information technology in developing countries: technology
transfer and strategic
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
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
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
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.
Ahmad, F (1996) What is appropriate technology? Appropriate
Technology, 23, 3, 6-7.
Arunachalam, S (1998) Information technology: equaliser or separator
of developing countries [online], International Federation of Science
Ben-Dak, J D (1996) What is appropriate technology?, Appropriate
Technology, 23, 3, 6-7.
Carmichael, P & Honour, L (1999) Open source as appropriate
technology for global education, Proceedings of The Commonwealth
of Learning, Telisphere 99 Conference, Barbados, (http://www.col.org/tel99/acrobat/carmichael.pdf).
Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (1996) The use of information
and communications technologies in the health sector in Sub-Saharan Africa,
International Development Research Centre.
Elliot, J (1994) An introduction to sustainable development, Routledge:
Emmanuel, A (1982) Appropriate or underdeveloped technology?, Wiley:
International Telecommunication Union (1998) Community telecentes in Rajkot
District, Gujarat [online], (http://www.itu.int/ITU-D-UniversalAccess/mcts/india_mcts.htm)
Kahen, G (1995) Assessment of information technology for developing
countries: appropriateness, local constraints, IT characteristics and
impacts, International Journal of Computer Applications in Technologies,
5, 2, 325-333.
Kay, C (1989) Latin American theories of development and underdevelopment,
Mabogunje, A (1981) The Development Process: A Spatial Perspective,
Holmes & Meier: London.
Mansel, R & When U (ed.) (1998) Knowledge societies: information
technology for sustainable development , Oxford University Press:
Nardi, B A (1999) Information ecologies:using technology with heart,
MIT: Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Reilly, K and Gomez, R (2001) Comparing approaches: telecentre evaluation
experiences in Latin America and Asia, Electronic Journal on
Information Systems in Developing Countries, 4, 3, 1-17.
Schumacher, E F (1973) Small is beautiful: a study of economics as
if people mattered, Blond & Briggs: London.
Seligson, M and Passé-Smith, J (1998) Development and underdevelopment
: the political economy of global inequality, Lynne Rienner: Boulder.
Srikantaiah, T and Dong, X (1998) The internet and its impact on
developing countries:examples from China and India, Asian Libraries,
7, 9, 82-92.
Stewart, F (1977) Technology and underdevelopment, Westview: New
World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) Our common futur,
Oxford University Press: Oxford.