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Tech and the South - 12 Criteria
Alex Steffen, 3 May 04

We've mentioned Bridges.org before, but if you're a newer reader, or haven't hit their site in a while, it's worth going and poking about. You'll find all sorts of stuff there on new technologies for the developing world, like the Sattelife project, which is testing the use of PDAs as a means of bringing expert medical information into African hospitals and clinics. I found their 12 criteria for creating "real access" to technology particularly worth chewing on:

Is technology available and physically accessible?
Technology is not available to the residents of this township community near the village of Franschoek. As of 1998, there were 146 telephones per 1000 people in the world, but only 3 per 1000 in some least-developed countries such as Uganda. Worldwide, there were 311.2 PCs per 1000 people in developed countries, but only 0.7 per 1000 in least-developed countries such as Mali. Africa has only 0.25% of all Internet hosts in the world, and that percentage is decreasing. (World Bank 2001) Other examples include Nicaragua, with 39 phone lines per 1000 people, and Mozambique, with no known Web connections and only five telephones per 1000 people. (UNDP 2001)

(photo by Dave Robertson, whose work I really like. Buy some!)

What is the appropriate technology according to local conditions, and how people need and want to put technology to use?
The introduction of cheap cellular telephones and prepaid phone cards has made communications accessible to millions of South Africans and had a concrete impact on people's lives. Together, the two GSM networks MTN and Vodacom cover more than 71% of the population of South Africa. A wide variety of technologies are available, and in many cases, computers and connections are not the best technology choice to meet the daily needs of people in developing countries and under-served communities. Policy makers and users must be able to critically assess which kind of technology is appropriate for the intended use. Technology companies should treat developing countries as defined markets and develop targeted products to meet their needs.

Is technology access affordable?
The national average monthly wage in agriculture in South Africa is less than 400 Rand (approximately US $50). Few farm workers can afford transportation to the village shop to buy their weekly groceries, let alone afford to use technology at current prices. US citizens pay 1.2 percent of their average monthly income for Internet access, compared to a crippling 614 percent of a worker's annual income in Madagascar, 278 percent in Nepal, 191 percent in Bangladesh and 60 percent in Sri Lanka. (UNDP 2001) The cost of hardware, phone lines, electricity, internet connection, software, and maintenance must not be so expensive it excludes many people and organizations from using technology. Competition in the communications industry will help drive prices down.

Do people understand how to use technology and its potential uses?
"Do you want to buy my chicken? Can I sell it on the Internet? But how will I get my money?" Any technology will be insufficient if people do not understand how to put it to use effectively. Further, it is essential that people understand the broader potential for technology applications, so users can be empowered to creatively apply the technology to other parts of their life.

Is there locally relevant content, especially in terms of language?
Community members of Eastridge on the Cape Flats, who had to make hard choices about whether to starve or pay their utility bills, protest after their water supply was cut off. Our partners at the Working for Water Program are helping deal with threats to the water supply that bring high prices for local citizens, and they are using technology to deliver locally relevant information about government water programs and water resource management. Content is only relevant when its substance is interesting to users given their culture background, and accessible given their reading, writing, and language skills.

Does the technology further burden people's lives or does it integrate into daily routines?
A reality of life in the Joe Slovo informal settlement is the need to carry buckets of water from a communal tap, or walk 300 meters to the local reservoir because toilet facilities are non-existent. If technology use adds further burdens to people's lives and it is something they have to add on top of everything else they do as part of their daily routine, they are less likely to use it. Technology must be integrated into society and become part of people's daily lives if they are to have real access.

Are people limited in their use of technology based on gender, race, or other socio-cultural factors?
In spite of the South African government's policy of affirmative action, black women are still the poorest and most marginalized members of society. In 1999, only 0.1% of black women in South Africa had access to the Internet at home and only 0.6% at work. (Webchek 2000) People are often excluded from using technology or discouraged from using it based on gender, ethnic, or other socio-culturally based inequalities.

