This is a shameless cross-posting of my contribution to the Berkman Center’s Publius Project. In the essay, I respond to a piece published by Ken Banks last week (“One Missed Call,” see link below). If you have time, I highly recommend reading Ken’s piece first. I also recommend checking out the other excellent contributions to the project, which enjoys the expert guidance of Caroline Nolan at Berkman (thanks, Caroline!).

Ken Banks’ provocative contribution to the Publius Project, “One Missed Call” boldly urges the ICT for Development (ICT4D) community to look beyond bureaucracy-heavy, top-down solutions to global poverty and inequality. In a similar spirit, my response to Ken’s piece will take the form of a question, critique, and complementary challenge to the ICT4D community that runs somewhat afoul of the Easterly-Schumacher-inspired vision he offered.

Ken echoes William Easterly’s disdain for bureaucratic, large-scale approaches to global poverty, calling instead for the adoption of small techno-centric solutions based on principles of Human-Driven Design and deployment by “grassroots” NGO’s. Like Easterly, he encourages us to bet on the ingenuity of small-time entrepreneurs to break the world’s persistent cycles of poverty. If we identify these entrepreneurs, the theory goes, we can eliminate poverty without the immense waste and inefficiency that plague so-called “Big-D” development projects.

While both Easterly and Banks present compelling, attractive claims, they leave a key question unanswered: how can ICT4D advocates effectively confront the systemic and structural aspects of poverty or inequality within this framework?

Easterly’s argument takes for granted that well-positioned innovators can overcome institutional constraints at the regional, national and global levels. Indeed, his arguments in The White Man’s Burden closely resemble the work of free-market ideologues Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek insofar as he objects to all forms of developmental “planning” as fundamentally misguided. Empirical research in Development Studies contradicts this position, suggesting that the ability of grassroots NGO’s and others to deploy technological solutions effectively is overdetermined by the institutional environment within which they act (for a recent example, see Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans – The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism). Of course, to adapt Margaret Mead’s much abused phrase, I do not doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. And yet, such changes are bound to be fleeting in the absence of broader interventions.

The problem, as I see it, stems from the fact that Easterly’s proposition is free-market economics with a friendly face – compassionate conservatism in the truest sense of the phrase. Embracing Easterly’s vision entails a radical denial that broad political, economic, and cultural structures determine developmental outcomes in any way. The history of global development since World War II offers numerous grounds on which to reject this claim. First of all, the emergence of the United States as a superpower influenced the creation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the primary institutional frameworks within which development projects took place (until recently). Secondly, the concomitant dissemination of U.S. culture, values, and products has also shaped the ideals and aspirations through which people across the world understand what it means to be “developed.”

As a result, we cannot talk about “development” without referring to the broad political, economic and cultural currents that defined the late 20th century and the processes of globalization. All contemporary development projects operate in the institutional space defined by this history – and in many cases it is the space itself, rather than the any individual bureaucracy or top-down vision of change that determines what is and what is not possible for the poor and middle income populations of the Global South.

Contemporary global development paradigms (ICT4D among them) bear the traits of organizational and philosophical predecessors. The Millenium Development Goals represent a continuation of the Big-D development schemes of the 1950’s and 1960’s, where gigantic multilateral institutions like the United Nations dictated the terms on which the world’s poor would modernize. Similarly, the small-d development ideal proferred by Easterly and others places great faith in the ability of unregulated markets and small-scale entrepreneurs to bring widespread economic growth “from the bottom up.” This represents a scaled-down version of the so-called Washington Consensus of the 1980’s and 90’s that saw the dismantling of social welfare systems and the deregulation of financial markets around the world. The results of such “structural adjustment” were catastrophic for the poor, as local elites and multinational corporations extracted spectacular profits at the expense of less-empowered populations.

Both approaches – the big-D and the small-d – are stained by fundamental shortcomings that no amount of revisionism can wash away. On their own, neither will bring about sustainable widespread enhancements in the quality of life for the chronically poor and unstable regions of the world.

As a result, I challenge the ICT4D community to confront the contradictions of these competing paradigms of poverty and inequality alleviation.

At a practical level, we cannot simply abandon participation in (or engagement with) large national and multilateral political institutions. Access to fantastic gadgets and services will mean little in the long-run without a corresponding framework to support sustainable improvements in “human capabilities.” Likewise (and here I agree completely with Ken), the best intentioned multilateral efforts will fail unless they are grounded in the sort of modular, experimental approach embodied in Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” ideal.

