Latinux Magazine Interview


“Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are not an end in itself but rather a means to reach people and enhance their lives.” (Raúl Zambrano)

Born in Colombia, Raul Zambrano is trained as an engineer, sociologist and economist. He currently works as ICT and e-governance policy advisor at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) headquarters in New York City.

Raul kindly accepted a last minute request to do this interview in the cozy lobby of the Hotel Bella Italia where most of the speakers of LatinWare 2009 were staying. In the midst of a tropical thunderstorm that was hovering over Foz do iguazú (Brazil) since the early morning, we began our conversation around topics that went far beyond technology and focused much more on human and sustainable development, issues that today most developing countries still struggle to address in a satisfactory manner.

Raul says that having studied three different careers, something he did not really planned ahead of time, has helped him grasp in a more comprehensive fashion the technical and socio-economic issues that go hand in hand with the rapid use and deployment of the new ICTs across the world.

Lauretta: What is the current situation faced by developing countries?

Raul explains: While today we can say that poverty and social exclusion are still pervasive, in spite of tremendous gains of the last 15 to 20 years, the rapid development of the Internet in the 1990s has been overshadowed by the even faster use of mobile technologies. This is the first time in history that a technology has diffused so fast in almost every country of the globe. One could actually argue that cell phones have de facto replaced another wireless technology: the transistor radio. Being interactive, unlike the former, these devices for example allow a rural artisan in Bangladesh to better market her products -instead of relaying of word of mouth. This in itself has a snow ball effect on the local markets and the local economy while at the same time reaches the poorest sectors of the population. But let us clarify something essential here: technology is just an enabler that needs to be adapted to the local realities and local needs -and not vice-versa.

Raul then concludes: ”ICTs are not an end in itself but rather a means to reach people and enhance their lives. People who lack access to basic services (and information) are not looking to use technologies per se. They just want easy and affordable access to such services -and ICTs are the best tool today to accomplish this on a large scale.”

In the meanwhile, the hotel lobby seems to be getting noiser. Many people, including some conference participants, are still waiting for the weather to improve and head to the breathtaking Iguazu Falls. Patience and hope take an undisputed first place in today’s menu.

Lauretta: So how does this differ from the way people in industrialized countries use ICTs and the new technologies?

Raul: In a way it is extremely different. Let us look at the case of India where a national programme on e-governance has been established with a focus of bringing to poor and marginalized populations basic services and information -bear in mind that 70% of India’s population lives in the rural areas. The emphasis here is to not to provide every citizen with this or that technology. Rather, the goal is to deliver the services they require and lack today. And this is mostly done through technology intermediaries who are the de facto interface between people and the technology used to deliver the service.

At any rate, what is essential is to avoid making sweeping generalizations as to how the new technologies should be deployed across the globe. There are indeed different way in which people, communities and countries can appropriate the new ICTs and tackle key development goals.

“We have done some ground work in India. Based on this, I wrote a paper recently published where we show that marginalized populations have a very hard time getting access to basic official documents such as a birth certificates -never mind services such as education or health services. People living in rural areas have to travel 3-4 working days across various towns to get a document that will allow their child to go to public school and get basic health services. And in many cases they will have to bribe someone to expedite the issuing of the document. UNDP works precisely to avoid this kind of issues. The solution here, which by the way is quite simple and low cost, is to use ICTs to make people’s lives easier, without necessarily having them become computer or ICT experts”.

Lauretta: So in this context, what is the role of FOSS?

In cases such as these, Raul continues, the deciding factor is not really if the technologies are FOSS or not. From the viewpoint of the end users and the ICT intermediaries it does not really make a difference, as long as the service is both accessible and affordable. However from the point of view of governments use of FOSS could be a key factor as resources allocated to licensing could potentially be shifted to other development purposes.
UNDP has been supporting the use of FOSS since the early 1990s due not to some philosophical reason but rather to quickly respond to the demands of stakeholders in developing countries. “Today we see FOSS as a public good produced and furnished by civil society -which in itself makes sort of unique. So looking back in time, the decision to use FOSS turned out to be a successful one, and one that we supported by ensuring that local and national capacities to absorb FOSS were developed and/or strengthened”.

Lauretta: So that’s really where we can see the impact that ICTs have on development in the socio-economic sense. And this is what UNDP does to promote it goals: to provide better and faster services and information to people, to assist the small entrepreneur in a rural village to foster her business, and to help people have a better quality of life specially where poverty is pervasive.

Raul: Indeed. UNDP aims at assisting countries to achieve such development goals. But we also do this by fostering real and better interaction between citizens and the state, by building bridges and providing new communication channels among then thus enhancing democratic governance processes. And here ICTs too can play a key role.

Lauretta: Thanks Raul for your time and the real life stories.

Raul: My pleasure.

The tropical storm is now ending after a few hours of us enduring its rage. Time to go outside and visit the Falls. Lauretta seems now to be heading that way too, and ponder about all this -among other things, of course!

Lauretta (Venezuela)