March 25, 2004

Promoting the adoption and use of FOSS in developing countries

Author: Katim S. Touray

Despite the
many and severe problems highlighted in my previous article, all is
not lost in the drive to increase the adoption and use of FOSS in
developing countries. Many measures can be taken to help increase
the use of FOSS in developing countries.

Help make FOSS more user-friendly

FOSS
packages are notorious for their steep learning curves and for not
being user-friendly. Efforts should be made to urgently address this
situation, and toward this end, the end-user documentation of FOSS
packages should be improved and made more accessible. Given that
people in developing countries generally have problems accessing the
Internet to obtain support, proper and easily accessible
documentation is one effective way to increase the adoption of FOSS
packages.

One
way to help make FOSS more user-friendly for people in developing
countries is to customize and localize them. Many developing
countries are non-English-speaking, so translation and localization
projects should be given top priority in efforts to increase FOSS use
in developing countries. Fortunately, many FOSS developers in
industrialized countries originate from developing countries and can
provide an interface with developers in developing countries. In
addition, they can help translate and localize FOSS packages for
users in developing countries.

There
should be greater collaboration between translation and localization
projects in various developing countries to enable them learn from
each other and avoid duplication of efforts. International
organizations such as the Commonwealth,
and La Francophonie, which
have many members from developing countries, can be of valuable help
by spearheading FOSS translation and documentation projects.

Despite
the shortage of developers, many developing countries still have many
highly qualified people who can and do make significant contributions
to the development of FOSS packages. It is encouraging that there
are efforts to build Linux distributions in various developing
countries such as South Africa, Vietnam, and India, to name a few.
In the same vein, developers in India have built an online community
and software repository, Sarovar.
Other developing countries should emulate their example.

Develop an enabling policy environment

If FOSS is to
take off in developing countries, it is imperative that an enabling
policy environment be created. Many developing countries have
non-existent or ambiguous policies toward FOSS, and for this reason,
make it hard for FOSS enthusiasts to procure and deploy FOSS
packages. To address this problem, regional policy frameworks should
be formulated. For example, African countries can develop a FOSS
policy aimed at encouraging, or even requiring, the use of FOSS in
government projects.

Toward this
end, it would help to educate government agencies and officials on
the benefits of FOSS, not only in terms of cost, but also in terms of
security and national sovereignty. Here again, developing countries
can learn from each other. For example, ongoing efforts to increase
FOSS use in Thailand, Vietnam, Brazil, and India, to name a few, can
serve as models for other developing countries. Furthermore, study
tours can be organized, networks developed for user groups and policy
makers, and partnerships initiated to facilitate the exchange of
information and experience about how to increase the use of FOSS in
developing countries.

Donor agencies
and development partners should be pressured to make FOSS-friendly
policies on the use of their funds to procure ICT products and
services. Given that governments in many industrialized countries
are already leaning toward adopting FOSS, it is only fair to have
their development agencies also encourage the use of FOSS in projects
and programs they fund.

Donor agencies
and development partners can provide additional support to FOSS in
various forums and resolutions of the World Summit on the Information
Society (WSIS). It is worth noting that both the Declaration of
Principles and Plan of Action agreed on at the December 2003 Geneva
Summit are neutral on the FOSS/proprietary software debate. For this
reason, efforts should be re-doubled to ensure that the next round of
WSIS negotiations result in a strong commitment to advocating the use
of FOSS in developing countries.

Increase/improve marketing of FOSS

Increased
and improved marketing is another way to spread the use of FOSS in
developing countries. Given that FOSS developers generally do not
have many resources to launch big marketing programs, more creative
marketing is needed. Thus, the first strategy to adopt in spreading
the adoption of FOSS in developing countries should be to develop
partnership with media outlets.

Special
emphasis should be placed on partnering with community and
independent media outlets, which generally have fewer resources and
are not affiliated with international outlets that lean toward
proprietary software. The best way to convince media outlets about
the benefits of FOSS is to have them use it, so special efforts
should be made to transition media outlets to FOSS platforms.

