Three approaches of ICTs in development and an alert on leapfrogging

In his latest post — Good Practice in ICT4D Research — Richard Heeks raises the issue on how ICTs can directly contribute to economic growth and poverty alleviation.

The topic also appeared during the Specialized Areas Workshop held at the Fourth Annual IPID ICT4D Postgraduate Symposium which Åke Grönlund conducted. There, the “what poor people need is money” motto constantly came in and out of the conversation.

Being an economist myself, I can only agree with Richard Heeks on his advice to focus on money — economic growth, income, economic sustainability, productivity, competitiveness — when dealing about the role of ICTs in an economy.

But poverty has many causes and consequences. And I personally think that addressing the economic part of poverty is addressing only the material part of poverty, that is, poverty itself: lack of income, inequality, etc. But ICT4D should also focus in the part of the non-material causes, sometimes called the context. Indeed, Heeks somehow points at it too when he writes of the need to speak to development.

In addition to that, there is a third course of action: to change the whole system, the whole landscape, the rules of the game. This is what (some) leapfroggers mean to do: change their whole (or a good part of it) economic system and take the chance of ICTs to base that change on, using ICTs as a locomotive to pull the rest of the economy upwards.

Following an idea I already developed in Fostering the Information Society for Development in the Web 2.0 framework, and partially based on Welzel et al.’s The theory of human development: A cross-cultural analysis, I think that these three approaches of ICT4D could be schematically put this way:

ICTs and Human Development — a material resources based approach

This would relate to the pure Economics point of view, and would deal with what resources people have at hand — the classical capital, labour, human capital… maybe even land — and how these resources can be altered or improved by means of ICTs — productivity, multifactor productivity, competitiveness, efficiency, efficacy —.

On the other side of the telescope, ICTs and Economics should also deal with the final impact of the transformation of these inputs by means of ICTs: income, wealth, economic growth.

ICTs and Human Development — a values and rights based approach

Besides resources, or besides the objective choice, a more “human” approach is possible taking into account subjective and effective choice. It is the realm of values and rights, which quite often are enablers, multipliers or barriers to development. I am convinced that there are three main fields that should be prioritized in any development approach, with or without ICTs:

  • Health (which includes Nutrition and Housing, of course), as the basic endowment of personal resources — yes, it is closely linked to the previous approach, but it determines many other things like self-confidence, personal welfare, etc. which are not related to Economics.
  • Education, as the main empowerer — again, related with human capital, but here dealt more with feelings and one’s place in the World, one’s ability to lead one’s own development, to take decisions, to riase self-awareness (and e-awareness)
  • Governance, as the generic framework where everything else — Economics and Human Development — happens or just does not happen.
ICTs and leapfrogging development — a disruptive or economic locomotive based approach

Though also related with the economicist approach, what leapfrogging pretends is to (a) circumvent the long path of development by skipping some of its phases and, by doing so, (b) transforming the focus and structure of the whole (national) economy.

It is, in part, what steal, the steam engine, railroads, the automotive industry, etc. did in England first, and then in other places of the world, during the Industrial Revolution. It is about changing the system, not changing within the system.

What role for leapfrogging?

While I see the role of ICTs and Economic Growth and ICTs and Human Development pretty clear, I am not that sure about the third approach: leapfrogging.

On the one hand, my own data show that there might be, in general, a single path towards digital development. This is neither imperialism nor patronising: this is evidence. The reason being that, despite the fact that there might be other developing paths, the world economy is global, interconnected and, for good or for bad, with a strong set of economic rules already defined for everyone. And if you are in this world — which you are — these rules are, like it or not, affecting you.

On the other hand, I am afraid that ICTs might be having the same treatment in some lower income countries that monoculture had in most Latin American and Caribbean countries or that oil has in most Middle East countries: export economies highly depending on international trade and its volatile prices, and with relatively small impact on domestic economies at large (that is, leaving aside plutocracies and corrupt governments).

It would be sad to realize that, after impressive efforts to adopt ICTs in lower income countries to leapfrog development, we ended up having an elite controlling an international trade-focused ICT Sector, whose only interest is to pay low wages to carry out the offshored, low profile, low added value services that rich countries do not want to do. It might be good in the short run — jobs, currency entries, more money for domestic consumption — but, as History has shown, it might but reproduce the rich/poor system in the long run.

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2009) “Three approaches of ICTs in development and an alert on leapfrogging” In ICTlogy, #74, November 2009. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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