IS open source alone enough to help the third world?

Posted 17 Oct 2000 at 15:37 UTC by cmacd Share This

Open Source and Free Software leaders often beam with pride that by making world class software available, that is designed so it will will run even on computers that corporate users have discarded that we are helping the third world to overcome the digital divide. But is the actual gap too wide to bridge?

One couple from Ottawa has been touring the world in their Yacht, and they may have shown how wide the gap really is.

The voyage of the "Northern Magic" has been going on since 1998. The 5 person crew has been winding their way around the world, and is curently in Afica. Their Visit to Kenya has given the author of their continuing traveloge some pause for thought

The conditions that they have found, hovels called schools, Girls sent to start families after Grade 6, lack of books and even desks remind us that the gap between rich and poor is ever widening. Families are speding the purchasing power equivelent of the tuition to Harvard to send their sons to high school, yet the readers of this site realize that high school is not sufficent preparation for particpation in even a backward ecconomy.

It would be easy to just send money, or even to ignore the problem, but left unchecked the inbalance will eventualy threaten world stability.

There must be some clever solutions that those of us in the first world (and those in the former second world) can apply to reduce the gap we have with the third world. Humans that are undereducated are a resource that is wasted, how may software projects could Linux add in even a few of the Kenyans that the "Northern Magic" encountered were to learn to even use a computer?

The question I am posing is how the free/open software method can be applied to making positive changes in the lives of folks in parts of the world where conditions are like those encoutered by "Northern Magic"?

No, posted 17 Oct 2000 at 18:11 UTC by Iain » (Master)

Who ever said, or implied that it was?

Open source isn't supposed to be a magic bullet to fix all the worlds problems, but it is a small step in a (very) long process to narrow (but not close) the digital gap.

In some countries they're not at the stage where they can use the open source/free software to close the gap (due to lack of computers, electricity and other essentials), but in the countries that do have the basics of computers, maybe 386's discarded 5 years ago, open source is very useful to get computer literacy improved. But obviously, if these countries are using the old throwaway technology of decades past, and the other end of the digital gap is running 4Ghz Pentium XII machines, then the gap is probably never going to be closed.

But these problems are in the distant future for some countries, and there are more important problems to be solved. (Kinda the same view I have on Animal Welfare issues too)

Open Source as a Panacea?, posted 17 Oct 2000 at 18:21 UTC by eskimoses » (Journeyer)

However you characterize it, open source is emphatically not a panacea. Granted, if we were somehow able to provide the following, we might revitalize third-world countries (by some Western notion of revitalization):

  • Physical protection for computer hardware. A.k.a. "buildings".
  • Power supply for computer hardware.
  • Networking infrastructure for computer communications.
  • Extensive training. Starting with basic literacy, through essential mathematics, computer literacy, and computer programming. Among many other things.

Consider how well funded the open source movement is in comparison to major corporations. Most of us are doing this on our free time. Granted, if each of us gave a decent amount of time, effort, and capital, this could be realized. There are far more efficient and worthwhile ways to spend such resources, however.

Many programs currently exist to provide such assistance. An emphasis on simply giving nations money to solve their problems is misguided; many modern NGO programs, however, go far beyond this. Training people in basic subsistence is key. Use simple technologies that help, rather than completely overwhelm the culture: things like solar-powered irrigation pumps. Train them to make more efficient use of land in farming. You'd be surprised how far a few simple techniques can go towards improving crop yield. Train local practitioners in the basics of medicine; train everyone in the basics of hygiene. Help them to plan for the future, better preparing for eventualities such as drought or flooding.

One more thing to be considered is a culture's own interests. Who are we to assume that a culture needs or wants to be as materially affluent as we are? Perhaps there is more beauty and joy in living off the land than we will ever experience in a late-night hacking session. Technology and wealth, and certainly not open source, are far from being universal solutions to world problems.

What we should do is volunteer our time. Sponsor one or more orphaned children! Write to them often; help aid their education. Donate to one or more of the NGO's that does a good job at emphasizing fixing problems over patching them up. We can make a difference, but open source is not the answer.

surely he jests..., posted 17 Oct 2000 at 18:54 UTC by jmelesky » (Apprentice)

eskimoses wrote:

Perhaps there is more beauty and joy in living off the land than we will ever experience in a late-night hacking session.

Whoah, there. Let's be reasonable now... :-)

Seriously, though, this is a valid topic. I think, though, that if the Open Source movement was intended to close any digital divide, it was the one that exists within First World countries, between the rich and empowered and penniless Joe Schmoe (hacker or otherwise). It is theoretically valid to extend it in scope, but i don't think that was the point originally.

My personal opinion on the subject is similar to eskimoses' -- there are more immediate needs than digital enabling. However, there are constructive efforts underway for people to contribute their time and IT skills to developing countries: geekcorps is a prime example. Differences can be made.

Open Source won't help...., posted 17 Oct 2000 at 19:57 UTC by adubey » (Journeyer)

If there is no electricty to run a computer.

If the people are illiterate and can't read what is on the screen, and can't make sense of keyboards.

If people are too poor to even buy a computer.

If there are no property rights so that even those who can afford computers are adverse to making an investment which may be stolen by thugs, or even worse, the government itself.

The problems in the third world run deeper than computers. The biggest problem is that there is no rule of law. There are no incentives for businesses (or government officials) to invest even in basic infrastructure like electrical power and analogue phone lines. It's easier to make money from bribes and patronage. The second biggest problem is that you don't get an education unless you're already rich. Even in countries with reasonably good public education systems, some people are so poor, they force their children into the workforce just to get money to live - either poorly paid, hard work in sweatshops or EVEN WORSE pay begging or selling trinkets on roadsides.

Yes, Open Source may help, but a lot of other things need to be done first...

OSS applied to other professional pursuits?, posted 17 Oct 2000 at 20:32 UTC by mortis » (Journeyer)

Is there any real world equivalent to OSS for things like simple building architecture? Irrigation plans/designs? What other kinds of educational or design materials would make a difference?

What if there were a simple, plublicy available archive of these kinds of things, would that be a start? Even if there were, how could you make it available to third world countries?

Great ideas/A/, posted 17 Oct 2000 at 23:56 UTC by strlen » (Journeyer)

Ok, before we get complaints of how people who can't read don't need a computer, and cant use one without electricity, let's not go to extremes. Of course, Linux is not of much use to a Tutsi rebel in Burundi, but it may be usefull for things such as: teaching reading or standardized language. In Africa, in some countries like Cameron, there are up to 200 languages, with 100 of them having a written form. Yet all of them follow roots from colonial languages and have either Arabic or Latin written form. If they setup let's say a 386, with a 14 inch cheapest monitor and old an ISA video card, running svgalib, and a pc- speaker, capable of pronouncing words, we can use it to teach the Latin/Arabic alphabet, to teach English/French/Portugese/Arabic, all for many people (connect the system to projector and to larger speakers?) for a price lower then that of multiple audio cassetes, qualified multi-lingual instructors, books.

In more developed countries such as Egypt,South Africa, Kenyva, Cot d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), high schools and universities can buy old equipment such as let's say 40 Sparc II's, install Linux or NetBSD on them, complete with X as well as a Pentium 75 as a central server, to allow those machines to be used as X terminals. Now this can bring ability to at least teach the people how to type, teach them how to program, improve their writing and language skills and with a 28.8 dialup or perhaps an ISDN line ability to send and receive e-mail or even register a domain name and host a small scaled text based web site, and even browse the web (with images disabled or with lynx)! All using the smallest and cheapeest possible IT team, due to power of Linux or other Free unices. And for a low price: a _REAL_ factor in developing world -- you wouldnt feel comfortable spending the GDP of your country on a Microsoft product which will require expensive hardware to run and is overly complicated and costly to administer.

what to deal with, first, posted 18 Oct 2000 at 01:35 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

first. you [or, more helpfully, they themselves] have to deal with AIDs in africa. 4 out of 5 people in south africa are HIV positive. first [and all three of my brothers have done voluntary work in India of six months each], you [or they] have to ensure that Mother Theresa's Hospice doesn't give aspirin to terminally ill people who have stomach ulcers, and that they wash the needles in between injections - to different patients.

It sure can help! It's about 'chain reactions' though..., posted 18 Oct 2000 at 14:48 UTC by sohodojo » (Journeyer)

Charles (cmacd),

Thanks for your thoughtful post.

While I would agree with others replying here that the Third World has massive problems which defy solution with software alone, folks who have replied to your article may be missing an important point.

It isn't what Third World 'Have-nots' do directly with OSS initially that matters. Rather, it is far more important that 'guerrilla activists' have access to powerful software technologies to mount their own grassroots campaigns to contribute to solving these pressing social problems that matters.

For example, my wife and I were Executive Consultants in object technology at IBM leading the classic 'Road Warrior' lives and it was killing us, spiritually as well as physically. We are now hosts of Sohodojo, an OSS 'applied R&D Lab' where we are attempting to rally OSS developers to contribute to our 'role/actor executable business model' technology agenda.

We are doing this because we believe such technology is essential as the 'software infrastructure' for 'Small is Good' business-webs which we intend to apply in business development within the U.S. Enterprise Communities and Empowerment Zones. (You will often hear these communities referred to as 'distressed' or targets for 'renewal'.)

For us, it is more important what you do with technology rather than seeing technology as an end in itself. That is the greatest frustration I find with some members of the OSS community. We have so many folks with all this energy and skills and they think that technology for its own sake is the motivation for what they do. Technology is only really valuable when you apply it to something useful.

