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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

 REVIEW 1: Ricardo Arana (Español)
 REVIEW 2: T.R. Madanmohan
 REVIEW 3: Chris Russill
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Maria Garrido (English)
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Maria Garrido (Español)

    Culture in the broadest sense is not only the sum of cultural creations, nor is it merely the culture of how humans associate or interact, it is also the culture of entrepreneurship understood as the creation of values that have, and aim at having, a meaning -- the culture of how businesses run themselves, and ultimately, the culture of economics as an organic part of civic society, a society that is infused with that ethos, and strengthened by it. – Vaclav Havel, 2004, p. 39.
It is difficult to appreciate the extent to which the view expressed by Vaclav Havel not only informs the everyday operations of any number of global developmental and regulatory institutions, but goes unexamined and unquestioned in the course of their everyday practices. How this entrepreneurial ethos impinges upon and interacts with all the various sub-practices comprising cyberculture is perhaps only the newest form of an old problem: what happens when new forms of communication are first forced to suit the requirements of capitalism and then guided substantively by its logic of accumulation? In the case of digital information access for the poor as conceptualized in Connected for Development: Information Kiosks and Sustainability, edited by Akhtar Badshah, Sarbuland Khan, and Maria Garrido, it takes the form of an unmitigated assault on other ways of distributing communicative resources and presumably creating values. The beauty of Havel's view, of course, is that it heads off the criticism implied in such statements, since by definition that which is novel and creating value is an expression of the entrepreneurial ethos, not something more basic to the nature of human practice.

Havel does not precisely express the underlying philosophy guiding Connected for Development, but his passage comes close enough, and lends much needed vision to the patchwork of strategies, anecdotal suggestions, and case studies comprising the book. In fact, Connected for Development is playing for even higher stakes than Havel, as its proponents profess that a culture of entrepreneurship applied to and presumably diffused through information kiosks (internet-cafés for the poor) is a key variable in the long sought after pathway out of poverty. That Connected for Development refuses to articulate, fill out, and defend its guiding assumption with more than celebratory rhetoric and localized strategies for utilizing digital communication in impoverished areas is frustrating initially. On second glance, however, I came to the same conclusion offered by Jorge Luis Borges on the authenticity of the Koran. There was no need to mention, fill out, or justify its advocacy for the entrepreneurial solution, anymore than the Koran need mention the ubiquity of camels. They are simply presumed at every point and required to make things go.

Connected for Development is a publication of the United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force series, linking together academics, business leaders, and authors based at the UN, World Bank, and what was once Digital Partners, an NGO geared to the telecenter movement and the motivating force behind this book. Put simply, Connected for Development advocates for commercially run internet-cafés as an important component of the "ICT for development movement" (xii), an area of development communication that assumes ICTs are contributors and perhaps even prerequisites to substantially reducing global poverty. As forms of ICTs, telecenters and information kiosks are promoted as important for bringing communication to the poor, such that "the rural and disenfranchised of the world are given a voice" (ix), in the hope that improved access to digital information will expand the range for community participation, public engagement, and social change. The unique features of information kiosks are seen as viable solutions to problems typically restricting the extension of communication technologies: sparse population and heavy capital investment in infrastructure.

The guiding question of the book is not simply how to start-up these kiosks, but how to best run them and keep them in operation. The book sets out to review the diverse models and contexts of operating information kiosks around the world in light of this issue, yet in every case the authors give a resoundingly uniform answer: privatization.

The main part of the book is divided into five uneven sections, the last of which is a series of snapshot case studies comprising about half of the book. The case studies are descriptive pieces characterizing on-going projects around the world often with anecdotal examples of success or impact. The other four sections making up the first half of the book address: 1) the conditions for developing information kiosks; 2) the contributing variables to success in sustaining their operation; 3) the methodological challenges in measuring and evaluating such success; and 4) the new possibilities and next step for ICTs in developing and impoverished areas.

One of the book's deepest flaws spans its sectional divisions: a lack of concern to clearly define what is meant by "public" or "community" participation. In every case, its contributors either clearly presuppose or disingenuously continue to promote the exceeding simple assumption of access to information leading more or less directly to social benefit. Raul Roman and Royal Colle, in the most important section of the book, are not kidding when they claim the area of study is largely "atheoretical" (92). In the few references to theory found in the book, the diffusion of innovations model is assumed without any contextual nuance or theoretical development of its participatory rhetoric. The two minor exceptions to this are Richard Fuchs's claim that efforts must begin with a search for the innovators recast as "social entrepreneurs" (68), since presumably there must be an innovation to diffuse, and Roman and Collee's stunningly blunt suggestions are conveyed best by their section title, "Beyond Formal Social Science: Research as a Managerial Routine" (94).

This flaw becomes especially evident when the crucial question of measuring value is addressed. For example, in "Beyond Profitability: A Framework for Measuring the Impact of ICT Kiosks," Priscilla Wisner simply uses the utility function framework of neo-classical economics and extends its "customer" modeling of activity to include the perspective of all participants. The "Beyond Profitability" of the title is not an attempt to develop other approaches to the matter of valuation, but the extension of a calculus of profitability beyond its familiar and properly parameterized domain. It seems to me that this is the sort of blindness likely to be induced by those taking Havel's vision seriously. All public and community aspects literally disappear from view in the value creating process: "The direct users of the kiosk and the business community are both analogous to -- profit customer; in that they are directly accessing the services of the ICT kiosks to achieve personal or business goals" (99) [1].

