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Information Technology in Context: Studies from the Perspective of Developing Countries

Editor: Chrisanthi Avgerou, Geoff Walsham
Publisher: Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2000
Review Published: May 2002

 REVIEW 1: John Daly

This book testifies that information and communication technology (ICT) innovations in and of themselves seldom lead to social and economic development, but the lack of appropriate (automated) information systems can hinder the implementation of development projects and programs [1].

Most of the readers of this review are surrounded by telephones, radios, televisions, computers, and the Internet. Yet most readers are probably, by developed country standards, moderate rather than power ICT users. Thus, they are probably much less wired than today's teams of atmospheric scientists who make weather and climate predictions using voluminous data from satellites, radar, and automated terrestrial and ocean stations, transmitted via high-speed terrestrial and satellite channels, and analyzed by supercomputers -- predictions which are then instantaneously disseminated via the electronic media [2]. At the opposite extreme, billions of people have never made a telephone call and can't afford a transistor radio.

Why is the Digital Divide so great? Why are the benefits of the information revolution so unevenly distributed? Surely the answer lies not in the technology per se, but in its context: the social, cultural, and economic factors that have limited ICT diffusion, investments in information infrastructure, and the benefits obtained from the technology.

Chrisanthi Avgerou and Geoff Walsham based their edited volume, Information Technology in Context: Studies from the Perspective of Developing Countries, on a 1998 conference in Bangkok, combining 19 papers around the theme of the organizational, sectoral, and wider developing country contexts for ICT innovations. The book's chapters treat a variety of ICT applications, perhaps emphasizing management information systems. Case studies are drawn from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The authors do not share a specific conceptual framework, and each chapter begins with its own overview. The chapters vary in quality. The most interesting treat specific innovation projects, generally describing events in an author's home country. Some of the materials are dated, such as Matthias Nicola and Matthias Jarke's "Analysis of Wireless Health Care Information Systems in Developing Countries" (Chapter 10) which makes a number of recommendations on use of wireless technology in Africa that have been outmoded in the years since their field work was done by the explosion in cell phone use and the commercial failure of the Iridium system.

The book is valuable in that it responds to a need for stories about ICT innovations in developing countries. Moreover, as a group, the authors are apparently seeking to create a research program differentiated from those of larger, more-established groups studying organizational processes, user interfaces, and similar issues -- groups which tend to do research in developed countries. Many of the authors of these chapters reference each other. All are involved in the IFIP Working Group 9.4 on the social implications of ICT in developing countries. Many are involved in the Electronic Journal on Information Systems in Developing Countries.

IS A GROUP RESEARCH PROGRAM JUSTIFIED?

The development of such a program seems timely. The need for better understanding of the ICT innovation process in developing countries is clear. Tens of billions of dollars are spent per year on ICT in developing countries, and huge benefits are potentially available from ICT applications. Yet many ICT innovations fail, many information systems function poorly, and resources are often wasted.

Developing countries have special problems in adapting ICT. In recent decades, ICTs have gone from craft to mass production. In the past, applications may have been poorly crafted but there was little question that they were intended to fit their context. Mass production of hardware, software, and applications has made great cost savings possible, but sometimes the products fit no better than off-the-rack clothing. Most ICT mass production is for developed country markets. The resulting products often do not fit developing country applications very well, but are frequently used with little adaptation, and sometimes carry unexpected cultural baggage.

The ICT innovation context is different in developing countries. Per capita GDP and the openness in the use of information are correlated with the per capita expenditures on ICTs, providing a prima facie case that these contextual factors affect ICT innovation. Moreover, developing countries are far less advanced in the institutionalization of ICT.

Lessons can be generalized among developing countries. Countries with comparable per capita GDPs will probably face many similar social and economic problems in ICT innovations. Moreover, there may be other groupings of developing countries that have similar contextual factors, such as: Latin American, Confucian, South Asian, African, and Orthodox [3].

Avgerou and Walsham are helpful in suggesting that the sectoral context also matters. Not only does this view correspond to common sense, but even cursory observation will show that some sectors, such as airline transportation and financial services have led in the applications of ICTs, while others such as the agricultural and small-and-medium enterprise sectors lag. Developing countries differ from developed countries in the sectoral balance of their economies as well as in the contexts within sectors.

