Realizing The Promise of Open Source in the Non-Profit Sector

Every so often, a technology or protocol emerges that is touted as a ?magic bullet? either by the company or consortium promoting it or a core group of enthusiasts using it. Examples of this are WAP, OS/2, ISDN etc? The technology is initially promoted as having ?earth-changing? significance that will revolutionize the way things are done. Eventually most of these either fall by the wayside or take their rightful place as effective [but less hyped] mainstream tools in a much larger toolbox of solutions. The problem with the magic bullet approach is that it over-promotes particular technologies and often obfuscating the real benefits they could provide if evaluated and positioned in a more realistic context. For the for-profit community investing in failed magic bullets, the fallout is typically nothing more than an unfortunate R&D decision which can be expensed before moving on to the next IT investment.

When these same technologies create a significant buzz in the non-profit community the results are often different with more unfortunate consequences. When non-profits invest in magic bullet technologies that fall by the wayside or don?t meet all the hype, they often don?t have the financial resources to write them off and reinvest again. More often in this sector, a bad technology investment leads to a phobia for ever investing in technology again, even if the next underlying technology has merit. Therefore, it behooves people working in ICT for the non-profit sector to manage expectations and not promote a particular technology as a magic bullet.

One of the latest technology protocols to benefit from the magic bullet buzz is Open Source. I am deeply concerned about this because the Open Source methodology does show a lot of promise in helping non-profits take advantage of technology in new ways. In fact it is happening as I write this article. The idea that applications can be licensed to use or modify freely has a very powerful attraction. The Open Source methodology is certainly a viable choice for some of the technology I use, recommend and fund. However, I don?t see it as a magic bullet that will revolutionize the software development and deployment process for non-profits as some pundits do -- At least not unless it?s dealt with in a far more strategic and realistic context by civil society actors.

Open Source speaks to the ideological biases of the non-profit environment. This makes people prone to buy into it without deeper analysis of the peculiar dynamics of this sector?s use of ICT. Chronic underinvestment in capacity skews successful implementation of any technology in this sector and requires a paradigm that differs from other sectors to make up for this deficit and insure success. Recent discussions of Open Source?s benefits have focused not only on the ?free as beer? aspect of the software being available at no cost but also on the ?information should be free? aspect. That is Open Source promotes an ethic of collaboration and philosophy of openness more common to the non-profit environment that proprietary development does not.

The reality is that Open Source has a cost of ownership attached to it that goes well beyond the initial pricing. Moreover the idea of non-profits collaborating on software development or anything else without some financial support or funder enticement is somewhat optimistic. Non-profits compete fiercely for limited financial resources that inhibit both cooperation and collaboration with other institutions. Many feel they own their information and constituents and that creates unique value for their institutions that they must protect. Non-profits do foster trusted source relationships with other non-profits just as for-profits foster co-opetition relationships with other for-profits ? but the right incentives must be there for both to occur. The point is there is a danger of buying into the perceived benefits of Open Source and promoting its use on this premise alone. To derive real strategic benefit from Open Source on a macro level in the non-profit context one must appreciate the dynamics that dominate this sector?s use of ICT.

There is a compelling reason for the non-profit sector to seriously consider Open Source as an alternative. Proprietary vendors have been making software piracy and even legal purchase much more difficult for erstwhile non-profits, particularly in the developing world, because they cannot afford to spend a lot of money on it. Between online registration and monitoring, regressive and costly software licensing fees and aggressive piracy policing, non-profits are caught between a rock and a hard place. Authoritarian governments can use software piracy of proprietary applications as an excuse to close down non-profits who don?t agree with their policies. It?s no wonder proprietary software vendors are seriously rethinking their donation and discount policies for this sector.

Unfortunately, for the typical non-profit wishing to set up and support a full scale Open Source environment from server to workstation and everything in between is currently a costly exercise ? in training, maintenance and ongoing development and support. Not all the necessary applications exist or are production ready for the typical NGO wishing to use Open Source technology to install and not have to worry about it in the same way it deploys proprietary technology. Nor do the support mechanisms critical in supporting the ICT needs of the non-profit sector exist in many places. Some of you reading this article will no doubt be able to point to individual discreet cases of Open Source deployment in the non-profit context that were or were not successful. What I want to focus on in this article is not what determines if Open Source will continue to be deployed in case by case scenarios, but what will make it as ubiquitous and useful to the non-profit sector as E-mail is now.

What colors my perception of the Open Source alternative as it currently exists is my experience with software development. At one point in my career I was also the developer and chief technology support for an application distributed in twenty-six countries through a network of independent but affiliated student exchange organizations. This experience taught me a lot about the software development and maintenance cycle and how NGO?s actually use technology. The most important lesson I learned was that software is never completed and requires a long-term relationship between its users its developers and its maintainers.