Do people have confidence in and understand the implications of the technology they use, for instance in terms of privacy, security, or cybercrime?
With the iniquities of previous governments still fresh in people's minds, South Africans struggle to trust authorities like the police. The dilapidated office of the now defunct Commissioner of Bantu Affairs is a constant reminder. This is where the "Dompas" was issued - a permit that had to be carried by all black people in South Africa and allowed them to stay in urban areas for eleven months before they had to return to their "homelands". As technology becomes integrated into society, people need to understand what happens "behind the screen" so that they can trust the electronic communications and transactions that they may engage in with government, businesses, or others, especially in terms of privacy, security, and cybercrime.

How do laws and regulations affect technology use and what changes are needed to create an environment that fosters its use?
"The process of reshaping the telecommunications landscape in South Africa in preparation for a more competitive environment...has kicked off," said Communications Director General Andile Ngcaba, in December last year. Telkom's monopoly is slated to end on 31 May 2002. The legal and regulatory frameworks that govern a country can either foster or hinder technology use, depending on the principles that shape them and how they are implemented. If we are to bridge the digital divide, it is important for the government to understand the implications of its actions on the technology end user and to have a long-term strategy for implementing laws and policies that support the widespread use of technology.

Is there a local economy that can and will sustain technology use?
This is the local shop in the Khayelitsha township near Cape Town, which is representative of the local economy. Technology programs and donations are meaningless if the local economy cannot sustain technology use. The local economic situation will determine the level and frequency of technology use. Technology that can be used to foster economic growth will foster use in the community. Donations and philanthropic programs have demonstrated the useful application of technology among underserved populations, but in many cases they have failed to produce sustainable, widely replicable models. "It is imperative that significant investment is made in SMMEs, in order to create both short- and long-term capacity for labour absorption and output growth, as well as to improve income generation and redistribution." (Department of Trade and Industry: Centre for Small Business Promotion, April 1998)

Is national economic policy conducive to widespread technology use, for example, in terms of transparency, deregulation, investment, and labour issues?
"Cosatu has been trying to persuade government for the past four years to review its privatization policy. However, the government has still gone ahead and unilaterally reconstructed state enterprises. Big chunks of Eskom and big chunks of Telkom have already been given to the private sector. Enough is enough" Zwelinzima Vavi, general-secretary of Cosatu, South Africa's biggest trade union, on May Day 2001. National economic policy that creates a favorable macro-economic environment for technology integration is a critical element of bridging the digital divide, for example in terms of transparency, deregulation, investment, and labor issues. In implementing policies and programs, many developing country governments face the challenge of reconciling the interests of "taxpayers" and "voters". In South Africa, major "taxpayers" like the business community and the wealthy sectors of society are driving change to ensure that the country is not left behind in the global information society. But often the "voters," workers and the poor majority, are resistant to changes that they do not understand and that they think will not help them to improve their lives.

Is there political will in government to do what is needed to enable the integration of technology throughout society?
During the last local elections in South Africa, the voter turn out among black people dropped between 30% and 40% countrywide. With issues such as housing, unemployment and HIV/AIDS foremost on people's mind, the integration of technology throughout society might not necessarily be a primary concern for government. National governments can play a fundamental role in creating an environment that will foster technology use and encourage investment in ICT infrastructure, development, and a skilled workforce, but governments must have the political will to drive change and they must enjoy strong public support. Even governments that have the political will to drive change, often struggle with the process of putting policies into effect. In South Africa, President Thabo Mbeki's administration has emphasized its commitment to making the changes needed to integrate technology and bring the country into the global information society. Clearly the political will is there, but unfortunately there has been little progress because government policy-makers too often try to meet the short term demands of their constituencies, and fail to provide a coherent long term plan for prosperity, or hindered the efforts of development initiatives and the private sector to address ICT disparities.

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