The wasteful debate on the “digital divide”

As-salamat alaikum. It’s 5.15 am: still dark in sleepy Chittagong. The muezzin has decided, however, that we all need to get up now. The hollow howl of public address systems all over this part of the city make sure everyone hears the call—Allahu-akhbar. According to The Daily Life[⇒related story] newspaper, the Bangladesh PM, Begum Khaleda Zia, has been in Geneva advocating the creation of a “digital solidarity fund” to subsidize the development of ‘information technologies’ in developing countries. It’s not even an issue: well before the conference, it seems, it was clear donor countries were not prepared to put a big pot of money in UN hands for this purpose. The funding debate has been postponed until next year. The “World Summit on the Information Society” held in Geneva this week looks from here like a prototypical UN exercise: off focus, overblown and wasteful. There is no doubt that information flows, like financial and merchandise flows are integral to any economy: even the poorest or the least productive. Information flows are the essential counterpart of the other two; without them markets cannot function. It’s also apparent that digital information offers a unique value proposition probably best expressed—although not always best reasoned—by “Nicholas Negroponte(link to MIT media-lab site)”:http://web.media.mit.edu/~nicholas/. So it stands to reason that anything that facilitates the creation of more effective and productive digital information networks in developing countries is likely to contribute to economic (and probably social) growth. But are there impediments to the creation of such networks that can be best addressed through a UN fund?  There are two reasons for saying ‘no’ # The history of UN funding of economic infrastructure is one of waste and mismanagment. The reality of development also provokes serious doubts. History has shown us over and over that such funds are quickly eroded—like other ‘rents’ or ‘cargo’—by the associated ‘rent seeking’ activities of adminsitrators, lobbyists, intermediaries and politicians.
# The justification offered for UN intervention to ‘close the digital divide’ is a species of the ‘market failure’ argument: but it doesn’t hold water. Information infrastructure is expensive, so public ownership is the norm around the world. But because information is so valuable in the marketplace there is no inherent reason why productive infrastructure will not be funded by the market. The capital hurdle is not in itself a reason to fear that the ‘digital divide’ is a problem of market failure. Experience and reason don’t rule the UN agenda, however. The typical UN global festival is held, apparently, for the entertainment of the usual suspects. Arthur Koestler, in a long-out-of print “novel(link to available copies from Amazon)”:http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0394484355/qid=1071275779/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_0_1/202-1936711-7913444, labeled them ‘call-girls‘ for their whorish attachment to the international funding game. The script, he pointed out, was invariant: jump on a plane, fly somewhere, give the usual speech about some sort of imagined injustice, drink heavily and sleep poorly. Repeat for several days. At the typical UN ‘summit’, luminaries and the forces of darkness (Robert Mugabe among them this time, again evading the supposed sanctions on his reign of terror in Zimbabwe) appear in some massive hall to deliver half-coherent speeches heard only by the interpreters. The debates, if they occur, contain nothing but a bunch of slightly-out-of-fashion phrases (‘digital divide&#8217), clichéd pop-analysis dressed up as social or physical science and chip-on-the-shoulder allegations about the economics of international trade and investment. Kofi Annan, who should have known better, delivered some very silly observations on this occasion that seemed to play to the mob: he complained of the “content divide“. bq. “Much of the information on the web is not relevant to the real needs of people … Nearly 70 percent of sites area in english, at times crowding out local voices and needs.” If there is any publishing medium that permits ‘crowding out’ it’s the non-digital media: newspapers for example. But there’s no UN proposal to fund a polyglot global broadsheet. In fact, the web is the one medium that is both global and local where crowding out is probably impossible. If 10,000 people from 150 countries including most of Africa had stayed at home instead of attending this pointless jamboree, they could have applied perhaps $100 million in savings to the development of digital networks in the poorest countries. Instead, they wasted the funds, and the time, on themselves.

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