Thursday, March 2, 2017

ICT and Development – Is there a connection?

The idea that Information and Communications technologies (ICTs) are instrumental in national development has become the faith of the policy circle in the last decade.  It is upon this premise that a robust ICT infrastructure would lower communication and transportation overheads, catalyze creative activities and eventually catalyze development activities. The impact of ICT on economic growth in the industrialized nations has been deeply explored and heatedly debated as an academic topic. Yet we are no closer to a formula linking characteristics of ICT technologies, their experience and inclusive development. The idea that ICT connects to growth is still a hypothesis. It remains unproven on scales, replication and its universality. There are several criticisms on the findings of ICT and Development (ICTD) literature, specifically in context of the economically least developed countries (LDCs).

There is a methodological criticism of the ICTD research, which is applicable to a wider range of empirical research. The major findings are based on the statistical technique called regression analysis and on a concept known as ‘p-value’. There have been critiques of the empirical paradigm from the very beginning. The mainstream empirical research relies heavily on the notion of p-values because it makes quick inferences possible, without necessitating a thorough understanding of the underlying phenomena. Researches that employ p-value without well-reasoned scientific argument are available in a significant volume. Owing to misuse and misinterpretation in the social sciences and psychology research, the American Statistical Association floated a notice in 2016 that inferences based on the p-value should not be used specifically in the policy making processes. A leading journal of psychology has completely banned the use of p-values.  The ICT research needs to be re-examined from the newer perspective; a perspective that does not rely on the short-cut of p-values.
There are other methodological issues regarding the findings of ICTD research. As the ICT and economic growth relation has been examined chiefly on the dataset of the industrialized OECD countries, one can also raise doubts regarding the generalization of the results to the LDCs. Similarly, the reliability of dataset is in the LDCs is itself questionable. For instance, the MIS reports of the Nepal Telecommunication Authority claim a hundred percent penetration of mobile phones, which clearly is an overstatement. 

Besides the doubts on the methodology of ICTD research, several socioeconomic arguments can be provided that cast doubts on the universality of the “ICT for development” phenomenon. I will state a few. The strongest argument is regarding the affordability of Internet. A popular criterion considers that an Internet connection affordable if its tariff is within the five percent of per capita income. This criterion renders even an entry level Internet unaffordable to a vast majority of the Nepali population. The slow economic growth creates a pessimism that broadband would remain unaffordable to the majority of Nepalis in the decades to come. The proponents of “ICT for development” would argue that investments in ICT will eventually boost the economic growth and Internet will be affordable to the masses in the LDCs. But such a miracle has not been observed. The World Bank mentions that the benefits of ICT are not observable in the countries that lack so-called ‘analog compliments’ for a digital economy, i.e. the triplet of favorable business climate, strong human capital, and good governance. Imprecise as these terms are, they nonetheless imply that the relation between ICT and development is far from being universal. 

Another criticism on the relevance of ICTD research to the LDCs is based on the interdependencies of the critical infrastructure. The dependencies between critical infrastructures are observed during both the development and execution phases. The underdeveloped roads have posed challenges to Nepal Telecom’s ongoing project of laying optical fibers in the mid-hills. On the execution phase, a fully fledged usage of ICT demands a robust electricity infrastructure as it prerequisite. A research by Martin Chautari has shown that the Nepali ICT has already become a significant consumer of electrical energy despite Internet penetration is still low in the country.

One could argue that the ICT infrastructure can be run on imported electricity or diesel based generators. However, a dependence on imported energy would widen Nepal’s trade deficit. The trade deficit would also rise due to the import of ICT goods and related repair and maintenance materials as Nepal does not produce them. Thus any would-be benefit of a Nepal wide ICT infrastructure has to be seriously analyzed and contrasted with the trade deficits incurred by ICT goods imports.  Such an analysis has not been done hitherto by the policy makers.

My intention is to convey that ICT is not a mystical mantra that cures the illness of the society; the findings of ICTD research are based on several controversial methodological assumptions and socioeconomic premises.  It is despairing that the popular media has been highlighting the one sided version of the ICTD research. The views of the critiques also require acknowledgements.  In summary, investments for national ICT infrastructure should be preceded by a series of thorough investigations at the user end. “ICT for development” could be a target, but it is not an accepted principle.  

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