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Technological Leapfrogging in the Developing World: Successes and Failures

Governments and NGOs alike have lauded the explosion of cellular phones in the developing world. The World Telecommunications Union reported in 2011 that 79% of the population in developing states have a mobile phone. The planet now boasts over 6 billion cellular phone subscriptions. Landlines and internet availability have never approached availability and usage on such a massive scale. While many organizations hoped to achieve similar successes with other technologies, the vast majority of attempts to “leapfrog” technological predecessors fail. The cellphone sits on a short list of successful leapfrogging technologies. This list and those technologies absent from the list suggest a model and likely path that developing countries will follow on their trek to the ever-elusive goal of development.

In countries that lack the transportation and energy infrastructure of the developed world, the cell phone helps to account for transportation inadequacies and spotty power supplies. News reports continue to record the many uses of the phones in developing economies. These usages ranges from fishermen using cell phones to find the best prices for their catch to hospitals using networks of text messages to monitor blood bank levels. One anecdote records the USAID transferal of salary payments to Afghani police officers from cash to mobile payment; the officers thought they had been given a 30% raise when, in reality, the system merely eliminated theft from corrupt officials. Agriculture, heavy industry, service industries, logistics, education, advertising, and banking have, to a large extent, gone mobile in the developing world. Because the majority of the cellular communication uses SMS text messaging and calls, older phones are not excluded from these networks.

After gaining its place as an economic necessity, the cell phone has firmly established itself as a social necessity in many countries. To be without a cellphone is to sit on the lowest rung of the social ladder in many countries. The end result of the economic and social necessities is that citizens in developing nations spend large fractions of their income on their cell phones. Many spend over 10% of their income. This has, in turn, opened many business opportunities for entrepreneurs as developing nation purchasing power increases alongside the spread of cell phones.

This cellular culture has developed its own nuanced economic flow that offers a striking contrast to Western systems. Advertising in particular is learning to stray away from the Western type-set and forge its own path in developing nations. Many companies in developing nations are turning away from the conventional billboard, newspaper, radio, and television broadcast ads. Their favored alternative is becoming ads sent through mobile phones. These ads exchange cell phone minutes for ads or surveys sent through the phone. Its perks include improved targeting of particular audiences while it puts money back in the pockets of the consumers, the cell phone users. Instead of funneling money to advertising companies, advertising pays consumers. Companies are distributing surveys and coupons through these methods in over 60 countries. The market and the services are both expanding and improving with time. One US-based advertising company claims that if half of the $200 billion spent on advertising in the developing world were moved to cellular advertisements, it would be the equivalent of giving one billion people a 5% raise. Current major markets in this advertisement niche include India, Indonesia, China, Nigeria, and the Philippines.

The cellphone has been an unparalleled success in the developing world. It has shaped the economy and culture. Why is it that other technologies have not spread across the developing world, closing the technology gap and connecting billions to their many benefits? If the cell phone is unique, what other technologies have similar characteristics and potential?

Studies by the World Bank and others suggest that most technologies piggy-back on their predecessors, even when they are seemingly unrelated. Free laptop programs for the world’s poorest children do little good when the children’s schools are in shambles and the children themselves are illiterate and lack consistent access to power supplies. Internet usage by adults is also dependent upon information literacy and reliable electricity. The latest modern medical practices do little to help countries lacking basic sanitation standards and first-aid level medical availability. Business loans and banking options are nearly impossible without a functional government to maintain, enforce, and adjudicate property laws and regulations.

Information illiteracy and poverty are two major social and cultural ills that prevent widespread technology use. This article’s scope, however, ends with the technological barriers, those things that make technology diffusion difficult or impossible even with technologically literate and wealthy populations.

In developing countries, the basic infrastructural barriers to new technologies are the lack of centralized grids of the sort established in the western world in the 20th century. Even before the 20th century, technologies in the western world were snapped to grids and access was spread out as far as possible. Railroads, canals, and roads connected trade and travel routes as efficiently as means would permit. Infrastructure grew alongside the technology, from transAtlantic telegraph cables in 1858 to the internet boom in the 90s and 00s. The western world followed a well-trodden path with the spread of each new technology.

While a massive infrastructural development program across the developing world would improve transportation and connect disconnected economies, such an undertaking is an absurdity. Africa alone can swallow up four times the land area of the continental US and could digest 4 times the US highway system without a burp.

A working system for improved connectivity would follow the pattern of the cell phone. Without central power grids, localized solutions have become an economic necessity in many places. Local options and examples abound across the developing world. Some opt for fossil fuels, others spearhead unique options made possible by their location. In the Philippines, many villages are opting for micro-hydro power. In India, companies are using rice husks, an overabundant and mostly useless resource, to power electrical power stations. The World Bank and other organizations are encouraging this model that creates localized power supply independent from grids, unstable states, and other problems that plague development in many developing countries.

Like cell phones and towers, these local power hubs create coverage for a limited region. Economic viability of private ventures and aid programs work together to expand coverage. Like early railroad lines, isolated power hubs become nodes in a greater networks as growth continues, permitting easy connections between regions.

The developing world can leapfrog trains, canals, and telegrams into the world of electricity and the internet. It cannot, however, expect to match the pace of the developed world in new technologies until a foundation of electricity and economic self-sufficiency work in tandem with good government to create the information literacy necessary to spread the full benefits of 21st century technologies to entire populations of developing nations. Unfortunately, this can only begin with the catalyst of potential riches and success that will encourage investment and infrastructural development. Luckily, the developing world holds these potentials in natural resources and human resources.

Even as the western world lacks cell reception in many areas, so will the technological developments miss areas of the developing world. These areas are constantly diminishing, however, as development projects learn from their mistakes and continue to expand. The developing world will still, however, be developing for a long time to come. The best the world might hope for is for a small handful of countries to leave that long list in the decades to come, going from a world of cellphones to the 21st century world of complete cyber connectivity.

Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks is an OODA analyst and MLitt Candidate in International Security Studies at the University of St. Andrews. Previously, he spent three years working on global health and economic development projects in Central and Eastern Africa and the Middle East.