Wednesday, December 31, 2003


The e-Development Group at the World Bank uses e-Transition as a metaphor, one that I think it quite helpful. It suggests a process by which institutions and societies are transformed from their current ICT infrastructure and use to some future, preferred ICT infrastructure and usage. It is a good alternative to the “project” metaphor.

“Information system projects appear to have an alarmingly high failure rate, even in
developed countries — half of large implementations fail, half suffer disputes” according to the World Bank ICT Task Manager’s Handbook. How can it be that half of projects fail, while it is obvious that ICT dissemination not only continues unabated, but increases in speed and intensity?

I suggest one answer may be that there are externalities to ICT projects that are not counted in measuring project achievements. Thus people learn about the technology during projects, and apply the knowledge and skills in new circumstances; organizations reengineer processes and structures during ICT projects, and are then better able to deal with new ICT efforts and better perform their functions after projects are finished. Other institutions, such as markets and sectors, are restructured during projects, and function better and are more amenable to future improvements as a result.

Another explanation, is that the project metaphor may often fail, or at least be less successful than the transition metaphor. The transition metaphor directs attention to progress made in the transition – toward the ICT capacity that has been developed and the stage reached in the transition process.

The transition metaphor suggests that projects be considered as steps in a larger transition. A project’s success is then to be measured not only against the specific technical goals of the project, but against the contribution that the project has made to the overall transition.

The transition metaphor also suggests criteria for project selection. Projects should be selected not only according to their costs, nominal benefits to the firm or institution if successful, and likelihood of success, but also according to the stage reached in the transition, and their likelihood of success in terms of that stage and their likely contribution to the transition process.

Thus, at the beginning of an e-transition, projects might be chosen as “low-hanging fruit”, with high probability of success; initial failures are bad for the process and project failure can better be accommodated when the process is well established. Similarly, early projects might be visible solutions of widely felt needs, so that their successes generate broad support for the transition process.

Similarly, projects should be seen as interrelated steps in the transition process. This some ICT projects will not be feasible or effective without prior success in others. Thus governments will be unlikely to develop online land registration processes without first computerizing the land registry; businesses will be unlikely to develop B2B e-commerce without first developing many underlying ICT applications to allow rapid response to online business opportunities.

In short, the e-transition metaphor is at least a valuable complement to the project metaphor, and perhaps is a higher level metaphor that helps rationalize project planning and evaluation.

Thursday, December 25, 2003


Tuesday, December 23, 2003


Robert J. Gordon recently wrote “Five Puzzles in the Behavior of Productivity, Investment, and Innovation� (September, 2003). The paper examines the role of ICT in enhancing productivity growth in developed countries, especially total factor productivity (TFP). (Gordon thinks that there has been an ICT based increase in the rate of TFP growth in the United States, and wonders why the same effect has not been as evident in Europe.)

I wonder why Gordon focuses so heavily on increasing TFP growth rates. Is it not enough that ICT investments maintain TFP growth at previously established levels? It is rather well established that technological engines of TFP growth eventually run out of steam. Steam engines may have fueled the industrial revolution, but no one is investing in steam engines for their factories or locomotives any more. To keep productivity growth going, new technologies with further growth potential have to be found to substitute for those which no longer fuel growth adequately. ICT may be a key ingredient to fuel productivity growth in developed countries at this moment; the importance of ICT may be to sustain the rate of increasing TFP, not to increase that rate. The Information Revolution may be important in sustaining the technology fueled TFP growth by new means as the most recent previous technological engines run out of steam.

Lets look at the micro-level. A firm is making a decision on whether to invest or not to invest. There are generally various options, and generally each option has its technological implications. In developing countries, rates of return for investment are already high. Firms have often not made the transition to the 20th century, much less the 21st. They still can make high-yielding investments in cars and trucks, electrical machinery, and telephones, not to mention human, organizational, and social capital. Many such investments will have high rates of return, since the society is not yet saturated with these technologies.

Add to the opportunities from pre-existing technologies, new opportunities to invest in PCs and Internet connectivity. Of course the new technologies will provide opportunities that in some cases substitute for those provided by older technologies. One will probably not buy a typewriter when one has bought a PC and printer. But in general the new technologies will simply expand the range of investment opportunities.

There will still be a lot of investments in cars and trucks, electrical machinery and telephones, but there will also be firms that choose to invest in PCs. In some cases the firms will make the wrong investment decision – they will buy a PC when it would have been more profitable to use the money to buy a car. But in general, we assume that they will make the right decision, investing in more (rather than less) profitable technologies. Generally, the highest available return on investment adding ICT to the pre-existing technology mix should be no lower than that from the un-supplemented, pre-existing technologies alone, and may be higher.

