Archive for March, 2010

Two Cows

March 28, 2010

Ripping off the concept of the “two cows” explanation of economic -isms (see, for example, Wikipedia’s entry of the phenemonen), here is the Jester’s corresponding list for ICT4D…

Computer Science: You have two cows. You connect them to the Internet via wireless networking.

Information Science: You have two cows. You make fun of the computer scientists.

Communication: You have two cows. When will they get mobile phones?

Development Theory: You have two cows. They should be elephants! No, rhinos!

Business: You have two cows. You sell them affordable grass and seek social enterprise venture capital.

Economics: You have two cows. You run a regression and build a model that explains why all mammals have an udder and 4 teats.

Psychology: You have two cows. You build a model that explains undergrads.

Behavioral Economics: You have two cows. You make them play Dictator.

Sociology: You have two cows. There is something between them that cannot be explained by either cow alone.

Anthropology: You have two cows. How can you know that, unless you’ve lived with them for two years?

Political Science: You have two cows. They are evil.

Political Economy: You have two cows. The first one is 1.2 times as evil as the second.

Critical Theory: You have two cows. You are evil.

Agriculture: You have two cows. You feed them Substance X. They produce twice as much milk for a week, and then they die. They produced twice as much milk!

Education: You have two cows. You teach them multiplication without crushing their self-esteem or using numbers.

Public Health: You have two cows. You vaccinate them.

Geography: You have two cows. Gosh, doesn’t anyone care where they’re from?

Design (Old School): You have two cows. Just as long as they look good.

Design (Recent): You have two cows. You do a needs assessment. You discover they need healthcare, education, and jobs. You build a prototype. You do a presentation. Next project!

Human-Computer Interaction: You have two cows. You design them a gadget. They seem to like it. Yay!

Environment: You have two cows. Methane. Cleared forest. Not good.

Media Studies: You have two cows. Fun!

Jeffrey Sachs: You have two cows. With only 6.6 billion more, you could give one to everybody.

William Easterly: You have two cows. Too bad.

Dambisa Moyo: You have two cows. Really, too bad.

Amartya Sen: You have two cows. You educate them and set them free.

Hernan de Soto: You have two cows. Are they registered?

Muhammad Yunus: You have two cows. They don’t need training; they just need credit.

C. K. Prahalad: You have two cows. You sell them cheap grass, become a consultant, and claim you did some good.

Nicholas Negroponte: You have two cows. OLP… C?

Myth 2: Poor people have no alternatives.

March 28, 2010

Would you pay an additional 20% per year of your annual income, on any of the following…?
   a)      A chauffeur service
   b)      Reliable news
   c)       Private tutoring services
   d)      A supplementary health plan

Most people probably would not. The fact is, most of us already have alternatives to these things – transport, news, education, healthcare – at a much lower cost, and so even if we’re not getting the best version of those services, we’re content with what we have and would probably not pay a lot more.

Yet, coughing up the cash for a high-quality information service is often exactly what some ICT4D projects expect of very poor communities. Many telecenter projects, for example, thought that they could become self-sustaining by charging customers… 10 cents for a printout, 25 cents for an hour of Internet usage, $1 for a few hours of computer-literacy classes.

But, rich do-gooders often don’t realize that poor people have their own alternatives. A researcher I know once put together estimates of the costs of various information-based services available to a person in peri-urban neighborhoods of India metropolises [i]. She found the following: The per-hour cost of services ranged from free (e.g., general information, health information, agriculture information), to not much more than 12 cents (e.g., entertainment, news, education).

Meanwhile, the typical cost to use an Internet café for an hour in India is around 25 cents, and Internet café owners aren’t exactly raking in the big bucks. Any transaction cost that would help recover operating costs for ICT-delivered services, are often greater than what a poor client would be prepared to pay for the sake of services they already believe they have sufficient access to.

Granted, the services they can afford are not of the quality that you or the Jester would find acceptable. But, then, what you and the Jester find acceptable are probably not acceptable to Bill Gates and Sergei Brin. I’m sure their kids have healthcare plans that would teleport the world’s best plastic surgeon to the scene, in the event of a skinned knee. It’s all a matter of what you’re used to.

So, what are the lessons for an ICT4D project hoping to recover costs from the client? (1) If you’re planning to charge poor people for services that are supposedly to be good for them, the cost needs to be incredibly low; it needs to beat the alternatives they already have. (Note: This is not necessarily true for products they really want — but those are rarely products that are supposedly good for them. See Myth 3.) (2) Poor people have alternatives. (3) Yes, they do. Look again!


[i] The researcher was Aishwarya Ratan, Microsoft Research India.

Myth 1: ICTs will save the world.

March 28, 2010

The Jester likes to ask questions. Here are three multiple-choice questions, just for fun. But first, read the following passage:

“…X has never been used to its full capacity in support of economic development. It may be financially impossible to use it in this way. But still the possibility is tantalizing: What is the full power and vividness if X teaching were to be used to help the schools develop a country’s new educational pattern? What if the full persuasive and instructional power of X were to be used in support of community development and the modernization of farming? Where would the break-even point come? Where would the saving in rate of change catch up with the increased cost?”

Question 1: In the passage, “X” refers to which of the following?
   a) Television
   b) Personal computer
   c) Mobile phone
   d) None of the above

Question 2: This passage was written in what year?
   a) 1964
   b) 1984
   c) 2004
   d) None of the above

Question 3: Since this excerpt was published, X has accomplished which of the following?
   a) Taught millions of children how to read
   b) Made millions of farmers richer
   c) Paid for itself many times over in value to global development
   d) None of the above

The correct answers are at the bottom (no peeking before you commit to your answers!). Give yourself a 100% and an A+, if you got all three correct! Maybe you’d like to guest-write the next post for the Jester. Give yourself a passing grade as long as your response to Question 3 was correct – you can go home. If your response to Question 3 was incorrect, you fail, and you are required to remain for detention and write out, “I will not believe that technology on its own saves the world,” a hundred times!

The author of the excerpt was Wilbur Schramm, widely considered to be the father of communication studies, and co-founder of the Department of Communication at Stanford University. The book from which I drew this excerpt is titled Mass Media and National Development: The Role of Information in the Developing Countries [i], and it is an insightful look at the exuberant hopes for a technology and its potential to impact global development.

Nearly 50 years later, we can say that those hopes have not been fulfilled. Certainly, television has had some minor successes: See, for example, Rob Jensen’s nice paper on rural women appearing to become more empowered through the presence of TV [ii]; Brij Kothari’s Same-Language Subtitling, in which subtitling movies and music videos in the recorded language appears to increase reading fluency among semi-literate viewers [iii]; or the Sabido methodology for airing soap operas with a pro-social message as a way to enhance healthcare outcomes [iv]. But, on the whole, television has not transformed education, agriculture, or poverty, even among those who own TVs and are comfortably within broadcast zones. Television penetration in India, for example, is above 50% of households, with quite a few of those televisions owned by villagers in remote, rural areas or residents of urban slums. Many more people actually watch television on a regular basis, either at neighbors’ homes or in petty shops and tea stalls. Yet, all it takes is a visit to a poor household with a TV to realize that the boob-tube is aptly nicknamed: It is not making anyone dramatically better off. Certainly, it hasn’t transformed education the way people once thought it might.

The problem isn’t TV. It’s what we do with it. And what we do with it has nothing to do with technology; it has to do with us… human beings. Both, those human beings in power and what they choose to stream on the airwaves, and those who human beings who consume, and what and how they elect to watch.

(Some might argue that even if television hasn’t made anyone materially well-off, maybe it’s made people happier in their poverty by entertaining them. Maybe, but those people should then consider the recent history of Bhutan, home of Gross National Happiness: They were poor and happy until the spread of TV showed them what a wealthier life looked like; they stayed poor, but became less happy. And, in any case, are we sure that a world of poor, mindless, TV-watching zombies is better than a world of poor people working themselves out of their plight?)

More recently, we have an example of the PC, particularly in the form known as the telecenter. “Telecenters are those entities which exist primarily to provide the general public access to computing and/or the Internet with the explicit intent to serve a developmental purpose” [v]. I plan later to write a post on the rise and fall of the telecenter (actually, I might just focus on the fall), but for now, suffice it to say that telecenters repeatedly fail to sustain themselves or to demonstrate cost-effective impact. Araba Sey, a researcher at the University of Washington, recently wrote a review of the research literature on telecenters. She says: “Research conclusions generally still speak to the potential rather than actual impact of public access to ICTs [read: telecenters and libraries with PCs]. Aside from the fact that impacts are difficult to measure and attribute, this could be linked to the tendency for most studies to find that public access is underperforming. Despite overall dissatisfaction with the performance of public access ICTs, the perception that they are an important means of bridging digital gaps remains strong” [vi]. We learn from this (1) that telecenters are underperforming, (2) that there is dissatisfaction with telecenters, and (3) that Ms. Sey might consider a career as a professional diplomat.

The failure of telecenters stands in stark contrast to the initial hype, starting less than a decade ago. For example…

“It is hoped that the per capita rural GDP of India will double from its current figure of $200 to $400… [using the rural telecenter as…] a virtual university, training centre, banking outlet, trading outlet, agriculture support centre and much more.” [vii]

Double… because of a computer! I wish my income doubled when I signed up for the Internet. Incidentally, these early telecenter promoters could do a great service to the world by publishing honest, reflective pieces about whether they achieved their objectives, and if not, why not. (There’s no shame in telling the story of a possible hope that didn’t work out. In 2000, nobody knew whether telecenters would work, so the experiment was worth trying. But, today, we’ve learned some things. Not telling the story is to condemn another generation to invest in projects that don’t work.)