The very act of using software leads to a need to modify it. Inevitably users become familiar with it and develop more sophisticated requirements. These requirements beg enhancements and modifications to meet new needs, in addition to fixing outstanding bugs which inevitably arise. Then there are the advances in hardware and software underlying the applications we use. New computer chips, new versions of programming languages, new operating systems, etc. make upgrades to software that use these resources almost mandatory every two to four years. Otherwise one falls behind on versions and discovers certain functionality missing or not working in a previously functional application. Between user needs and the speed of technology advances, software typically needs to be modified every one to three years in order to stay relevant. That requires the commitment of dedicated technical staff over an extended period to maintain these applications.

Aside from the ?free beer? aspect of Open Source, its promise to the non-profit sector lies in the open code base which allows developers around the world to collaborate on projects to produce or enhance new applications. This is expected to provide opportunities to develop a whole slew of new mission critical applications to meet non-profit needs at a reduced cost. There is just one problem. This assumes that there are a reasonable number of developers willing to devote time and effort for little pay to work closely with not-for-profit clients over significant periods of time measured in years to both develop and continue to upgrade these applications. But why have non-profits had such a hard time developing applications to meet their needs in the non-Open Source marketplace? Is the problem really that the slew of programmers buzzing around the non-profit environment couldn?t get into the code to develop new systems or enhance them? I think not.

Experience tells me that non-profits typically don?t have the resources to implement basic technology right out of the box let alone to support technical people to both develop and maintain their applications. There is a reason that technology support organizations like NPower and the Circuit Rider movement work in the non-profit context. It?s because technology in this environment isn?t about simply technology. It?s about technology bundled with capacity and service. Capacity and service are what for-profits invest in internally so they can absorb and take advantage of the technology they implement. In the non-profit environment only the largest, most elite organizations, (typically those with the capacity to generate income) invest in internal technology departments. The rest require low cost non-profit technology service providers or consultants to meet their needs.

So how does the capacity and service model change in the Open Source context for most non-profits? Does the very act of making code accessible magically create a cadre of new and interested programmers willing to develop and maintain applications for the non-profit environment over years with few resources to compensate them? Do projects like the open sourcing of Ebase, the contact management system undertaken by Groundspring, or the development of the Martus Human Rights application undertaken by Benetech require continuous foundation subsidies of hundreds of thousands of dollars to be developed and stay relevant? That is certainly not a sustainable model, nor will it assist most non-profits in implementing these technologies. How does one insure that an Open Source application defined to meet the non-commercial needs of a group of NGO?s in a particular sector will be supported long term and updated as it needs to be?

It is clear why Open Source application efforts such as Apache and Mysql work. These applications are about developers creating products for other developers in order to enhance their own efficiency and productivity. In the end these products help anybody implementing a web server or database including non-profits. The constituency for these applications is huge -- Much larger for example than for an application focused on case management for battered women. It is also clear why end user Open Source applications like Open Office developed for a mass audience including for-profits and non-profits work as well. They have the benefit of well paid technical staff employed by companies who may wish to work with the code to enhance internal needs or to experiment on their off time. Some governments, which are beginning to mandate Open Source usage, may contribute technical support to these endeavors as well.

Non-profits certainly benefit from both the hard-core Open Source technical products like servers and databases and the mass market open-source end-user products. However, they aren?t necessarily underwriting their development or enhancing the code themselves with phantom technical resources they cannot afford. In this sense, the non-profit sector?s use of Open Source is not much different then their use of commercial applications. True, they are not paying retrogressive licensing schemes, (which all commercial application providers should rethink for this sector). However, they are not necessarily taking full advantage of the promise of Open Source either. They are still paying someone for long term technical support for applications they don?t necessarily have a hand in customizing.

The fundamental question to be answered is how one underwrites and sustains the development and continued maintenance of mission critical Open Source applications designed specifically for the non-profit sector? Applications for monitoring, case management, customer relationship management, advocacy, knowledge management, web publishing, analytics, etc.? There are literally millions of non-profits all over the world with software application needs. How will Open Source assist in the development, implementation and maintenance of low cost, easily maintainable core applications that meet these needs? And how will these be underwritten long term?


The promise of the Open Source methodology satisfying these needs will not be met by a few narrowly subsidized initiatives. It will require some dedicated strategically defined public support over a number of years to:

1) Define the core mission critical apps that most NGO?s need.
2) Subsidize the base development of the core applications or at least open standards around these applications including the necessary documentation and training needed to implement them successfully.
3) Develop a programmer community around these applications along with some software development institutions that employee at least a few project leaders and senior developers to coordinate activities.
4) Tie them closely to the nascent non-profit technology support community that has arisen over the last few years so that the applications, once developed, can be both delivered and supported over the long term.
5) Develop a cost structure that is not prohibitively expensive for NGO?s but that supports continued maintenance and development of the core applications.

