Techno-magnates and the Third World

In recent years we’ve seen some of the most powerful men in the world decide to turn their gaze towards the third-world. What has been surprising is that their intent has not been to solely dominate and exploit the most economically disadvantaged peoples in the world, but to try and relieve some of the ills that they face.

Techno-magnates – Bill and Nicholas – and their projects

The two most prominent individuals that have turned their attention to the third world have been Bill Gates, who is spending billions through the Melissa and Bill Gate’s Foundation to try and raise standards of living by improving literacy and fighting disease. The foundation is best known for its in work fighting disease – it has targeted Acute Diarrhoeal Illness, Acute Lower Respiratory Infections, HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and Tuberculosis (to name a few) as their primary targets.

Nicholas Negroponte, the magnate and visionary behind the One Laptop Per Child Program, want to bring the digital revolution to poor children and let them enjoy the ensuing benefits of the digital revolution. The theory is that, by distributing textbooks electronically, by giving children a way of learning to program, by giving them rugged pieces of technology that can be powered by a bicycle or foot loom, children can receive top-rate education despite living in Less Economically Developed Countries (LECDs).

Why magnate-projects are oftentimes destructive

The magnates receive a lot of press. Usually the emphasis is placed on the amount of money being spent, the commitment involved, the numbers of people that will be positively affected, and questions about what kinds of legacies will be left behind by some of today’s ‘great people’. I’ve talked about the OLPC program before on this blog, and don’t feel like I want to get too into it right now. Suffice it to say that I’ve become a fan of the program, and I think highly of the Mr. and Mrs. Gates for their efforts.

That said, I’m concerned by the these world spanning projects. While I think that (by and large) their respective goals are altruistic, the effects of targeted projects are not necessarily entirely positive. I was listening to a CBC broadcast a few weeks ago, and the CBC interviewer was talking to front-line medical workers in LECDs. The workers were noting that, while it is good to see the first world starting to genuinely give a damn about the third world, that; (a) foreign aid rarely arrives in the quantities announced (usually for bureaucratic reasons, and because foreign aid is commonly used as a slush fund to assist struggling national companies produce goods that Western consumers won’t buy at the prices these companies sell their products) and; (b) that techno-magnates, and other wealthy individuals, who are providing money to countries to fight off particular illnesses often lead to degradations in those countries’ abilities to fend off other diseases. For example, as soon as the Gates’ foundation give X millions to Ghana, and requires the country to immunize Y thousands of children for Z disease, the physical resources (i.e. doctors and nurses) are unable to provide other, perhaps more immediately necessary, services because health centre directors don’t want to lose the money that is flowing to the centre. This means that doctors and nurses aren’t as free as they were previously to assist the ill and dying.

In addition to this, when was the last time that Bill and Nicholas sat down and talked about common resource allocation? When was that last time that LEDCs have had all of the magnates, not just Bill and Nicholas, in a room and they worked with magnates to develop a comprehensive strategy that was sensitive to each locality? Until these kinds of meetings take place, where a global allocation strategy that is inherently sensitive to the groups that are receiving assistance is developed, I have to question the underlying principles of social justice lying below these programs. Until these programs are legitimized and authorized by those receiving the assistance – until they can recognize themselves as principle agents of their own recovery – any assistance is, in a sense, tyrannical. Strategic decisions get made by private individuals, decisions that affect millions. This isn’t to say that some degree of cooperation doesn’t take place between these foundations and localities, nor that these charitable foundations aren’t performing independent research so that they can work with localities and remain sensitive to their differences. What it is to say, is that unless the affected people are given a dominant hand in shaping how NGOs operate in their localities it is (essentially) a form of semi-polite colonialism.

Colonizing language, and local cultures by extension

Colonialism revolved around the belief that underdeveloped nations were less rational, less culturally advanced, and generally more barbaric. It happened at a time where the underlying political associations of Europe were constitutionally recognized, which mean that there was an inclusion/exclusion tension built into colonization, and which acted as a central theoretical weakness in the colonial project. While magnates are now (presumably) more sensitive to LEDCs, there is the belief that Western tools are the tools that can elevate LEDCs from their suffering.

Why not instead of focusing on how to draw these groups into a Westernized way of doing things, investigate how individuals in LEDCs would prefer to resolve particular problems, resolutions that may draw on the cultural and medicinal histories of their people, and which stretch backwards for centuries or longer? Why not work with them to develop technologies that are sensitive to their needs – i.e. many cultures have rich oral traditions that thrive on the difference that each person brings to a narrative when they tell it; the idea of data archives that are static are entirely foreign (and not necessarily appreciated) by them. When we impose hierarchical learning, when we take away from verbal traditions, when we replace the content rich systems of discourse and speech with logically precise languages of .NET, C++, and other programming languages, aren’t we running the risk of molding the shape of foreign cultures so that they ‘fit’ the normative criteria for what culture is, as assumed in the technologies that we are providing them?

I don’t think that the potential undermining of native cultures is an intentional objective – techno-magnates generally see technologies they are deploying as something that should be massively positive – nor do I think that any culture can (in today’s global environment) exist in a vacuum. As cultural minorities increasingly struggle to identify their own histories and reassert their own ethical-political narratives their native governments are turning to the oldest democracies to learn how to overcome the challenges of integration and legitimacy. The West must critically evaluate its own normative democratic stances and policy initiatives so that it can provide the best models possible – without adequate models, these burgeoning democracies can emerge (effectively) still-born, leaving citizens without a political voice over how their past is read, the present is defined, or the future is written.