In
the same vein, partnerships should be developed with civil society
organizations (CSO), including non-governmental organizations (NGO),
to encourage them to use FOSS. Many developing countries have, with
increasing democratization, seen an explosion in the number of CSOs,
and hence, the number of potentially valuable partners to help
increase the use of FOSS in these countries. However, NGOs might
also hinder the adoption of FOSS by, for example, locking out
recipients of the assistance programs on proprietary products. Also,
international NGOs based in developed countries frequently use
proprietary software both in their head offices and in their branch
offices in developing countries.

Other
potentially valuable partners that can help market FOSS in developing
countries are educational institutions, local IT companies, and
cybercafé owners. Educational institutions can help introduce
new computer users to FOSS, well before they learn how to use
proprietary products. Local IT companies can help promote FOSS to
their customers. Cybercafé owners can install FOSS
applications rather than proprietary products.

FOSS
can also benefit from publicity campaigns launched nationally,
regionally, and internationally. For example, a World FOSS Day would
provide a good platform to publicize FOSS and its use in the
developing countries. For this reason, FOSS interest groups around
the world should, beginning this year, declare an annual World FOSS
Day.

Improve technical support

Efforts
should also be made to improve the quality of technical support for
FOSS programs. While most FOSS users in industrialized countries
rely on Internet-based support such as online publications and
discussion forums for support, such an approach is not feasible for
many users in developing countries. Efforts should be made to augment
Internet-based support with offline support tools and services.

A
number of steps can be taken toward this end. First, FOSS
documentation should, as much as possible, be provided offline on
CD-ROM and in print. This way, Internet connectivity would not be
needed, and better yet (in the case of print documentation), no
electricity would not be needed to access the documentation.

Another
step that can be taken is to encourage service providers in
developing countries to start providing support for FOSS
applications. Already, many companies have business models based on
providing technical support for FOSS products. Examples of these are
IBM and HP, along with less well-known companies like Progeny and Red
Hat. Local IT companies in developing countries can help increase
the adoption of FOSS in these countries by providing technical
support to FOSS products. In this regard, the decision by the
Malaysian government to provide venture capital to Malaysian FOSS
companies is laudable.

Increase and improve training in FOSS

Lack
of adequately trained personnel is one of the biggest constraints
against the adoption and use of FOSS in developing countries. For
this reason, educational institutions should encourage FOSS use and
provide training in FOSS applications.

Fortunately,
many popular FOSS applications such as word processors and
spreadsheets have user interfaces that make it easy to transition
from applications such as Microsoft Office to equivalent FOSS
applications like OpenOffice.org and KOffice.

Educational
institutions and IT trainers in developing countries should provide
quality FOSS training programs. Toward this end, these institutions
should be helped to develop capacity to deliver FOSS training
programs by training the trainers. Organizations such as Geek Corps
can be especially helpful in this regard. In addition, NGOs that
presently provide IT assistance based on proprietary products should
start including FOSS products in their aid packages. Finally, a FOSS
Corps of trainers and evangelists should be formed to work with
trainers in developing countries.

Another
way to improve and increase FOSS training in developing countries is
to leverage ICTs to deliver training programs. Thus, the Internet
can be used to deliver online FOSS training programs to people in
developing countries. The online course materials can also be
supplemented by CD-ROM and print products to facilitate better
delivery of FOSS training to students in developing countries.

Finally,
developing countries should build vibrant FOSS communities and user
groups on and off the Internet. User groups can not only provide the
impetus for the adoption of FOSS in developing countries, they also
are a valuable resource for delivering training and support to FOSS
users. The fact that most, if not all, user group members are based
locally means that they can provide help and support much more
cheaply than people outside the users' countries.

Conclusions

While there are
a lot of compelling reasons for developing countries to adopt and use
FOSS, several problems constrain the increased use of FOSS in these
countries. Many of these problems can be solved, or at least
mitigated. Developing countries should develop ICT policies that are
favorable to FOSS, or at least give it an equal chance to compete
against proprietary solutions.

Just as there
was the desktop revolution, there will be a sea change in the
software industry as more people demand more openness in the software
they use. FOSS stands to gain a lot from this sentiment. Further,
with FOSS being very affordable and frequently free, once many people
in developing countries know of and learn to use FOSS, it will be
very popular in these countries.

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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