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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Calling For Programmed Technology Transfer and Adoption Strategies For Sustainable LDC Growth


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The world's least developed countries (LDCs) remain in a state of quandary as to how best to partake in the global information age. These countries have historically lagged behind the world in most aspects of development, and the age of technology presents new challenges. We offer what we believe to be effective strategies for the affected countries to catch up with the rest of the world. It may be easy to say we should just flood the regions with modern technologies, but by and large this strategy has not worked for most developing countries, as it is tantamount to providing someone with fish rather than teaching him how best to fish [6, 10]. Actually, the fish analogy does not adequately capture the IT situation, since technologies are not simple artifacts, and their meaningful use and application depend on factors such as local contents and cultures.

The success of Sub-Sahara Africa (SSA) and other LDCs is in the interest of the whole world. Six hundred and ninety million people reside in the various nations of SSAthese nations make up 88% of the world's LDCs [6]. Many of the examples in this article are based on experiences in SSA, but they are applicable to other developing countries. Developing countries contribute 75% of the world's population and currently share only 16% of the world's products [9]. Mainstream information systems research with a focus on developing countries and SSA is very rare [9].

One of the motivations for this article is to enhance the understanding of the interactions between socioeconomic development needs and factors generally innate to SSA and other developing countries, which impede technological transfer, adoption, and diffusion. We present an integrated view of the problems, and provide recommendations to help policymakers, IT practitioners, donor organizations, private investors, and others to devise meaningful policies to help the regions reach their potentials. We believe the programmed approach we propose would help transform these technological deserts (where many Band-Aid approaches have failed) into oases of technological use, development, and production.

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Understanding the Quagmire

Clearly, there is a link between socioeconomic development level and accessibility/exposure toand concomitant application oftechnologies. Our premise is that universal access and exposure to basic technologies lead to the refinement of mental models. Such access can result in meaningful application of technologies to address relevant local problemsthus enhancing human development. In this article, we discuss pertinent questions, insights, and diagnoses. We subsequently propose strategies we believe would finally release the LDCs from their development quagmire.

We start by proposing that, ultimately, IT diffusion should be measured in terms of its impact on human development. Relative to the rest of the world, LDCs remain in the doldrums in most human development statistics. Given that SSA nations make up 88% of the world's least developed countries, coupled with the fact that all LDCs face common problems, many of the SSA issues cited here resonate across other LDCs. For example, telecommunications infrastructure in SSA and the other LDCs remains grossly substandard, with landline telephones more a rarity than the norm across households. Lack of competition has been cited as one cause for many of Africa's problems, as industries such as telecommunications, airlines, railways, water, and electricity are government monopolies. From the perspective of the developed world, this lack of competing forces across industries is an alien concept.

Here is what government monopoly has done to SSA over the years. The average teledensity (telephone lines per 100 people) across the region is less than 1, compared to an average of about 65 for developed countries, many of which have teledensity numbers approaching 100 [2]. In fact, New York City is estimated to have more telephone lines than all of Africa [5]. The meager numbers across Africa are related to a larger problempoor socioeconomic development [8].


The statistics we've presented here will hopefully give the IT community a good sense of the numerous problems afflicting the region. Furthermore, we believe that solving a problem begins with identifying the problem, followed by proper diagnoses, prescriptions, and administration of prescriptions.


Regarding dial-up Internet, only a paltry 150,000 out of 690 million people in the region had the service as of 2001. This means only two out of 1,000 people had access to this "luxury," compared to developed regions of the world such as the U.S., where Internet dial-up access for the same period was three out of 10 people. Statistics from the same period showed that PC density for SSA was only 0.1%, compared to 42% in the U.S. [2].

Illiteracy remains a serious problem for most of SSA and other LDCs. The severity of this problem is evidenced by a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) report finding that about 40% of SSA was illiterate. If one adds the effects of functional illiteracy and the high unemployment rates for those that have managed to obtain some education, the situation is quite bleak [11]. These frustrations have led to spiraling cases of lawlessness such as armed robbery, wanton killings, and destruction of property.

These problems are further amplified by deteriorating educational systems, ranging from dilapidated school buildings to serious shortages of supplies and qualified teachers. Most citizens do not have access to running water or electricity; for the few that do, electricity outage is the norm rather than exception. Less than 13% of the roads in the region are paved, making most places inaccessible, especially in the rainy seasons [12].

The high illiteracy and poverty rates in SSA translate to meager newspaper circulation, as well as limited TV and radio ownership. The 1994 statistics per 1,000 people are summarized in Table 1. The numbers shown include South Africa and North African countries; the numbers for the Sub-Saharan region alone would be much lower.

