Information-for-development: business as usual, or breakthrough?


  • Jan Nederveen Pieterse University of Illinois


The key question confronting us is whether information-for-development is another round of business as usual, now sheltered under the new umbrella of digital capitalism, or whether it holds a potential for a breakthrough in development. To this question, there are two main approaches.

One is to take information-for-development in a light sense (ICT4D lite). Then, it is about recycling old computers by donating them to developing countries. It is about Microsoft offering software discounts to Indonesia on condition that the Indonesian government takes measures against software piracy. It is about UNDP teaming up with Cisco Systems to set up training courses in developing countries. This kind of approach often comes with ideas of IT as a techno-fix that makes it possible to leapfrog development, and at times with an extraterrestrial optimism about the potential of ICT and development. Media reports discuss, for instance, ‘Ethiopia’s Digital Dream’ and the enthusiasm about applying IT in e-government, education and telecommunications across the country, an aim that is pursued with great zeal despite poverty and in the hope that digital solutions can make up for the lack of infrastructure (Cross, 2005). Yet, if we look at the fine print, we find that to implement this, the Ethiopian government and Telecommunications Corporation teamed up with Cisco Systems and Business Connexion of South Africa, and the reporter visited the country as a guest of Cisco Systems, which prompts a question: is this Ethiopia’s digital dream, or that of IT corporations? This illustrates a key dilemma of ITC4D.

Alternatively, we can take information-for-development in a strong sense and seek a serious assessment of its contributions. This begins with recognizing that development is an intervention in a field of power and resources, and that ICT represents the latest wave of capital accumulation.

As the latest major wave of capital accumulation, ICT is part of a series -think railroads, electricity and chemical industries in the nineteenth century, and automobiles and telecommunications in the twentieth century. Each accumulation wave comes with its cycle of innovation, overinvestment and maturity. Boosterism is part of this cycle: it is not sufficient for new products to be made; they must also be invested in, sold and used. They must be the talk of the town. ICT is both a dream space of multinational capital, the spearhead of market-led development in a world-to-come of minimal regulation, and typically faces preferences for the national regulation of telecoms.

ICT for development is a strategic part of ICT expansion: ICT4D is digital capitalism looking South -to growing middle classes, rising educational levels, vast cheap labor pools, regimented labor conditions, and yet difficult regulatory environments. It is about market expansion and converting unused capacity into business assets on the premise that new technology is the gateway to hope. And it is about the deepening of the market by bypassing regulations and pressing for liberalization and opening up spaces for competition and investment, and devising new regulations that will shape the future. In this context, ICT4D is a package deal in which the means of bridging the digital divide contradict the very idea of bridging the digital divide. If implemented without caution, ICT4D is a Trojan horse that locks developing countries in a software-hardware arms race that will yield never-ending compatibility problems, because ICT is essentially being designed for advanced markets. It may be true that in the information economy the cost of a copy is zero (Verzola 2004), but the cost of the delivery systems -infrastructure, hardware, software and human ware- is far from zero.

ICT4D stands at the crossroads of today’s major forces in private, public and social spheres: telecoms, international institutions, states and civil society groups and cyber activists; it is a prism in which key problems of neoliberal globalization are refracted. What is at stake in contemporary globalization is both different national capitalisms, each of which is dynamic and in flux, and the interaction of capitalisms which is mediated through complex layers of technology, international finance, trade, international institutions, knowledge systems, legal standards and proprietary arrangements. From the package-character of ICT4D emerges the actual task of ICT4D, which is to unpack ICT4D so its development potential can be harnessed.