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Sunday, June 26

Bringing real democracy to world's rural peoples: "There is no box"

"Another topic that fascinates me is the factor of technology in the spreading of "freedom" in places like North Korea and China. Have you written on that?"

We assured Beth we'd have this ready on the weekend so this essay is Pundita's reply to the last question, above, in Beth's letter. Yes I have mentioned the connection between technology and the difficulty of bringing genuine democratic elections to rural regions in developing countries. See the essays under the Pundita sidebar category Phony Democracy. However, I am not well informed on developments in this area and what knowledge I have is behind the curve of fast-moving events across the world.

Yet Beth has put her finger on a very important issue -- critically important, as it relates to the Bush Democracy Doctrine and the ongoing attempts by democratic governments in developing countries to genuinely 'democratize' their elections.

I stress that several of these attempts predate Bush's doctrine. Many governments have long recognized that the best way to defuse protest movements that explode into rage against the central government is by bringing the vast majority -- in developing countries, the poorest -- into the democratic decision making process. Yet the logistics of accomplishing this are mind-boggling.

To give my readers in developed countries a small idea of the obstacles -- read this, but make you're sitting down first:
The Internet in its current state is not suitable for “direct consumption” by the average rural consumer. A physical book provides information as long as there is enough light to read. [In many rural villages electricity is only available for a few hours a day.] An Internet source of information requires the user to be aware of several technological notions that they don’t particularly care for.

One such example that I have witnessed is the difficulty in explaining to a new user the need to connect to the Internet before you can access information on the Internet.

Many users (both urban and rural) expect that, just like a TV or radio, a computer that is powered on must by definition be able to access the information they need. They have to be constantly reminded of the need to “connect” to the Internet even after powering on, and that the connection to the Internet could be lost at any point in time, in which case, they must reconnect.

-- from Sumedh Mungee's Rural Development II essay
So. For those Developeds who ask, "Well why can't we just get computerized voting into those rural areas?" -- the staggering cost aside, it ain't that simple, even for governments that are pushing for rural participation in the voting process. Yet the World Bank, in typical Bank fashion, has decided to throw the kitchen sink at the problem:
An international consortium, including Indian and American companies as well as the World Bank, is planning to establish thousands of rural Internet centers in India to bring government, banking and education services to isolated villages. [...]

The goal is to serve rural villages with populations of more than 5,000. Ultimately the plan calls for centers or kiosks in 5,000 villages in the state of Karnataka.*
On paper, the project sounds like a great idea. Here's the reality, as summed by Mungee in his first Rural Development essay:
What we need is not for a whole bunch of “digital divide experts” to drive into villages, set up kiosks and line up villagers and teach them. The moment the “experts” leave the village, the initiative starts to collapse under its own weight.

Instead what we need is to enable a do-it-yourself ecosystem that empowers tech-minded individuals in every village (they are there -- we have to learn to recognize them!) to start small shops, earn revenue, and educate their customers incrementally. ...
Mungee expands on this theme in Rural Development II:
How did rural India “learn” to make long distance telephone calls? Understanding the cost structure, long-distance phone codes and even just dialing long strings of numbers was once way beyond the reach of the average rural phone customer. Today the same villager is happily (and confidently) tapping out numbers on his cell phone.

This change was brought about by the youth who manned the earliest “STD booths” and patiently explained the costs and even helped village customers dial the numbers they wished to call.
If you read the Comment thread appended to the Rural Development essay, you will see that Pundita visits and makes a plea for more data. This was charitably answered by Radha:
Grassroots entrepreneurs or social business is what this is being called now and people have been thinking like this for some time now…look up www.tarahaat.com

Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done. For the average Sushma on the dusty [village] streets of Panna, much of what is available on the Net does not apply to her context. There is still not enough local context, forget local language context.

If I sound pessimistic, believe me I’m not…just stating the reality. You see I can’t afford to be as this is my line of work…ICT and social development! An interesting programme that has just started [in India] is www.mission.org.
Just so the term "local language context" doesn't fly past your long-term memory, I request my readers to visit the Tarahaat site. You will immediately run into a message requesting to insert some code on your computer. Ignore the message and wait. After a minute or so the site will appear -- in English. The request is directed at Indian readers -- India being a place where umpteen languages are spoken.

While you're at Tarahaat, move your mouse over the details in the painting of a typical Indian village, then keep reading. The painting itself is an education for readers who are not familiar with rural villages in undeveloped countries. The train in the background was of course a gift of the British empire, but the general layout of the village stretches back to the most ancient times -- including the village built around a large tree.

That painting is the world for many people around the globe. To bring them into the democratic process is the work of our era. Americans who chant "freedom and democracy" must become knowledgeable about the changes they're asking for in the world.

If we want real democracy, not a stage show or Potemkin Village form, we must understand in more detail what we're actually asking for. Else we're working blind. The idea of democracy has been accepted by many peoples. It's just how to get from here to there is the puzzling part. We need to put all the intelligence we can muster into solving the enormous logistical problems. Mungee's ideas are a step in the right direction, and deserve consideration from the international development community, including the World Bank.

Speaking of Potemkin Village Democracy, I have some weird good news. You have to know how Beijing thinks to see cause for rejoicing but without further introduction....whoops...Pundita is so piled up with reports we would lose her head if it wasn't screwed to our shoulders....well, we've misplaced the URL, which means we need to return to Simon World and track back from there. All right; not to build up suspense, but we did say we'd have this post up before noon. Tomorrow, then, or the day after for the good news, of sorts, from Mainland China.

The subtitle of this essay, "There is no box" is taken from Sumedh Mungee's elegant website. Although his theme is technology development, you might want to return for regular visits to read his thoughts on the intersection between cutting edge technology and rural development.

* The quote, from a New York Times report, is cited in Mungee's Rural Development essay. Click on the link I provided to bring up more quotes and a link to the entire Times report.
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