Once 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.