Tuesday, April 22, 2003


I have been thinking of the effects of ICT on institutions in developing nations.

Definitions of “Institution”:
· “A pattern of social interaction, having a relatively stable structure, that persists over time. Institutions have structural properties - they are organized - and they are shaped by cultural values. Thus, for example, the ‘institution of marriage’, in western societies, is structurally located in a cohabiting couple and regulated by norms about sexual exclusiveness, love, sharing, etc. There is not full agreement about the number or designation of social institutions in a society but the following would typically be included: family, economy, politics, education, health care, media.” Online Dictionary of the Social Sciences
· “A collection of organizations, groups and associations along with their corresponding values and rules which collectively perform an essential function for some larger social entity such as a community, province, nation or region. Common institutions include an economy, a polity, some reproductive institution (family form) as well as some organizations mandated to socialize younger members of the group and pass on accumulated knowledge and cognitive skills (schools).” Lawrence F. Felt
· “Significant practice, relationship, or organization in a society or culture “the institution of marriage”; also : something or someone firmly associated with a place or thing “she has become an institution in the theater”: an established organization or corporation (as a college or university) especially of a public character. Merriam Webster’s College Dictionary

There is a wealth of information on ICT in business, government, and private voluntary organizations. The primary focus of such discussion is on the effect of ICT on large scale organizations – corporations, government bureaus and agencies, and NGOs. ICTs provide an information infrastructure for such organizations. As the technology changes, so does the infrastructure. Organizational processes and structures are changed to accommodate and better utilize the technology and infrastructure. Indeed, functions are externalized or internalized in organizations, and correspondingly, linkages between the organizations and their social and economic surround are modified.

Similarly, schools, hospitals and courts are everywhere institutionalized as formal organizations. The large literature on ICTs in health, educational, and legal organizations is part of the general literature on ICT in formal organizations, with aspects that are adapted to the nature of these specialized facilities.

Markets perhaps were once simply spaces where buyers and sellers could meet to conduct transactions; no longer. The enthusiasm for e-commerce has focused attention on the effect of ICT on more complicated markets built on ICT infrastructures, including B2B and B2C markets. Even earlier, the computerization of stock and commodity markets changed those institutions; large amounts were spent of hardware and software, and the speed and accuracy of transactions were increased. It seems clear, however, that markets exist in the minds of buyers and sellers as well as in the hardware and software of their information infrastructure. Sellers have to learn how to sell into the market, buyers to buy from the market. Services, like market research, stock traders, and trader finance, are institutionalized.

Markets are institutions which allow transactions between buyers and sellers to take place. I would suggest that it may be useful to consider as institutions that allow transactions between government and citizens to take place. In the past, that may simply have been a space in which government employees could meet with citizens to conduct transactions. No longer!. Since I just filed my income taxes, let me use that as an example. I prepared the taxes via the Internet with the help of software hosted on a distant computer, and the forms were filed automatically and electronically. In order to interact with the government in paying taxes, I had received a number of forms, prepared by clients and others who also submitted the same information to the government. I obtained tax advice from the newspaper, and have acquired a body of knowledge about taxes over a period of years through books, reports, and the services of lawyers and other financial advisors. Thus we see a variety of institutionalized functions between me, the taxpayer, and the government, and these have been significantly modified in recent years to utilize and accommodate the computer and the Internet.

Societies form associations of all kinds: chambers of commerce, professional societies, sports clubs, trade associations, neighborhood associations, cooperatives, etc. Americans are supposed to be especially fond of such organizations, and especially fond of joining and participating in them. Some are institutionalized as formal organizations, but others are much less formal. It has been suggested that these institutions are weakening due largely to the impact of radio, television, and the Internet. On the other hand, I would suggest that new associations and association like institutions are also being created by means of the technology and infrastructure. It is surely the case that associations are adopting ICT and changing to utilize the technology. Thus professional associations use the Internet extensively to plan and publicize professional meetings; they are increasingly publishing professional literature online; they computerize back office functions such as collection of membership dues; and they create virtual discussion spaces in cyberspace for their members.

