A few days ago, I wrote about sequencing of interventions for development. Now it is time to ponder the question of leapfrogging, a buzz word very much favored by some who write about emerging economies. For instance, there is the claim that India can leapfrog into a service economy from an agricultural economy without the intermediate stage of a manufacturing economy. I have delved into this matter in the development path of economies and agriculture and development. My position is that India cannot leapfrog from an agricultural to a service economy: it has to have a robust manufacturing sector as well.
Leapfrogging is possible but mostly it is restricted to technologies. For instance, areas of India which had absolutely no telecommunications infrastructure don’t have to go through the sequence of first getting telegraph and then wired telephones and then move on to wireless: they can leapfrog the now obsolete technologies and go directly to wireless. It is always possible – indeed necessary – to leapfrog technologies because advanced technologies are cheaper.
Advances in technologies provide the same functionality at a lower cost and reduced complexity for the user. Consider the VCR. When it was first introduced, they used to have little tuning wheels which needed to be fiddled with before they worked. Later models became plug-and-play.
Unlike technology, you cannot leapfrog the various stages of development. A century ago, to be educated, one had to be literate and numerate. Same holds for today even though we have digital gizmos and computers. Indeed, to be able to effectively use the products of high-technology, literacy is an absolute necessity. Functional skills required for using high-tech all involve the ability to read and reason. I grant that illiterate idiots can use a cell phone, but that is not what I would call the effective use of high technology.
The so-called “digital divide” cannot be bridged by simply installing lots of PCs in areas where they don’t exist and connecting them up to the internet. If the people are unable to use them, they serve no purpose other than to enrich the peddlers of hardware and software. Furthermore, there is the opportunity cost of spending limited resources on useless high-tech gizmos.
You cannot leapfrog development. It cannot be done at an individual level. And it cannot be done at a societal level. Although development paths may differ, the sequencing within a path cannot be radically altered because there are strict dependencies. Basic functional literacy is a pre-requisite to pretty much anything that one does. The use of high-tech depends on literacy and therefore if the population is illiterate, even gifting them with free hardware will not make a difference. The pre-condition for bridging the digital divide is therefore the bridging of the literacy divide.
Of course, there are those who will argue that high tech be used for bridging the literacy divide. In a conference that I had attended some time ago, the question “Can ICTs be useful for rural and remote areas of developing countries, especially the poverty-stricken regions?” was seriously asked. I wrote:
We need to examine that question for a moment. At one level of analysis, it is hard to not answer that question in the affirmative. At another level, it is a meaningless question. Merely because it is syntactically correct does not imply that it has any content. Consider the question:
Can magnetic levitation superfast monorail transportation systems be useful for rural and remote areas of developing countries, especially the poverty-stricken regions?
Clearly, yes. Not just magnetic levitation superfast monorail transportation systems, but an almost unending variety of things would be useful for the development of poverty-stricken remote areas. Not merely for those areas, all of those unending variety of things would be useful for the development of not so remote and not so poverty-stricken areas of any developing country. Thus that question is actually content-free.
I think that the fundamental problem of development is one of sequencing, of prioritizing. It is the same question that one has to ask in one’s own personal development: what is the important next step?