I don?t think this is going to happen without a proactive, well thought out strategy by a collaborative of progressive funders, developers and technology service providers. The dynamics that underwrite the long-term maintenance and costs of mass-market Open Source applications simply don?t exist for the non-profit sector because they are not underwritten in the same way they are for the commercial environment.

To develop a Social Source development and implementation community involves dealing directly with the problem of limited technology capacity investment in the non-profit sector. The lack of internal infrastructure hampers the supplemental benefit of having subsidized developers and technology service providers also working to create a Social Source community. The funding community has started to deal strategically with a couple of technology service issues in the non-profit sector by supporting intermediary technology service organizations and data aggregators such as NTEN, Npower, Oneworld, APC, Itrainonline, Geekcorps, circuit riders, etc. These organizations serve as an external technology capacity substitute for non-profits that cannot afford the internal capacity. The inception of many of these intermediary organizations was subsidized heavily by the public sector. However, a sustainability model that collected reasonable fees for service was built into the business plan in order to maintain long-term viability and continued service. The model that supports technical support and training activity is instructive and needs to be duplicated for the software development activity. Moreover, these organizations must be supported to service new Open Source technologies just as they currently support proprietary technologies.

One issue that people not working in the technology space often fail to appreciate is that the technical discipline consists of a number of vertical specialties just as other disciplines do. Technical support and training is a very different animal then software development requiring different skill and mindsets. Supporting the technology service solution therefore does not solve the social software development solution. Most technology service organizations don?t wish to be developers and most developers don?t wish to be technology support organizations. It?s instructive to note that a typical corporate IT structure also separates these specialty disciplines. In the non-profit environment the technology service organizations are stretched so thin simply focusing on their area of expertise that they cannot effectively do long term software development even if they wanted to. Non-profit technology service providers typically rely on pre-packaged applications that can be implemented and supported for their clients. They can go to the vendor if they need support and the vendor provides the updates.

Developing a viable social software sector requires not only viable technology service providers but also a social software development organization. Such an organization, which looks at the mission focused application space across NGO program and application areas, does not exist. I envision a Social Sourceforge with an added service and support arm that assists with prioritization, documentation and closer cooperation with the technology support organizations that implement and maintain the applications in the non-profit environment.

It is important to recognize in this discussion that successful social software development efforts do exist. There are initiatives like The Nonprofit Open Source Initiative and the development efforts of to meet the demand of its organizational constituency. There are organizations like Benetech, Groundspring and Greenmedia Toolshed that are developing discreet Open Source tools for the non-profit sector. The Land Alliance Trust, Greenpeace, MIT and project OpenHand have all developed stable sets of Open Source code. However, to deal with the larger strategic issues of unlocking the power of Open Source across NGO program areas and application categories I believe there needs to be a separate entity created. This entity, which I?ll call Social Sourceforge is designed to aggregate volunteer developers to work on a variety of applications that are prioritized and defined in collaboration with technology service organizations, funders and the various NGO sectors they support. Social Sourceforge will act as:

1) A home base for development activities designed to meet a broad base of prioritized, mission focused application needs.
2) A place to actively foster a mission focused development community.
3) A documentation and training material depository for all applications on Social SourceForge.
4) The arbiter of open standards for the NGO sector across application platforms.
5) A catalyst spawning individual development efforts conforming to standards.
6) A place where individual developers come if they wish to interact with a vibrant mission focused developer community for support.

I am not suggesting that Social Sourceforge maintain a monopoly on Open Source development for the NGO community. However, at least one should be underwritten so that it can set a standard of excellence that others emulate. Npower and Techsoup do not occupy their niches alone, but they do set the bar for other endeavors that wish to provide the same quality of services.

Social Sourceforge cannot be all-volunteer because unlike the generic Sourceforge, its members are not subsidized by corporate underwriting for its developer?s activities. It needs to employ a fulltime software project manager and a couple of senior programmer analysts that work with a board to define Open Source standards across application platforms. This staff will also prioritize and coordinate the various Open Source initiatives, plugging the volunteer programmers into the projects that need their assistance. Here I think entities like Idealist and VolunteerMatch will be extremely helpful working in collaboration with Social Sourceforge to match developers to projects. Coordination and consistency provided by a small paid technical staff is key however.

