Why Should the Congolese Care

“Intuitively, these problems seem too fundamental to be seriously affected by the networked information economy – what has Wikipedia got to do with the 49 percent of the population of Congo that lacks sustainable access to improved water sources?” (Benkler, 2006).

Benkler’s quote above is a variation of a common question that often gets asked of ICT4D activities: What do new ICTs have to do with human development and basic needs? Indeed, this is especially relevant as many of the concepts developed above have emerged from activities in the Western context. Thus, before we move to theory linking Open ICT activities to development, we first consider issues of the development context.

There are, of course massive differences in the realities between the developed and developing world, just as there are between and within developing countries. Perhaps the most obviously critical contextual factor is the massive diversity in the relative “connectedness,” in terms of connections to the telecommunications infrastructure through mobiles or fixed-lines and to the Internet. Thus, we would expect variety in the range and focus of the Open ICT4D activities. For example, countries such as Chile who are among the top 30 e-ready countries in the world have a greater starting potential for the more complex collaborative activities. In Asia and South Africa, with its high levels of mobile phone penetration, we would expect the many activities to be based on mobile phones related technologies, such as SMS. Sub-Saharan Africa, with its poor telecommunications infrastructure, however, is even more challenged, and activities may be limited, at least for a while, to voice applications. Here, issues of infrastructure and ICT policy are still paramount. Obviously, this discussion brings the basic issue of access (and the digital divide) to the fore, as the activities discussed can only occur when people have sufficiently good access, and the abilities and appropriate environment for performing meaningful activities with these technologies.

A secondary issue is that many of the theoretical potentials of openness have not yet been realised, even in the developed context. For example, how to apply ICTs for truly participatory governance is something that is in general not well understood – in any context. The wide range of potential activities and the diverse development contexts means that elaboration of what may or may not be feasible in different contexts is impossible at this point. However, one can get a better idea of what is plausible now, and perhaps what might be in the near term, by examining the different types and qualities of the open ICT4D activities that are occurring in the development context.

With these contextual caveats in mind, in the next few subsections we develop some theoretical linkages between new technologies, openness as an underlying principle and human development aims. Here we explore these connections at a high (abstract) level. Later, when we discuss the details of the social and digital environments as well as particular Open ICT4D activities, we move to more concrete considerations of the causal connections with development outcomes.

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