But the gains in general may be expected to be marginal. If one can expect a 15 percent rate of return on investment in non-ICT technologies, how much will adding ICT to the mix increase the average rate of return? Probably not a lot. Some funds that would have been invested in lower-yielding technologies will be shifted to higher yielding ICT, but most investments will not change. Firms would have bought cars and electrical machinery had there not been ICT available, and will still buy those things with ICT available. Only a part of investment will be in ICT, and that part will have only somewhat higher rates of return on average than would their non-ICT best alternatives.

Of course, with higher returns on investment available, one can expect some resources that otherwise would have gone for consumption now going into investment, and this shift can result in an improvement in labor productivity, and ultimately in more rapid increase in per capita GDP. But this effect too is likely to be at the margin.

With millions upon millions of investors making such decisions, there may be very large numbers of decisions to invest in ICT rather than in a more traditional technology, and very large number of decisions to invest a little more in the firm. These decision for ICT innovation are thrown together with the larger numbers of decisions to invest in traditional technologies into the complex processes of the economy. What emerges, among other things, are probably higher rates of labor productivity and TFP growth – i.e. more rapid economic development. But only marginally more rapid rates of development!

And as I have argued in the past, the potential benefits from ICT will only be realized where other conditions are propitious. Adding ICT to the technology mix will not add to investment where the investors are facing social, political or other conditions that make them unlikely to invest in any technology.

The donor community seeks evidence that ICT will enhance development. Measuring the impact of a technology on economic development is very difficult. (Measuring the impact on social, political, or cultural development may be a whole lot harder!) Complexity theory has illuninated the unintuitive nature of emergent properties of small changes in the way decisions are made in complex systems. Thus complexity theory helps explain why it is hard to establish the causal linkage between the introduction of new technological opportunities and the rate of economic growth. It is perhaps even more difficult, recognizing poverty as a multidimensional problem, to demonstrate the impact of ICT on poverty reduction. The difficulties of its demonstration should not be taken as arguing against the reality of the effect.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003


This February 2003 report by Paula Johnson, on the website of the Global Philanthropy Partnership, seems very useful in that it describes many of the larger and of the more interesting foundations supporting development programs.

Monday, December 15, 2003


Americans for UNESCO is a national, non-governmental organization for Americans interested in UNESCO. It is relatively new, having succeeded “Americans for the Universality of UNESCO” with the reentry of the United States into the decentralized organization within the United Nations family. It’s new website should become an increasingly useful source of information about UNESCO, and about US participation in the organization.

The U.S. sent a very high level delegation to attend the General Conference of UNESCO in October. The reception was apparently very warm. UNESCO’s five main priorities are: basic education for all; freshwater resources and ecosystems; the ethics of science and technology; promoting cultural diversity and international dialogue; and universal access to information especially information in the public domain. Its General Conference adopted a program and budget for UNESCO of US$ 610 million for the 2004-2005 biennium. The session also adopted several standard-setting instruments: the International Convention on the Preservation of the Intangible Cultural Heritage; a Declaration Concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage; the International Declaration on Human Genetic Data; Recommendation on the Promotion and Use of Multilingualism and Universal Access to Cyberspace; and the Charter on the Preservation of the Digital Heritage.

A report of the October Conference of UNESCO is available on the Americans for UNESCO website.

UNESCO is in many ways the leading agency in the United Nations for issues related to Knowledge for Development. It is the lead agency for Education in the system, and in many ways is the lead agency in terms of information and communications technology for development. It clearly has taken the lead in basic scientific information within the UN system, although of course other agencies focus on science relevant to their own charters (e.g. WHO and the health sciences, FAO and the agricultural sciences). Thus it is great that the U.S. has rejoined.

WSIS recedes from the front lines of attention until 2005 in Tunis. It appears that the difficult issues were postponed by the well used tactic of assigning them to study groups during the interval between the two Summits. The major results of WSIS are linked below.

WSIS: Declaration of Principles

WSIS: Plan of Action

Wednesday, December 10, 2003



More than 70 per cent of the rural households in India own transistor radios, bicycles, and wrist watches; more than 60 per cent own or consume plastic shoes, tooth powder, and cooking oils; over 50 per cent consume electric fans, sewing machines, motorbikes, kerosene stoves, ghee, leather shoes, and tea; over 40 percent own quartz watches, black and white television sets, and cassette players; over 30 per cent have invested in pressure cookers, electric stoves, tooth paste, bulbs, and aerated beverages; and over 20 per cent have color television sets, refrigerators, and gas stoves.
Tariq Banuri, “ICT, PRSPs, and MDGs

My recent contribution to the World Summit on the Information Society via the Development Gateway (“Information and Communications Technology
Applied to the Millennium Development Goals
”) depends fundamentally on my notion of how technology spreads across the developing world.

