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Methods of Development | Access to Information and Technological Leapfrogging

November 23, 2011

Telephone Landlines | Source: 90ways.com

New technology and access to information have been touted as the impetus for development projects by allowing developing countries to jumpstart their economic activity. The ability to play catch-up in the development scheme is typically attributed to the backlogging of technological innovation. For example, with industries focused on compensating for already absent infrastructure, they are frequently slower to create the next wave of modern technology. As a result, most countries will copy the technology being utilized and produced elsewhere in order to keep up. This has most notably led to the staggering numbers of cell phone usage over landline connected phones in the developing world.

The spread of new technologies to developing countries typically results in more affordable equivalents that can be found in developed countries. For example, sharing ideas and information has also allowed several developing countries, such as Brazil, to create generic drug programs to combat diseases such as HIV/AIDS. However, while making drugs available worldwide would be terrific for development, companies that invest billions of dollars in research are less eager to part with their profits.

Ronaldo Lemos, a prominent Brazilian professor and a leading scholar in law and technology, praises the initiative to invite technological advancement, but maintains in a joint paper that:

In Brazil, access to knowledge remains a privilege of the most affluent citizens, with negative effects on the quality of life and fundamental rights of the less-affluent majority. This is also the case in many other parts of the world where a majority of the population does not have the resources to purchase knowledge goods priced to sell in higher-income markets.

However, there are other ways to bring new forms of technology to developing countries. Brazil has another example: recently, Foxconn has made a deal with Apple to build an iPad factory in Brazil. In the article, Lemos argues that the iPad factory will be unable to affect change for enough Brazilians to make it worthwhile. Instead, he suggests that Brazil uses iPad technology to create cheaper tablets that would be more affordable for a majority of citizens.

iPad | Source: Apple

Advocates of the deal point to the possibility of job creation, and say that Brazilians are eager to invest in the latest technology. Furthermore, producing iPads domestically will be cheaper than importing them from elsewhere. The downside to this is that the majority of Brazilians are still unable to afford the steep price tag of the iPad. Critics also argue that the factory will not create enough jobs to stimulate Brazil’s economy, and additionally point out the lack of engineers to staff it.

But, does information really live up to the hype? Shanta Devarajan, the World Bank Chief Economist for Africa, explains that access to information is not always a direct path to new and better initiatives. According to Devarajan, most types of information fall into the following categories: they already know, they can’t absorb the information, there is limited evidence that information improves outcomes, and, when the problem is politics, information won’t help. The problem, so to speak, is that information must go beyond informing people of their current states and setting additional burdens on their time or livelihood. Information should make things easier—by reducing time spent traveling to urban centers to get certain information, or by providing the current market prices of crops (these are specifically demonstrated by the use of mobile phones, which you can read more about here).

The key point to take away from this is that technology does not solve every problem in development, and barriers do exist to prevent widespread results. Access to information is vital for generating opportunities and allowing people to engage in the most productive economic activities available. However, as the saying goes, we cannot place all of our eggs on one iPad. It is important to select the technology and means of distributing information to ensure that it will address a significant problem, provide people greater access to that technology/information, and will provide a long-term outlet for job creation and economic growth.

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