Connected for Development: Information Kiosks and Sustainability
Editor: Akhtar Badshah, Sarbuland Khan, Maria Garrido
Publisher: New York: United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force, 2003
Review Published: July 2005
On behalf of the editors, I would like to thank Chris Russill for his thorough review and interesting insights. Also, thanks to David Silver for his commitment to provide a space where constructive dialogue can take place.
Before addressing the constructive criticisms that Chris raised in his review, I feel that it is appropriate to state the underlying motivations behind this publication. Connected for Development was conceived simply as a mechanism to trigger further discussion in relation to the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) for social purposes. It never had the intent, and the editors and authors alike would agree, in becoming a treaty for digital inclusion nor a groundbreaking theoretical piece. We all hoped, however, that the brief articles in the different sections could shed light regarding the complexity of the relationship between ICTs and development, the different variables that come into play for initiatives of this sort to have an impact, even if small, in marginalized communities. This explains the seemingly loosely connected articles in each Section.
Edited volumes always become difficult and controversial, more so if the volume combines voices from different institutions, with embedded ideologies, and diverse conceptions of the contributions that ICT in poverty reduction. However, we saw in this combination the most important contribution of the book. By bringing together representatives from international organizations, scholars, members of NGOs, and community activists, we hoped to create a conduit where different opinions and experiences could be heard. Even though I do not entirely share assertions made by some of the authors, it would be completely undemocratic to reject a piece solely on the merits of my personal opinion.
Although in his review Chris disagrees, the moving force behind the book was not to promote the values of "entrepreneurship" and "private property or privatization" as the most important ingredients for successful ICT initiatives for development. There is no doubt that some authors place more hope on market forces and privatization than I would grant. But without question, I believe there is value in hearing a wide array of voices and let the readers form their own opinions by taking experiences that could be valuable to them and disregarding those that are not appropriate for their context. When designing the table of contents, I can really speak to this since I was the editor more involved in this process. In general, we wanted to convey three important messages:
Discussing entrepreneurship in this context, I would like to invite Chris to think about it differently from the way it is regarded in Western countries where the success of a telecenter lies on the entrepreneurial skills of the owner which in turn allows her to provide value-added services to her customers. One of the projects discussed in Section V illustrates my point nicely. The Hungarian Telecottages were founded by civil society to address different needs, including the provision of ICT for people who otherwise did not have access to it. Members of the community run them and the services they provide are tailored to the local needs (there are 500 Telecottages operating in Hungary today, all of them are run independently; this is not a franchise like Drishtee). Community members who volunteer on the Telecottages do continuous assessment of the services that are more responsive to the community/communities they serve and, in some cases, they charge a symbolic price for services rendered. They offer other services that contribute to the financial sustainability of the Telecottages such as printing, web design for local business, education, and training. This is the voice, my own, of a young researcher that is deeply committed to study social movements and civil society participation in the Zapatista Movement in Chiapas, Mexico, and highly regards the contribution of Carey in the study of mass media and society.
This is a marquee example of a local entrepreneurial project but does not fall under the common Western definition because the overall objective is not to design business strategies that increase the margin of profit. Although the experience of Telecottages is unique in many ways, it is tantamount for researchers and development practitioners to recognize that entrepreneurship has many dimensions and that communities will develop strategies that embrace their very own cultural, social, and economic values. This is the most important message that we were hoping to give with the case studies in Section V.
Chris' critique of the lack of theoretical foundation is well founded and many of the authors, including myself, Colle, Roman, and Fernandez-Maldonado, are well aware and have raise this criticism many times. However, and without justifying this scholarly vacuum, this book was not the appropriate medium to have a theoretical discussion of ICT and development. Starting from the fact that the pieces needed to be small to accommodate many voices and the language needed to be tailored for all sorts of audiences, this objective unfortunately was out of reach. Granted, this vacuum exists not only in theory development but also in making this theory useful in the field.
Judging the merits or contributions of an article based on the theoretical contribution it can make it is not entirely fair in the context of this book. All the articles, regardless of their "soundness" were made by people with long years of experience in the field and/or with a long history of doing research on ICT and development. They are not anecdotal in any way or form. For the case studies to become part of this publication, their findings had to be based on research and field studies. Some of them had the opportunity to engage in long term, multi-year research studies while others did not have the resources so the "quality" of their research was more modest, but still valuable. In this regard, Chris' comments on the promotional aspects of the case studies are completely unfounded and inaccurate. Although there are some marketing hints here and there, we did everything possible to gather a set of researched projects that could illustrate, into some extent, the wide array of initiatives in different parts of the world. Here, there is an implied call for scholars interested in ICT and development to help fill this gap.
To finalize, I would like to express again my gratitude to Chris Russill for this thorough review and I hope that some of the comments I made help clarify some of the constructive critiques that he makes. Speaking for myself, I share many of the critiques he raised regarding the implied value that some authors give to entrepreneurship, privatization of state-owned enterprises, and technological determinism. However, I also believe that critiques of this sort need to be contextualized on the type of publication developed, the diverse audience it is aimed at, and most importantly to the different commitments that authors/development practitioners have with the communities that inspire their work.
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