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Personal Computers and Underdeveloped Countries: What are the Issues?

written by: Ollie Hicks•edited by: M.S. Smith•updated: 8/28/2009

When considering the issues of using personal computers and underdeveloped countries, it is necessary to consider costs, access, usage and definitions, and one might also consider the most appropriate form of provision of access: personal ownership, schools/colleges or community telecentres.

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    ICT Access And Underdeveloped Countries: What Are The Basic Definitions?

    When considering the issues arising in relation to personal computers and underdeveloped countries, what are the assumptions? The first question that might be asked is, what countries are under discussion? (Is the criterion total economic output, average salary, percentage of individuals in absolute poverty, or in relative poverty, or one of many other possible criteria? Are variations between urban and rural ICT access relevant? Different researchers may produce a variety of answers to these questions.)

    Distinctions between external provision of hardware (and possibly some training and support) via political or aid organisations versus self-sustaining community schemes have been made. Cawther suggests the latter may have superior outcomes, resulting perhaps from greater ‘ownership’ of the schemes.

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    What Can ICT Access Achieve In Developing Countries?

    frerieke: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
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    Costs And Types Of ICT Provision In Developing Countries

    How far does cost affect usage rates of PCs in underdeveloped countries? In urban areas some researchers have found high levels of PC access. However Cawther's review puts internet access in Africa in 1999 at 0.1%. Cawther suggests that a fundamental problem is under-use of equipment provided and discusses approaches that may alleviate this problem and thereby reduce unit costs by increasing access.

    What is the most appropriate form of ICT access e.g. individual ownership, school/college provision or community telecentres? Community telecentres and facilitation of community access to school computing equipment are two ways suggested to promote usage and access and drive down unit costs.

    What are the real costs of ICT provision to underdeveloped countries? Joris Komen points out in a mailing list debate that initial costs only (perhaps plus three years upkeep) tend to be taken into account regarding aid agency provision of new ICT equipment, rather than total costs over a realistic term of use. (This being in response to suggestions that bulk purchase of new ICT equipment may prove to be more cost-effective than refurbishing of discarded equipment.) Power, connectivity, maintenance, training and support all need to be factored into any cost equations (see Cawther).

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    Problems Relating to ICT Access and Usage in Underdeveloped CountriesWhat are the social and economic problems in underdeveloped countries which we are looking to ICT access to solve or alleviate? Is access to personal computers the most appropriate vehicle for solving these problems or are there other routes which may prove to be more effective? Funds to be allocated for use in developing countries are fixed: what are the opportunity costs of expenditures on ICT access, and might they be put to better use elsewhere? Would funds used for this purpose be better spent on greater numbers of school and college textbooks and more teachers hired, rather than better and increased access to ICT provision?
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    ICT Recycling In Developing Countries

    Komen also notes the political and ecological ramifications of charging for recycling and refurbishment of used computers which are to go to underdeveloped countries. Who pays the price: the aid and development sector, the primary consumer or the refurb recipient?

    Other problems may arise with donated/refurbished computer equipment. Recycling of hardware may aggravate rather than alleviate ecological problems if not carefully managed. The upside for donors is the knowledge that they are benefiting the environment (in a responsibly run scheme), have disposed of legal responsibility for the equipment (ditto) and may receive some beneficial publicity from the gesture.

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    Problems And Benefits Of ICT Access In Underfunded Areas

    Can access to computing facilities solve significant problems in developing countries? Is it really the panacea for all ills some might tout it as, and is computer literacy the be-all and end-all for educational and development issues? It has been argued in some quarters that mobiles are actually capable of producing more life-changing results in developing countries. If computers are the chosen vehicle for technological routes to economic and social development, however, are PCs the way forward? This may depend on your chosen definition. Netbooks and ‘thin client’ machines have been promoted as solutions for increasing access in developing countries in recent years, and may work out cheaper than the alternatives.

    But what is the opportunity cost of devoting scarce funding to ICT provision for an underdeveloped country? One has to consider what can be done within a fixed budget: if PCs and ICT equipment is being purchased, then what else might that money have bought that it is not now being spent on? Could spending the money alternatively on paper, pencils, textbooks etc. have done more good, or as much? Cawther provides some sobering comparisons between teacher salaries, textbook costs and costs of computer provision. Are books and more teachers, or personal computers for each student, the higher priority? The answers may not yet be clear-cut.

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    1. “Computer and Other ICT” (Accessed 17/08/2009) <>