Algorithms in Africa
Nine years have passed since I left Botswana. To put the times into perspective, the first thing I bought when I got back to the US was a fax modem, the cheapest, fastest solution to stay connected with the contacts I had made abroad. My modem then was 2,400 baud. I tried out CompuServe and decided on Delphi, and the buzz was just starting about something called PPP.
During the next several years I was in and out of Africa, became a Linux user in 1995, began installing Linux in nonprofit organizations in 1997, spent a year and Y2K transition in the former soviet state of Ukraine and came to the West African country of Guinea in May 2000. At some point during this period the digital divide was invented.
Actually, the digital divide seems to have its origins in a 1995 report from the US Department of Commerce, whose National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NITA) released the first paper in a series titled “Falling through the Net”. This report analyzed telecommunication access by geographic and demographic patterns throughout the United States. One of the conclusions of the report was the gap between the “information rich” and the “information poor” had widened.
In the later years of the Clinton administration, the digital divide broadened beyond US borders to encompass the globe. The issue gained considerable publicity after a G8 economic summit meeting in 1999, where the most powerful nations on earth decided that the growing gap in information technology was one of the most serious problems facing development in the Third World.
Now, as I write this, bridging the digital divide has become one of the hottest trends in foreign assistance, and many aid organizations and corporate philanthropists have found publicity for their efforts. Simplistically, it seems, the gap in information technology has now come to be identified with access to the Internet. Thus, we have such programs as the USAID-funded Leland Initiative, designed to bring internet access to Africa; the Peace Corps announcing an information technology initiative in partnership with AOL; and a recently formed organization called Geekcorps sending its second group of volunteers on three-month stints designing web sites in Accra, the capital of Ghana in West Africa [see LJ April 2001 for more on the Geekcorps]. Naturally, the high-profile publicity given this issue has created an opportunity for many international aid organizations to develop projects and funding appeals for serving the digitally needy.
Delivering the miracle of the Internet is the new zeal of the high-tech missionary. In what seems to be a rush to market—bringing the Internet to the developing world—sometimes projects are announced with only naïve regard to the technical issues and without full consideration of whether such projects are viable, appropriate, relevant and sustainable. Thus, one hears of a women's cooperative in Central America marketing their handcrafts over the Web; advocates describe the potential of “telemedicine” for delivering virtual health care to isolated areas; and the US State Department Global Technology Corps proclaims, “We have seen farmers in Mexico using [the Internet] to check weather conditions and crop prices.”
Where once Norwegians may have seen wool sweaters, the tech visionary now sees web browsers.
At the extreme, the new economy proselyte promotes the Internet as the solution for everything from education and health care to pollution, inequality and world peace. As though everyone who has access will be able to browse their way to nirvana, as though the path to heaven is paved with bandwidth. The satellite dish is the new icon of the digital evangelist, replacing the holy cross.
One of the implicit beliefs of this testament is that information, in and of itself, is sufficient to promote economy, remedy problems and narrow inequities. A corollary implication, the message from one side of the divide to the other, is that we have information and you don't, that our information is good and yours is useless. This is the lesson CNN preaches to its international audience when it tells us, “The human without information is nothing.”
It should be clear that in this form, divide rhetoric is simply new raiment for the familiar old taxonomies of prejudice that have long sought to divide the world between believers and heathens, the enlightened and the savage. From a historical perspective, rather than helping, these kinds of belief systems have generally been devastating to their targets.
More importantly, the belief in the sufficiency of information and information technology is simply wrong. Information alone doesn't help people. If only this were true, doctors would be made from medical textbooks and entrepreneurs would be born from accounting manuals.
In fact, the developing world is littered with unused X-ray equipment, broken-down tractors and empty schoolrooms contributed over the years by well-intentioned and simpleminded donors. These resources are made useless not from missing user manuals or lack of web access, but by the lack of trained technicians, mechanics and teachers.
In short, what empowers people are skills.
Even in the US, this kind of awareness is emerging. In “How Does the Empty Glass Fill? A Modern Philosophy of the Digital Divide” (Educause Review, Nov/Dec 2000), Solveig Singleton and Lucas Mast write: “From the standpoint of higher education, students who leave high school without exposure to digital learning tools such as the Internet will prove a much less serious problem than students who leave high school with inadequate reading or math skills.”
And the leading journal of free-market capitalism, the Economist, recently observed:
The poor are not shunning the Internet because they cannot afford it: the problem is that they lack the skills to exploit it effectively. So it is difficult to see how connecting the poor to the Internet will improve their finances. It would make more sense to aim for universal literacy than universal Internet access.
It may be that, with the recent outbreak of dot-com bankruptcy and declines in the stock market, the tenets of the digital religion could be losing their currency. At a time when the mega-billion, IPO-funded ebiz stars like Amazon and Yahoo are having a tough go across the US and Europe, it's hard not to wonder how the promises of e-commerce could possibly prove viable and sustainable elsewhere, particularly in places where there aren't even good banking and credit systems. And for someone like me who has lived several years of the past decade in both rural and urban parts of the developing world—where most of the population still cook with firewood and carry water in buckets—the practical value of focusing foreign assistance on IT projects would seem negligible, if not ludicrous entirely. Given the more serious fundamental issues facing developing nations—health care (AIDS, TB and malaria), nutrition, sanitation, education, poverty, pollution and political corruption—providing the means to surf the Web should probably fall fairly low on any reasonable scale of human priorities.
So is there any way to make a difference, a real difference that improves people's lives? Is there any role for Linux and open-source advocacy in emerging markets? Are there ways of using technology for solving human problems in places like Africa, without trying to sell wool sweaters in the desert? I wouldn't be writing this article if there weren't.
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