Atanu Dey On India's Development

Of Lavatories and Laptops

Over four years ago I had written a post titled “Choosing between WCs and PCs” — it is one of my favorite posts and features my friend CJ. Put that on your reading list. I am reminded of that post by an Economist article of last week titled “Limits of Leapfrogging.” The article concludes with this:

Lavatories before laptops

The World Bank concludes that a country’s capacity to absorb and benefit from new technology depends on the availability of more basic forms of infrastructure. This has clear implications for development policy. Building a fibre-optic backbone or putting plasma screens into schools may be much more glamorous than building electrical grids, sewerage systems, water pipelines, roads, railways and schools. It would be great if you could always jump straight to the high-tech solution, as you can with mobile phones. But with technology, as with education, health care and economic development, such short-cuts are rare. Most of the time, to go high-tech, you need to have gone medium-tech first.

I have been arguing that point that sequencing matters for a while. Here’s a bit from a post “It’s the small stuff, stupid.”

I am not a Luddite and I am not against hi-tech. Some of my best friends are techies and my education is in computer sciences and engineering and my salary is paid by a technology company. I just happen to believe that hi-tech needs a foundation and that foundation is made of lo-tech. Hi-tech without the lo-tech is about as useful as a car with a fancy engine but no wheels. Hey, that is a good analogy. A car with a fancy engine ain’t going anywhere in a hurry without wheels. And even if you do figure out that wheels are needed, you can’t go far if you don’t get round wheels. Square wheels just won’t do. Then even if you get round wheels, if the tires are not inflated, you get around with a lot of loss of fuel and in discomfort. That is, without air in the tires, your transaction costs are higher.

As a development economist, I have often asked myself what are the invariants that underlie development. I know for sure that high technology (computers, internet, cell phones) are neither necessary nor sufficient for development. Most of the developed economies of the world developed at a time when all those were not yet invented. I believe that one invariant is the ability to adopt innovations.

  • pankaj

    Indians are trying to find difficult answers to easy questions.

  • tarang_72

    I know Maslow’s hierarchy is not very appropriate for this line of argument but it still tells the same message. Shortfalls in lower levels like physiological needs must be met first before fulfuling self actualizing.