Tag Archives: ict4d

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.

The Yin and Yang of Open

In Eric Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth, he describes a fascinating software experiment modeling the prisoner’s dilemma but not between two decision-makers (as in the classical scenario) but rather in a multi-actor evolutionary landscape in which anyone can make a transaction with anyone. The software was used to seed open and closed transaction strategies into an evolutionary landscape. The interesting result is that “open” strategies succeed very well in a very closed ecology and “closed” strategies succeed very well in a very in a very open environment. In this perspective, the whole current movement in favour of “open” might be seen simply as a rebalancing of a very closed economic ecosystem.

The Yin and Yang of OpenThe ICT4D team at IDRC have been thinking a lot about ICT4D and Openness. They have produced an excellent thought piece on Open ICT for Development which has prompted some thoughts of my own. The following is an edited version of my interaction with the ICT4D team.

As an advocate for openness in general, I struggle with the sense that openness is not in and of itself a virtue. If we were talking about Improved Healthcare through ICTs for Development, there would be no question of the development and human good being achieved. Open ICTs for Development is much less obvious. The more I think about it, it seems to me that we don’t want everything to be completely open, we rather want things to be open enough. Put another way, we want some things to be open more than other things and we are prepared to compromise on what those are, recognising that tolerating some closed is a good way of getting more open.

Google is an obvious case, we tolerate Google’s closed search algorithm and closed applications because we get mostly free search, email, and web hosting. We call Microsoft “evil” for having closed software but no one ever gives Intel a hard time about having closed chipsets. We campaign for open mobile platforms but no one ever takes Qualcomm to task for locking up CDMA. If the transaction cost is low enough, how much does open matter?

I suspect that in general we don’t just tolerate a lot of closed, we inherently recognise that the closed is necessary too. Perhaps rather than openness, we should be campaigning for “open enoughness”. Closed and open are an economic yin and yang that need each other.

While I really like “open” as a general umbrella for a number of issues that interest me, the downside I have experienced is that (like the word freedom) everyone has their own concept of what “open” is and before you have gone very far in an “open” discussion, you find yourself in argument because you are using the same word but with sometimes significantly different meanings. Open Access is a case in point. BTW, I am talking about the physical information infrastructure Open Access, not the academic publishing Open Access. Every planned undersea cable around Africa claims the mantle of Open Access yet their economic models range from closed to open.  Open Standards is another case in point.  Anyone looking at Microsoft’s proposed OOXML format can get a sense of how elastic the word open is.

So, I can’t help but wonder whether it wouldn’t short circuit some arguments to focus on the key elements of Open. So what do we mean when we say open?

Equality of Opportunity to Participate (EOP)

A key aspect of “open” is the sense of enabling capacity or agency, empowering economic and social participation. This doesn’t come across so much from the Open Source movement where access and capacity are often taken as given but is distinctly prevalent in other “open” initiatives. ICTs are a powerful tool for increasing EOP.  In particular, making sure the tools of knowledge generation and communication are open is important.  However, as we move into the age of cloud computing and Software as a Service (SaaS) the question of “open enough” raises its head again.


Another issue that is not an intrinsic good. Privacy and security are important counterbalances in the transparency discussion, yet there are clear areas where transparency is an obvious good, transparency in governance comes first to mind.  The goal here is to find the right balance. ICTs exacerbate the transparency issue by increasing the potential for transparency while simultaneously making the issues of privacy and security ever more challenging.

The Commons

Open is probably most significantly associated with the commons and what can be achieved when we elect to share and manage resources in common. In this case, Open may be an inappropriate name, implying a free-for-all, when what we have learned from the Tragedy of the Commons is that the commons needs management.  ICTs offer particularly interesting dimensions to the commons, such as the ability to leverage our ‘cognitive surplus’, as Clay Shirky calls it.  Not to mention the potential of commons-based approaches to speed innovation. And indeed, the power of the commons to contribute to EOP and Transparency.

So what does the above mean? Well it reminds me of years in the KM4DEV community debating the nature of knowledge versus information versus data (and even, god forbid, wisdom). I find that now, rather than get sidetracked in these interesting but ultimately endless discussions, I am now inclined to talk about “conversations” rather than “knowledge, information, and data” because I find it leads to the kinds of activities that I am interested in.

By the same token, I think I might be tempted to talk about Equality of Opportunity to Participate, Transparency, and the Commons rather than Open itself. Open is a multi-dimensional issue and the more we can be specific about what we mean, the less we might be derailed by ideological interpretation, slogan bandwagoneers, and snake oil salesmen.

Disclaimer:  these thoughts are in the midst of gestation, I reserve the right to change my mind several times yet.