ICT4D and the Bottom Billion

Paul Collier’s book, “The Bottom Billion” is a key recent text for development policy.  What are its implications for ICT4D?


I’m not going to systematically either summarise or critique the book.  If you wish, you can see some of the book here via Google, read a synopsis here by Ethan Zuckerman, and a critique here by Paul Hoebink.


Instead, I’m going to assume that it may be having an influence in development, and to ask what implications the book’s agenda might have for ICT4D priorities.  I draw out six points.


1.    The Bottom Billion.  Collier argues that we should be focusing on the “bottom billion”: a set of (irritatingly never explicitly identified) 58 countries that are static or declining as the rest of the world pulls away.  Taking national borders as the basis for development is questionable: what about poverty, oppression, inequality, etc in non-bottom-billion countries?  Nevertheless has ICT4D research and practice focused too much on the Indias and Philippines and Brazils of the world, which will likely solve their own problems, and not enough on the Chads and Tajikistans and Haitis?  Shouldn’t we be doing more in the bottom billion nations?


2.    Growth.  Collier argues that growth has been neglected: “The exaggerated suspicion of growth by those who are concerned about development has manifested itself in the adjectives with which the word growth is now routinely encumbered.  In strategy documents the word is now generally seen only in the context of the phrase ‘sustainable, pro-poor growth.’  Yet overwhelmingly, the problem of the bottom billion has not been that they have the wrong type of growth, it is that they have not had any growth.  The suspicion of growth has inadvertently undermining genuinely strategic thinking.” (p11)


This really chimed with me as I’ve long argued (e.g. in a Development Studies Association presentation) that we have focused too much on using ICTs as a tool of consumption, largely driven by social development goals; and too little on using ICTs as tools for productive growth.  Moves such as UK DFID’s creation of the International Growth Centre suggest development agencies are listening to Collier.  We need those same arguments to filter more strongly into the ICT4D agenda.


3.    Exports.  Beyond just growth, Collier wants a much larger effort – including aid expenditure – targeting assistance to exports.  He recognises there are many export barriers (not least competition from established Asian exporters) but also that exports bring significant developmental benefits.


I think it’s fair to say, though, that one rather rarely finds ICT4D projects or research looking at exports.  Where is the push for IT services offshoring to Africa?  Where is the work on e-business support for SME exporters?  There are bits and pieces but they fall far short of any “big push”, and they often derive from research or practice worlds that are separate from those of development.  Indeed, they can be marginalised because of the “business is a dirty business” mentality that Collier identifies as running too uncritically through some in the development community.


4.    Transparency.  Collier makes a strong claim that much more needs to be done about transparency.  Mainly transparency of budget processes to local media and civil society (e.g. citing the example of Uganda increasing the proportion of disbursed funds actually arriving at schools from 20% to 90%).  But also transparency of multinational investments.


Information systems and ICTs are fundamental to government transparency (e.g. see cases and models here).  Local media is currently the central information system for transparency (neatly demonstrated from corrupt Peruvian president Fujimori’s bribe accounts, showing he paid far more to bribe local media than, say, local judges).  But ICTs have a clear role helping circumvent local media when it is a state monopoly.  And ICTs will have a growing role both as an addition to, and support for, local media.


5.    Limited-Use Aid Funds.  There’s a lot of sneering and scathing about the use of consultants in development.  Collier, though, is a fan and he shows evidence of the value of a massive infusion of external skills, particularly for countries just emerging from conflict or state failure.  He suggests a good way to fund the use of technical assistance is to hand the budget over to the developing country government, but only allow it to be used for TA.


That rang a bell for me relating to the problems of turning ICT4D contract research into action.  The problem is, once a research contract is over, there is little or no incentive for an ICT4D researcher to put the results into action with policy or practice audiences.  Nor is there an easy way for such audiences to engage the researcher’s attention.  So, how about a limited-use fund for follow-on from ICT4D research?  Control of the fund would be given to the particular development policy-makers or practitioners, but its use would be restricted to engaging the services of a pool of ICT4D researchers.  One could use a similar approach – a kind-of voucher scheme – for actually commissioning ICT4D research.


6.    Quantitative Evidence.  I struggled through the first few pages of “The Bottom Billion”: Collier’s writing style sits uneasily with the British cultural norm of self-deprecation.  But I ended up thoroughly impressed, particularly by the bravura demonstration of using quantitative evidence to support an argument and identify priorities.


The standard critiques of macro-economics can all be wheeled out against Collier: the quality of the data foundation; the subjectivity of category selection; the ease with which correlation is blurred into causality; and the perennial “where’s the politics”.  At least he is aware of these, and makes some nods at a defence from time to time.


But, above all this, the book demonstrates how powerful quantitative research – whatever its limitations – can be in setting real-world policy and practice agendas.  I cannot imagine anyone from a qualitative tradition being able to write this kind of work.  It’s presumably no coincidence that so many recent cross-over writers reaching out from development studies to a wider audience – Sachs, Stiglitz, Easterly, Collier – are all economists.


The book is a strong counter-blast to the turn to interpretivism that can infect ICT4D from both the information systems and development studies arenas.  Equally, it’s a reminder of how poor a lot of quantitative, positivist research can be by comparison.  Above all, I saw it as a call to arms for a much greater engagement of strong quantitative and economics-based research in the ICT4D field.


A summary, then, of the Bottom Billion and its ICT4D agenda implications: more on ICTs in the bottom billion countries; more linking ICTs to growth, exports and transparency; more DC-controlled limited-use funds in ICT4D research; and more quantitative ICT4D research.