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ICT for Development

This recent article from The Hindu titled 'The makings of a debt trap in Andhra PradeshThe makings of a debt trap in Andhra Pradesh" describes the debt collection practices of micro-finance institutions (MFIs) as 'barbaric' and suggests that something like 60 people have committed suicide because of inability to repay MFI debt.

Whether or not the claims in the article are true, I think it illustrates a fantastic point: the perception of a thing is at least as important as the thing itself. We could make arguments all day about whether micro-finance is a good model, but whether it's 'good' or not will be irrelevent in situations where people reject it because of the perception that it's 'barbaric' and in general no better than traditional lending.

Managing this kind of perception is a tricky business, but as Jean Lave pointed out so wisely in her seminar yesterday, our duty as anthropologists should be to understand a thing first before we try to change it. We shouldn't be in a hurry to skip to the change part. I'd say that lesson holds true for other disciplines as well, particularly development.

Intel eyes PCs for developing nations (via news.com)
By Candace Lombardi
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Published: March 30, 2006, 12:32 PM PST
Last modified: March 30, 2006, 9:00 PM PST

The fully featured, high-quality, low-cost desktop PC platform is aimed at first-time computer users and the design is meant to be carried out by PC makers. The platform was unveiled by Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini at a press event in Mexico as part of Intel's "Discover the PC" effort.

While Intel has not yet released details, the platform is promised to be small, inexpensive, energy-efficient and reasonably priced for the average developing-nation family, according to a statement.

The desktop PCs will also have high-speed Internet access….

Most consumer PCs are not designed to withstand unusually adverse climate conditions or handle fluctuating power supplies, and that has severely limited their use in parts of some developing countries.

On Wednesday, Intel unveiled in India a fully functional computer called the Community PC. It's well-equipped to handle adverse conditions, according to Intel spokeswoman Agnes Kwan.

Intel's Community PC is designed to withstand temperatures of 113 degrees Fahrenheit and up to 85 percent relative humidity, and has a removable dust filter. To keep the motherboard cool, the chassis houses an integrated fan. The computer operates on a "customized power supply unit," and is designed to consume less than 100 watts while operating, which is another way of keeping the computer's heat in check.

Intel seems to continue to understand 'appropriate' as a function of the technology alone. Their new 'Community PC' is designed to withstand adverse operating conditions (good), and to be situated in a kiosk (good) as a shared-access machine (depends on the use). We know that Intel is counting on kiosk owners being about to pay more for (presumably with borrow money) the desktop and so it'll cost more. That's okay, according to them, because it's a source of income. But how? What are people going to do with them? Computers don't attract users like mosquitos to a light. There is little that is inherently appealing.

The end of this article mentions several Intel pilot projects that have proven to them that this is the way to go. Anyone know which pilots? Are they still around? Simple probability says they're not.

Update: Today I noticed an article on Wired News about Negroponte's reaction to Intel and Microsoft criticising the $100 laptop/One Laptop Per Child project. No surprise – the article is entirely about technology. Oddly, the article finishes with a quote from Negroponte: "The hundred-dollar laptop is an education project. It's not a laptop project." And yet – where's the talk about education? Seriously. If it's out there, please point me to it.

'Why Poor Countries Are Poor'
The clues lie on a bumpy road leading to the world's worst library.
Tim Harford

I take this to be more evidence that even the most macro-scale solutions for problems of infrastructure, government, and institutions in developing countries will ultimately hinge on local-scale stories like the Bafut Mafia.

What would happen if development research took the form of a massive oral history project? We send armies of people (local and otherwise) out to collect the histories of the local relationships, connections, and cultures that are the linchpins in developmental roadblocks. We compile the stories. Maybe we get a clearer picture of where to direct development work?

(Thanks to Alex for the link!)