Computing Applications Viewpoints

IT and the World’s ‘Bottom Billion’

How can information technology be best applied to address problems and provide opportunities for inhabitants of the world's poorest countries?
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While celebrating the emerging markets of Asia, India, and Latin America, let’s spare a thought for the world’s "bottom billion." These are the inhabitants of the Fourth World that sits beneath the Third World; dozens of countries that, in the words of economist Paul Collier "are falling behind, and often falling apart."2

As informatics professionals, why should we care about these countries? And how might IT best be used to help them?

The bottom billion—a population equivalent to that of the U.S. and Europe combined—lives overwhelmingly in sub-Saharan Africa or Central Asia. Life expectancy in these regions is just 50 years. One-in-seven children die before the age of five. They missed the globalization boat that sailed with many other developing countries in the 1980s and 1990s. While those other countries have grown steadily richer, the Fourth World of the bottom billion was actually poorer in 2000 than it was in 1970.2 These countries are not emerging markets, they are fading markets: the whole of sub-Saharan Africa has an economy the size of Belgium’s.

Should we be concerned?

Simple ethics says we should: developing an e-business solution to squeeze out a few extra ounces of profit or time-saving for the world’s privileged population living in the global North pales in ethical importance compared to applying new technology to the mega-problems of the bottom billion. And self-interest says we should: the bottom billion—countries like Somalia, Afghanistan, and North Korea—are key sources of global instability and risk including drugs, piracy, and terror.

These countries are not emerging markets, they are fading markets: the whole of sub-Saharan Africa has an economy the size of Belgium’s.

Not surprisingly, the bottom-billion nations have been among the least digital. But that is changing. Official figures may indicate an average of only three Internet users per hundred population6 but that greatly underestimates the true reach. Information technology in the Fourth World is a communal, not individual, resource. As a result, many times more are casual users; and many times more again have indirect access to Internet-based data and applications through friends and relations. Internet connectivity is also growing fast: by 42% per annum in the bottom billion, compared to 18% in Europe.

Beyond the Internet, there is an even greater bottom-billion phenomenon: the cellphone. Ten years ago, Manhattan had more phone connections than all of Africa. Today, thanks to the cellphone, Africa has more phone connections than the U.S. and Canada combined. Approximately one-fifth of bottom-billion citizens are subscribers (up from approximately 2% at the start of the century)6 but, as with the Internet, the effective penetration—those who could access a cellphone from neighbors, relatives, or local call sellers if necessary—is higher; likely more than half the population.

Subscriber growth rates are also high—50% per year compared to less than 20% in Europe—and sometimes highest for the most-afflicted countries. Three examples of the worst of insecurity and instability in the bottom billion—Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia—have high investments and an average 100% annual growth rate.7 Those rates are likely to sustain: in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, by 2012, it is estimated 90% of the population will be within cellphone coverage, up from 60% today.3

We are still a long way from North American rates of IT usage but it is well past time to move from talking about vague future possibilities and begin talking about actual current priorities.

The first priority should be engagement. I wonder how many Communications readers are working on an informatics project in a bottom-billion country. It is likely not a large number, because we tend to work where the money is rather than where the problems are.

In terms of IT, the three key priorities are mobiles, mobiles, and mobiles. As indicated earlier in this column, cellphones are now reaching far down into the bottom billion. At present, development solutions will need to be based around voice and text. But other possibilities are rapidly opening up.

One set of these possible solutions involves the integration of mobiles with other IT. This scenario could involve radio and television, converting these high-penetration but broadcast-only media into much more interactive forms, as currently being achieved in the growing number of "community radio" projects. Or we can think of integrating phones with telecenters and kiosks. Pilot projects already under way suggest this can multiply the impact of Web access many times.4

How will the Web and Internet reach the bottom billion? The GSM Association estimates that 80% of Internet delivery will occur through mobile devices.3 However, mobiles are not the only way forward. WiMAX-plus-netbook systems can offer high-quality, low-cost Internet access. Even more intriguing is the potential use of "white space": the unused parts of the analog television broadcast spectrum. For the bottom billion, it will be many years before digital switchover and release of analog spectrum space, but new technology could be developed to identify and use existing white space spectrum gaps.1 This reallocation of spectrum space could offer wide-reaching broadband Internet service at a fraction of the cost of other solutions.

In all these areas, though, we need more, better, and less expensive technological innovations that focus on the particular conditions and resource constraints of bottom-billion customers.

Beyond hardware and software, what application priorities do the bottom billion demand?

Analysis of the problems of the Fourth World may help provide an answer. The key problem is that of exclusion: the average bottom-billion citizen lives a life that is more 14th century than 21st century because their countries have been excluded from the benefits of globalization and because, within their countries, these citizens are excluded from the services, opportunities, and resources that we in the global North take for granted.

