Spring 2002

ISSN 1473-219X





Appropriate information technology in developing countries: technology transfer and strategic directions

Leslie Honour,
University of Reading


Appropriate technologies were originally conceived to consist of those using local resources to meet local needs. However, it has now been widely acknowledged that various forms of complementary or enabling technologies may be used in the pursuit of sustainable development. The expansion of the global internet has been mainly concentrated in industrialised countries and poses the question of cultural imperialism in the developing world. For developing countries, access to and localised control of information and communications technologies can be used towards the harnessing, management and development of resources to meet national and local needs. Community computers in rural telecentres can be used to promote integrated local development initiatives.

Many current problems with IT in developing countries are related to the rapid evolution of hardware and software and the perceived necessity of using proprietary products which entail high costs. The training of network administrators is essential in the quest for local control and should include the use of more appropriate and readily available forms of technology such as open source software and operating systems. Such a strategy, with the administrator effectively acting as community gatekeeper, has the potential to provide a more autonomous, sustainable and long term means of achieving nationally and locally defined development goals.

Technology transfer and development

The role of technology in development has been controversial throughout the postcolonial phase. Thus, for example, some neo-Marxist writers, in the immediate postcolonial phase in Africa and Asia, came to see technological superiority as just one aspect of the maintenance of a dependent and unequal core-periphery structure inherent in the global capitalist system (Mabogunje,1981)). However, from the same theoretical roots, it was possible to see the potential of technology as a liberating medium (Emmanuel, 1982); indeed many in the ‘Dependista’ school in partially industrialised Latin America in the late twentieth century tended to see it in this way (Kay, 1989). Such variations tended to reflect differences in the underlying conceptualisation of technology. These ranged from a purely material view, through one which might also embrace knowledge and process – a means to an end – to one which saw technology, essentially, as a manifestation of social and cultural forms. More comprehensively, the process of technology transfer from one society to another might be seen as ’a process involving the transfer of material, organisation , information, methodologies, skills and capabilities from the society, setting and purpose for which it was originally developed, to another society and setting’ (Stewart, 1977). The dominant and often criticised role of transnational corportations in this process (Seligson and Passé-Smith, 1998) has, for some time, produced reactionary approaches to technology transfer.

The notion of ‘Intermediate Technology’, from the work of Schumacher (1973), prompts comparison with the concept of ‘Appropriate Technology’ (AT), the latter more oriented to the idea of locally generated technological innovation to meet local needs and later popularised by the Green Movement (Kaplinsky, 1990). However, as Ahmad (1977) notes, ‘indigenous technology can at times be inappropriate; appropriateness depends on the goal of the society rather than on the functions of the technologies’. While both terms carry particular philosophical and political connotations, they share a general anti large-scale vision and anti corporate vision of economic organisation. More recently, Appropriate Technology has become associated with the notion of ‘Sustainable Development’, defined by the Brundtland World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) as, ‘...development that meets the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

Information technology in the development process

Nowhere have issues of technology transfer been more sharply focused than in the context of information technology. The end product of the IT industry is knowledge and this gives a unique and unprecedented new twist to the debate. As Malaysia's Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohammed, before the advent (and without anticipation of the scale) of mass computer-mediated communications, once commented: ‘It can be no accident that there is today, no wealthy developed country that is information-poor, and no information rich country that is poor and underdeveloped.’ (Nagy, 1991, in Srikantaiah and Dong, 1998)

However, sceptics have pointed to the likelihood of cultural imperialism and the creation of a ‘digital divide’ within and between countries as a result of the universal diffusion of this new technological innovation. In the developing countries of Africa, Latin America and Asia there has, for some time, been a relatively greater emphasis on community learning, oral and face-to face traditions (Mansell and When, 1998) and generally less of a technological culture. (Kahen, 1995) Decisions relating to the transfer of IT technology to developing countries are complex and more than just a matter of whether development needs or goals can be fulfilled. New information technologies have evolved from within societies where the social and cultural norms are fundamentally different to those in most developing societies. Kahen (1995) notes that the literature on this issue suffers from an ‘absence of adequate research into understanding the essence of the organisational technology transfer and its socially-oriented characteristics.’ At the same time, however, ITs have an extraordinary potential for raising productivities across a wide range of sectors, both traditional and modern, if targeting is prudent and some degree of organisational support is forthcoming. As such, ITs could be seen as one of the most universal forms of appropriate technology. UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, in 1997 commented that: ‘In many fields future decision makers will be presented with unprecedented new tools for development... communications and information technology have enormous potential, especially for developing countries, and in furthering sustainable development’.

