DOT-COM/InterAction Speaker Series:
The Impact of ICTs on Democratization and Good Governance
Thursday, June 5, 4-6pm, Washington, DC
Audience Discussion Transcript
What is the role of universal access policies?
George Sadowsky (George): Telecenters are a good place to start. There is public access through telecenters and libraries. The economic incentive is that the cost per-user is lower and you have a fixed capital investment. The ideal is a computer in each house, but telecenters are a medium way.
What are some of the most significant results and some of the incentives for governments?
Ari Schwartz (Ari): The most significant result is openness, especially in the procurement area. The incentives are in cost reduction. There is the sense of modernization. There is some resistance, since openness causes some concern for some people, the examples is Mexico's "towel-gate".
What role might public access have in the Middle East?
Michael Hudson (Michael): In the Middle East, there are bureaucratic privileges that restrict information. There's the issue of sharing commodities versus using it as an asset themselves. Some Arab countries are more liberal than others. They are encouraging public access in Egypt, and Egypt tried to bring down the cost of the Internet. Jordan pushed for cyber-cafes and public Internet centers. King Abdullah and leader of Syria both think it can uplift the population. Bashar Assad was head of the Syrian Computer Society and he has tried to lower the cost. Dubai is very advanced in IT and wants to consider itself the IT capital of the Arabs.
How much sharing is there between governments on practices?
Ari: Some regions are better, like India and South America. The first issue of the ICT for Development journal has been published.
George: There is a spectrum. On technical issues there is a more active exchange. The Internet itself has a culture of sharing. There are a lot of conferences where there is an informal communication.
Michael: In the Middle East there are regular regional IT conferences driven by the private sector. There is sharing of information packages and also intelligence packages for political purposes.
What about the other side of ICT for development, what about e-commerce?
Michael: There is a great deal of interest in its development; the private sector drives the ICT sector. There are economies in such backward condition that the trust needed for an electronic transaction is not there.
Ari: Companies need to be involved; they are the ones that have the infrastructure. Using ICT for microfinance leads to openness, accountability. Default rates are generally extremely low. There are positive signs, such as smart cards and kiosks for pricing information.
George: Ecommerce is a way to enable small and medium enterprises to integrate into economies, but they don't have the infrastructures to support ecommerce. For example, credit cards, digital signature laws, and secure delivery of goods don't exist or are abused.
There was a State Department conference on egovernment, and the question remains, like the unpeeling of an onion trying to understand how to penetrate an unwilling government. How does the worm enter an apple? When visiting Andra Pradesh a government employee could send out questions and his managers had to respond. He said he didn't talk about access, but asks questions about how that entry point may be more important than process, a bigger picture view.
Ari: There needs to be leadership from a high level. In Estonia, the great success was due to one or two leaders who wanted to modernize; they wanted to be a tiger leaping forward. A couple of leaders felt they needed to do this and created a plan. There must be folks with vision.
Michael: In Arab countries, people study abroad, engineering and such, and return to be hired by their governments to carve a space for these initiatives. For example in Dubai license renewals can be done online.
George: The role of the champion is underestimated. Full speed ahead, don't let anything slow them down, can be positive or negative. Sometimes it can also have disastrous results.
What is the time frame for an e-gov project?
Ari: It depends on the projects, structure of funding, goals. In Mauritius the tax project took two years. In Mexico the first and second stages were completed in less that a year but the third stage has not occurred.
For telecom most governments have infrastructure. Is it a good idea for government to take the lead in automation? There are social development constraints, lack of skilled users, technology, and infrastructure.
George: In the 80s in the US the debate was if IT made a contribution to productivity. It wasn't until the mid 90s MIT proved that there was productivity. Few studies show that development. Right now ICT is seen as a panacea. There is limited capacity of the people and the governments which limits how much ICTs can help.
Ari: Is giving computers helping the situation? This is the wrong way to phrase the question. You can't put a model since it is different in each country. ICT does work but it is not a magic bullet.
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