As the social sciences generally accept “polity” as an institution, so too is there a literature on the effect of ICT on the political process. The new information infrastructure not only replaces the agora as a place for political discourse, but it introduces whole new realms of poling, modeling of voter behavior, targeting of political messages, etc. Not only do politicians, parties and legislators have web sites, but there are businesses that advise on the look and feel, content and message of the sites, and other organizations that have been set up to evaluate those sites.

In each of these examples, I think there is a common element, consisting of the use of an ICT based information infrastructure by the institution; in each case, institutions modify structure, process or boundaries because of the new technology. Generally, for institutions that involve large numbers of people who may be spread over some considerable geographic area, the costs of the infrastructure, related human and physical capital investments to utilize the infrastructure, and of reengineering and restructuring related to the technology are large. I would suggest that other institutions also share these characteristics, and that it is important to consider the role of ICT in all such institutions when considering ICT and Development.

I spent some time a few years ago looking at foundations, and was surprised to find institutionalized intermediation facilitating grant transactions between grant-making organizations and grant seekers. There are after all tens of thousands of Foundations, and even more civil society organizations seeking grants. Some organizations, such as the Foundation Center in the U.S., provide computerized data bases of foundations which provide data on foundation interests, size, and requirements. There are media devoted to philanthropy, associations of grant makers, organizations which specialize in helping civil society organizations (CSOs) to write grant proposals, and associations of different professions working in this field.

While the Catholic Church is a prototypical formal organization (and, of course, uses ICTs in ways similar to those of many other formal organizations), other religions are less formally institutionalized. Yet their institutions have opportunities to utilize new ICTs, and face threats from failure to do so, or from doing so badly. Large scale religions involve communications and other transactions among congregants, and between congregants and others; where done in the past face-to-face or through traditional media, the new ICT changes the situation, as has been shown by radio evangelists, and the Ayatollah’s use of tape recording to prepare for a return to Iran.

Communities are also institutions reinventing themselves via the Internet and other ICTs. Small villages in Latin America and Africa are now in frequent Internet and electronic contact with members who have moved to the United States and Europe; remittances are transferred, and indeed the expatriates now sometimes remain involved in community deliberations and decision making. Community networking has evolved to the point that there are major conferences on the topic. And indeed, communities of interest and practice are forming around Internet portals.

There is considerable interest in “clusters” – groups of businesses in limited geographic areas such as ICT companies in Silicon Valley and Bangalore, entertainment businesses in Hollywood and Bollywood, or clothing firms in Florence or Paris. Of course these clusters also depend on specialized financial and other services, on markets for intermediate goods, etc. Indeed, one might well consider such a cluster as institutionalized, and ask how ICTs can be used by, and how they affect the institutionalized cluster.

As noted above, marriage and the (nuclear and extended) family are usually seen by social scientists to be institutions. And indeed, the Internet is changing these institutions. As I write this, my wife and son are in their home offices, working on their computers. We three communicate frequently within our house by email! Moreover, I find myself much more frequently communicating with cousins in Ireland and Australia now that we are all connected to the Internet, and there is a Daly clan website targeting tens of thousands of the extended clan’s members. International marriages have been celebrated via the Internet. More significantly for development perhaps, the new Global Information Infrastructure has greatly facilitated communications among friends and among family members, even when they live in different countries or on different continents; as a result, migration to work in other cities, countries or continents is less threatening in the past, facilitating urban migration and rural assignments of development workers, as well the emigration of people from developing nations and the assignment of foreigners to work in poor nations.

In summary, most development workers focus on the role of ICT in formal organizations and markets, and theirs is (of course) important work. There is an extensive literature on ICT and these institutions which makes clear that the benefits of ICTs will not be reaped simply by building the physical infrastructure; major institution building efforts (including human resource investments) are also needed. However, there are other institutions that also can be transformed through investment in ICT and institutional investments to accommodate to the ICT. Some of these institutions are common in the social science literature (e.g. religions, families) and others less so (e.g. those at the interface between government and citizen, associations, communities, clusters). Working consciously with these other institutions may be a great way to work toward social and economic development, and toward poverty reduction. But the best practices for doing so are far from obvious.

No comments: