Does Perez Hilton belong in the Congo?

I stumbled upon an interesting post from a blog that is promoted through a respected Canadian newspaper. It archives the journey of a Canadian journalist as she braves the dangers of Africa to bring us quality stories from the front lines of the war on poverty. Her blog is quite insightful, yet witty and upbeat, so I quite enjoy some of her stories as it reminds me of a similar adventure I took (shameless self-promotion). The presence of such blogs may be a discussion for a later post (bringing stories of Africa to ‘The West’ through blogging), however I would like to discuss the implications of this post, which I think applies quite generally to the field of ICT4D. She asks “What to say of a world where Blackberrys work in a region [Eastern Congo] with no food or clean water?” This question seems to present a paradox that we, as ICT4D practitioners, may find ourselves defending, at least in justifying our profession to a wider development community and developmentally-minded individuals (such as friends and family).

How can one justify investments in technology in an area that is suffering extreme poverty? I realize that this is a redundant question to a development worker, as making that trade-off seems an unlikely scenario when one takes a wider perspective of development, as we must do. Of course, ICT4D should be part of a more holistic development approach that considers all contextual factors, we know that. However, I get a sense from within the wider development community, whether influenced by the politics motivated by such viewpoints or not, that technology for development may come across as a bit extreme, as this story subtly suggests.

But what of the investors who chose to invest in these technologies in such a poor region? Should we vilify them for taking these risks without subscribing to a holistic approach? Perhaps it is unfair to judge the provider of blackberry services in the Congo, since they have apparently been able to justify such an investment in terms of being profitable; after all, UN workers need their Perez Hilton!. If there is a market for such services, so to justify the investment in infrastructure, all the better for the poor I say, as it should come at no direct cost to them (although indirectly I’m sure they may pay for it somehow). Although most may be with “no food, no clean water, no toilets…..”, hopefully the new infrastructure can be put to a more productive developmental use to change that: ICT4D practitioners can devise a way to exploit it so to benefit the poor; ICT4D practitioners can empower Congolese to devise their own use; or some enterprising Congolese may be able to leverage this technology on their own (recall Heeks’ innovation models). To me, it seems that at a minimum it doesn’t hurt just having it there vs. the opportunity cost of not having it there.

Thus, pointing out the juxtaposition between poverty and such luxury items in the developing world seems a bit of an oversimplification and possibly a bit unfair to those who took the risk to put it there. However, this seems to be the stigma that we, as ICT4D practitioners, may have to overcome politically to justify our profession if these types of messages dominate the public debate. I wonder what Perez would think?


One thought on “Does Perez Hilton belong in the Congo?

  1. A very intriguing post. One thing it shows is that we are moving on from the old arguments about investing in ICT4D vs. investing in boreholes. Those arguments were about how donors (or perhaps governments) spent their money. But now the private sector is overtaking the arguments – it’s just going ahead and investing in ICTs.

    This is an example of the sea-change we’re undergoing in ICT4D at present – in part the “action” is shifting significantly to the private sector; and the balance between “how do we roll-out ICT” and “what do we do with ICT” is tipping more from the former to the latter.

    There are also Congo-specific echoes. I’ve been reading my way into this – from the Poisonwood Bible, via Blood River, to Heart of Darkness. A main thesis of Tim Butcher’s Blood River is the dilapidation of communications (transport) infrastructure in the Congo since the 1950s. It would be a positive reversal if some, at least, communications infrastructure was now being installed and staying installed.

    And also a note that this fits with Agnieszka Konkel’s recent work on investment in mobile in conflict zones (she picked Afghanistan, Congo and Somalia). This suggests that insecurity and bad governance do not appear to be barriers to investment in mobile infrastructure – indeed, if anything, conflict and insecurity drive up, not down, the value of mobile communications.

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