While this view recognises the potential of IT to enhance development prospects in peripheral countries and local communities through the harnessing and management of information to serve their own development needs and priorities, there remain legitimate concerns about the monopolisation of both technologies and information by corporate organisations and consortia and privileged classes and groups. Global increases in both the absolute and per capita number of internet host connections are heavily weighted towards countries of the industrialised core (Mansell and When, 1998). It is also significant that the newly industrialising countries of South East Asia and Latin America have high figures amongst developing countries; high information flows can be viewed as both a cause and effect of industrialisation. However, the spread of the global internet and world wide web have precipitated new areas of controversy about the role of IT. No longer is it merely a case of whether computer-mediated communication, in itself, is compatible with social and cultural norms or environmental and developmental needs. There is a range of concerns, some universally applicable and others with specific political motivations, about the nature of the information accessible on the global internet. These include aspects of content, variations in quality and legitimacy, accessibility (Arunachalam, 1998) and the increased potential for social and political manipulation. Given the poor network infrastructure, low bandwidth and unreliability of the internet in much of the developing world, it will be many decades before access becomes widespread and, even then, the question of who has access is likely to remain dependent on a variety of factors, most notably household income (Mansell and When, 1998). However, the possibilities for community-based computers have already been demonstrated. (Reilly and Gomez, 2001) What is clear is that appropriate IT strategies geared to local needs must to be built in to the development agenda.

Mansell and When (1998) have discussed strategies for building ‘knowledge societies’ and the potential uses of IT for sustainable development, while Nardi (1999) has referred to ‘information ecologies’ implying a harmonious blending of information with human needs. However, even these writers, in adopting a 'technological optimist' stance, agree that careful strategic planning and appropriate forms of IT will be essential if they are to be complementary to the achievement of more fundamental development priorities. Significantly, the appropriate technology paradigm itself appears to have undergone a conceptual shift from its original roots to embrace 'complementary' technologies (Ben-Dak,1996) which may not have evolved from within the communities which they are intended to serve, nor be based upon local resources, but can, nevertheless, contribute to the achievement of sustainable development objectives indirectly. There are some notable examples of IT already being used in this way. Computer-based geographic information systems, for example, have been successful in monitoring and mapping phenomena such as the incidence of malaria, movements of locust swarms and patterns of soil erosion in Africa and this has been contributed to improvements in the quality of life for many local communites. (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, 1996)

Appropriate IT strategies for sustainable development

Developing countries, more than others, are set back in their attempts to realise the full potential of IT by the rapid evolution and high costs of new technologies. There are, however, particular strategies and technologies which can reduce these costs greatly. The most essential component of such a strategy is targeted investment in the training of network administrators with a view to reducing the long term costs and excessive dependency on proprietary products and outside providers. This reduces the extent of proprietary ‘lock-in’ whereby users frequently find themselves dependent on expensive upgrades. Such a strategy offers another fundamental benefit by creating a new type of community ‘gatekeeper’ who would have the ability to disseminate different levels of IT development skills amongst the local community. This would fit the contemporary appropriate technology paradigm of external innovations adapted to local needs particularly well. The community gatekeeper would be technically qualified and offer the scope for coordinating and disseminating information and cultivating local user skills on primary health care, basic literacy, formal and informal education, environment, democratic rights and other key areas related to the reduction of poverty and the enhancement of human well-being. This could, for example, happen through one local community computer with no internet connection, but making use of resources collected at the nearest available internet access point and subsequently developed locally. Rural ‘telecentres’ (Reilly and Gomez, 2001) are increasingly being used to provide such a community asset complete with internet connection epecially in remote regions. In Gujarat state, India they are seen as the key to sustainable integrated rural development (International Telecommunication Union, 1998)

Strategic training programmes could be further enhanced through the use of low cost, in some cases freely available, open source software and operating systems. These have the advantage that they are eminently well suited to the development of 'indigenous' resources or the adaptation of external resources for use on stand alone machines, local area networks (LANs) and intranets. They also offer a great deal of administrative control over network content and the ability to generate solutions to problems 'on-the-fly' in a way which is not generally possible with most commercial products. (Carmichael and Honour, 1999) They should be seen as complementary to, rather than a substitute for proprietary software, especially where the latter is affordable to some degree or in particular sectors and is seen as desirable for attaining a universal skills base. In any case, corporate marketing will ensure that proprietary software maintains a powerful and dominant position.

While further discussion about the influence of the ‘technological culture’ associated with IT on cultural change are beyond the scope of this paper, the case presented here does not envisage IT as a significant threat to indigenous cultures, a source of revolutionary change or a panacea for solving problems of development. Rather it embodies a coherent strategic direction based upon long term, cost effective investment in the training of network administrators and the use of complementary or enabling technologies through which knowledge generated locally at low cost can be effectively deployed and selectively enhanced through access to national and global information sources in the cause of sustainable development. Such a strategy is becoming more widely recognised and promoted by international organisations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). It is a means through which postcolonial developing countries and communities can help themselves to gain more perceptible control over their own destiny.


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