Social exclusion has prevented the bottom billion from accessing basics like health care, education, and government services. Many of these functions are information-based or information-enabled. IT therefore has a central role to play. For example, it can disintermediate the sometimes-corrupt gatekeepers who stand between poor citizens and the meeting of their social development needs.

Political exclusion has helped perpetuate bad governance in bottom-billion countries. Our Western mentalities have tended to simplistically condense the solution into elections. But Paul Collier argues these have been the least effective part of the governance fixes for the most-troubled nations. Instead, he says, we should be seeking greater transparency: helping citizens hold their governments to account.

Transparency is all about information flows, so IT is crucial, and we already have some pointers about new ways in which it can be used. In West Africa, the notion of government surveillance has been turned on its head to create citizen "sousveillance": monitoring democratic processes and reporting on them using short message service and taking cellphone pictures as evidence.

In East Africa, open information systems are being used to publicize how much government spending should be getting through to the "front line" of development. Combined with citizen report-back, in one case this raised the amount reaching schools from 20% of allocation to 90%.2

And IT is integral to a new form of openness and engagement: e-participatory budgeting, which provides online citizen discussion and decision making on how part of the government budget will be spent. Projects so far find thousands of people participating, and many more involved via friends and other IT-savvy intermediaries.

Perhaps most important of all is economic exclusion. It should be axiomatic that the main difference between the world’s poorest and everyone else is… they have less money. We need to ensure, in harnessing IT for the bottom billion, that a strong priority is given to applications that help create wealth. To do this, IT must address the exclusion of poor individuals and poor nations from markets.

We tend to assume that it has little or no role in these countries. In fact it does already and will in the future have much to offer.

IT can generate new market opportunities. Flying somewhat under the radar of government and donor agencies, IT can help directly create new microenterprises for the poor. Ongoing research at the University of Manchester suggests this is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the bottom billion: it involves those who set up their own Internet kiosks, those who stand on street corners selling cellphone calls, those who sell prepaid cellphone cards and phone covers, and many other business ideas.

IT can offer access to new sources of finance. Organizations like Kiva use Web microfinance portals to make a direct link between individual sponsors in the global North, and microentrepreneurs in the bottom billion. In a less organized way, individuals in poor communities are turning their cellphones into mobile wallets. Relatives overseas remit money in the form of airtime. This arrangement is increasingly accepted by storeowners, colleges, health centers, and other organizations as an alternative form of currency.

And IT can improve opportunities for trade. By offering access to prices in different consumer markets, IT can increase incomes for the poor. We now have evidence indicating that the more remote the farmer or microentrepreneur, the greater the benefit of IT.8 As the IT base diffuses into the bottom billion, it also offers the prospect of digital trade; something especially valuable given that these nations are disproportionately landlocked. One small but quickly growing element of this is "IT social outsourcing": the offshoring of IT services work like digitization and data entry with a combined commercial and developmental intent. Evidence from initial projects suggests this can furnish not just new incomes but new skills and confidence to those involved.5

Perhaps I can best summarize all this by pointing to the psychological exclusion that we in the global North sometimes practice. We tend to exclude the bottom-billion countries from our worldviews and from our informatics work. We tend to assume that IT has little or no role in these countries. In fact it does already and will in the future have much to offer. We also tend to conceive of the bottom-billion citizens as non-users. In fact they are not only increasingly active users but they are in some sense innovators; constantly developing new applications and new business models with the technology but also looking for ideas and support from global partners like us.

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    1. Bahl, V. White space networking and the commoditization of pervasive Internet access. Paper presented at Wireless4D 2008, (Karlstad, Sweden, December 2008).

    2. Collier, P. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K., 2007.

    3. Denton, A. Policy priorities to connect Africa. Paper presented at the 1st International Mobiles for Development conference, (Karlstad, Sweden, December 2008).

    4. Donner, J. et al. Stages of design in technology for global development. IEEE Computer 41, 6 (June 2008). 34–41.

    5. Heeks, R.B. and Arun, S. IT social outsourcing as a development tool. Development Informatics Group, IDPM, University of Manchester, U.K., 2007; http://www.womenictenterprise.org/IT%20SocialOutsourcing%20Kerala%20Paper.doc.

    6. ICT Statistics Database, International Telecommunication Union, Geneva, 2009; http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/icteye/Indicators/Indicators.aspx.

    7. Konkel, A. and Heeks, R.B. Challenging conventional views on mobile telecommunications investment: Evidence from conflict zones. Development Informatics Group, IDPM, University of Manchester, U.K., 2008; http://www.sed.manchester.ac.uk/idpm/research/publications/wp/di/short/di_sp09.pdf.

    8. Muto, M. and Yamano, T. The impact of mobile phone coverage expansion on market participation: Panel data evidence from Uganda. Journal of JBIC Institute 37 (2008), 48–63; http://www.jica.go.jp/jica-ri/publication/archives/jbic/report/review/pdf/37_05.pdf.

    DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1498765.1498776

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