Government is about the sustenance of hope. Yet in too many places, government is about killing hope: “you can’t make it because you’re poor/ your ethnicity is wrong / you aren’t from the right school.” When hope is dead, when the pie looks like it’s not expanding, and the game is zero-sum, the path that remains is hatred.
Information and communication technologies (ICTs) shake things up. Not necessarily for the better; but with prodding of the right kind and possibly some luck and happenstance, the equilibrium can be broken in a positive way. So, I work with ICTs, not as ends but as means. Opportunity anywhere rests on connectivity: the ability to obtain credit/capital/knowledge/a job; and so on. Those who already have connectivity, and, thereby, access to various forms of supportive networks have more opportunity and, therefore, have more hope.
Young people in the villages of Sri Lanka (and possibly other countries) have a strong sense of being cut off from opportunity and, in many cases, see little hope. With ICTs, I see the possibility of changing that sense of exclusion; not necessarily of leveling the playing field, but giving them a fighting chance. Because I know the limitations of government, both from studying it and being in it, I have little faith in centralized solutions, except perhaps with regard to war and peace and big infrastructure (but highly qualified, even in these cases). I therefore tend to think less in terms of specific ICT4D products and services and more in terms of creating the conditions for decentralized actors innovating with ICTs.
This leads to a focus on infrastructure, primarily the hard infrastructure necessary to move bits around effectively and at low cost. Even here, I think the need is to create the conditions for more actors to get involved, not rely on monolithic suppliers.
With ICT infrastructure, one has no alternative but to deal with policy and regulation. So I work in multiple ways to reform policy and regulation affecting ICT infrastructure:
When invited, I work inside government (Samarajiva, 2000; 2004);
At other times, I contribute as a public intellectual; and
Since 2004, I have been working on creating the conditions for more public intellectuals to contribute to reform of ICT infrastructure in the Asia Pacific through LIRNEasia (www.lirneasia.net), a new organization supported primarily by the International Development Research Centre of Canada (2006).
I believe that the innovative work being undertaken by LIRNEasia researchers across the region will create a greater appreciation of the value of decentralized decision making with regard to ICTs; as well as more effective engagement with the policy and regulatory processes. The results we have seen in a short time (http://www.regulateonline.org/content/view/810/40/) suggest that we will be able to demonstrate the efficacy of policy-relevant research and capacity building with concrete evidence.