INTENTIONALITY ISSUES

The authors often discuss the relative success or failure of ICT innovations, and in general the book recognizes that different stakeholders might have different objectives against which they would measure success. Unfortunately, one or two of the authors appear judgmental.

I would suggest that in developing countries success is often best studied in terms of the current state of institutionalization of ICT capacity; for example, wise managers do not entrust their enterprise's critical success factors to untested technologies, and success in the early stages of institutionalization may be measured in terms of confidence building. The authors generally did not employ models specifying stages of the ICT institutionalization process.

It seems likely that the long-term transformations involved in institutionalizing ICT and knowledge capacities are more teleonomic than teleologic -- more evolutionary than planned, more the result of multiple, independent processes than of a single coordinated effort. If this is so, it is important to monitor and evaluate the large-scale changes, and not just the achievement of local goals of individual innovators or managers. The authors generally did not do so.

SPECIFIC COMMENTS

Thoughtfully used, this book could help people learn to think in a more holistic and multidisciplinary way about ICT innovations in developing countries. Too often "techies," managers, and policy makers take too narrow a view, albeit each group in its own way. For these groups, some chapters would be especially useful. For example, Geoff Walsham's final chapter, "IT, Globalization and Cultural Diversity" (Chapter 19), would provide a useful introduction to a training program. Kaewta Rohitratana's "The Role of Thai Values in Managing Information Systems: A Case Study of Implementing a MRP System" (Chapter 2) provides a succinct and informative account of the introduction of a set of software packages into a food processing company in Thailand, emphasizing the role of the Thai cultural context. Natalia Volkow "Strategic Use of Information Technology Requires Knowing How to Use Information" (Chapter 4), shows how a firm in Mexico integrated ICTs increasingly into its jewelry business as the context of that business changed with the passing decades. Subhash Bhatnagar's "Getting Value from IT Investments: Experience from Two Organizations" (Chapter 6) briefly discusses context in case studies of successful projects in India and Vietnam. Abiodun O. Bada's "Institutional Intervention in the Adoption of Computer Based Information Systems (CBIS): The Case of the Nigerian Banking Industry" (Chapter 11) traces the complex history of ICTs in the banking industry in Nigeria, illustrating the effects of national crises and changes in government, as well as the role of the software industry. Taken together, these chapters illustrate the effects of a wide variety of contextual factors on ICT projects, and exemplify a variety of approaches to understanding such contexts.

I would caution readers to approach two chapters critically. In "Information Technology in Africa: the Policy of the World Bank" (Chapter 17), Gert Nulens' discussion of World Bank ICT programs was apparently based on a relatively few, externally-available documents, and was written before the recent completion of the Bank's ICT Sector Strategy Paper. Much of the Bank's ICT funding for poverty reduction is through education, health, government reform, financial services, and other sectoral projects; these efforts are generally not described in the papers he references. He also challenges the importance of liberalization of the telephone and Internet industries; other studies support the benefits of liberalization [4].

In "Information and Communication Technology Policy in Africa: A Critical Analysis of Rhetoric and Practice" (Chapter 18), Leo Van Audenhove's discussion of ICT policy in Africa treats policy papers as blueprints for action rather than as political documents, failing to put them in their political and administrative contexts. He portrays the participants in African policy forums as far more naive than they in fact are.

Knowledge and understanding must underlie the development process, and social transformations are needed to enhance knowledge processes. The information technology revolution makes automation of information processes more affordable, and may contribute to development, but only if the technology is integrated effectively in a larger development context. This book makes a modest contribution toward that end.

1. An earlier version of this review is forthcoming in Progress in Development Studies (Volume 2, Number 3): June, 2002.

2. Moderate ICT users may be unable to appreciate the full effects of the ICT deprivation experienced by developing countries.

3. See, for example, R. Inglehart, "Culture and Democracy," in Harrison, L. E. and Huntington, S. P., eds., Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress, New York, Basic Books: 2000: pp. 80-97.

4. "A Survey of the Economic Effects of Services Trade Liberalization," SITrends, November 5, 2001.

John Daly:
John Daly is a freelance consultant. His work focuses on science and technology in developing countries, and especially information technology. He began his professional career as a research engineer in the aerospace industry, but has worked in international development for 35 years, and taught part-time in universities for more than a decade. His Ph.D. is in operations research.  <dalyj@erols.com>

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