Tag Archives: development

Corporate Narratives, ICTs, and Development

original image courtesyOnce upon a time, a very long time ago, before even Google or mobile phones and long before Facebook, there was just the Internet. And folk who created the Internet and its early users were filled with wonder at its potential. They foresaw a day when there would be true equality of opportunity because everyone would have access to knowledge, access to markets, and true democracy would reign as everyone had a voice in governance.

For those working in the complex world of International Development trying to bring about more equality in the world, through means misguided or otherwise,  information and communication technologies (ICTs) seemed to offer tremendous potential to accelerate positive change in the world.  And so new aid programs were born that attempted to catalyse development activities through the use of ICTs.

As the Internet optimists had foreseen, ICTs turned out to be very useful for everyone, even and most especially the poor.  But where there is utility, there is money and the communication infrastructure business soon became a multi-billion dollar industry.  Technology companies rapidly outpaced development efforts and soon mobile phone infrastructure had spread across the developing world.

Slightly embarrassed by their own efforts, development agencies leapt on board with mobile and Internet companies to partner in bringing access to the developing world.  A beautiful public private partnership was born. Sounds great doesn’t it?  Everyone go to Davos.

What is missing from this picture is the fact that large technology companies are not in the business of saving the world.  They are in the business of serving their shareholders.  And that means that the story they tell the world about their involvement in the developing world, is one that serves their shareholders.  What do I mean by “story they tell”?  Narrative is the basic unit of human thought and everything we do is constructed in the context of a story that we tell ourselves and that we tell others about what is happening in the world and what our role is in it.  Some years ago I was introduced to a beautiful quotation from Alasdair Macintyre (thank you Steve Denning) that has stuck with me:

“unless we have the critical tools to understand in which story we stand, our praxis runs the risk of prolonging not only the problem but the problem story. Often a problem will be solved only by dissolving the story”

In other words, if you don’t know whether your Hamlet or Rosencrantz or in King Lear or The Comedy of Errors, there is little chance of you successfully changing your role or the outcome of the story.

Corporations have been known to occasionally deviate from the very strictest truth in the stories they tell in order to serve their corporate interests.   An energy company might de-emphasise the danger of certain kinds of energy sources because of the vast profits to be made from them.  A mining company might obscure the provenance of minerals sourced from a conflict zone.  Otherwise upright corporations pay bribes where there is a lot of money to be made and an opportunity to do so without getting caught.  Where there is a lot of money on the table, corporations tend to act first in the interest of their bottom line.

And there is a lot of money in the world of telecommunications and the Internet.  Carlos Slim didn’t get to be the richest man in the world by baking cakes.  This turns out to be a problem because communication networks, thanks to the magic of network effects, naturally tend toward monopolies or at least oligopolies.  This makes it much easier for communications corporations to extract more than their fair share of revenue from the average customer.  Why do they do this?  Because they can, because it is what they exist to do, to maximise profits for their shareholders.

This is not about the developing world in particular.  It is true in the U.S. and Canada.  For an insight into the U.S. watch this chilling talk by Susan Crawford about the state of broadband infrastructure.  Communication companies have the chips stacked in their favour and absolutely require regulation in order to counter-balance the natural tendency toward monopoly.

When it comes to the developing world however there is an amazing dearth of critical discussion about the narrative put forward by communication companies.  Development agencies treat these corporations as if they were their friends.  They are not your friends.  They may have temporarily aligned interests but they are not your friends.  They may be staffed by excellent and well-meaning people but their collective interest, nay their responsibility, is to their bottom line and it is frankly amazing that development agencies have managed to maintain an apparent state of willful naivete for such a long time.

This obliviousness leads to pretty dubious activities like the funding of “mobile apps for development”.  Oh sweet saffron, how the mobile operators must have chuckled when they heard that one.  Honestly, they don’t need your help.  Curiously there is little funding going into supporting good policy and regulation of telecom and Internet markets in the developing world, to ensuring real competition and fair pricing.  There are some stand-out exceptions but they are just that, exceptions.

So when the ITU develops a global next generation broadband strategy and it fails to mention WiFi, do you think it might be because mobile corporations have an interest in promoting their own infrastructure rather?  Do you think that when Google launches a campaign to Save the Internet that it is altruism or self-interest?  When Facebook offers free access on mobile phones, is that because they care about the poor?   Please don’t get me wrong, I am not some whining lefty moaning about how corporations are evil.  Corporations are lovely.  Google, in particular, in serving its corporate interest of having more bits consumed globally is in a position to do some very useful  disruptive things in both the rich and poor worlds.  Disruptive corporations in particular are lovely as they pry out the roots that monopolistic corporations dig in the ground.  However, they are still not your friend.  They need to be watched and called to account when they behave badly, especially when a big fat pile of money is on the table.  And this is what the international development community is signally failing to do.

