Developing Countries Gain from Free/Open-Source Software

by Frederick Noronha

Free and open-source software are not only "a useful and significant tool for the developing countries", but clearly have the potential to help democratization and help find solutions to the most pressing problems faced by the populations of developing countries, says a report recently released on the subject.

Set to be released in Finland on May 22, "Free as in Education: Significance of the Free/Libre and Open Source Software for Developing Countries" is authored by the Helsinki-based researcher Niranjan Rajani. Rajani prepared the report in collaboration with Juha Rekola and Timo Mielonen, from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, along with OneWorld Finland and KEPA.

"Even a quick look at the use of computers in the education sector, NGOs, alternative media and civil society is enough to convince us of the potential of FLOSS", says the report, which reviews what's going on in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The report points out that students, teachers, journalists and democracy activists have been using computers, e-mail, web publishing, desktop publishing and the Internet to get their messages out to the world, participate in societal debates and acquire as well as disseminate knowledge and skills. "All of that can for sure be done without it, but FLOSS has some intrinsic characteristics that make it a convincing and integral ally of democratization process", adds the report.

The study further says, "FLOSS has a complementary and reciprocal relationship to education. One needs an educated section of the population to fulfil the full potential of FLOSS, and at the same time FLOSS helps, enhances and complements education by providing tools to promote education."

It goes on to point out that, in the case of education in computer sciences, FLOSS provides opportunities that nothing else can: unrestricted access to the source code, an environment of unlimited experimentation and tinkering and collaboration and interaction with a community of programmers, coders and users around the world.

Free software and open source's "inherent qualities" also make it a prime tool for achieving local language educational software, "especially for languages which are not deemed commercially viable for proprietary software vendors". "If the adoption of FLOSS in developing countries is done wisely, it can help stimulate indigenous software industry and create local jobs", says the study. The report then looks at the possibilities of FLOSS playing a role in "reducing conflict, enhancing independence and meeting international obligations".

In Asia, of some 20+ countries looked at, "the highest overall FLOSS related activity" seems to be taking place in countries like India, China and Taiwan, (excluding Japan, which is not object of this study) followed by South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. "[The] rest of the Indian sub-continent (Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and others) having a medium level activity, while [the] Arab world (with the exception of Israel) seems to be the least active zone, only Afghanistan and North Korea being at the very end", says the report.

The report adds that in Latin America, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, have the most FLOSS related activity in overall usage of FLOSS as well as writing code, followed by Colombia, Venezuela and Peru. "The Latin American programmers have made significant contributions to the overall FLOSS projects around the globe", says the study.

In Africa, South Africa tops the list, closely followed by Kenya, Namibia and Nigeria. And significant activity is starting in Ethiopia, Ghana and Zambia. Rajani's report states that "of all the three regions reviewed, Latin America tops in terms of code contribution, but Asia is not far behind, and...South Africa in the African continent is poised for more code contribution in addition to its reasonably high use of FLOSS".

Rajani, a geek with a Master's degree in Philosophy who is originally from Pakistan but is now based in Finland, says three factors "stand out" when asking why third-world countries choose FLOSS: cost, the anti-piracy campaign and security concerns. "Definitely the most overarching factor is the lower cost, despite a well known assertion that people in developing countries don't pay for software anyway. It is true that a large number of users in the developing countries don't and, more importantly, can't really pay for software", says the report, pointing to the phenomenally high price of proprietorial software compared to the average incomes of people in these countries.

The report points out that in the "developing countries", the costs associated with re-training users and hiring skilled people to migrate and run FLOSS based systems are not as high as they are in developed countries because of lower labour costs. More importantly, "people thus employed are locals contributing to the local economy rather than paying expensive software license fees". Many in the developing countries also have realised that not paying for licenses for the software being used cannot go on for ever. "Combined with cost, security is perhaps the most important factor pushing FLOSS in every country outside the United States", the report argues.

But there are obstances too, for FLOSS in third-world countries. First, free and open-source software is relevant to a development effort only if a reasonable investment in ICT infrastructure is made. "If no hardware is available, software is good for nothing", says Rajani.

Factors such as the dearth of trained IT professionals in many South American countries, the lethargy of the bureaucracy acting as another stumbling block and corruption ("despite being extremely cost-effective and of competitive quality, [FLOSS] still is kept out because companies with enough cash can buy off decision-makers") are the other roadblocks. "One thing is sure: FLOSS doesn't corrupt," says Rajani. The brain drain means talent moves away from the "developing countries". But in the case of IT, a software developer could still contribute to the growth of ICT solutions back home.

The full report will be available one May 22 at the following URL: The English language version will be available at

Plans are being made to move this report ahead collaboratively "using the FLOSS model (so that it) can be developed further over the coming months and years". Rajani writes in the report, "The hope is to put these reports on-line and to fill in the blanks by people from the concerned regions."

Frederick Noronha is a freelance writer living in Goa, India.

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