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)”: 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)”:–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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