October 2003

Marketplace of Ideas

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In rural settings, and especially developing countries, it is often difficult to argue for the benefits of digital technologies and its relation with higher levels of productivity through better coordination, communication and knowledge sharing. Many times there are a skeptical reactions from community members, who are usually focused on more traditional methods of economic development, and when it comes to arguing for provision of Internet services the skepticism becomes even greater.

The common promises about Internet for the people are:

  • the opportunity to do better business through the access to international market prices or even next town prices for their goods;
  • the possibility to deal with the local government from home;
  • medical assistance provided by a faraway physician on line;

…and so forth. However most villagers do not care about the international prices — they must take the offered price in local commodities markets because of their small production size. Dealing with local government through the Internet is justifiably seen as just sending an email to an incompetent and unresponsive official in a distant municipality, and not much better than trying to `fix' the problem through the local babu. And as for medical and agricultural advice, that is only useful if the local health and agricultural systems have the correct drugs and trained personnel.

People are the content
In the seemingly endless number of studies and position papers concerning the introduction of digital technology into underserved communities, the first recommendation is to obtain more local content. Perhaps the key component of theMarketplace of Ideas proposal is to recognize human contact among the villagers as the main content, at least in the early stages. The goal should be finding easy and efficient ways for them to meet and share with their friends and peers within the community. For instance, having means to distribute simple but crucial information on time, such as “I just found a “x” fungi in my field, check yours to prevent infection” or “I am going to town with my truck half full in about an hour, who wants to use the remaining half and share the cost?” could make a world of difference.

Traditional ICT programs

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