What's new in ICT4D?

This Tuesday’s class
in Internet & Society ’05 is where we turn our attentions from a
largely US- (and occasionally EU-, thanks to my co-teacher Urs Gasser,
an expert in this regard) focused review of Internet law and society
issues to the particular concerns of developing countries in our space.

As I’m preparing to teach this class and reviewing what others more
knowledgable than me are saying, I’m struck by how little, it seems to
me, the issues have changed over the past three years that I’ve been
paying somewhat close attention to this topic.  I am no doubt
wrong, in fact hope I’m very wrong — surely many of the very
hard-working people focused on ICT for development have made loads of
progress during that intervening period and perhaps think that the
issues are quite different today than they were.  No doubt access
and connectivity have continued to move forward in some developing
countries contexts.  There are certainly exciting things happening
in terms of more voices
being heard across the world, though still far too few, that are
amplified by new ICT-related tools (check out the brand new Tanzania index of bridge-bloggers). 
There are promising new
avenues that good people like Michael Best, Ethan Zuckerman, Colin
Maclay, Geoffrey Kirkman, Charlie Nesson, and other colleagues of ours
continue to pursue.  And no doubt there are regional variations,
with more progress is some parts of the world than in others, for all
manner of reasons.

But the hard problems involved in ICT4D strike me — as an outsider to the
field, in truth — as not all that different from the hard problems of
several years ago.  Others would frame them more clearly than I
can, but here are a handful that seem plain, and persistent: 1) Attention:
not that many people are talking about or covering development of ICTs
in developing countries, whether in those countries (and focused on
other things) or outside (markets not big enough, other issues to
tackle with aid dollars, etc.) (cf. Ethan Z and Global Voices). 
Those who do pay attention are often mired in very long-term processes
like WSIS; 2) Prioritization:
the trade-offs in terms of ICTs v. other costly issues, like health and
education and other basic human services, tends not to break in favor
of ICTs (perhaps for good reason, perhaps not); 3) Money:
funding for infrastructure is in short supply, whether through
international aid, private sector investment, or national investment,
in most areas; 4) More money:
successful pilot projects prove the point that things can go amazingly
well with a little talent and a good ICT idea (see Ethan’s pointer to a project in Mali, e.g.), but without major follow-on funding, many of these promising starts remain pilot-sized; 5) Monopolies:
the telecomms/all-IP future problem still persists in most countries,
with uncertain legal and market dymanics in play that may make
transitions to cheaper, more universally accessible means of
communication a long and slow process.  That’s just for starters,
of course.

Have the hard problems in ICT4D actually changed much in the past few years?

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