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Algorithms in Africa

2001-08-16 15:56:49+00 by Dan Lyke 9 comments

An anonymous friend of Todd and me is doing aid and development work in South Africa. He's given us specific instructions not to post any of his dispatches from the front, alas, but he forwarded along a pointer to Algorithms in Africa, subtitled "Maybe the rush to market for spreading internet access across the globe isn't in anyone's best interest--a report from the front."

In fact, the developing world is littered with unused X-ray equipment, broken-down tractors and empty schoolrooms contributed over the years by well-intentioned and simpleminded donors. These resources are made useless not from missing user manuals or lack of web access, but by the lack of trained technicians, mechanics and teachers.

In short, what empowers people are skills.

In my rantings about the "cargo cult" mentality of those who acquire equipment without understanding the how and why of using that equipment, I hope I've predicted some of the problems that Wayne Marshall has obviously seen and experienced first-hand. Food for thought, although I'm sure we'll all bring different opinions away from the essay.

[ related topics: Children and growing up Todd Gemmell ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:32:30+00 by: dhartung

Every few months /. links to one of those programs (mainly Geekcorps) that work to empower people in developing countries with high-tech skills, including networking, simple HTML programming, or even complex application programming. There's always some idjit who claims that what Africa needs more is food, or wells, or medicine.

Of course, everyone needs those basics, but Africa -- for example -- has very few natural resources. There's no way they're ever going to move beyond an agricultural society following the Western model (industrialization, export economy). Attempts to reorient their economies toward agricultural exports have meant environmental devastation, multi-national corporate dominance, increased hardships for the land-poor, and are mainly intended to service massive IMF debt, rather than the people themselves. The only resource that Africa can reasonably and cheaply export to the West is people.

(This division was foreseen by Frederick Pohl in some of his novels, e.g. JEM.)

Successes in India, e.g. the Bangalore high-tech center, have shown that this can be done and can be very competitive with Western suppliers of educated labor. Why certain people can't see the importance of this approach to the third world is beyond me. Paternalism? Protectionism? Racism?

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:32:30+00 by: Pete

India's success in technology has come from within, and is due to their cultural emphasis on education, especially their brutal technical colleges.

Can this cultural emphasis on education be fostered by dogooding outsiders? I don't know. I don't even know if India's emphasis on formal education is a new phenomenon or the continuation of a long cultural heritage.

Focusing on India itself (instead using it as a prism through which to view Africa), I wonder if this is even really India's success, or the success of Indians. Does the strong showing of educated Indians in America provide much benefit to India, such as reinforcement of the value of education to the next generation of Indian residents, tax revenue, or the input of more educated people in the political and social milieu? Or have these and other potential benefits travelled with the expatriate Indians away from their homeland?

I'd love to have my ignorance dispelled by someone who knows the subject intimately.

(so, dhartung, over the shakes from mefi withdrawal yet?)

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:32:31+00 by: dhartung

Well, Pete, I'm certainly not going to agree that Indians are biologically superior to Africans. If they can jump from a pre-industrial to post-industrial economy in one swell foop, why can't Africans?

Of course education is going to be a linchpin. The Indian educational system is, in its rigidity, somewhere between the British and Japanese approaches: you have to get into the right school, or you're toast, so students focus diligently on the SAT-equivalent, which is in India a ranked test (like some US graduate exams). So this has produced an educated class in a country with no industry to employ them. One view of how this came about is that the changes in India came not from "within" even, so much as from the in-betweeners. Indians came to the West by the thousands to get a good education, and many of them stayed here to earn a living. They then re-invested in businesses and especially alumni (many of whom got rich in the tech boom) generously donating to the Indian technical universities, creating an even larger next generation of Indian technocrats.

Africa may not have the same cultural resources and history (though places like South Africa have come close). It definitely has the same imbalances. Will it be as "easy" as the Indian experience? Only if you think the Indian experience was indeed easy. I think it's an example that has much to offer. Remember, even in India we're talking massive numbers of university graduates on a par with America -- but a much smaller fraction of the overall population.

Bottom line, for me: teaching a man to fish. Does the fisherman have to be a supplier to a multinational conglomerate to be considered successful, or just someone who can catch fish, sell them in town, and feed his family? The /. cynics seem to think that unless Africans are creating the next Lotus, it's a waste of time to bring these skills there. I'm more practical.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:32:31+00 by: Pete

Agree with who? I've not seen anyone reference biology at all, except you, dhartung.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:32:31+00 by: Dan Lyke

Pete, "I wonder if this is even really India's success, or the success of Indians." could be construed as asking questions about biology.

I'd ask if it was India's success, or the success of a former British colony. How's that[Wiki] for politically incorrect?

As for "Why certain people can't see the importance of this approach", I see parallels with the criticisms of Mother Theresa's work in Calcutta. By creating a victim/savior relationship, coming in wanting to fix "things" rather than elevating the people, and by making the assumptions inherent in the more socialist ways of perceiving the world, the help can only maintain that unequal relationship.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:32:31+00 by: Pete

Then I failed to clearly define (one of) the questions about which I was wondering: Has the success of individual Indians in America benefitted India?

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:32:31+00 by: Larry Burton

I guess one could ask if the success of individual Irishmen in America has benefitted Ireland. I don't know, but it has sure benefitted America.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:32:32+00 by: sethg

[dhartung:] Africa -- for example -- has very few natural resources. There's no way they're ever going to move beyond an agricultural society following the Western model (industrialization, export economy).

I'd be interested in seeing some statistics; my impression was that Africa has plenty of natural resources (oil, diamonds, various other minerals), but not the economic infrastructure for exploiting them.

Of course, different African countries may have different resource bases (thanks to the way the borders were drawn, but that's another story).

Also, one could argue that having a lot of natural resources is actually bad for a country's population, because it gives political elites (colonial or domestic) an incentive to just extract the resources, sell them, keep the profits, and screw the powerless locals.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:32:32+00 by: Pete

Larry, the Irish came and stayed. H1B forces their holders to come and gain work experience, and then leave. The accumulated expertise leaves the country. It doesn't necessarily go back to the visa holder's country of origin, but it sure doesn't stay in America.

There's a new column over at ZD (therefore it must be good) about this: http://www.zdnet.com/zdnn/stories/comment/0,5859,2805113,00.html

I'm not convinced yet as to whether H1B is a net positive or negative (or a wash) for America, but comparing to the Irish doesn't work.