Cheap technologies for Developing Countries

I’ve been recently interviewed by e-mail by journalist Ignacio Fossati. He put clever questions that made me think, which I really appreciated. Some of my answers were grounded on plain evidence, but other were just my own opinion — arguably all of them. As most of the interview dealt with “cheap technologies for Developing Countries”, such as the OLPC project, and we’ve been having some debate lately here, with Teemu Leinonen or at Peter Ryan‘s, I thought I’d share them here, so the debate can go on.

In bold characters, the questions; the answers following.

Cheap laptops, what do you think their acceptance will be like in developing countries? Do you think it will be a success?

Personally I think that they will undoubtedly have some acceptance. In part because there already is a government demand, but in my opinion, they will above all get into these countries through the private sector. The great success of Negroponte and his OLPC project has not been to create a new device, but breaking the spiral “more powerful hardware – new software demanding more hardware power – more powerful hardware – new software demanding more hardware power – etc.”, and showing that it is possible a good hard with a limited soft and vice versa.

Once broken this dynamic of “more, more, more,” the private sector will enter with force into a market of billions of potential users so far neglected because they could not afford that “more hardware, more software.”

I also believe that the mixed model pda+phone (smartphone) can be an interesting trojan horse, given the high penetration of mobile and the already numerous management applications for cellulars in those countries and that have been very successful.

Do you think the production of low cost laptops is the best way to extend and promote the use of computers in the Third World?

Absolutely not. But with two shades/comments.

The first one is that it has already been demonstrated — in developing countries, but in developed countries as well — that the user (citizen, Administration, firms) should see some use (and benefit) in the computer or the Internet. If not, once large infrastructures have been installed (e.g. wire) these will clearly be unused or underused. The laptop, without some clear uses in its design, has neither present nor future.

However, and this is my second nuance, this computer, accompanied by an intelligent design in the field of uses (e.g. a teaching method based on distance education, educational content embedded by default on the computer, a learning plan of shared learning within the family, etc.) can be a spearhead that will break the natural rejection that most of us adopt in front of a new technology.

Therefore, it is by no means the solution, but may be part — and, in fact, be the most attractive sometimes — of a comprehensive plan to promote the Information Society based on content and services.

These proposed low-cost products for developing countries (laptops, mobile phones, cars …), can actually help to reduce the gap of the digital divide?

This question has a short answer and a long one.

Of course, all that implies mainstreaming Information and Communication Technologies helps to narrow the digital divide, by definition: more technology, less gap. Elemental.

The long answer has three parts.

The first, and we discussed: the technology is useless if not used. All in all, and like any technology, the computer is just a tool, for communication and information in a digital world. If, in the end, we cannot access neither information nor communication, the gap remains.

Which brings us to the second part: quality. It is now already (almost) more worrying the quality of Internet connection that the penetration itself: many services require increasingly broadband to operate optimally. Therefore, if these low-cost products have, in addition, low performance, their contribution to bridging the digital divide is also tiny. We should not be thus confusing cost with performance.

Last, the digital divide is a reflection, a derivative of the socio-economic gap. In this regard, if these devices do not reduce poverty or increase welfare, sooner or later, the digital divide will widen as currently are social inequalities. We would then be putting a patch or attacking the symptoms rather than the disease.

Is there room for a number of competitors in the market for low-cost computers?

At the state we are in, we have to count connected computers. According to the statistics, 17% of the population in the World is already connected. So there still is a 83% left to be covered. Moreover, if we include both homes and businesses, we can potentially achieve (as happens with telephony in many countries) more than 100% penetration. So, effectively, and in theory, there should be room for everyone.

Of course, the problem is not supply, but demand: who among these 5.5 billion people can afford to be connected? That is the question to be solved. Mobile telephony, low-cost computers, wi-fi and mesh networks have provided a good bunch of examples of people who previously could not afford connectivity and that now can. And other examples have shown that, if there is a way to make the cost worthwhile (by reducing other costs due to use of technology), this is usually not a barrier.

Do you think that behind this “solidarity rush” hides an unreported trade war?

Businesses, by definition, with their owners and stockholders behind, are not nonprofits. And that’s it. They look for profits: this is their role and we should not make value judgments on this issue.

What is reprehensible is when these firms try to convince us of otherwise, or, much worse, when they harm others with their economic activity.

Almost 90% of the money that goes into research and development is spent on the development of technologies to serve 10% of the richest people in the world. Could this trend be changed or is there something being done in this matter?

I fear that the capitalist system works this way. We need to generate surplus value to satisfy the owner of the capital, and this can only be achieved by selling to the one that can pay, which is the richest.

It occurs to me, however, two ways to reverse this trend:

The first one, the more usual one, is trying to socially share the profit beyond benefiting a few stockholders. It is the model of most agencies for international cooperation, development aid and private foundations and NGOs in general.

The second one is the opposite: try to have more people that can buy things so that 10% becomes a 20%, 30%, etc. That is, betting for the development of the poorest to enable them to be good consumers, so that they “count” on the global scene.

Simplified example: we may investigate malaria (which does not affect the majority of developed people) and provide free vaccines as a way of sharing the wealth (in kind in this case), or we can increase the purchasing power of people who suffer from malaria so they can make demand for vaccines grow and hence the market believes that it is a profitable market to do research in this disease.

Both options have been supported and criticized simultaneously, by people working in development cooperation and solidarity: on the one hand, considering the most disadvantaged as a mere consumers (and squeeze them for profit) is something inhuman; on the other hand, is a way to make development more sustainable in the long run, abandoning charity (which would be the first option presented before) for further development in the strict sense.

But this is another debate ;)

The piece of news finally got published on March 26th, 2009: El bajo coste llega a los países en desarrollo