Open source and the third world

It is ironic that those who best could benefit from open source tend to shun it. The third world has little money for software, but plenty of labor and manpower to improve and develop software. This means that the model of open source, where you pay forward by helping improving the software or the documentation or help support it, is ideal for the third world.

Yet open source is seen with suspicions in the third world. Microsoft software rules Africa’s IT-sector, to great cost. Many countries refused to be a part of the ground breaking OLPC project unless you could run Windows on the machines, thereby completely defeating a lot of the benefit of the project. (Read about the amazing impact the OLPC had in a small village in Peru). Of course, piracy is widespread in poorer countries so they don’t actually spend that much money on the software, but that also means that there is no support available when needed. You can’t call Microsoft’s hot lines when you neither can afford the software nor the call charges. So they can neither use manpower to improve the software and adapt it to their needs, nor get help when they need it.

The unwillingness to use open source in the third world seems to originate in a deep seated fear of sharing information. Of course, knowledge is power. This is true everywhere, and no more so than where the monetary forms of power are less readily available. But what is also true is that sharing knowledge does not diminish the power. This is somewhat counter-intuitive. You would think that the more people having the same knowledge as you do, the less your power would be, but that is not the case. Yes, giving information will increase the power of others. But you still have the same information and the same power. And by sharing information to others, they will also be more likely to share information to you. Together we can therefore raise our knowledge and our power to unheard of heights, if we just share information and our knowledge. And the more people share, the more power we will get, and the greater the opportunities in front of us.

The poorer countries in the world could easily propel themselves to the forefront of information technology in ten years, if they adopted open source and a culture of information sharing. But changing attitudes is often difficult and will probably take much longer than the ten years needed once the attitudes have changed.

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2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Aroldo Souza-Leite said,

    At least in semi-industrialized countries I’m informed about, there’s the pervading fear of getting stuck in the state of underdevelopment by importing second and third class technology from industrialized countries. This fear is not at all abstract, because this is exactly what has been done for decades in all important business areas as an integral part of neocolonial politics. Telling people in these countries that Open Source is cheaper but not of inferior quality is very difficult, and much more so if the audience is honestly concerned about their countries’s asymmetric relationship with the “first world”. Thus the lack of acceptance for Open Source in developing countries is due in great part to the disgustingly underdeveloped state of the Open Source PR in developed countries.

  2. 2

    That’s an interesting point of view. And of course you are right that open source needs better publicity in the third world. The question is rather how to do that.


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