Since I could not decide whether these elisions were deliberately disingenuous or the effects of self-blinding rhetoric, I thought I would send an extra copy of James Carey's Culture as Communication along to the lead editor, Ahktar Badshah, CEO and President of Digital Partners. As it turns out, Digital Partners was "merged" with another NGO specializing in micro-loans, and Badshah took a job with Microsoft just four months after the publication of this book, as Senior Director of Community Affairs. At this point, I decided the distinction didn't matter too much (and kept the book).

None of this is to say the positions taken in the book should not be evaluated and criticized on their own terms. But this is difficult to do since they assume rather than explicate and defend their most crucial assumptions. Most of the very short pieces defy simple summary since they are in themselves little more than simple summaries.

That said, the range of projects discussed is quite impressive and does lend credence to the idea that telecenters and information kiosks are a movement within development communication. In many ways, this book is the first step in a project to rationalize the diverse number of projects located variously in Latin America (Chile, El Salvador, Peru), the Caribbean, Africa (Benin, Nigeria), Eastern Europe (Hungary), and Asia (China, India, Indonesia, and Thailand). Nonetheless, there are distinctly different models and institutional contexts for many of the telecenter operations reported on in the book.

Perhaps one of the most interesting ideas is that of university-based village telecenters. A major limitation to this model is the focus of information kiosks on rural areas, but as global poverty becomes increasingly concentrated in cities, it may find new relevance. The sketch provided by Colle and Roman is typical of case studies in Connected for Development, providing a mixture of interesting anecdote (the aiding of women's labor through micro-loans), rather blunt economic measure (an email from this center saved sheep valued at $1385 US), and a thumbnail sketch of limitations and lessons learned.

A more elaborated model is found in The Thailand Canada Telecenter Project (TCTP), a project supported by the Canadian government and guided by International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recommendations (Warren Wong, Jingjai Hanchanlash, Vasoontara Chatikavanij, & David Barr, 181). The goal of the project was to demonstrate that useful ICT services could be developed in rural areas in a financially sustainable and profitable fashion (179). The project claimed success in 3 of 6 projects and the report emphasized repeatedly that the main limitation of the ITU model, or "Acheilles heel," was the lack of a "supportive policy and regulatory environment" (180, 186, 189).

The marquee model of the book is clearly the Drishtee Village Project, which franchised 146 information kiosks throughout several northern states of India. Although each franchise is locally owned and managed, they depend on District Offices for processing their fee based government services. These District Offices are in turn linked to the Drishtee Headquarters, "which oversees operations of the entire network and develops strategic alliances with government, private and non-governmental organizations to increase the basket of services available to Kiosk Owners" (Digital Partners, 149-150). Local owners are identified through their willingness to pay start-up costs, a franchising fee, and 20% of their revenue to central headquarters, in addition to demonstrating "entrepreneurial skills" (150). This ambitious model is also one of the more elaborately studied ones, as the Digital Partners report is based on research done by a private consulting firm, "Catalyst-Social Development Consultants Pvt. Ltd," as supported by Intel Research (157). Digital Partners clearly envisioned this model as the future for the information kiosk movement and their implicit refiguring of the concept of "networking" as "franchising" is likely where this business community is pinning its hopes for future ICT expansion.

Each author assumes shifting digital access to information toward commercial models will contribute to social benefits without empirical evidence of any kind. In fact, the assumption has little support other than anecdote and its apparent soundness relies strictly on a syllogistic sort of reasoning:
  • ICTs contribute social benefit and help eradicate poverty;
  • Information kiosks are ICTs;
  • Information kiosks contribute social benefit and help eradicate poverty.
The fallacies are obvious but ignored. Even if we accept the assumption that some ICTs contribute to the eradication of poverty, there is no guarantee that all forms do so and different models of information kiosks may impact the distribution and degree of their various benefits. Even if it turns out that commercial models are superior to public funding in terms of extending the life of information kiosks, it does not address the relationship of operating and management structure to matters of kiosk usage and content. Of course, these questions never arise if one blithely assumes access to information as the primary function of ICTs and the main determinant in their usefulness for combating poverty.

But the argument is pointless, really, since the book has no interest in contributing to social benefit or community participation beyond business opportunities. It would be one thing to acknowledge and defend this perspective in the context of, say, the burgeoning literature on entrepreneurship or Chicago School economics. Instead, the book simply results in the re-conceptualization of all innovation and value creation as business opportunity. In a telling elision, not a single voice from any community participant is mentioned once in a book ostensibly dedicated to lending voice to the poor in all manners of digital opportunity.

In concluding, I would suggest these oversights are not peripheral to an entrepreneurial ethos but part and parcel of its acceptance. The overarching goal of the publication is, I believe, a promotional one and in this respect one should take to heart the disclaimer prefacing the research presented in the appendix: "Disclaimer: Specific information about individual projects has been sourced primarily from web-based information, which is often 'promotional' in nature" (240).

1. The quotation faithfully reproduces the text. The book as a whole contains a number of typographical errors and awkward sentences.

Carey, J. 1989. Communication as Culture. New York: Routledge.

Havel, V. 2004. The Culture of Enterprise. The Walrus, February/March: 38-39.

Chris Russill:
Chris Russill is a lecturer in Communication Studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He writes on American pragmatism in its relevance to communication theory, popular culture, democratic participation, and environmental issues.  <chris.russill@stonebow.otago.ac.nz>

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