In terms of health care, LDCs also lag behind the rest of the world. For example, at 103 per 1,000 live births, SSA has the worst infant mortality rate in the world. Due to the poor quality of drinking water, coupled with other environmental problems, death rates due to malaria, typhoid, jaundice, and other diseases are catastrophic. While developed countries have classified polio as eradicated, the World Health Organization recently issued a report on the alarming spread of this debilitating disease across SSA. Even before the effect of HIV/AIDS is factored in, life expectancy in many countries in the region is less than 40 years, compared to the 70s and 80s that are common in many parts of the world [1]. A recent highly publicized United Nations report indicates the world is losing the battle against AIDS, especially in Africa. The report cites that 25 million of the estimated 38 million people afflicted with HIV/AIDS in the world live in SSA. Present and future generations are being decimated, and a staggering number of children are being orphaned.


Sudden exposure to technology does not lead to meaningful usage or concomitant acquisition of knowledge. Therefore, we do not believe that sustainable developments would be realized by wholesale flooding the region with even the best and latest technologies.


While space precludes us from documenting numerous other human development indices, the statistics we've presented here will hopefully give the IT community a good sense of the numerous problems afflicting the region. Furthermore, we believe that solving a problem begins with identifying the problem, followed by proper diagnoses, prescriptions, and administration of prescriptions. Proper formulation and implementation of technology strategies offers a unique opportunity for the LDCs to catch up with the rest of the world.

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What's Keeping LDCs in the Doldrums?

These countries are saddled with many negative impact forces or factors. These forces tend to have negative interactions and consequences on socioeconomic development, and therefore on technology innovation, diffusion, and adoption across SSA and other LDCs. A summary of these forces is given in Table 2. Although there are some positive impact factors (also in Table 2) that attempt to enhance socioeconomic development and integration into the world economy, the effects of the negative impact forces are so overwhelming that the net results are the poor human development statistics examples given earlier [4, 10]. We believe that sustainable growth should start with reinforcing the positive impact factors while mitigating the negative impact forces. When basic technologies are systematically introduced to solve local problems in the right cultural contexts, meaningful exposure to technology would come about, and more advanced technologies would be embraced and applied.

From our discussion on how the negative and positive impact forces affect socioeconomic development, we now turn to how socioeconomic development interacts with the actual adoption of technology. The accompanying figure not only captures the importance of accessibility and exposure to technology as a vehicle to meaningful and sustainable adoption for development, it ties it back to socioeconomic development. It should be noted that even the popular technology acceptance model does not account for cases (the norm across SSA and other LDCs) where no universal accessibility to technology exists.

As noted in the diagram, there is a two-way interaction between socioeconomic development level and accessibility and exposure to technologies. We suggest that basic technologies (those that support farming, health care, and education) could provide the initial jolt in the positive feedback loop between the two. Ceteris paribus, the initial introduction of appropriate technology serves as a catalyst to socioeconomic development. Given the proper atmosphere, the resulting positive feedback loop would keep sustaining itselfresulting in more and more technology growth and socioeconomic development.

The box labeled "Accessibility and Exposure to Technologies" in the figure refers to technologies that are universally available for use. This includes anything that constitutes a technology in a user's world, and thus implying that gaining sudden access to technology is one thing, but the systematic exposure to related technologies over time is what helps users apply technologies to their fullest potential.

Lessons learned from other developing regions show that sudden exposure to technology does not lead to meaningful usage or concomitant acquisition of knowledge [4, 7, 9, 10]. Therefore, we do not believe that sustainable developments would be realized by wholesale flooding the region with even the best and latest technologies. For one thing, the basic infrastructures are not in place. Latin American countries demonstrate how growing pains in integrating health care technology are being slowly overcome [3]. Furthermore, access to information sources such as the Internet tends to be correlated to income and socioeconomic status. It is best to embark on programmed transfer strategies. Such strategies would bring about more universal access, as well as facilitate meaningful applications for human development.

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Prescriptions for Sustainable Growth

Ultimately, it is the impact of IT in developing the region that is most important to us. But the impact of IT in a region generally progresses through stages. The first effect of technology (primary effect), does not generally imply development, but it paves the way for higher order effects to occur. Exposure then leads to secondary effects. But the real impact of technology in socioeconomic development comes about when tertiary effects are realized [10]. Obviously, the progression to the higher levels requires time, and pursuit of the right strategies.

As Sam Pitroda, advisor to the prime minister on technology missions for India reminds us, proliferation of technologies in developed countries happened incrementally after basic human needs were met. With a systematic and incremental approach to development, we believe that developing countries in SSA can catch up with the rest of the world. With this in mind, a good starting point would be to harness IT in areas such as the improvement of basic health, education, steady electricity and water supply, telecommunication networks, governance, the alleviation of poverty, and the conservation of the physical environment. Pursuing these key areas would enhance the culturation of technology and human development across the region.

While many of the LDCs remain technological deserts, there is evidence that technology is making some inroads in some urban areas. Here, we call for a strategy of continuous deployment of technology to these regionsto avoid the all-too-common negative effects when technologies are dumped in regions lacking time to acclimatize to modern technology.

With proper strategies, the world's technological deserts could become oases of technological use, development, and production. Until recently, countries such as India, Malaysia, Singapore, and Mexico were little known in terms of technology. Today, the competitiveness of these countries in systems design, coding, and production, has resulted in significant outsourcing and losses of jobs in the U.S.

