A growing body of work suggests the traditional development approach fails to address the problems of poor countries. The current debate on development cooperation brings into question the very fundamentals on which the sector is grounded. This background is critical to understanding the rise of ICT4D and the role of ICTs in development. In many ways, this new development field stems from the same traditional framework meaning its own purpose, design and practice needs to be reviewed.
In the 1960s economists such as Peter Bauer and Milton Friedman first questioned the effectiveness of development aid. Recent econometric studies now support their view and make the argument that traditional development aid does not impact the speed at which a country develops. On the contrary, development aid can actually be detrimental to its progress (including an unbalanced appreciation of the recipient’s currency known as Dutch Disease). This in turn increases corruption and actually works to stall political, economic and social reform. Authors that contribute recent thinking to this important conversation include the works of Easterly, Sachs and Collier. Each author aims to address a quickly changing environment that most notably includes the rise of new super powers. Specifically, countries like China, India and Brazil that have shown specific interest and influence (political and economic) on Africa. Their interest in the continent works to upset traditional relations (N. America and Europe) and has sparked a new era of competition. This has spurred a new grab for power, influence and resources not seen since the days of European colonialism.
In addition to a fast changing political landscape, increasingly influenced by south-south relations, the continent continues to grapple with ongoing conflict, civil unrest, fundamentalism, gap between rich and poor, food shortages, lack of clean drinking water, the ongoing HIV/Aids epidemic, increasing violence, an energy crisis, ecological crisis, climate change and other economic, social and political challenges. These issues are underlined and exacerbated by the world’s simple inability to eradicate poverty on a large scale.
UN advisor Jeffrey Sachs argues in his book The End of Poverty that there is a need for an even bigger push in investment in local infrastructure. This approach can be described as ‘utopian engineering’ and calls for grand schemes needed to fill ‘large gaps.’ He believes that these challenges need to be tackled head on if they are to be resolved in a short period of time. That infrastructure is the key to getting people involved in a global economy. He argues that the poor need to be helped into the global marketplace at which point their productivity will rise and they can take care of themselves. In a later book Commonwealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, Sachs takes a broader approach, lessening his emphasis on investment in infrastructure, and dedicating more analysis to climate change, population growth and environmental degradation.
William Easterly takes an opposing view and averts the large-scale ‘top down’ approach of his colleague. He warns against too much planning and believes the deterministic line of attack too often ignores the local context. Instead, he argues for a process of trial and error, an effort to find and search out solutions that can then be replicated and copied. He argues for a ‘bottom up’ approach that responds to demand on a local level. To this extent, planning is only a means to an end. Real development comes from the ‘searchers’ on the ground seeking out local solutions for local problems.
Paul Collier, in his book The Bottom Billion offers a third perspective. He identifies four traps of poverty that includes civil war, abundance of natural resources, landlocked location of countries and poor governance. Collier underpins his book with statistical analysis and offers new and broader thinking about development. He looks wider than conventional aid and makes an appealing argument for more engagement with the private sector. He argues that the bottom billion needs private capital and says, ‘clearly there are brave people within these societies who are struggling to achieve change. It is important to us that these people win their struggle, but the odds are currently stacked against them.’ He goes on to explain the numerous challenges ahead, but introduces a valuable line of thinking that build the case for supporting local entrepreneurs seeking to implement solutions designed for a local context.
Specifically, he recognizes the idea that the pyramid structures and top down approaches used in traditional development are quickly becoming models of the past. Increasingly, people possess the ability to take development into their own hands. It is through economic activity that Paul Collier argues the most progress can be made. He explains, ‘International trade has taken place for several thousand years. However, the most dramatic transformation of the size and composition of trade has been during the past twenty-five years.’ He goes on to say, ‘For the first time in history, developing countries have broken into global markets for goods and services other than just primary commodities.’ It is this most recent development that gives the world’s impoverished an opportunity to make real economic progress.
Collier makes clear that until 1980 the role of developing countries was to export raw materials. He explains that in contrast to popular belief 80 percent of developing countries exports now consist of manufactured goods. At the same time developing countries are increasingly able to export services. He explains, ‘so trade based on primary commodity exporting is likely to generate quite a lot of income inequality. And its scope is inherently limited by the size of the market: as exports grow, prices turn against exporters. By contrast, manufacturers and services offer much better prospects of equitable and rapid development. They use labor rather than land.’ A successful transition into secondary and tertiary sectors remains the key challenge for the continent moving forward.
After several decades of development efforts it is clear that these problems can never be solved by official development assistance. On the contrary, there are an increasing number of reasons to believe that official development aid is one of the key hurdles that inhibits real development on the continent. Specifically, the argument that African governments only answer to foreign aid donors as opposed to their own electorate. The priorities and responsibilities of African governments are warped and influenced by outside actors effectively breaking the relationship between government and citizen in the process.
It is also important to recognize that the problems previously associated with poor countries (rightly or wrongly) are the same problems now faced by countries in the North. Thomas Friedman, in his book ‘Hot, Flat and Crowded’ makes clear that poverty is a global issue and that all countries face growing concerns of population, food security, the energy crisis and global insecurity. This changing landscape questions all assumptions and requires a complete ‘rethinking’ of traditional development at best. This shift is accurately described by the slogan used for the 40th anniversary of the IDS (Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, UK) that reads, ‘Problems are not a monopoly of the South and solutions are not a monopoly of the North.’
These different authors work to effectively question the approach of traditional development aid and illustrate new areas now open to debate. These authors make clear that we need to reach outside of traditional development thinking and look beyond the traditional sector and actors. New language, new theories and new players are required to redefine development for the 21st century. It is important to recognize that now global issues are also at play. In an effort to tackle these challenges a new focus is placed on local entrepreneurs and wealth creation. And as opposed to the top down approach that has failed in the past, a new focus should build from the bottom up. These texts are instrumental in introducing a needed shift in thinking. It is unfortunate its taken nearly 50 years to realize that changes need to be made. Let us hope it wont take another 50 years to reflect on the actions we take today.