a summary after 30 years of experience between Germany and Nicaragua
Cornelius Hopmann in “The UNESCO between Two Phases of the World Summit on Information Society, 2005 St. Petersburg” ISBN 5-901907-14-0
When talking about ICT for Poverty Reduction or analyzing its potential or real effects, most texts concentrate on Communication and Information as the central aspect, thus concealing the fact that Communication and Information, if not serving a purpose specifically within organizations, produces only noise. Moreover, there is a close correspondence between useful communication and organizational models which condition each other in a way that information useless in one organizational setting might be crucial in another. To get benefits out of specific types of information, prior or at least accompanying substantial changes of organizational patterns are required.
I don’t pretend to add another round to the ongoing debate whether the term “Information Society for All” as such is a misnomer or has implicitly very specific and limited objectives in mind and hence should be replaced by another, more appropriate. Mostly likely, it should.
My key issues are the possible and probable pitfalls in devising National ICT Strategies in and for so called developing countries if done without recognizing the deep and fundamental differences in underlying society and economy, compared to those of industrialized countries.
First hypothesis: information-flows in any society correspond to existing interaction- and organization-patterns of that society, may be reinforcing them, may be changing them, but as such they don’t create completely new patterns.
“Virtualizing” does not change the underlying pattern as such: a Seller-Buyer relation remains a Seller-Buyer relation whether they meet physically at Market place or virtually at eBay.com. A discussion between social scientist remains the same, whether carried out at seminar in Harvard or using some eForum with participation from different places around world and postings at any hour on the world clock. Teaching and learning remains teaching and learning, within a classroom or using some dot-learning website. Or more specific, a form of government does not become “of the people, by the people, for the people” just by implementing some forms of eGovernment. If it wasn’t conceptually of that type before going Internet, it will not be after.
Second hypothesis: there is not only a widening gap between both sides of the so called Digital Divide – those who have and those who have not access to modern ICT – but the true risk in fragmented societies or economies that ICT may drive further apart the already “discommunicated” fragments even if all have access to new ICT.
From the very beginning, ICT aims at increasing effectiveness and efficiency of actions and transactions in highly interdependent economies, strengthening their inner stability, rushes and busts notwithstanding. The high degree of interdependence favors positive “multiplier” effects between sectors and segments. But ICT spreads as a technical response to the requirements of societies with very specific characteristics, namely a high level of crafted complexity, where complexity refers to multi-step production- and consumption-chains, a high degree of labor division with specialized workforces and specialized services. “Crafted” refers to a complexity as an intended result of inner political and social processes, which shape and organize the complexity by means of institutions and defined procedures. A fragmented economy or a fragmented society will not gain inner coherence or stability just by connecting all and everyone to Internet: those who did not or would not interchange before will continue without interchange and collaboration, if “e-connectedness” is the only changed parameter.
Third hypothesis: if the process of defining a “National ICT Strategy” by itself – i.e. the ways and means, by which it’s implemented – does not create greater inner societal and economic coherence, the resulting strategy as for a country will fail. The most important outcome of the process is not the final strategic plan as a document, but the hopefully new and different dynamics established among stakeholders themselves during the process of making the “National ICT Strategy”.
Communication Technologies spread worldwide in the XIX-century along the routes of international trade at those times, the ITU being established in 1865 as International Telegraph Union. The worldwide expansion was dictated by the unilateral expansion of trade, as were the construction abroad of railroads and ports for steamer lines. As mostly defined by external interest, they did not increase the inner coherence of the receiving countries, on the contrary most present inner breaches in developing countries are the direct consequences of “being torn apart” more but a century ago. Misconceived ICT-strategies might become just another twist.
Communication & Information ≠ Organization: A missing Dimension. Some Thoughts about ICT and Poverty Reduction
The early hype about using MIS in business-management and public-administration in the late 70’s and early 80’s in OECD countries and its breakdown should have taught in that respect a lesson. If generalized poverty in developing countries is to be understood not simply as individual fate but as a complex socio-economic and cultural syndrome, omitting the organizational aspect –both on a micro- and a macro-level- in ICT usage for Poverty-reduction heads for failure.
This essay tries to spotlight some of the pitfalls, arising mostly because proponents were not conscious enough of the quite different conditions and historical background in the development of organizational cultures.
Illiterate Societies, Internet and Education
Internet has as a background not only individual literacy but a literate society, a society in which – possibly due to a very low rate of functionally illiteracy - social organization can be based on written, formal rules and communication. Individual functional illiteracy, meaning the inability to understand and execute simple written instructions or to write a simple story about a daily life event, however, scores high in many developing countries. Therefore, even if there are literate segments, the organization of society as a whole can not be based on literacy. Where written information is not ‘real’, one needs other means to guarantee societal coherence, namely direct personal relations, for small groups to organize themselves and which evolve into chains of intermediates linked by personal loyalty. Most parachuters from the north initially misunderstand these necessities in the south as nepotism, clientelism and so forth.
