how we run the show. The kids were from a rather marginal tribe and from my conversation with them it emerged that they wanted to be in either electronics or computers. When questioned on why they made these vocational choices given their background and skill sets, the only real factor seemed to be the sexiness and social standing that such vocations bestow not the actual money they make. I think that this is how the entire game works from the policy angle to the chap in the corner who needs that ‘IT job’ as a kind of social badge. The chap who runs the NGO was quite perceptive. From their stand point if 1% of the kids they train get into a non labour (unskilled) line they are happy. They seem to be using ICT as a marketing tool to attract the target populance rather than a line of work. I guess this is how it works at policy level as well. The real need for this country is to stop breeding like rats on oil powered food and focus on the basic infrastructure. We need blackboards and qualified teachers not OLPC.
    sometimes i think people deliberately confuse tools with actions to further their own interests. Any literate person can use a computer so lets start there…


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