Technology in Developing Economies

Knowledge is Power

As the Information Age reduces the effective distance between people, it also reduces the rate at which people can exchange information. The fast and uninhibited exchange of ideas that the Internet provides is revolutionizing societies in the developing world.

The primary motive behind the drive toward a networked globe is a utilitarian one. Modern technology enables people thousands of miles apart to communicate, collaborate, and create like never before. Giving the poorest farmer the same connectivity as the wealthiest businessman is a crucial step toward a more democratic and prosperous civilization.

Sri Lanka

Smaller effective distance between people and a greater bandwidth of information exchange have combined to yield incredible advances in educational opportunity. Sri Lanka, for example, established the Sri Lanka Institute of Distance Education (SLIDE) as early as 1976. The Internet has completely transformed distance learning, of course, and SLIDE has reaped tremendous benefit from Sri Lanka's nascent network existence.

Sri Lanka is still a predominantly rural, agricultural nation, and one that's suffered from recent civil war and economic crisis. But the country has been eager to seek guidance from the developed world and willing to receive aid from lending organizations, and its adoption of modern technology has been has successful as a result. Widespread Internet connectivity is still several years away, but the most rural citizens are already enjoying the benefits of living in an ever more connected nation.

SLIDE is a particularly good demonstatrion of the power of technology to bring positive change in a developing society. Sri Lanka's education system (which, incidentally, is free at all levels) emphasizes teacher training even more than do schools in most first world countries. Not only do distance learning programs allow an enormous portion of the population to receive an education their parents could never have imagined, but the system is self-propagating. The notion of educating educators is just one example of the "positive feedback loop" spirit that characterizes the ongoing diffusion of technology around the world.

The power of technology to transform individual lives for the better is unquestionable. Change must start in the upper strata of society, and in urban areas, but the trickle-down effect is real, and its speed has been boosted exponentially by modern technology. Sri Lanka now enjoys levels of education, health, and life expectancy equal to countries with twice its per capita GDP. Its literacy rate is over 99%. The small nation faces many challenges in the coming decades, not the least of which is technology-induced urbanization, but its openness to embrace technology and adapt to fast-paced change makes for a high probability of success.

The Entrepreneurial Spirit

A society of free enterprise is a distinctly Western ideal. While difficult to define, the entrepreneurial spirit can be characterized as one of innovation and individualism. Free enterprise has driven the information age, so it follows naturally that developing countries will feel pressure to adopt a similar ideal as they become increasingly connected. The changes that accompany a nation's shift toward embracing entrepreurship can have both positive and negative consequences.

Free-enterprise culture undeniably stimulates economic growth. Individuals in developing countries are often hindered by the political, social, or religious status quo.

India serves as an excellent example of culture transforming established societal order. Indians still have strong ties to their traiditional customs, many of which are socially restrictive and inherently unjust. The two most striking examples are the stratified Hindu caste system and the inequalities between men and women. The caste system defines rigid social class boundaries, as follows:

The Taj Mahal

Traditionally, entrepreneurial activities have been reserved for the middle class — the merchants and artisans. Caste mobility is extremely difficult, so entrepreneurial activity has been relatively minimal, especially with regard to the staggering size of the Indian population. That a large majority of the best-educated citizens emigrate doesn't help this problem, either.

The Indian government, however, in conjunction with foreign development organizations, is taking major steps to promote entrepreneurship and encourage technological innovation. It's all but certain that the caste system, as well as the low status of women, will begin to erode as the country develops. The spread of technology is inspiring and enabling positive cultural change in countries like India. If it's implemented in a controlled, sustainable fashion, the tools of the Information Age will lead to equality and opportunity.

by Joe Cackler, Emily Gu, and Mike Rodgers
for CS 201: Computers, Ethics, and Social Responsibility
at Stanford University
on March 17, 2008