The Importance of Being Local

Technological innovation is often hailed as a solution to development. But its potential goes to waste. The blindness towards local conditions inhibits progress and primarily benefits the corporations and donors in the Western world. Sustainable development must be done by the locals, for the locals.

Complex problems demand complex solutions. Indigenous conditions demand indigenous responses. These should be the tenets of international development assistance, based on the understanding that aspirations rooted as much in the standards of living made evident by media consumption, as in local expectations, customs and prejudices, define development; that any change for good, in any society, brings negative changes in other domains, including power structures and social practices. Development is multidimensional; in many cases technology is a component, even a minor one, in a solutions “pack”. While development assistance is required and welcome, in many cases it ends being less help than hindrance.

“Here’s the tool you need, now change everything to fit the tool”

It’s not that development assistance cannot bring or sustain new approaches to development; rather, is the fact that the help comes with expectations that are alien to the cultures receiving it, and less that understanding to the consequences such expectations bring to the actual development of each society. In fact, at least regarding big-scale ICT-based solutions to big, national issues, a trend towards pret-a-porter programmes is common: technological fixes that only work if adopters act in clear, unique ways.

The initiative “One Laptop Per Child” is a perfect example. It comes with an ideological thrust: a silver bullet, a solution ready to be deployed, certain to work. It doesn’t matter that locally drafted assessments ascertain different issues. Projects like OLPC lack self doubt and demand a similar attitude from governments and recipients: here’s the tool you need, now change everything to fit the tool.

Its failure notwithstanding, OLPC still believes in the power of one technological solution, transforming realities as varied as Afghanistan or Uruguay. If and when such transformation occurs, it will be the result of dedication and subtlety: years of work by locals that fix, shift and shape a technical solution into a new technological system, made real by adjusting it to real, local circumstances, needs and expectations. In the end, the tool will be nothing more than that, and success a result of brain and brawn, commitment and compromise. Not a solution brought from high above, but made down on the ground.

“The traditional approach doesn’t work, it hasn’t worked, and it won’t work”

Of course, most ICTD approaches are not as dull and broad as OLPC. Many come wrapped in obscure terms, foreign to most, though their promise is to address the needs of large population segments. From information society to ICT for agricultural, health or educational services, these approaches can offer an interesting set of potential solutions.

Therein lies many a problem: ignoring societal conditions that created the original system is like believing that a tourist guide book allows us to “understand” a country. Written from the expectations of tourists, such a source is biased to the traveller’s needs, and expects the locals to adapt. To expect that anyone receiving technology will act like those that created and used the systems in the first place is condescending as well as naïve; forcing countries to shape their developmental programmes around such solutions is wrong and can only be understood as a welfare plan for citizens and firms of the donor country. A sensible approach to ICT for development should start not by finding the recipients needs, but asking them to define their needs and design their solutions; only then actual technologies may be found to alleviate conditions. The traditional approach doesn’t work, it hasn’t worked, and it won’t work.


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