Therefore, the ICT4D community (along with fellow travelers like myself) must find ways to split the distance between the Big-D and the small-d. We must reach out to the small grassroots NGO’s and innovators at the same time as we pursue less glamorous forms of political transformation and institution-building. We must design brilliant, appropriate gadgets and cultivate strong, accountable institutions. Together, these digital and social technologies will enable more people around the world to thrive, facilitating access to knowledge, networks, sanitation, water, and healthcare.

The need for broad political engagement has rarely been more apparent than in the present context. The collapse of the World Trade Organization’s Doha round of negotiations and the current global financial crisis provide textbook examples of institutional failures that grassroots intervention alone will not resolve. The lack of consensus at Doha reveals the extent to which existing global governance institutions have failed to meet the needs of low and middle income countries. Meanwhile, the implosion of the housing and credit markets in the United States has illustrated the risks of insufficient coordination between government and the private sector in the face of an obvious, long-standing threat to the collective interests of society. In the absence of sustainable solutions to these overlapping problems, rampant inequalities will likely reproduce and spread, leading to further financial and political instabilities.

In this setting, ICT4D advocates cannot afford to turn their backs on global institutions as critical mechanisms for achieving lasting techno-social change. Of course, analyzing and participating in big bureaucracies such as national states, multilateral governance forums, and international standards committees entails a distasteful degree of compliance with abusive forms of power. In this regard, Easterly’s claim that we must be wary of the tendency for these organizations to deliver corruption and inappropriate technologies is on target.

Nevertheless, if we want to avoid “missing the call” for technologies that have the potential to facilitate enhanced access, equality, and prosperity, such political and institutional engagement is more necessary than ever.


An article over at Science Progress examines how state and local government in Virginia has stepped up to the problem of broadband market failures. I loved this story because it’s a great example of what a little public sector creativity can do to in the face of the current broadband duopoly in the US. According to the story, the money for these projects have been cobbled together from federal funds, a large Tobacco industry settlement with the state, city improvement projects, and even a few small time start-ups. It sounds like there’s still a ways to go in terms of integrating the network across the state as a whole, but that’s a wonderful problem to have when you’re looking at places that relied on dial up until recently. Here’s hoping the current state government can step in a fill that gap too.Perhaps more importantly from a national perspective, Virginia has provided a perfect test case for the sort of reforms the Democratic congress ought to implement in the next two years. Such initiatives would almost certainly  help the Dems reclaim/hold culturally conservative, rural, economically depressed regions of the country.  (H/T to Manon Ress of KEI for passing this story along the A2K grapevine) 

A March 4 article from the online magazine, Managing Intellectual Property identifies the primary constituency pushing for the ACTA proposal:

 “Representatives from the International Chamber of Commerce’s (ICC) Business Action to Stop Counterfeiting and Piracy (BASCAP) initiative gathered with government officials in New York yesterday to discuss strategies for ending the international trade in fake goods.

The meeting was attended by CEO’s of companies such as Microsoft, General Electric and Pfizer, as well as the executive director of INTA, Alan Drewsen, the deputy secretary-general of WIPO, Michael Keplinger, and the secretary-general of the World Customs Organization (WCO), Michael Danet. US Trade Representative Susan Schwab also took part”

Nothing very surprising here, but I see two points worth noting. First, the roster of BASCAP’s Global Leadership Group includes a number other heavy hitters that have traditionally supported rigid IP regulations such as Sony and EMI. Second, I wonder what the presence of WIPO deputy secretary-general Keplinger at this meeting means?

One thing is for sure, Keplinger’s participation in the ACTA meeting should not be construed to imply a broader mandate from WIPO or its membership. Back in April, 2006, IP Watch reported that Keplinger’s nomination for his current position came from the US Commerce Department. The story details that Keplinger had previously worked in the office of foreign relations at the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The USPTO is one of the most active proponents of patent harmonization in the world. Is Keplinger just continuing his old line of work? According to this blog post by Jamie Love, Keplinger sounds like a holdout from the days when the US and corporate lobbyists dictated the terms of trade policy to the world. Those days are over.

WIPO just announced the conclusion of the first meeting of the new Permanent Committee on Development and Intellectual Property (CDIP).

The Press Release doesn’t go into great detail, but it notes:

 “The draft report of the CDIP’s first meeting will available on WIPO’s website for comments by member states, IGOs and NGOs. The revised draft report will then be considered for adoption at the beginning of the second session of the CDIP scheduled for July 2008.”

