Tuesday, July 12

Fire up the cell phone, gather round the radio: Not by any one way does democracy come to the rural developing world

June 28
Howdy, Pundita!
About technology and democracy, your essay mentioning Sumedh Mungee's post is great! Back in March after attending a screening of a documentary about North Korea I wrote this post, which talks about how cell phones are slowly helping to change perceptions of the government in North Korea. I found a post for you by Rebecca MacKinnon about cell phones and North Korea. If it's not the one I originally quoted it has most of the same information. I was reminded of it again in Mungee's post about computers not being automatically connected to the internet.

If I'm not mistaken cell phones are "always connected" if they have web access. I see a skipping of hardware, i.e., computers, to cell phones for information -- both receiving and sharing.
PS: Here's another interesting post on the same theme from Textually.
Beth in the Midwest.

Dear Beth:
Thank you for forwarding me your essay and the URLs. I love the Textually site; it's amazing to me how cell phones have evolved a huge global industry/culture -- like the Internet -- but in ways it would have been hard to imagine a decade ago.

Today, while stopping off at Textually, I learned to my astonishment that cell phones are being used as mosquito repellents! One company, SK Telecom, is "providing an anti-mosquito sound wave service to Southeast Asian nations including Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. The service generates anti-mosquito sound waves ranging from 300Hz to 600Hz to repel mosquitoes within a range of one meter."

Provided the technology is available to support cell phones with Internet access I think your idea is great. Given the history of development banks helping the world's poorest, Pundita suspects that a lot of outmoded computers -- sold for a song by companies eager to dump them -- will find their way into the world's rural villages.

In essence you're asking, Why not start with the most advanced technologies if the idea is that connectivity promotes democracy? That's a good question. Cell phones are already transforming business in rural regions in African nations.* But note the discussion about literacy and IT connectivity in the Deesha (rural development) archive at Emergic:

Leapfrogging and Development -- Atanu Dey writes:

Leapfrogging is possible but mostly it is restricted to technologies. Unlike technology, you cannot leapfrog the various stages of development. A century ago, to be educated, one had to be literate and numerate. Same holds for today even though we have digital gizmos and computers.

Indeed, to be able to effectively use the products of high-technology, literacy is an absolute necessity. Functional skills required for using high-tech all involve the ability to read and reason. I grant that illiterate idiots can use a cell phone, but that is not what I would call the effective use of high technology.

The so-called "digital divide" cannot be bridged by simply installing lots of PCs in areas where they don’t exist and connecting them up to the internet. If the people are unable to use them, they serve no purpose other than to enrich the peddlers of hardware and software. Furthermore, there is the opportunity cost of spending limited resources on useless high-tech gizmos.

You cannot leapfrog development. It cannot be done at an individual level. And it cannot be done at a societal level. Although development paths may differ, the sequencing within a path cannot be radically altered because there are strict dependencies.

Basic functional literacy is a prerequisite to pretty much anything that one does. The use of high-tech depends on literacy and therefore if the population is illiterate, even gifting them with free hardware will not make a difference. The pre-condition for bridging the digital divide is therefore the bridging of the literacy divide."

Dey brings out an important point. Internet access, whether it's via the most sophisticated cell phones or "old-fashioned" computers, requires literacy. In many rural villages you might find one or two people who are literate. They read the daily or weekly newspaper delivery to others in the village. They also function as the scribe. Villagers who want to send letters or fill out government forms pay them a small amount of money or equivalent to do the writing.

So if you are thinking of ICT (information communications technology) in terms of promoting genuine democracy in the least developed regions, there is a caution. If you bring ICT into a village that has only a couple literate people you end up with another type of fiefdom. The literates control the information flow.

So instead of the political machines bringing bags of rice to the chief (who might not be literate) and saying, "You village is voting for X," you get the same bags delivered to the Village ICT Oracle with the words, "Inform your village they should vote for X."

Not to dump more bad news on you but Benjamin R. Barber, who has famously studied democracy for decades, has cautions about the idea that connectivity automatically equates to stronger democracy. In his wonderful blog about Africa, technology and the media, My Heart's in Accra, Ethan Zuckerman notes:
Barber puts forward three ways technologies might work to strengthen or weaken democracies: the Panglossian, Pandorian and Jeffersonian options.