Under these conditions formal written rules and institutions play secondary roles. Where and when the transition between oral and written is needed, professions like scribes still exist. In legal matters, a functionally illiterate person never will interact directly with public administrators but will always contract the services of a legal agent. Likewise, simple commercial transactions like buying a car need the intervention of a lawyer to find the adequate formal expression. Even at the executive level, the processes of decision making rarely involve facts and fact-finding. They are mostly based on hearsay, other people verbally transmitted experiences and recommendations.
The Millennium Goals and subsequently the new World Bank Program – Education for All – set 2015 as target for eradicating functional illiteracy as one outcome of the complete Cycle of Basic Education for All. Yet the literate society is a rather recent achievement of the north and goes far beyond individual literacy. It appears as if at least 2 generations of individual literacy were needed before a complete transition took place. In most industrialized countries, the transition was completed only in the first half of the 20th century, long before the computer arrived. Countries like Costa Rica are just entering into the process with two generations of individual literacy completed right now. Countries like Nicaragua and many, many others have yet to achieve their first generation, which means that a complete transition will not be possible until, at best, 40 years from now.
These factors should have serious consequences for the design of ICT-usage in developing countries: as the literacy divide will stay with us for at least 40 years, the internal literate to illiterate frontier has to be an explicit part of the development design. For instance eGovernment-projects or eCity projects aimed to implement direct self-service for citizens, either with respect only to information or to access public services, will benefit only small minorities unless bridging agents and their function is an explicit part of the project.
Combinations with local Radio or local TV are not just less costly alternatives; they are ideal elements to bridge both worlds. Similarly there are others – like local technicians, local health- and education-personal, lawyers or law-agents and more advanced merchants, who may act – as they do already in the pre-internet world – as bridging agents. Secondary students, properly trained and supported, may also act on behalf of whole families.
In that respect it’s not sufficient just to equip potential bridging agents with access to computing facilities and to train them in computer-usage, mostly limited to the keystrokes of standard packages. Rather they and their respective communities need active training in how to act as bridging agents using among other tools, ICT. It is valuable to look at funding ratios in ICT-projects between investment in Hardware, Software and Connectivity on the one hand, and Human Factors, like user education and customer training on the other. In the north, ratios of 1:10 and even higher are standard. In developing countries, taking into account lower wages, a ratio of 1:4 should be a minimum, yet in many projects I’ve seen, the relation is more likely 2:1.
This type of agent training should also be included in so-called computer-literacy efforts in primary and secondary education, yet a revision of several programs of the Interamerican Development Bank (IADB) for Central America shows it isn’t. They shouldn’t be, as they are mostly now, simple copies of ‘Internet for Every School’ programs from the north or yet another edition of ‘The Teaching Machine’ as a cheaper substitute for teachers, a concept that had failed already as ‘Programmed Learning’ in the late 60’s and that from an economics perspective turns out to be simply wrong: in most developing countries a lecture-hour brought by an ordinary teacher to a whole class-group is far less expensive than a lab-hour at the computing-lab for the same amount of students.
eBusiness and eGovernment
When the Internet made its entrance into the business-world of the 90’s, this world had already a tradition of almost one generation of using computers. And this usage of computers was based already on earlier traditions of using bookkeeping machines and punched cards as standard devices both in private and public administration going back another 40 years or so. Systematic Commercial Book-keeping for accounts and inventories as such dates back to the 16th century. Based on this long tradition, one might presume that data-driven management of businesses has a long tradition anywhere. Yet using data – depending on accounts and inventory records instead of physical evidence – items in stock and money in the cashier – requires at least a certain degree of functional literacy. It’s said the Venice Merchants invented double-entry accounting and elementary balances in first place to detect mathematical errors of their barely literate personnel. The benefits of account analysis were detected later on. Fact is that Business Administration separated from Economics after the end of the 19th century. Harvard University has existed for 350 years, yet the now famous School of Business was established in 1908. Taylor’s theories had to wait until 1923, before being systematically applied and it was not until the massive logistic problems of WWII, that J. v. Neumann started to investigate systematically supply- and distribution-chains. And the systematic application of Management Theories to Government still had to wait until the mid 60’s of the last century.
The point is not to review the rather recent history of systematic management of private and public administration, but to show that the Internet was the very last step in a chain of events and steps, that are very specific for the industrialized western societies and the forced early adaptor Japan. Concepts like just-in-time production were already in place, before the Internet arrived; their fundamentals investigated and defined before the first computer had been constructed, yet its construction was already related to deal with this class of problems.
Even under these favorable conditions, first attempts at a wholly computer-based administration many times ended up in costly failures – and many still do, ask SAP – and in the 80’s appeared the idea that only by applying systematic re-engineering to complete business-processes with the computer in mind right from the beginning, could substantial gains in efficiency be obtained. Yet even these gains, namely improved client-, supply- and distribution-management had only marginal effects on Total Productivity, as the paper by Charles Kenny shows. (The Internet and Economic Growth in Least Developed Countries). The Internet as such therefore has had even smaller effects. For example the world’s largest eSeller Amazon had its first operational surplus in 2002, after almost 4 years in operation. And at Dell Computers, the online-sales are just the outside window to a complex internal just-in-time production process, where ICT plays a role but the process as a whole is by far more than only a simple ICT-application.
