For some unfathomable reason, Barack Obama failed to put ICT4D front and centre in his campaign for the US presidency. So what can we divine as the possible impact of his White House years on our field?
In general terms, things look good. He “gets” new technology in a way no predecessor has. And, not least because of his family background and work on Africa with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he may also “get” development more than any predecessor.
What about specifics? At this stage, there are no ICT4D specifics but his policy stances can tell us a little more, in at least three areas:
a) Technology: technology figured in some depth as an identified issue for both candidates (something hard to imagine in the UK, say). There are pledges to give greater priority to next-gen ICT infrastructure and to ICT usage in government (with a particular emphasis on e-transparency) and in health care. He supports network neutrality, a particular US issue, which suggests he would not be averse to regulating to promote competition in ICT markets. There are also swipes – especially at China – on piracy and on barriers to export of US technology goods/services.
b) Trade: pledges to open markets and stop unfair subsidies abroad (no mention of the US doing the same!), to end tax breaks for US firms sending jobs abroad, and to give tax credits to those who increase the ratio of US:non-US workers.
c) Foreign Policy/Development: double US aid from US$25bn per year to US$50bn per year by 2012; fund debt cancellation; invest in the AIDS/Tuberculosis/Malaria Global Fund, and Global Education Fund. Plus a range of actions on African prosperity around agriculture, SMEs, access to green technology, and access to US markets and investment.
Do pledges to support ICTs and to support development add up to a likely boost for ICT4D? We’ll have to wait and see but there are some cautionary notes:
a) More enthusiasm flows around green technologies than around ICTs; including a spillover into development policy.
b) When asked what pledges might not get implemented, the only one Joe Biden mentioned was the one on doubling the aid budget which they “might have to slow down”.
c) Although not explicitly against free trade, there are some rumblings in trade and technology policy that remind us of Democrats’ association with protectionism. This might be bad for the IT outsourcing that has been so important in Asia and which some hold out as a possible export plank for “next-tier” nations, including some in Africa.
Perhaps above all for ICT4D – as in all the other policy and practice domains – our reflections in 2012 may be how, compared with exuberant expectations, relatively little actually changed. For now, though, I’m going to remain cautiously optimistic and see this as one more sign that 2008 is signalling an uptick in ICT4D’s fortunes.
One final thought is that there may be a “do as I do” impact not from Obama’s policies but from his campaigning; campaigning that managed to scale up the interactive networking style of a community-organising approach to a national scale by using the power of the Internet. As yet, such a thing might only be possible in America. But it does suggest that “e-democracy” has a great potential; one that is largely untapped in most developing countries.