Tariq Banuri’s comment above illustrates the nature of the diffusion that interests me. More than 70 percent of Indian rural households have radios; more than 40 percent have black and white televisions; more than 20 percent have color television sets. How did this come about? Were there projects illustrating the use of transistor radios and black and white televisions? Were the successful ones replicated and scaled up? I doubt it.

I think that Everett Rogers' “Diffusion of Innovations” approach is a more likely explanation. He focuses on the individual decisions of people, and the processes by which most people learn from the experiences of the early acceptors of technological innovations in their local, following the examples of those who are successful.

Why is it then that so many people in donor agencies focus so heavily on pilot projects, and replication and scale up? One reason is that replication and scale up are often within the power of the donor agencies and their client governments, and they focus on what they can do.

Another reason is that it is so difficult to understand the complex processes out of which emerge the larger dissemination of technologies, and even more difficult to understand how to modify and improve those processes. How does one spread better information to improve decision making over huge numbers of people? How does one identify, much less modify the incentives (and disincentives) faced by those people in their ICT decision making? Especially how does one target the decision makers making key decisions for the alleviation of poverty with information and incentives enabling them to do the right thing.

Further, as I have often pointed out, we are dealing with technology systems. The Internet changes the value of computers and telephones. Content availability affects those values. And indeed, ICT changes the values of the electrical infrastructure. What then is the proper sequence in which to build capacity, infrastructure, applications, content, and all the rest.

As Voltaire said, “The ideal is enemy of the good.” We man not have all the answers, but it seems likely that we can target people making important ICT decisions that ultimately affect the poor, and we can provide many of them with useful information through affordable processes, and we can make some changes in the incentives they face that will encourage more pro-poor decisions. And we can do so now.

By the way, let me recommend Kerry McNamara’s “Information and Communication Technologies, Poverty and Development: Learning from Experience.” I think it presents a useful view based on a wide-ranging assessment of experience to date.

Sunday, December 07, 2003


This New York Times article describes the US$ 2 billion increase in U.S. foreign development assistance, bringing the total to US$ 8.6 billion. This is the first tangible step implementing the President’s promise to increase America's foreign aid budget by 15 percent a year — or $5 billion over three years, the first real expansion in more than a decade.

The new budget would double aid to Africa, and begin ramping up the AIDS program. Much of the increase will sidestep the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and, instead, go to a newly created program called the Millennium Challenge Account.

Check out the Development Gateway’s Cross-Topic special on the World Summit on the Information Society. Sixteen topic pages have produced highlights in support of the Summit.

Saturday, December 06, 2003


I have just posted a highlight on the ICT for Development topic page of the Development Gateway on Information and Communications Technology and the Millennium Development Goals. It was written to support the World Summit on the Information Society.

My main contribution to that highlight was a set of essays titled “Information and Communications Technology Applied to the Millennium Development Goals.”

Friday, December 05, 2003


One of the winners in this week’s Development Marketplace was a project that is to train the giant African pouched rat (Cricetomys gambianus) to screen sputum samples for signs of tuberculosis.

The project is being developed by APOPO, a Belgian research organization working on demining. I suppose that everyone knows that left-over land mines are a big problem in many developing countries, and the development of a new, cost effective tool for sniffing out the mines would be very important to millions of people. The APOPO people have some 300 rats in a colony that is now on its fifth generation (nine generations are expected to be needed to breed docile animals that can do this work.) They have developed conditioned response methods for training the animals to sniff out specific substances, and find the rats can do so cheaply and with great accuracy. The approach is to be tried in a real life situation in Mozambique soon.

I actually was the project officer for a project funding Cricetomys research many years ago. It seems that these animals in the wild are primarily vegetarians, and are in fact a desired bush meat in West Africa. Our project was to try to develop them into a form of micro-livestock. Small animals, like rabbits and guinea pigs, can be a very good form of livestock in poor communities. The rabbit-sized Cricetomys might do quite well if enough development went into developing a breed with the right characteristics.

If you want to know about these guys as pets, try this article from Rat and Mouse Gazette.

We sometimes get inflated ideas about the applications of science to development. The development of the potential of this species is an example in which very simple research could eventually have great benefits for poor people. The facilities needed are modest, but smart, well trained scientists can do a lot with an innovative approach!

Screening sputum for TB is a relatively slow and costly process now, requiring microscopic examination of the specimens. If as expected, a small colony of rats, cheap to maintain, could screen 2,000 samples a day, the technology could be very widely applied. Tuberculosis kills around 2 million people a year.

Using animals to search for buried landmines, if they can do so in a safe and cost-effective manner, would perhaps not be as globally important as finding a better way to diagnose TB, but it would be important. That this possibility has been developed by a small team working at the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania is impressive.

Way to go, APOPO!