In the Panglossian scenario, citizens are primarily consumers and they blindly respond to the ideas put forward by stronger actors -- most likely corporations, who keep them from political power by keeping them sufficiently entertained.

In the Pandorian model, information tools become Orwellian tools for obervation and liberating technologies become tools for repression.

Only in the most optimistic, Jeffersonian scenario do information tools reach their potential of allowing open, participatory democracy. (When Barber yelled at us a few weeks back, he seemed to be suggesting that the Internet was following the Panglossian path.) [...]
Zuckerman also reports on research by Mike Best that suggests Barber's pessimism is overdone.
Mike has decided to test a theory put forth by Kedzie, that "multidirectional, reciprocal communication technology like email" are conducive to democracy.

Kedzie argues that a 1% increase in this sort of network connectivity leads to a 4 point rise on a 100-point democratization scale (adapted from Freedom House's 7/14 point scale).

Analyzing correlations between changes in the Freedom House scale and other independent factors -- connectivity, schooling, per capita GDP, life expectancy -- Mike sees a strong correlation between connectivity and high levels of democratization. The correlation is stronger between connectivity and democratization than schooling or life expectancy -- only the GDP to democratization correlation is stronger. Controlling for GDP, Mike still sees a meaningful correlation between connectivity and democratization. [...]
However, the success of Radio Ujjima, which mirrors the success of American talk radio at using an oral tradition to inform people about social/political issues, tends to shore Barber's cautions. As the African cell phone story indicates, ICT is critical to helping the rural poor stay connected about issues such as market conditions for their produce. But you don't want to assume that kind of connectivity automatically translates to more informed participation in the political process.

If an important goal for US policy is to spread genuine democracy, then development and aid policymakers should look at regions in terms of their literacy quotient and adjust the type of aid accordingly. Radio doesn't help increase literacy. But if oral communications about political issues do not accompany computerized voting machines in regions with low literacy you're still stuck with Fiefdom Democracy, which is a democracy stage show.

Now before throwing up your hands, consider America's development as a democracy. If you think of the ward heelers and union bosses delivering huge blocs of votes that were not exactly votes, you realize that the widescale genuine democratic voting process we enjoy today is a rather recent phenomenon.

So we had our own Fiefdom Democracy right here in the USA. And there are still charges of ballot stuffing and other illegal tactics after every big election, which indicates the democratic ideal has not yet been met even here in the bastion of democracy.

In other words, by any which way do peoples move toward self government. The idea is to keep moving, keep trying. The good news is that a great many people the world over are waking up to this.

But here we come to a snag, which is the greatest obstacle to young democracies. Nope, the obstacle ain't greedy despots or nasty tyrants. Nupe, it ain't the clan system or tribes that wish for the return of 5,000 BCE. It ain't the ruling classes or power-mad generals. It ain't poverty, AIDS, global warming, solar flares or transnational organized crime. And this is one we can't blame on The 900 Lazy Bastards or the World Bank. It's -- Pundita will tell tomorrow.

From a report at Mobile Africa:
Cell phones help African farmers trade crops

"I check the prices for the day on my phone and when it's a good price I sell," explained Daniel Mashva from his village in the remote northeast of South Africa. "I can even try to ask for a higher price if I see there are lots of buyers."

Mashva is one of around 100 farmers in Makuleke testing cell phone technology that gives small rural farmers access to national markets via the Internet, putting them on a footing with bigger players and boosting profits by at least 30 percent.

"Mainstream farmers have access to market information so they can negotiate better prices. This cell phone enables poor rural farmers to get that same information," said Mthobi Tyamzashe, from cell phone operator Vodacom.

Cell phone use has rocketed 100% in Africa since 2000, and the Makuleke scheme is one of many ways the technology is being used to tackle poverty.

Senegalese company Manobi, which operates on-line systems for businesses in the developing world, first launched the trading platform for farmers and fishermen in the west African nation. "It's a trading platform and a business space," said Daniel Annerose from Manobi. "Small Senegalese farmers even linked up with the French army (on the platform) last year and agreed to supply one of their ships when it docked in Dakar."

In Senegal, Manobi employees collect 80,000 data from 10 markets per day and get it on line within a few seconds, while in the more mature market of South Africa the company simply uploads existing information onto their system. Farmers can access the information on a web-based trading platform via Internet-enabled phones, or can request prices and make trades via SMS. [...]

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