So what’s the tl;dr?  Fewer apps and more support for ICT policy and regulation, please.  It’s not sexy, it takes a long time, and often it fails to succeed against the massive advantage that huge communication corporations have.  But it is where a more ICTD support should be going.  Naturally I speak with a degree of self-interest.  Simply making WiFi and VoIP legal everywhere would be a big leg-up for Village Telco.  Where would I be without my own little corporate narrative?  :-)

Original image courtesy Philip Martin.

Three reasons why M4D may be bad for Development

Fair warning, this post is a slightly intemperate and possibly ill-advised rant but sometimes you just have to get something off your chest if only to enable someone else to tell you how wrong you are. I have previously raised my “issue” with the theme of Mobiles for Development or M4D as it has come to be known, in the form of a twisted parable but it is still bugging me so I am going to say what’s on my mind a little more clearly. I hope to inspire some pushback and discussion. Here are three reasons why I think M4D may actually be bad for development.

1) Repeating the Lessons of History

Do you remember ICTs for Development in 1999? ICT4D in 1999 looked a lot like an Alexander McCall Smith novel in that there was a complete absence of cell phones. In 1999, we were still talking about modems and getting a good quality dial-up connection and even telecentres. I only woke up to the impact that mobile phones were having in about 2002 and then finally it became an official reality when, in March of 2005, the Economist announced that mobile phones were the real bridge to the digital divide. And how right they were. I don’t think even then they would have predicted how cheap and how powerful mobile phones would become.

However, it is worth trying to put technology in context. Let’s look at a little recent history. From an ICTs and development perspective, here are some things we didn’t talk about in:

Year Not in the conversation
2001 Mobile phones
2003 WiFi Hotspots
2005 Mobile Broadband
2007 LTE
2009 Tablet computing
2011 TV White Spaces technology

Now of course some of you are thinking right now, hey, I was talking about technology Y in 20XX, and perhaps you were, but what I am referring to is the dominant dialogue in technology and development. As William Gibson famously said, “the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed.”

So what can we learn from this? Just this, that the future is going to be a surprise and tying the notion of development to a particular mode of technology is as bad an idea now as it was in 1999.

2) Player, you are being played

Yes, that’s right Mr. mobile 4 development, I’ve got an app for that, incubator, mobile app challenge, startup, mobile entrepreneurship, etc.  You are being played by the mobile operators who “join forces” with development agencies to solve the critical problems facing Africa. Well, news flash, the critical issue around mobile technology is not an app, it is price. The cost of access is the real barrier to innovation. In fifteen years of explosive mobile growth in Africa prices have not come down substantially. Why? Because mobile operators through their de facto control of mobile spectrum and because of  the muddy position governments play as both investor and regulator, competition hasn’t bitten in most African countries, Kenya being a notable exception.

So when the foundation from a mobile operator or an aid agency subsidises the cost of access in an m4d project, are they doing it out of the goodness of their hearts?  Well, that is no doubt part of it but the real bonus is that providing subsidies reduces the pressure that people with influence might bring to bear for lower prices in the market. Fewer voices that speak out with indignation about the high cost of access combined with the high profits being made by the mobile operators. The poor have no voice on this. If they did they might say that reducing the price of voice and SMS was a bigger priority for them than mobile broadband right now.

Mobile operators have entrenched themselves with development agencies as the saviours of access and give generously to m4d development programs. Development agencies have rushed to embrace mobile operators. Why? Because good business is now good development and although it may sound odd in the context of this post, I too believe this to be true.  However, what the mobile operators have achieved through this embrace is the effective sidetracking of debates about competition and affordability. The mobile operators opine that the invisible hand of the market will bring down prices and there is a grain of truth to this in the same sense that it is true that I am mortal and will die one day… just not any time soon (insh’allah).

Finally, it is worth pointing out that mobile operators do not have an economic model for rural broadband access for the poor.  LTE is not going to be economically viable for sparsely populated, poor, rural areas.  If that matters to you then we should be thinking about broadening the discussion a little.

