Danielle Cave's recent paper on the uptake of information and communications technology (ICT) in our region consolidates a range of information about what is happening in Pacific island countries and reveals key questions yet to be considered or resolved.
In general, the position Danielle puts forward is one with which I agree. However, there are a few areas that give me some concern.
The first is the use of 'deregulation' in regard to market reforms in the early 2000s. What actually happened was that markets were liberalised (governments were persuaded to give up their shares in telco monopolies and legislation passed to facilitate new entrants into the markets) and subsequently regulated (ie. through the creation of telecommunications regulatory authorities, which had not existed previously).
The relationship between the creation of regulatory environments and increased use of mobile phones is explored further here, as is the potential for the office of the regulator to become a focus of conflict as incumbents negotiate a rapidly changing environment at the confluence of policy, politics and private enterprise. The impact of new entrants (including but not limited to Digicel) cannot be underestimated in this area and the robustness of national regulators will continue to be crucial to create and maintain an appropriate policy environment.
The second issue I would raise is the importance of parallel infrastructure. In a recent study into the impact of increased mobile phone use in Vanuatu, the Pacific Institute of Public Policy (where I am currently employed) identified parallel infrastructure as a key factor affecting the usefulness of mobile phones in relation to social and economic activity.
As might be expected, the significance of parallel infrastructure (eg. facilities for recharging phones or transport services to get produce to markets) is greater in rural than in urban areas and this is part of the reason why availability of mobile communications is linked to increased urbanisation (as discussed by Gerard McCarthy and Keera Pullman). However, the concept of parallel infrastructure goes further, and appropriate parallel policy infrastructure is essential if the use of ICT applications is to be harnessed to enhance development in the Pacific.
What needs to remain central in this discussion is the realisation that use of ICTs is a tool to enable policy responses; it is not a policy response in itself. Take the example of sending lesson suggestions to teachers in rural areas by SMS. This sounds simple, cost-effective and innovative, and indeed it is. However, it presumes a number of things: that there is a teacher at the school who has a phone that is charged and able to receive the message and who has a blackboard on which to write the suggested activity and some chalk with which to write it.
Unless all of these bits of parallel infrastructure are in place (requiring appropriate policy implementation through 'traditional' means: budgeting, procurement, delivery etc), using an ICT application will not add value. In fact, there is a risk that too much focus on ICTs and their potential may create unrealistic expectations among individuals and communities unless the surrounding policy aspects are given appropriate consideration.
Finally, I think there is more to be said about whether a regional response or strategy is most appropriate in this area. There are certainly opportunities for Pacific island governments and policy professionals to share their knowledge, and this is already happening.
However, it is important to be cognisant of the diversity at play in this part of the world. It seems to me that the versatility of ICT applications and the relatively low development costs involved lend themselves to tailor-made solutions to 'on the ground' challenges. More exciting still is the potential for Pacific island communities to grab a hold of the technological building blocks and use them to develop ICT applications that are firmly sited in the particular geographical, cultural, linguistic and political environment in which they will be used.