Think Again (Again)

October 1st, 2010

New York Times columnist and prize-winning author Tom Friedman is perhaps best known for his arguments for infrastructure—green or otherwise.  His columns and books often, perhaps even ad nauseam, compare U.S. infrastructure to China’s, where “a bullet train [from Beijing] to Tianjin…takes just 25 minutes to make a 75-mile trip.”  Friedman also loves to deride U.S. terminals, like the “faded, cramped” LAX and NYC’s Pennsylvania station where the escalators don’t work. Though I’m not sure rebuilding LAX would solve our problems, I agree with Friedman on principal.  I also believe in the vital importance of infrastructure—whether that’s high-speed trains, roads, telephones, or broadband connectivity—and its relationship to economic development and, ultimately, to political participation and democracy.

Not everyone agrees. Evgeny Morozov, a fellow at Georgetown University and an insightful blogger for Net Effect, recently wrote a Think Again article in Foreign Policy magazine challenging the pervading perception that the spread of the Internet is making governments more accountable and increasing political participation. Morozov argues the Internet hasn’t ushered in a renewal of civic engagement, but rather a “‘slacktivisim,’ the new favorite pejorative for the shallow peripheral and fluid political campaigning that seems to thrive on the Internet.”

Although Morozov makes an important point about the limitations of a relationship between the internet and freedom, the Think Again piece misses an important point.  Morozov ignores a vital link between the internet and democratic freedom and participation.  That missing link is economic empowerment, which indirectly, but significantly, can foster democratization.  This point is argued quite elegantly by Iqbal Z. Quadir, a Professor at MIT, in an interview released today by the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE).

In 1996 Quadir helped to develop Grameenphone, a company which provides mobile telephone access to Bangladesh’s poor.  At the time, one in 500 people in Bangladesh had a telephone, today the number stands at one in three.  Quadir argues technological innovation and change and can be naturally re-distributive through what he calls an “invisible leg.”  For example, “personal computers have unleashed a great deal of creativity and empowered small businesses relatively more than larger ones because larger companies already had mainframe computers that small businesses could not have afforded.”  This type of change, can therefore “level the playing field.”

So how does economic empowerment lead to political empowerment?  It’s a link that not many people fully understand and it’s one that even Evgeny Morozov seemed to have missed.  Quadir puts it better than I could, so I’ll quote him here.  He says “With meaningful economic assets, citizens become stakeholders in their country’s economic future…Likewise, when citizens have taxable income, the taxes they pay allow them to have leverage over their government.”

This argument goes hand in hand with the world view shared by those of us concerned with illicit financial flows.  When governments receive their wealth from minerals or foreign aid, and not taxation, it is not their people who will ultimately hold them accountable.  Votes are important, but in the end it is money that talks.  Democracies and individual liberties are not fostered, nor sustained, without economic development and empowerment.  And as Bangladesh can show us, technology and technological infrastructure represent one crucial piece of those economics.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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