World Development Indicators 2009: a commentary (part II)

(continued from World Development Indicators 2009: a commentary (part I))

The services are still unaffordable for many people in low-income economies, leaving them yet to realize the potential of ICT for economic and social development

This is quite evident by most data available, so my comment will be headed not on the fact of the digital divide, but on affordability itself.

According to my own research (again, more to come soon), after analysing 55 models that depict digital development and include more than 1,500 indicators, if we let aside the analogue indicators (e.g. GNP), 37% of the digital indicators were depicting the state of infrastructures, of which only one sixth were measuring affordability.

The rationale behind this argument is that not only most people cannot afford ICTs, but, according to what we measure, we can infer that most measuring tools — which are normally built to measure the impact of policies and strategies and projects — simply do not care or care little about affordability. If people cannot afford ICTs and policy-makers and decision-takers (amongst them development institutions) do not care about affordability, we’ve got a problem. A big one.

In developing economies innovative use of ICT services is changing people’s lives and providing new opportunities

Not that I disagree with this statement — have I already cited the Economic Benefits of ICTs? — but there is a shade of meaning to be made here. I increasingly think that ICTs are not a driver of inclusion but a driver of exclusion. In other words, people have to move (or develop digitally) to remain in the same place. ICTs actually do not create new opportunities, but the absence of ICTs or digital illiteracy do decrease the number of opportunities available to those on the wrong side of the digital divide.

See, for instance, the next figure that I presented — among other places — in my speech Digital students, analogue institutions, teachers in extinction and that is based on Manuel Castells’ Materials for an exploratory theory of the network society and Informationalism, Networks, And The Network Society: A Theoretical Blueprint:

Graphic: Factors of inequality and exclusion in the Network Society
Mobile phones have captured the market in developing economies […] Seventy percent of mobile phone subscribers are in developing economies

The first part of this statement is absolutely true and people in developing countries — citizens or development agencies working in the terrain — know it perfectly. See, for instance, Mobile Web for Development or Innovative Uses of Mobile ICTs for Development.

But the second part is definitely misleading, as the next chart is:

Graphic: Mobile cellular phone subscribers

Stating that 70% of the total mobile phone subscribers are in developing economies says little about the relative weight of such penetration. According to the World Bank itself, there are 6 billion people alive today: One billion people live in developed countries [while] the other 5 billion live in developing countries. Which is to say: 83.3% people live in developing countries. Compared with 70% of total cellphone subscribers, there still is a gap of 13.3% in favour of developed countries. And if we take into account international agencies, development organizations and tourists (…and troops) — that buy domestic SIM cards to have local prices — the unbalance is even worst.

I am not saying that news are bad — which are not —, but that they are not as good as they might seem at first sight.

More information

World Development Indicators 2009: a commentary (part I)

The World Bank has published the World Development Indicators 2009. The indicators and the report that accompanies the updated version of the indicators are, arguably, one of the best comprehensive snapshots on the state of the question of development worldwide.

Concerning Information and Communication Technologies, the report devotes 5 pages to comment the subject (see chapter 5, States and Markets, pp.265-269, PDF file 92.5 KB). The main statements of this section are as the following, which I’ll be commenting one by one.

ICTs used in e-government projects can reduce corruption

This is a statement I fully agree with. I already wrote about this in my article entitled The end of paper, open gates to on-time democracy (not about journalism) and there is plenty more evidence about what ICTs can do for transparency, accountability, democracy and human rights; and and efficiency and efficacy in the provision of public services.

Some ICTs, such as broadband, can contribute to economic growth

Again, see Economic Benefits of ICTs.

We must not, nevertheless, forget how broadband is unevenly adopted in the world:

Graphic: Broadband access in developed and developing economies

The problem is not, actually, that broadband distribution is unbalanced, but that the trend seems to reinforce this fact. As the International Telecommunication Union report Measuring the Information Society – The ICT Development Index 2009 shows, the broadband divide in the World has increased and the irruption of the mobile broadband has only worsened this unequality:

Graphic: Fixed broadband users

Graphic: Mobile access in developed and developing economies
Good government policies and regulations are creating competitive ICT markets, increasing access to ICT services for people everywhere […] Many countries that have created a competitive market environment for ICTs have more people using ICT services

This is, to my understanding, where long term and broad impact ICT4D strategies should be headed. Thus, there is an urgent need to change the socioeconomic and political frameworks regarding ICTs and the Information Society in general.

My own research shows (more about this soon) that the role of the government has a huge impact in the probability (that is: it is a cause) of achieving higher levels of digital development. To be more specific, the following aspects highly determine digital development several orders of magnitude higher than other issues:

The well known success of mobile telephony worldwide has been achieved through high demand, low-cost technologies, and market liberalization

Complementary to what has already been said, macro-level policies have to be accompanied by grassroots and micro-level strategies and projects. The first one that comes to my mind is the — in my opinion — successful FrontlineSMS:Medic, building on the acknowledged flagship of SMS for development projects Frontline SMS. In a recent — and most insightful — talk I had with the promoter of Kiwanja, Ken Banks, we both agreed that “scalability” in the developing world might not mean the same thing as in developed countries, which follow market-led rules, but could be closer to the concept of “copy-and-spread”. In his own words in Time to eat our own dog food?: we need to think about low-end, simple, appropriate mobile technology solutions which are easy to obtain, affordable, require as little technical expertise as possible, and are easy to copy and replicate.

(continues in World Development Indicators 2009: a commentary (part II))