I’ll see if I can skim for highlights…

The lede from another IP-watch article (subscription required) published earlier this week claims that momentum is building among EU NGO’s and activists to challenge ACTA. While I have not read the story (the subscription costs are quite absurd for individuals living in OECD countries and they make no mention of a student rate), I’m curious if this reflects an actual mobilization. If so, there should be traces of it showing up on the web soon and perhaps some concrete action.

My suspicion is that the NGO’s involved at WIPO have gotten wind of the ACTA idea and are looking for ways to intervene. Given the nature of the ACTA proposal, however, this promises to be extraordinarily difficult. Making a stink in WIPO may or may not alter the course of action taken by the ACTA early adopters. This is why it seems to me that targeted resistance directed at the individual country governments and a negative publicity campaign has some potential.

My last two posts (#1 and #2), provide a rough overview of the current situation in global intellectual property governance. If you’re anything like me, upon reading them you may be filled with a burning desire to give the office of the US Trade Representative a piece of your mind. If that is the case, you’re in luck! It just so happens that between now and March 21, the US Trade Representative’s Office wants to hear from YOU!

The USTR posted a request for public comments here and here. If you are interested in sending them something, please read the whole announcement because they seem to be kind of picky about things like file formats, subject lines, etc.

I know, I know, you are not a lawyer (neither am I) and maybe you don’t think you know the first thing about IP governance. That’s okay! It is urgent that these unelected representatives understand that citizens do not support their decision to pursue unilateral (or in this case, aristocratic) action outside the UN system. This initiative is especially nefarious because it proposes to place IP governance beyond the influence of NGO’s and other civil society groups. While WIPO and the UN are far from participatory or democratic in any real sense, an agreement like ACTA would represent a step backwards for the world. We do not need new, anti-democratic framework for trade policy. Such action is not in the interests of individual citizens, it is not in the interests of businesses, and it is not in the interests of the United States.

In the next couple of days, I am going to write up a short form letter, which I will post and circulate on appropriate email lists. Please do the same.

Following up on a pointer from Peter Evans in response to my last post, I came across this old announcement on the website of the US Trade Representative.

Turns out the US, EU, Japan and other wealthy nations have responded quite aggressively to the success of the Development Agenda at WIPO. Less than two weeks after the WIPO general assembly voted to make a permanent committee on the development agenda, the wealthy states countered with the creation of a new “Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement” (ACTA).

Based on the trail of celebratory press releases (the USTR’s is here, the EC’s is here, and the International Trademark Association’s is here) and a highly un-informative fact sheet (PDF) from the USTR, this promises to be some spectacularly old wine in a new bottle. Everybody promises that this will bring an end to evils of piracy and will restore lost millions to poor, unfortunate industry executives. I’m sure the authors of the agreement are already lining up celebrity endorsements

So, what does this mean for WIPO and the fate of the development agenda? Michael Geist blogged the original announcement back in October and he hits the nail on the head:

“Given the recent backlash at WIPO, the U.S. is avoiding the U.N. system. Instead, it has created a new counterfeiting coalition of the willing that includes the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, and Canada. Those countries yesterday simultaneously announced enthusiastic support for a new trade agreement with negotiations to begin next year. Indeed, International Trade Minister David Emerson’s announcement to the House of Commons brought the MPs to their feet.

This treaty could ultimately prove bigger than WIPO – without the constraints of consensus building, developing countries, and civil society groups, the ACTA could further reshape the IP landscape with tougher enforcement, stronger penalties, and a gradual eradication of the copyright and trademark balance.” (emphasis added)

And people wonder why the Doha Round of the WTO hasn’t gone anywhere? This is the ultimate in bad faith bargaining and deserves to be called much worse. Essentially, the wealthy OECD countries and a few of their friends have turned their backs on the possibility of building inclusive and accountable global institutions in favor of creating yet another regulatory thicket of privately negotiated strict IP enforcement rules. There are so many reasons that this is a bad idea that I don’t even know where to start.

To make matters worse, if we take the rhetoric of the USTR and the EC at face value, they are embracing an outmoded vision of the IP ecosystem in which “counterfeiting” (a.k.a. reproducing stuff) is inherently bad for business. This kind of moralizing and polarizing talk is counterproductive, but a moralizing and polarizing treaty between the most powerful and wealthy nations in the world would be a whole lot worse.

If there’s any silver lining to this cloud, it’s that the agreement doesn’t exist yet. I’ll say more in my next post about an opportunity to do something to prevent it.