March 24, 2004

Constraints against the adoption and use of FOSS in developing countries

Author: Katim S. Touray

Many people
have called for the increased adoption of Free and Open Source
Software (FOSS) in developing countries in general, and in Africa in
particular. The reasons center around issues of affordability,
ownership, and openness. Although the use of FOSS in developing
countries is increasing, a number of constraints still stifle the
growth of FOSS use in these countries. The constraints are many and
varied, but can be grouped into five, namely: the nature of FOSS
itself, an adverse policy environment, lack of marketing, inadequate
technical support, and lack of trained personnel.

Background

The
use of FOSS has, in the past decade or so, seen an explosive growth
around the world, thanks to factors such as the increasing popularity
of the GNU/Linux operating system, the growth of the Internet, and
the availability of FOSS alternatives to proprietary applications.

The freedoms
and associated affordability of FOSS makes it particularly attractive
to people looking for alternatives to relatively expensive,
restrictive, and insecure proprietary software. This is especially
so for people in developing countries because they have few resources
to spend on computers and software. For this reason, many developing
countries such as Brazil, India, Vietnam, South Africa, Malaysia, and
Thailand, to name a few, are increasingly leaning toward adopting
FOSS.

In Brazil,
for example, the Federal government has published its Free Software
implementation guidelines, and aims for at least 80% of computers
purchased by government in 2004 having FOSS. In the same vein, the
Indian government has launched a Linux India Initiative to support
resource centers and localization projects. Malaysia is launching
OSS reference center to manage OSS implementation, and its Ministry
of Finance has provided venture capital funds to Malaysian OSS
companies.

In Africa,
South Africa has taken the lead in the drive for greater adoption of
FOSS. The South African government recently published a policy
paper
which called for using FOSS in preference to their
proprietary equivalents if both types of software had comparable
features. The South African FOSS community has launched Impi,
its own Linux distribution. In addition, many educational
institutions in South Africa use FOSS to increase access to computers
and to the Internet, thereby helping bridge the digital divide that
slows the pace of development and reduces the capacity of developing
countries to effectively use development assistance.

Despite the
obvious benefits of FOSS and its increasing popularity worldwide,
there persist a number of problems that constrain its adoption and
use in developing countries.

Nature of FOSS

To
paraphrase the cartoon character Pogo, we have met the enemy of
increased adoption and use of FOSS in developing countries, and the
enemy is FOSS. The very nature of FOSS generally makes it
inaccessible or difficult for many people to use. FOSS is generally
not user-friendly, and require higher than average technical skills
to make use of. It is perhaps for this reason that while Linux is a
popular platform for servers, and workstations, it has yet to become
as popular as Microsoft Windows as a desktop environment.

The reasons for
the lack user-friendliness of FOSS are varied but center around
greater reliance on a command line rather than a graphical user
interface, and poor
user-interface
design. In consequence, FOSS applications
generally require greater technical skills to use than the
point-and-click menu-driven user interface on Windows.

Poor
documentation
is another major constraint to the adoption and use
of FOSS in both developed and developing countries. End-user
documentation is of critical importance to the user-friendliness of
an application, and in this regard, FOSS has a long way to go. Most
FOSS applications lack proper end-user documentation, if they have it
all. OpenOffice.org, for example, a leading FOSS office productivity
suite, has a Web site
dedicated to its documentation, but the documentation is rather
scanty. Although efforts
are underway to address the situation, the problem certainly hinders
the widespread adoption of OpenOffice.org.

Another problem
with FOSS documentation is that although packages are translated into
different languages, the translations are usually restricted to the
menu items, commands, and user interfaces. Seldom are user manuals,
if they exist at all, translated. In addition, while developers
often know enough English to write computer programs, some of them
cannot write useful end-user documentation, thus reducing the
user-friendliness of the applications they develop, no matter how
good they are.

Adverse policy environment

Many
developing countries have yet to articulate national information and
communications technology (ICT) policies on such issues as privacy,
strategies, and approaches to ICT development. Lack of policy on
FOSS is a specific aspect of this general problem of lack of ICT
policy in many developing countries. For this reason, many
developing countries do not have policies on the use of FOSS by
government agencies, and their service providers. In other cases,
they have policy environments that at best are neutral, or at worse,
hostile to the adoption and use of FOSS.

This situation
is especially debilitating to FOSS because in many developing
countries the government is the largest single buyer of ICT products
and services. Furthermore, a favorable government policy on FOSS is
frequently a major boost to the adoption and use of FOSS because it
would justify spending on FOSS.

Another adverse
policy effect on the adoption and use of FOSS in developing countries
is that many government and donor agencies insist on proprietary
software when they invite bids to provide ICT products and services.
It is thus not uncommon to find advertisements that specifically ask
for computers pre-loaded with Microsoft Windows and Office, rather
than stipulating the required functionalities of the computers to be
provided.

Donor agencies,
either by omission or commission, also frequently hinder the adoption
and use of FOSS in developing countries. Again, the problem emanates
from the insistence of many donor agencies on proprietary software,
and a failure to adopt a more pro-FOSS policy in their assistance
programs. Furthermore, the lukewarm attitude of developed countries
to FOSS in the ongoing World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)
process seriously hampers the adoption of FOSS in developing
countries.