3) Resilience

If we have learned anything in the last three years, it is that monolithic, tightly linked industries are dangerous. They are dangerous because when they fail, they do so catastrophically. What we want is an ecology of technologies that will:

  1. increase the resilience of networks, making it difficult for any one entity to interfere wholesale with access; and,
  2. break the lock that mobile spectrum has on the market opening up new avenues of competition for access and through that driving down the cost of access.

So while Africa is busy embracing its mobile future, the United States appears to be embracing its WiFi future. According to this Comscore report

“In August 2011, more than one third (37.2 percent) of U.S. digital traffic coming from mobile phones occurred via a WiFi connection. This percentage grew nearly 3 points in just the past three months.”

And here is what telecom giant AT&T have to say:

  • Users now make 100 million AT&T Wi-Fi connections per month. Wi-Fi connections in a single month now exceed the total connections made in all of 2009 and are five times the total connections made in 2008.
  • Data carried on the AT&T Wi-Fi network more than doubled versus the third-quarter 201

But I am not advocating WiFi for Development, I am saying we should be thinking and talking about the whole access ecology. By failing to do that we are likely to miss important new trends.

Now, before you mention it, yes, I fully admit that there is a healthy amount of self-interest in what I’m saying. As a WiFi startup social enterprise, Village Telco, is often excluded from “mobile” challenges.  But the reason I invest my time in Village Telco is because I believe all of the above.  Development agencies could do a great deal of good by investing in policy advocacy around competition and access ecologies.  Sadly it may be left to industry once again to figure this out as well.  Kudos to Google for hiring a policy team in Africa.

African Women and American Academics

I find myself wondering if I am the only one dismayed by the “mudwrestling” going on among Dambisa Moyo, Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly… and others. In case you haven’t heard, Dambisa Moyo has written a provocative book on the merits of development assistance. Her book, Dead Aid, challenges some of the accepted wisdom about how to help poor countries out of poverty. I love provocative books. I love people who can stand the world on its head and say maybe the world isn’t flat after all.  We all need shaking up on a fairly regular basis, especially in the times we live in now.

For me, what ought to have happened after the publication of Dead Aid would be for more pieces like the balanced Francis Fukuyama review in Slate to find prominence and for a stimulating, constructive, multi-dimensional conversation to begin about what this might mean for development policy. Conversations that start by seeking points of agreement in the other’s work and that try to build on those points of agreement.

Instead, what I see is the sort of, winner-take-all, academic sniping that destroys without creating. To pokes holes in the foundations of  another’s argument without acknowledging or building on the sturdy parts of their foundations is not really constructive. Don’t get me wrong. I am a fan of Karl Popper. I believe that disprovability is the cornerstone of the quest for truth. Yet I also believe that compassion is as important a part of academic discourse as rationality.

George Lakoff, author of Metaphors We Live By, points out that the dominant metaphor for argument is that of conflict and struggle. And indeed, William Easterly validates this when he says that the “purpose of debate is to facilitate the emergence of the best ideas and to shoot down the worst ideas” and “it is clear to me intellectually that Sachs’ ideas are wrong, and I will combat them accordingly” (emphasis is mine).  Hat tip to another World Bank alumnus, Steve Denning, for making me aware of Lakoff’s work.  But why the metaphor of conflict?  Why not a metaphor of mountain climbers roped together scaling a summit?

I am reminded of a page from Sam Kaner’s excellent Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making in which he explores two different modes of problem solving:

Either / Or Both / And
Value System Competitive Collaborative
Type of Outcome Expected Win / Lose Win / Win
Attitude toward “Winning” To the victor goes the spoils Your success is my success
Attitude toward “Losing” Someone has to lose If somebody loses everybody loses
Attitude toward minority opinions Get with the program Everyone has a piece of the truth
Why explore differences between competing opinions? To search for bargaining chips, in preparation for horsetrading and compromise. To build a shared framework of understanding, in preparation for mutual creative thinking.
Essential Mental Activity Analyse: break wholes into parts Synthesise: integrate parts into wholes
How long it takes It’s usually faster in the short run It’s usually faster in the long run
Underlying philosophy Survival of the fittest Interdependence of all things

Ethan Zuckerman’s pointer to a thoughtful post on the blog What an African Woman Thinks is what actually compelled me to write this.  The author, Rombo, has a fresh, critical yet compassionate take on the debate.  It reminded me that compassion and critical thinking will take you a lot further in the social construction of knowledge than critical thinking alone. So, Dambisa, Jeffrey, William how about a little less invective and a little more compassion or dare I say ubuntu?  Africa certainly has no need of aid when it comes to philosophy, perhaps the other way around.