If you are illiterate than in most cases time measured in hours or even days is not an intellectually accessible resource, means it does not enter in reasoning or planning. If you live more over in rural areas, still sun-rise and sun-set plus crop-seasons are your framework of thinking.
As with ordinary illiteracy, if the majority in the societal environment has no notion of time as resource, society as such can not and will not operate timeliness. The most simple symptom for this global failure is easy to find: almost never meetings start as schedule, regardless of the social or educational level of the participants. However ICT is mostly about time and gains in efficiency by using time more efficient.
Who ever stated – looking at this context and historical background – that ICT would enable handicraftsmen or small farmers to continue producing with medieval organization-concepts but to leapfrog into XXI century profits, was wrong from the very beginning. To state it clearly: it is possible to export whole and complete production-processes to 3rd World countries. Even then as the early mega-projects of the 70’s – like steel-mills etc. – show, the adaptation process needed a whole decade. It’s possible to transplant industries with a low level of hardwired organization, similar to manufacturing at the end of the 18th century, and start almost right away as the sweatshop-industry or maquila-industry shows. And finally there is no doubt that exporting industries and agriculture in developing countries at least at gateway-level, that is where they receive and dispatch merchandise to the outer world, have to upgrade to XXI century use of ICT or else they will simply go out of business.
Put this again grim picture, one might ask then what might be a realistic role for ICT for the Poor. As it appears – nobody has yet proposed a serious alternative – there is no alternative than to move from naturally grown production organizations to at least crafted if not designed processes, if one would like to see factor-efficiency approach that of industrialized countries. This remains true even if other elements, not only factor-efficiency, count. This implies that one way or the other, management based only on physical evidence has to be replaced by management based on data; another topic that needs urgently to be included in educational programs of at least secondary education. And finally small producers have to be encouraged to form larger productions units either themselves as cooperatives or as part of a cluster, at least with respect to purchases and sales, where the latter implies shared product- and quality-standards.
ICT – either standalone or as part of networks – that aims to support this transformation process, may be useful, only if ICT remains a means, a fraction of that larger process – as it had been previously in industrialized countries.
The Poor, ICT and Power
Information itself is not power: you may have the knowledge of Noble-price winner, yet you don’t have any power, unless an organization puts your knowledge to use. You may have the talent of a Demosthenes to communicate, but be without any power, unless there are people to hear you and act accordingly. Without true elections, your informed opinion as taken by polls would have no impact at all.
Therefore if the extended possibilities to inform and to be informed by using ICT have any relation with true empowerment of the poor, then it will be only insofar as they enable the poor to organize themselves and act more powerfully by all civic means at their disposition, from organized claims to organized lawsuits, from lobbying to public demonstrations. Periodical elections are only one instrument, some say the least important, in western-like democracies. Far more important are the different types of interest or pressure groups, from the oil-industry to the consumer-associations that influence legislation and administration in all its details.
Trying to avoid getting trapped into the civic battle-fields of society, some projects claim that their restricted approach of providing information only but not organizational support, helps as it enlightens the ignorant poor not to be fooled as easily. Many use the famous middleman as standard example for price fooling, where suddenly ICT turns the situation. Yet even in the most remote zones of Nicaragua the small coffee-farmers have a very clear idea of what a consumer in Washington/DC pays for a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Obviously they know what they are paid themselves. Yet this knowledge alone does not help them to obtain a single cent extra for their high quality, hand selected coffee beans. Therefore the above is a willful misconception, as it first assumes that the poor are indeed mostly ignorant, that’s they don’t know what would be better for them, and second it ignores the fact that fooling is mostly promoted by others interests, and still needs joined action to obtain different results, either circumventing those interests or getting different shares of return. Similar considerations apply with respect to law, as even in a country like the US or Germany consumers or citizens have to join and organize first before they have a slim chance to win their case at court, if powerful vested interest is involved. Why then it should be different in developing countries?
We started in the abstract saying that Information and Communication make sense only if viewed as a means within an organizational framework or context. We then exposed, why this context is so different in many developing countries, fragmented among others by the literacy breach. We looked at the organizational concepts underlying ICT usage in private and public administration in industrialized countries, contrasting it with its counterpart in many developing countries. Though we looked only at Private Business Management, it would have been easy to present similar examples for public administration. And finally we touched the new buzzword of Empowerment of the Poor.
We found that without adapting ICT to existing and persisting fragmentations by strengthening bridges, without changing underlying models of at least purchase and sales management by promoting collaboration, and finally without enabling the self-organization of the poor to make their interest felt and not only heard, all the perspective potentials of ICT remain up in the skies. We – the ICT4D experts – among others have to mainstream ICT down to earth, where true poverty reduction will or will not take place.