At this point, sharp readers will be asking the question, “What other technologies won’t live up to their promise in development?” And, the obvious answer is… the mobile phone!

Now, it would be an unjustified extrapolation, if based on several technologies that failed to live up to their expectations, we jumped to the conclusion that all technologies must be similarly doomed. But, the Jester is not jumping. He’s walking step by step from the trend to the conclusion. The steps are simple, and I’ll flesh them out in ensuing articles: Technology is a multiplier of human intent and competence. Poverty is a caused by a deficiency in positive human intent or capacity. If you take zero or a negative value and multiply it, you don’t get a positive number.

I’m by no means the first to make such a statement about technology. For example, in an area relevant to ICT4D, Tichenor et al., discuss the knowledge gap hypothesis. They note that “as the infusion of mass media information into a social system increases, segments of the population with higher socioeconomic status tend to acquire this information at a faster rate than the lower status segments, so that the gap in knowledge between these segments tends to increase rather than decrease” [viii]. That is, when you introduce a technology, there’s a tendency for the rich to get richer.

Alternatively, guns don’t kill people – people kill people! Or, to put it in terms of ICT4D, technology doesn’t develop people – people develop people! The Jester is no rifle-toting militia type, but in this case, the rifle-toters are right. In either case, the underlying problem is human and social, and technology is just an amplifier. This is a point that the Jester will return to over and over.

Luckily, even if you don’t believe me, the world is conducting the largest experiment ever in ICT4D. As of this writing, there are more than 4.6 billion active mobile phone accounts in the world [ix] – more than the total population of adults over the age of 20. More people own a phone now than own televisions or radios, and the trend is only continuing with a growth rate of tens of millions of new accounts per month. If mobile phones really have the power to transform development of the extreme poor, we should see a surge in development impact attributable to the phone over the next few years.

My bet, though, is that even in 2020, 10 years after this writing, the poor – even the mobile-owning, Internet-surfing, technology-savvy poor – will still be with us. Mobile phone owners won’t be much better off than they were before, and owning a mobile phone, however fancy and Internet-enabled, won’t do squat for helping a person out of poverty, illness, ignorance, or misery. Sure, we’ll hear a heart-warming story of a poor basket weaver climbing out of poverty because of the dial-a-job-mobile-service-for-migrant-laborers, but that will be a handful of cases. Meanwhile, we’ll also see the heart-wrenching story of the parents who forewent food for their children to feed their phones (see Kathleen Diga’s PhD thesis for early evidence in Uganda [x]). Technology will help some and hurt some, and in the end, it’ll all come out a wash.

Because technology is multiplicative, not additive.

Answer to multiple choice questions: Q1 – (a), Q2 – (a), and Q3 – (d).

[i] Schramm, W. (1964) Mass Media and National Development: The Role of Information in the Developing Countries. Pp. 231.

[ii] Jensen, R. and E. Oster. (2009) The Power of TV: Cable Television and Women’s Status in India, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124(3):1057-1094.

[iii] Kothari, B., J. Takeda, A. Joshi, and A. Pande. (2002) Same language subtitling: a butterfly for literacy? Int’l Journal of Lifelong Education, 21(1):55-66., retrieved March 28, 2010.

[iv] Population Media Center. (n.d.) Sabido methodology – background., retrieved March 28, 2010.

[v] Toyama, K. & K. Keniston. (2008) Telecentre Debates. In Telecentre Magazine. March, 2008. Debates

[vi] Sey, A. (2008). Public Access to ICTs: A Review of the Literature. Research Working Paper Series. Center for Information & Society, University of Washington.

[vii] Jhunjhunwala, A., A. Ramachandran, A. Bandyopadhyay. (2004) n-Logue: the story of a rural service provider in India. Journal of Community Informatics 1(1): 30-38.

[viii] Tichenor, P.J., Donohue, G.A., & Olien, C.N. (1970). Mass media and the differential growth in knowledge. Public Opinion Quarterly, 34, 158-70.

[ix] International Telecommunications Union. (2010) Measuring the Information Society 2010. International Telecommunications Union., retrieved March 28, 2010.

[x] Diga, K. (2007) Mobile Cell Phones and Poverty Reduction: Technology Spending Patterns and Poverty Level Change among Households in Uganda. Masters Thesis. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban., retrieved March 28, 2010. I first read of this in Richard Heeks’s blog, which contains other examples: Heeks, R. (2008) Mobiles for Impoverishment. December 27, 2008., retrieved March 28, 2010.

