Page 1 of 11Danny Butt, Rajesh Sreenivasan and Abhishek Singh
In 2007, it cannot be denied that information and communication technologies (ICTs) have had a transformative impact on the entire Asia Pacific region. Even in the least developed areas of the region, where ICTs have yet to make a significant mark on everyday life, the processes of lawmaking and the flow of economic goods are in some way influenced by globalization and networked markets enabled by ICTs.
As ICTs become central to the economic structure of countries all over the world, the approach to their role in social and economic development has become more sophisticated. In contrast to earlier policy agendas which sought to increase the use of ICTs as a pathway to achieving development, there is an increasing recognition that ICTs cannot be seen as inherently good or bad, as their effects are dependent upon the particular context of use. For example, access to e-commerce facilities may allow a producer to sell goods to an external market, resulting in higher sales. However, this same channel will allow the importation of goods and services which will pose a threat to local industry development.
Therefore, the decision to enter a global electronic market is a strategic one: the success factors for local businesses and regions will depend to a large degree on access to e-business skills, marketing budgets and distribution capacity. Where these exist, there is the possibility of greatly enhanced economic prospects through e-commerce. Where they do not, it is likely that exposure to global markets will result in overwhelming competition. The early Internet dream that held e-commerce as the saviour of the artisan producer has not come to fruition, even though there have been well-promoted individual success stories. Instead, the rise of ICTs has brought unprecedented consolidation in markets.
Globalization researcher Saskia Sassen explains that this is due to the separation of organizational functions enabled by ICTs: the distinctive way information technologies facilitate dispersal of routine activities and centralization of control activities explains the increasing dominance of cities in global economic activity (Sassen 1991). While there will always be success stories among the poor, there is no doubt that ICTs are, overall, increasing the gap between wealthy and poor businesses, countries and regions.
Little of the policy literature on ICT for Development (ICT4D) explicitly considers these larger overall effects of ICTs. More commonly, ICT4D discussions share uncomfortable similarities with ICT analysis emerging from highly developed economies, such as:
Throughout Asia Pacific, the theme of Universal Access drives ICT4D policy. Policy initiatives carry ambitious titles such as 'Computers for all' or 'One laptop per child'. These are worthy ideals but in the policy setting they become problematic as they are never finally achievable and they provide little guidance for the tough decision-making that is required to support the use of ICTs where basic poverty issues, such as access to food, water and basic health care, remain unsolved. Kerry McNamara (2003, p. 1) points out this significant gap in evaluation:
Given this unhappy trend, why should developing regions even consider expanding their investments in ICT? Would it not make more sense, as some advocate, to concentrate on traditional industries and means of development?
Our view is that even though ICTs are making economic development more challenging for developing areas, ignoring ICTs will only lead to further exclusion from the circuits of power and economic prosperity which rely on these technologies. But the challenges for a truly inclusive information society remain substantial and there are no magic solutions to follow from increased levels of investment in ICTs. It remains the task of each business, government, NGO and individual to formulate a strategy of engagement that suits their particular situation. More importantly, given the very unstable nature of ICT-enabled markets and relationships, it is imperative to foster networks where we can learn from the experiences of others in similar situations, rather than accepting one-size-fits-all philosophies proposed by those benefiting from the status quo.
Documenting and sharing these experiences is one of the key objectives of the Digital Review of Asia Pacific (DirAP). The thematic chapters in this issue, on Mobile and Wireless Technologies, Risk Communication, Localization, and Intellectual Property Regimes, highlight the wide range of options that are available for policymakers and ICT4D practitioners in these critical areas. The chapters on individual economies also highlight the diversity of ICT4D projects being undertaken throughout the region. In the rest of this chapter we outline the major trends in ICT as they affect human development—including technology, the knowledge economy, digital and economic divides, security, environment and e-Government. There is also an overview of the regulatory issues facing policymakers in Asia Pacific. After a brief look at the regulatory focus in developed ICT market countries, the chapter focuses on trends observed in developing ICT market countries and seeks to distil the key elements of regulatory approaches that have seemed to work, that have managed to encourage the growth of a healthy, competitive and innovative culture around ICTs. Our hope is that regulators and authorities in Asia Pacific can assess their own policy framing and implementation mechanisms against these measures and in cases where the measures are already adopted and part of the regulatory approach, there may be scope for a modified approach tailored to a country's culture and business environment.