Thursday, December 2, 2010

(Information) technology and development

The Nov/Dec issue of the Boston Review has a great forum on "Can Technology End Poverty" about the promise and the limitations of the clunkily named ICT4D sector (information and communications technology for development). In the lead article, Kentaro Toyama argues that, contrary to the hype, ICT4D can only magnify the effect of motivated and capable human beings working on development — it cannot substitute for or replace them. (For a similar point about the promise and pitfalls of crowdsourcing, see earlier post here).

A number of prominent academics and participants in various ICT4D initiatives offer their responses. Archon Fung's argument about the possibility of exploiting the socio-economic biases of technology is particularly intriguing. The final contribution in the forum is Toyama's, who responds to the comments from the other contributors. Toyama is not optimistic about Fung's suggestion that technology be specifically designed to help improve the lives of the poor, but thinks he may be on to something in suggesting that technology be used to support public goods.

I think Toyama is right in pointing out that "inevitably, the rich, skilled, and socially connected will make better use of [technologies] than the rest." But this need not be as big a problem as he seems to believe it is. Fung's argument, I believe, is that one can develop specific technologies that the rich, skilled, and socially connected would not have a strong incentive to use, because the technologies supply something (possibly a public good, but not necessarily so) that they do not need (either because they already have it, or simply because it is not one of their needs).

The challenge, of course, is that this requires a lot more thought than simply throwing laptops or cellphones at a developing country problem. But promoting such an approach would be a good complement, I believe, to Toyama's central prescription: that, "when deciding how to allocate resources between technology and human capital, [we] invest first in the factor that is most lacking," which, in a developing country, will often be the latter.

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