Despite their limited access to technology, the LDCs' resilience and entrepreneurship is coming through. Although most LDC inhabitants do not have the means to embark on major investments, a few are capitalizing on the recent proliferation of cellular phones in the regions. These entrepreneurs have opened up small business centers or kiosks where people recharge or purchase cellular phones, send and receive email, and chat about their newfound abilities to communicate.

Another example of how technologies are being applied in LDCs is the bourgeoning movie-making industry in Nigeria. Although the industry was founded just a few years ago, the number of titles and quality of production has steadily improved, and content has remained in line with local cultural values. Rather than relying on theaters, these entrepreneurs retail newly released movies on DVDs and VHS tapes to millions of customers who would otherwise not see them, using technology to generate income and contribute to the local economy.

We believe that fear of loss of control makes LDC leaders less amenable to technology. But siphoning resources to foreign economies and keeping inhabitants in abject poverty as they are pitched against each other along ethnic and religious lines, while government officials live like kings is unconscionable. With proper implementation, e-government (the use of IT for the delivery of government services and the execution of governance mechanisms) could enhance the relations of government with the masses.

Providing the populace with basic needs, starting with the infrastructures that target areas such as agriculture, health care, education, and manufacturing would enable the regions to ascend their hierarchy of needs. It is when one has access to potable drinking water, health care, education, employment, roads, electricity, television, and telephone that one can address matters such acquiring and applying more modern technologies to their full potential. We believe that sustainable development will continue to elude the LDCs until the factors mentioned here are addressed in a unified and programmed manner.

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Conclusion

This article conveys our message that sustainable application of technologies that improve standards of living evolves from progressive, systematic, and universal access over time, as it allows for the acquisition of mental models within the correct social and cultural contexts. The article also links accessibility and exposure to socioeconomic development, which in turn is affected by the negative and positive impact forces summarized in the figure. Future studies will involve generating and testing hypotheses using data collected in the region.

We argue that because the negative impact forces outweigh the positive impact factors in LDCs, the regions have perpetually remained at a serious socioeconomic disadvantage relative to the rest of the world. We have proposed that a reasonable way of measuring the impact of IT involves its effect on improving a region's human development. We have presented various human development statistics to show how SSA and other LDCs compare with the rest of the world. We have also pointed out some lessons learned from developed and other developing countries.

This article integrates ideas from technology transfer, adoption, and diffusion with those from socioeconomic development literature, punctuated with our personal experiences about the region. We believe the perspectives presented here give policymakers, donor organizations, investors, practitioners, and others a more comprehensive picture, and therefore more integrated insights on how to tackle the issue of LDCs' viability in today's technological world. On a global scale, it could be argued that these findings may apply to certain situations in developed countries such as the U.S., where many digital divides exist, involving variables such as income, education levels, race, and age [6].

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References

1. CIA World Fact Book (1999).

2. ITU (2004), www.itu.int/itudoc/itu-t/com3/focus/72404.html.

3. Javier, A. and Alvarez, S. Challenges to information systems implementation and organization change management: Insights from the health sector in Ecuador. Electronic of Information Systems in Developing Countries 16, 6 (2004), 116.

4. Madon, S. The Internet and socio-economic development: Exploring the interactions. Information Technology and People 13, 2 (2000), 85101.

5. Mbarika, V., Musa, P.F., Byrd, T.A., and McMullen, P. Teledensity growth constraints and strategies for Africa's LDCs: "Viagra" prescriptions or sustainable development strategies? Journal of Global Information Technology Management 5, 1 (2002).

6. Morales-Gómez, D. and Melesse, M. Utilizing information and communication technologies for development: The social dimensions. Information Technology for Development 8, 1 (1998), 313.

7. Odedra-Straub, M., Ed. Global Information Technology and Socioeconomic Development. Ivy League, Nashua, NH, 1996.

8. Panos Institute. The Internet and Poverty: Real Help or Real Hype? The Panos Institute, London, 1998.

9. Sahay, S. and Avgerou, C. Introducing the special issue on information and communication technologies in developing countries. The Information Society 18 (2002), 7376

10. Sein, M.K. and Harindranath, G. Conceptualizing the ICT artifact: Towards understanding the role of ICT in national development. The Information Society 20 (2004), 1524

11. UNESCO: United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, 1996.

12. World Development Indicators Database. World Bank, 2004.

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Authors

Philip F. Musa (musa@uab.edu) is an assistant professor of information systems and operations management in the School of Business at The University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Victor W. Mbarika (victor@mbarika.com) is a faculty member in the College of Business at Southern University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Peter Meso (pmeso@cis.gsu.edu) is an assistant professor in the College of Business at Georgia State University, Atlanta.

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Figures

UF1Figure. Relating socioeconomic development, accessibility, and exposure to technology adoption and diffusion.

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Tables

T1Table 1. Newspaper circulation, TV, and radio ownership by region.

T2Table 2. The negative and positive impact factors in development.

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