This lack of
commitment by the donor community to the increased use of FOSS in
developing countries is especially unfortunate because governments in
many developed countries are turning to FOSS and curtailing their use
of proprietary software. The UK government, for example, in a 2002
published a policy paper that among other things called for using
products that support open standards, and avoiding being locked into
proprietary IT products and services, while the European Commission
has called
for
promoting the use of OSS in government. Given that more and
more developed countries are opting for FOSS, it makes sense for
donor agencies (e.g. the Department for International Development
(DFID) in the UK) to have a more pro-FOSS policy in their development
assistance programs.

International
development organizations and agencies have also yet to promulgate
and implement pro-FOSS policies. Despite the fact that a number of
UN agencies, such as the UNDP and UNESCO, provide support to the FOSS
community, they have yet to articulate specific guidelines on the use
of FOSS in their assistance programs, or indeed within their
organizations themselves. Although UNESCO has a vibrant FOSS
portal
and the UNDP actively supports the International Open
Source Network
(IOSN), there are no indications that they plan to
migrate to FOSS anytime soon.

Lack of marketing

Like
any product, FOSS needs adequate and effective marketing if it is to
have a large following. This is especially so in developing
countries, given that many products competing against FOSS are backed
by rich multi-national companies that have large marketing programs
and budgets. In contrast, FOSS packages generally do not have any
marketing budget whatsoever, and depend only on the loyalty of their
user base to spread the word.

Another
advantage proprietary packages like Microsoft Windows enjoy over FOSS
is that many large proprietary software companies have, or are
associated with, non-profit activities. The large grants given out
by the Gates Foundation create a lot of goodwill for Microsoft
products, even though the Gates Foundation is independent of the
company.

Furthermore,
proprietary software companies often provide their products at deeply
discounted prices to educational institutions and non-governmental
organizations (NGO), thereby reducing the price advantage FOSS has
over proprietary products and locking these institutions into
proprietary solutions. This is especially true in developing
countries because they frequently rely on donated computers and
software packages to equip computer labs in educational institutions.
For this reason, many students in developing countries grow up on
Microsoft products, and have to make an extra effort to take up FOSS.

Inadequate technical support

Lack of
technical support is another problem that stifles the adoption and
use of FOSS in developing countries. Many FOSS applications
(especially Free Software) are provided on an as-is basis, and
developers provide little end-user technical support. In some cases,
commercial support for FOSS packages is provided by their developers,
along with other companies and individuals. In the main, however,
technical support for most FOSS applications is provided by Internet
communities via Web sites and e-mail discussions.

Almost all FOSS
packages have their own Web communities and these, by and large,
provide effective technical support. However, the quality of support
for a FOSS product is highly variable and dependent on its stage of
development, user base, and the language in which support is desired.
As a rule of thumb, the longer a package has been under development
and the larger its user base, the better the quality of support. In
addition, English-speaking users, in general, get much better support
than people who speak other languages, simply because English is the
de facto official language of the Internet.

Despite the
many advantages of Internet-based support for FOSS, this type of
support is not ideal for many people in developing countries. The
digital divide between industrialized and developing countries is
also manifested in the cost and ease of access to the Internet.
Given that many people in developing countries do not have adequate
and affordable Internet access, if any at all, the Internet is not
the ideal way to provide technical support to FOSS users in
developing countries.

Another way in
which FOSS users are provided support is via the many user and
interest groups around the world. Many of these groups are vibrant
communities that commonly have superb expertise among their ranks.
However, the few in developing countries generally have fewer
resources than their counterparts in developed countries. For this
reason, user groups in developing countries are not as able as their
counterparts in developed countries to provide adequate technical
support to FOSS users.

Lack of trained personnel

Lack
of trained personnel is another major impediment to the adoption and
use of FOSS in developing countries. Most developing countries do
not have enough adequately trained people in many technical fields,
especially in ICTs. The problem of lack of trained ICT personnel in
developing countries is worse in the case of FOSS because many
training programs are based on proprietary systems and software, such
as Microsoft Windows.

Any attempt to
address the shortage of FOSS users and developers in developing
countries also must deal with the problem of lack of standardization
of FOSS training and certification programs. While Microsoft and
other proprietary software providers have clearly defined
certification programs, there exist few well-known FOSS equivalents.
Furthermore, the fact that fewer people know of FOSS than of
Microsoft products means that even fewer people know of FOSS
certification programs than Microsoft certifications. The net result
is that few people choose to pursue FOSS training and certification.

Local FOSS user
groups and communities are an important resource for acquiring FOSS
education and skills. To the extent that many developing countries
lack vibrant local FOSS communities, they are also denied the
valuable educational services these communities provide. For many
people, a local Linux install fest is the first opportunity to dip
their toes into FOSS. As such, the fact that few developing
countries support vibrant FOSS communities means that not many people
in developing countries can benefit from training provided by these
user groups.

These five
factors are the major constraints against the use of FOSS in
developing countries. In part two, we will suggest some solutions to
these constraints.

Katim S.
Touray is an independent media and Internet consultant based in The
Gambia, West Africa.  He holds a Ph.D. in Soil Science from the
University of Wisconsin.

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