For us, that did not mean traveling around the world helping IBM customers build yet another 'enterprise system'.

If you would like to know more about our perspective, including our recent political 'change insurgency', feel free to visit these URLs:

Shamrocks and Nanocorps: Bridging the Digital Divide with 'Small is Good' Business Webs

Our 'EC Inclusion Amendment' change insurgency where we are fighting 'pork barrel politics' which is threatening to subvert the 'American Community Renewal and New Markets Empowerment Act', and

Role/Actor Scenario Patterns: A Model-driven Approach to Entrepreneurial Free Agent 'Elastic Networking'

Again, thank you, Charles, for your provocative post. I am sure it will cause some folks to think about these important challenges in new and creative ways.

NewDeal Computers, posted 18 Oct 2000 at 14:52 UTC by harrisj » (Master)

This isn't OSS, but it's a company with a similar mission, and it's impressive to see some of the work they have done. New Deal Computers ( has Office and Internet suites that run on PCs as simple as a 286 with a 10MB hard disk and 640K RAM. They seem to also be quite interested in targeting the Third World as well as the digital divide at home.

Excerpted from their website:

NewDeal's initial markets are the consumer, educational, small business, non-profit and international markets. Outside of North America, Western Europe and parts of Asia, computer usage is typically extremely low. The Internet is typically accessed by 5% or less of populations in developing nations. For many nations, the communications infrastructure and disposable income constraints are severe and the barriers to computer ownership, computer literacy, and Internet access are insurmountable with existing business models.

NewDeal addresses these markets through both its retail software products, and through OEM hardware partners. These PC partners are introducing new lowcost PCs sold through mass merchant outlets, as well as NewDeal GreenPCs that will be sold through computer retail stores.

NewDeal believes that its software, with its unique performance, ease of use and cost effectiveness, will make a major contribution in many of countries to computer literacy and global networking. Significant initiatives are in place in the U.K., Southern Africa, the Middle East, Brazil, and India.

Again, I'm aware it's not open-source, but some people may find it enlightening to see what other people are doing in the field and how they intend to actually even make some money off it while helping a good cause.

Brain drain, posted 20 Oct 2000 at 19:53 UTC by kmself » (Journeyer)

A friend of mine in Australia, with close ties (and tech-related activities) in the Philippines feels that even though free software does offer an opportunity for indigenous IT development in LDCs and an escape from the "software tax" imposed by proprietary Western vendors, the scope of opportunity is limited by two factors.

The first is the widespread and rampant illicit copying of all manner of software. It's well known that unauthorized software use is highest in countries in which there is the least ability to pay. While I feel that this is ultimately a trap for these countries -- if they ever do reach the economic level at which they are able to afford licenses and a degree of interconnectedness where sanctions might be effective, they will be tied to a legacy code base -- the current imperative is just to get the job done. Long-term thinking doesn't exist.

The second problem is more insidious. According to my friend, anyone whose literacy level is high enough to read an airplane ticket has either bought one, or is already in Australia, Japan, Europe, or the US, making Western wages. The flip side of a globalized economy, usually expressed as labor-intensive industries seeking out low-wage LDCs for expansion, is that "knowledge workers", also highly portable, seek out the high wages offered by Western nations.

I do believe that free software can help the Third World, but both the above issues need to be addressed to make the effort more than a marginal activity.

Indirect Help, posted 22 Oct 2000 at 11:41 UTC by jennv » (Journeyer)

How about indirect help?

Every dollar that aid agencies *don't* have to spend on computer software is a dollar they *can* spend helping.

A MySQL database of villages that need help in Ethiopia is more helpful to the villagers than an expensive Oracle database (unless Oracle donated the software - I'll grant that!).

Spending our time providing software to the agencies may be just as useful as spending our time working for a company and then donating money to the agencies.

OTOH: I'm not in an aid agency. I've not volunteered for one. I don't know. This is my guess.

Furthermore, what about Non-Western thought?, posted 22 Oct 2000 at 17:08 UTC by jimray » (Master)

I'm kinda late to the topic, but wanted to throw in something that I haven't yet seen considered.
As a student at a liberal arts school, I have the advantage of being an Anthropology minor. One of the points that Anthropology encounters often is the fact that third world countries more often than not exist in areas of the world with distinctly non-western thought processes. Which, I think, raises an interesting point--how much of modern computing requires a western mindset?
Think about the user interface in a typical macintosh or x-windows program. Could you explain what an icon is to a Vietnamese shcool child? How about the concept of a symbolic link? In a certain way, a lot of the concepts that we take for granted in a standard computing environment are steeped in the often dualistic Western mindset.
The good news is that Japan and China are regions of the world that have embraced high technology. The bad news is, it may have come at a cost: Westernization. Ever since World War II, Japan and China have both focused on becoming more "Western", even surpassing much of the west. Can we bridge the tech gap and still allow this diversity of minds?

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