Myths of ICT4D: The Series

March 28, 2010

The Jester’s alter ego has recently been giving a talk called the “Ten Myths of ICT4D“.

The myths are persistent beliefs and underlying assumptions that occur in ICT4D. Some are a part of the explicit rhetoric of ICT4D and technology for global development, in general. Others are more subtle, in that they are believed implicitly, but without being questioned.

Starting with the next post, the Jester will discuss these myths. The presentation on which they are based: Ten Myths of ICT4D.


March 28, 2010

This is a brief, overarching summary of the Jester’s views, for people who don’t have time to read the whole blog. Because this is a summary, the Jester disavows all responsibility for your misinterpretations of the material!

(1)    Why won’t information and communication technologies (ICTs) save the world? The Jester says: Because technology is not additive, but multiplicative. Technology multiplies human intent and capacity; it doesn’t add to it. Tough problems in the world are generally caused by non-positive human intent, or near-zero human capacity. Multiply by technology, and you don’t see gains.

(2)    Why do sane people keep thinking that ICTs will save the world? The Jester says: There are many reasons, but chief among them is inaccurate causal attribution resulting from not understanding Point (1) above. People who believe that ICTs will save the world come in two categories: (a) They are wealthy, educated, self-confident, well-intentioned people with bank accounts, affordable transport, good social networks, and a host of other significant advantages that impoverished people often don’t have; or (b) they have been brainwashed by such people. It’s those advantages that keep people of Class (a) out of poverty in the first place, but because they are swimming in an ocean of advantages, they attribute dramatic changes in their ability to find a good job to minor proximate causes – such as – not to these other far more important factors. In the old days before the Internet and the mobile phone, rich, educated people got the good jobs, and poor, uneducated people didn’t, just like today. So, why do people keep thinking it’s the Internet that gets them good jobs? Misattribution of cause.

(3)    What do you do, if you’re a technologist who still wants to do some good? The Jester says: First, teach or mentor. Your greatest asset relative to a very poor person is not your technical expertise; it’s your overall education and general understanding of the modern world. Impart that through education, training, capacity building, etc. Basic literacy, basic education, basic self-confidence, basic grasp of human rights, and basic ability to organize people… those capacities are far more important to them, than a new gadget or, even, minor computer literacy skills. If you give them a fish, they’ll eat for a day. If you teach them how to fish, they’ll eat for a lifetime. No one said anything about giving them an automated fishing pole!!! See Point (1), above.

Of course, the Jester realizes that many technologists need to prove their brilliance and ingenuity by building fancy gadgets, and they want to do some good, too. If you are in this category, the best thing you can do is to put your ability to work for a well-intentioned, competent organization that is already doing good development. That way, you could magnify their impact. See, again, Point (1), above. Do not make the mistake of believing that technology fixes human problems, and that it will scale a solution. Technology requires a substrate of well-intentioned, human competence to work. See, yet again, Point (1).

Welcome to the ICT4D Jester!

March 28, 2010

Why, if personal computers are so great, have obesity rates in America only skyrocketed since their introduction in 1972? Why, if Google is so wonderful, have levels of happiness in the United States not gone up since it was founded in 1998? Why, if the iPhone is so awesome, have poverty rates kept climbing in the land of the free since its debut in 2007?

Ridiculous questions, aren’t they? Thank you, thank you, thank you… Ridiculous questions are the specialty of the Jester. But, he’s not as unique as he would like to believe in his ridiculousness. Consider, for example, the following quotations…

  • “Can the cellphone help end global poverty? …the possibilities afforded by a proliferation of cellphones are potentially revolutionary.”[i]
  •  “[T]he Internet should be a human right in and of itself.”[ii]
  •  “There is a pressing need to employ information technology for rural healthcare in Sub-Saharan Africa.”[iii]

That’s right – the mobile phone might end poverty, the Internet is a human right, and information technology will save the healthcare system in Africa! These quotations are all by respectable people writing in serious publications. Why are the Jester’s questions ridiculous, while these latter comments are not?

That is the question!

In response, the Jester takes arms against a sea of ICT4D hype, and attempts to explain (1) why information and communication technologies (ICTs) won’t save the world, (2) why sane people keep thinking that it will, and (3) what to do if you’re a technologist who still wants to do some good. (See summary for quick answers.)

The ICT4D Jester welcomes you!


[i] Corbett, S. (2008) Can the cellphone help end global poverty? The New York Times, April 13, 2008., retrieved March 24, 2010. 

[ii] Best, M. L. (2004) Can the Internet be a Human Right? Human Rights & Human Welfare, Vol. 4. University of Denver., retrieved March 24, 2010.

[iii] Friedman, E. (2009) Computer-assisted medical diagnosis for rural sub-Saharan Africa. IEEE Technology and Society, 23(3):18-28., retrieved March 24, 2010.