Monday, August 09, 2010

On the Cultural Ideology of Progress in Developing States--Of Mobile Phones and Ceiling Fans

It is a common place to hail progress in developing states through the ideologically infused lenses of technological choices.  This is understood as leapfrogging.  Leapfrogging suggests that once an actor has undergone the sometimes long and expensive process of change that produces technological or other goods deemed useful, that other actors might avoid the same process and leap toward the good produced.   A common example is the provision of communication services to African and Central American states, where telephone services provided through the internet or via mobile phones has produced a functional equivalence with developed states int he availability of telephone service without the need to provide a more expensive system of land lines. 
There seems to be an interesting 'social halo' effect in the statistics on mobile phone use in the developing world. Over half the mobile owners in South Africa allow family members to use their handset for free and a third do the same for friends. There are 28 million mobile phones in Africa, but there are now more than 82 million mobile users. Eighty five percent of people in Tanzania and 79% in South Africa said they had greater contact and improved relationships with families and friends as a result of mobiles. Over 85% of small businesses run by black individuals in South Africa rely solely on a mobile phone for telecommunications. Leapfrogging: a different route to development, Article 13, The Responsible Business Experts, Sept. 2005.
But leapfrogging also contains an ideological element. Thus
The term "leapfrogging" describes the rapid change made by a society or a company to a higher level of development without going through the intermediate stages observed in other cases. This connects with the idea that economic resources for unsustainable fossil technologies can be saved and thus the country can invest these resources directly in a sustainable future, instead of in infrastructure that will soon become obsolete. Ecological leapfrogging can be an alternative to development-as-catching up. It provides strategies to directly enter the phase of sustainability without going through the resource-intensive production and consumption models of industrial societies. Leapfrogging & transfer,  Globalization, Wuppertal Institute.
Leapfrogging might then serve as a vehicle to advance certain substantive political, social or cultural choices.   With respect to the provision of telephone services, the example suggested above, the process of leapfrogging can be used instrumentally.  
The concept of “leapfrog development” means that developing countries can learn from our mistakes.  Instead of the huge capital investment in equipment for phone lines and the hassle and environmental degradation of installing them deep in the country, put in some cell towers and make cell phones affordable and widely available.  Or in this case, subvert the Nicaraguan grid by investing in solar, micro-hydro and wind turbine technologies.  This is exactly what AsoFénix is doing in many rural villages like Enrique’s village Corozo.  With support from Green Empowerment, the Nicaraguan Department of Energy, the Natural Resource Department and the communities that benefit from the projects, AsoFénix is changing the face of development in rural Nicaragua.  Rebecca Bousse, Nicaragua’s AsoFénix: Leapfrog Development, Triplepundit, April 20, 2010.
But leapfrogging is also driven by business and the market opportunities it might present.   

Thus, in the context of economic development, leapfrogging can sometimes conflate notions of substantive values economics, markets, and macro policy on ecological matters that underlie the assumption that development requires all states to provide the same standard of living, in approximately equivalent form to that available in the developed world.  To a certain extent, the form of development is class laden--it suggests the inherent privilege of choices and values (including contested choices about sustainability and life style) made in the developed states of Europe and North America, and assumes without much contention, that those choices are the touchstone against which all national efforts at "improvement" are to be measured.   Leapfrogging can also serve the needs of states for internal control of their populations even as they lead to technological development.  "Authorities in different fields, as well as local governments around China, have been engaged in implementing the central authorities' strategic plans for the far western Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region to achieve what authorities have described as leapfrog development and lasting stability.Efforts to boost 'leapfrog development' in Xinjiang, China Daily (Xinhua), May 5, 2010.    

But leapfrogging as ideology also has cultural effects.  My friend, Janice Austin, in Baku, reminds us of some of the cultural effects of leapfrogging on social choices about technology that can affect virtually every aspect of daily life.
I know I may be dwelling on the hot weather here...but it is so oppressive I can see why everyone (who can) leaves in August. . . . I've developed a fairly good system to cool down the apartment. Keep the windows and curtains all closed and thank goodness, unlike many Bakuvians who normally only have AC in bedroom, there is also one in living room. . . . .
For quite sometime I've been baffled about the absence of ceiling fans here....well, after a lengthy discussion with my Dutch, soon to be ex-colleague (he's calling it quits here) the MIT trained political economist's the likely reason. Economies/societies such as this one where the timeline for rapid growth has been so condensed will view such nascent technology as seem primitive....go directly to AC once you have fact, you see this mentally in other examples too...elevators or escaltors in buildings with no stairs....
There are also no communal or public laundry went from hand washing to owning a need to have the in between machine, hand wash.....another enlightened day in Baku...  Janice Austin, Hot Tuesday in Baku and why there are no ceiling fans here, Janice in Baku, August 2, 2010.
What emerges is a useful strategy with some interesting side effects.  Culturally, it is now common to understand leapfrogging as implying a judgment about preceding technology or technological choices as bad or as "mistakes."   As such, the ideology inherent in leapfrogging also suggests social as well as technological choices.  "‘Leapfrogging’ describes the idea that developing economies could find new paths to higher standards of living. Using technology can bypass the mistakes and limitations of the slow route to development that other nations have had to take."  Leapfrogging: a different route to development, Article 13, The Responsible Business Experts, Sept. 2005.  Some of them might be less advantageous to a population than others.  It might be useful, for example, to install a ceiling fan in Baku.  It might also be useful to use cheques instead of debit cards.   These decisions, however, are no longer technological, the ostensible basis of leapfrogging in development, but may be cultural, social, or political.  In that case, development leapfrogging might well propel the developing states in directions that have little to do with the technologies that drive the change. As the Chinese state apparatus has come to understand, technology and development can also serve the interests of the state in the governance of its people.  Yet, as Central American farmers have discovered, leapfrogging can also liberate individuals from dependence on the state (or outside economic interests), promoting engagement and economic empowerment.   

No comments: