to the Editor: Some Reflections on ICT and Development
H W Johnston
Techne Associates, Dublin, Ireland
Roy Johnston has
been a reader and a critic of our newsletter. He has been interested in the
techno-economic and socio-technical aspects of the colonial to post-colonial
transition in different countries. His past book 'Century of Endeavour',
published by Tyndall/Lilliput in
I have been a reader of the IFIP WG9.4 newsletter for some time, over a decade,
but have been conscious of a culture gap between the IT experts and the
problems on the ground. This gap does however appear perhaps to be narrowing.
I got some feel early on for the size of the problem, when I attended a
IFIP community has however been dominated by '
Let me get a bit more specific. In the 1970s I was involved with supervising postgraduate projects which involved the use of the (mainframe) computer in techno-economic analysis of projected investments in development projects, in 'what if...?' mode. The postgraduates were organised as groups, with specialisations, typically with one member organising and classifying the input data, another developing the processing structure, and a third specifying and developing the output structure to relate to the perceptions of the end-user (i.e. the sponsor). This latter process would now involve customising the GUI design.
of these projects were related to agricultural and related processes and were
sponsored by co-operatives. They involved, among other things, the deployment
of specialist harvesting machinery, transport and storage logistics,
interaction with variable weather environments (for air-drying etc). The types
of techno-economic system we modelled included harvesting of flax, biomass for
energy, collection of milk in tankers (role of refrigeration), ergot as a
pharaceutical crop, deployment of an inshore fishing-fleet etc.
type of analysis could now easily be done by a numerate co-op manager on a PC
with a spreadsheet; in the 1970s we wrote one-off programmes in Fortran, and
ran them in conversational mode without GUI. (In fact we developed in about
1979 a prototype spreadsheet, with rudimentary GUI, on a PDP11, for a firm
which was then making an analogue feed-mix computer, and wanted to go digital.
Unfortunately, this did not become the 'killer application' it now is until
the PC arrived in the mid eighties.)
is a useful example of an emergent post-colonial nation on the fringe of a
post-imperial system, exhibiting many of the features which the post-colonial
world is now encountering.
went to a UN conference in
role of ICT in all this is to make feasible the type of knowledge-based
analysis which sustainable development requires. My initial reading of
previous issues of the IFIP newsletter suggests that it would be of interest,
for example, to have access to the proceedings of the
Procedures are becoming the norm where mutually-recognising lists of experts, engaged in policy development discussions by e-mail using a list serve procedure, can access a niche website where current position papers are exhibited, and can be referenced by discussants. See for example
I am supporting a healthcare analysis network with a niche web-site on the
fringe of my own web-site.
It should be quite possible for the type of network arising from events like
the recent '
I may comment on some recent IFIP Newsletter items: the 'simputer' concept
deserves analysis; it would be of interest to get some systematic analysis of
who the end-users are, as indeed who the end-users are of the cyber-cafe
access-points. I encountered a draft paper on a similar topic based on African
experience (I was asked for peer-review comments) and picked up the impression
that they were literate youth seeking to pick up degree qualifications from US
universities, with a view to emigrating problem of 'brain drain'. This is the
last thing we need for ICT in developing countries; nor do we need the
commercial video game arcade scene, though there is a role for interactive
games in a guided learning process.
It seems to me that the key end-user is the local leading activist, the aspirant co-op manager, who needs access to relevant knowledge for local economic development. This type, rather than self-motivated individuals seeking self-improvement.
I have seen a paper which analyses in depth the uptake of ICT in a developing country, and which attempts to identify how this can be used to eliminate poverty.
contains many good ideas, but is densely written, with long paragraphs, many
notes and references, and a huge bibliography. It ends with a long list of
things to be done, but without clear indication as to who specifically is to
is a clear need for analysis and interpretation of academic work, distillation
of the essential results, and development of practical system for trying out
the ideas on the ground, by people with local standing and local knowledge.
There is much experience of this process in a fringe-European context,
analogous to the work I have described above which was done in
A possible model is the 'quad-link': take a university or college of
A possible model is the 'quad-link': take a university or college of
have not seen this process yet, but I have seen it trying to happen. For
example, I have a client which is a firm specializing in healthcare IT; it has
many university research contacts all over Europe. Leading people from the firm went to
it may be that to catalyze the way forward the African academic system needs
to develop a policy for postgraduate work at the masters-degree level, with
group projects, looking into the feasibility of productive added-value
processes based on local resources, resulting on theses which would not just
lie on a library shelf, but would in effect become business plans for a new
wave of technically competent small firms. The 'quad-link' hand-holding
process would then become feasible, and the 'entrepreneurship' process would
be seen as constructive rather than predatory, as it often is. Perhaps this is
happening already, and if so, it should be encouraged.
Let us then try to develop a 'virtual' discussion among a few people, perhaps
around the issue of how best to identify the key end-user capable of coupling
ICT potential to the requirements of economic development at the village
level. Can the drift to mega-urbanization be avoided by intelligent use of ICT,
and the effective localization of food production, with high local added
value, made the norm? This is going increasingly to be necessary, as the oil
wells dry up and energy costs increase. This aspect of the problem also needs
to be developed, but this is another story!
Let us then try to develop a 'virtual' discussion among a few people, perhaps around the issue of how best to identify the key end-user capable of coupling ICT potential to the requirements of economic development at the village level. Can the drift to mega-urbanization be avoided by intelligent use of ICT, and the effective localization of food production, with high local added value, made the norm? This is going increasingly to be necessary, as the oil wells dry up and energy costs increase. This aspect of the problem also needs to be developed, but this is another story!
 An overview of the book ‘Century of Endeavour’ is available at http://www.iol.ie/~rjtechne/blurb.htm