ICT Access and Usage in Africa

ICT Access and Usage in Africa

ICT Access and Usage in Africa

In a couple of recent posts, I have mentioned the percentage of disposable income spent by Africans on mobile communication.  While I have  posted links to the research, I think it is worth singling out the work of Research ICT Africa.

What is in desperately short supply in Africa is rigorous, demand-side evidence of ICT usage that is comparable across borders.  ResearchICTAfrica, led by Alison Gillwald, has undertaken a herculean task in carrying out extensive household and individual ICT use surveys across 17 African countries in 2007 and 2008.

If you are interested in ICTs and development in Africa you should read ICT Access and Usage in Africa (Volume One 2008, Policy Paper Two).  Not to mention the treasure trove of other research on their site, which is now finally in a fit state to browse. :-)

The Rationality of Mobile Spending

Richard Heeks has written an interesting post entitled Mobiles for Impoverishment in which he says that recent m4d research “suggests mobiles are doing more economic harm than good, and sometimes making poor people poorer”.  He points to quantitative and qualitative research that suggest that economic benefits are not being realised by the users of mobile phones in poor countries.   The full post is well worth reading.  In the end, he draws two conclusions:  1) that if significant value is being spent by the poor on phones, then they must be deriving significant value; and 2) that financial gain is not the only benefit that the poor derive from mobile phones.

I agree with his second conclusion. I think most people believe, correctly, that mobile phones are having a complex but generally positive impact on the lives of the poor in developing countries.  Until very recently, I would also have agreed with his first conclusion as well.  It does seem blindingly obvious that people would not spend money they can ill-afford to do without on something they don’t value.  It was the phrase “putting aside the possibility of irrationality” that was the trigger for me.  Having recently read Dan Ariely’s popular book on behavioural economics, “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions“, I have begun to wonder to what extent the  forces of irrationality are having an impact on mobile phone expenditure in developing countries.

In his book, Arielly gives a lot of attention to savings and personal finance in the United States, pointing out how people behave in ways which don’t reflect their economic self-interest.  He presents a wealth of evidence that people are swayed by emotion, by context, by social norms, even by the not-so-simple word “free”.  Frankly, it is very disturbing book.  :-)  A particular hobby-horse for him is the credit-card.  He has lobbied credit card companies in the past to produce a “safety” credit card which would enforce a waiting period for any large expenditure, in order to allow reason to catch up with the decision-making brain.

It made me think that mobile phones are the credit cards of Africa. No one would argue the tremendous general utility of credit cards yet evidence of the last few years points to the fact that Americans (as a case in point) are not very good at controlling and managing their credit.  A lot of this has to do with how credit cards are marketed and how information from credit card companies is communicated to consumers.  There is an interesting article in the Economist a couple of weeks ago pointing out that minimum payment requirements on credit card bills actually influence people to pay less than they might otherwise on their bill.  In this case, displaying a minimum payment requirement is the law but credit card companies and mobile operators alike know a lot about what makes people spend.  Similarly, it seems to me, mobile phones are designed for spending and not very well designed for controlling spending or saving for that matter.

As I continue to unpack this idea, lots of links emerge for me between mobile phone behaviour  and the irrational behaviour Ariely profiles in his book.  Relativism is an obvious example in the way people upgrade their phones beyond what is necessary or even sometimes what they can afford.  The irresistible allure of “free offers” influences decision-making about cell phone packages.  Finally, there is the impulse-driven nature of phone calling in general.

Behavioural economists promote the creation of conditions that nudge people (or better still help people nudge themselves) toward good behaviour.  A few ideas that occur to me in this direction are:

  1. being able to set a monthly budget on your pay-as-you-go phone that would warn you if you near or going over your monthly budget;
  2. being able to set a budget for call times that would alert you if you were talking beyond a preset time;
  3. better consumer information services on the relative value of the myriad plans on offer from mobile operators;

And finally, what about saving?  What if you could buy a pay-as-you go plan that put 10% of your call expenditure into a savings account?  Experience from the developed world is that saving is easiest when it is most invisible.  Payroll savings plans are a great example of this.  Roll on mobile banking.

There is little doubt for me that mobiles are opening up amazing opportunities in developing countries but that doesn’t mean that people are using them as economically as they could be.   Offering people the choice to nudge themselves in the right direction might help.

P.S.  If you haven’t time or inclination to read the book, here’s an interesting Guardian article on Ariely and behavioural economics.