Initially, the public sector will need to underwrite the Social Sourceforge staff as well as the initial ?category-killer? application platforms for mission focused applications like monitoring, case management, advocacy, etc.. Along with application?s design, a sustainability paradigm must be developed to maintain them over the long term. Social Sourceforge will see to the care and feeding of the developer community around mission-focused applications fostering both standards and rigorous documentation requirements.

Finally, it must be recognized that corporate IT has a methodology for prioritizing, financing, developing, and supporting its software technology projects. The various departments come together and manage this process under a project leader. In the non-profit context, these entities do not exist under one roof. Technology service and support organizations and the Social Sourceforge of developers are designed to emulate NGO internal capacity. However, they exist external to the organizations they support as discreet entities with vertical market specialties. To further complicate the situation, funding for these endeavors comes from another source; the various public funders that underwrite these activities.

The structure requires a coordinating neutral entity that brings together funders, technology service organizations, and the developer community to agree on issues of priority, development, marketing and distribution of the applications so they reach the broadest possible environment. This horizontal agency is what bridges the vertical specialty areas of funding, development, distribution and support. A couple of years ago, OSI together with a number of other funders recognized that one of the key issues of software development for the non-profit environment was not that applications didn?t exist but that there was a gap between underwriting an application, developing it and distributing it to scale. Aspiration was created as a 501C3 to fill this gap and help bring key software technologies to the largest possible audience. Aspiration has done this successfully with a number of applications. However, it is still underutilized. Like the technology service providers and various Open Source development efforts in the non-profit sector, it is dealing with initiatives on a case-by-case basis. What it needs to do in concert with the other entities is to deal with the same issues on a sector wide basis ? One that creates a strategic framework that defines the social software space, mirrors the SourceForge community and works with a variety of core application needs and funding priorities across the NGO sector. Such a coordinating entity may merge with one of the other pieces of this puzzle once a vibrant community is created and all the pieces have a history of coordinating and functioning in unison. Or, it may continue to exist drawing fees from this coordination activity. At the outset however, this entity must also be underwritten for the broader vision to work.

Technology companies have a long history of placing their products in schools and other learning environments. The reasons vary. Placement is done through in-kind donations, competitive grants, achievement awards, and funds earmarked for technology projects. Most of the companies see their products as ways to enhance education, and many will claim the revolutionary or transformative nature of their wares. All of them hope it will be a prelude to increased market-share.

One of the earliest examples of this in American schools was the Keystone View Company which manufactured stereographs and the hand-held viewing devices as well as projectors. The images were stereoscopic images of every place and activity imaginable.(1) Printed on rigid cardboard, these collections of high quality photographs were found in many homes, libraries, and schools. The company's education department was formed in 1898, and they enlisted famous poets like Carl Sandburg as well as notable educators to serve on their advisory board. By 1922 the company claimed that every school district in towns over 50,000 had what they called a Keystone System. One picture shows a class of young children, each one gazing into a stereopticon. Marketing literature promised that learning would be greatly improved once schools integrated this technology into their lessons. This promise of technology improving learning is echoed by company after company up to the present day.

After the stereopticon, the typewriter was marketed as a device that would transform the writing skills of young students. There is a study from the Bank Street School of Education dating from the 1930's that makes the same promises about student "transformation" that later showed up in the literature of education marketing departments of computer companies.(2)

One of the first examples of the use of computers in public spaces was started by Bob Albrecht of the People's Computer Company. PCC was not a company but a cooperative publication that started in the early 1970's. Albrecht had written some books for DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation was acquired by Compaq in 1998) and traded the work for a PDP-8, one of the first mini-computers that was owned by end-users and not just large companies or organizations. Later, PCC split off into a separate non-profit called Community Computer Center and worked out a deal with DEC for a PDP-11. Atari also made some donations of equipment. If "DEC" and "Atari" don't ring a bell, I recommend you read the Wikipedia (3) entries for these companies. In the 80's DEC was the second largest computer company in the world with 100,000 employees.

I worked for nine years at Apple which was the first computer company to donate computers to schools in a methodical way. My own role was running a grant program for public access centers and multimedia projects in libraries, museums, and later, community networks. This operated out of the Advanced Technology Group and was not tied to marketing. Donations were made for research, but of course it increased the good will toward the company by supporting unusual projects such as preserving indigenous languages, putting photo archives online (pre-Web days), and just providing access to the Internet in the early days of the public interest in the network.(4)

Other departments of the company had much more ambitious and well-funded projects to donate to schools. The most important was Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow that is no longer supported by the company but still remains influential in education circles.(5) Frequently, company supported research is highly suspect, but the legacy of this program remains strong even today.

The Apple Community Affairs department pioneered the donation of computers in non-profits (NGOs) and in 1997 to community technology centers. CTCNet in the United States received support for outfitting a number of labs in local CTCs. Finally, education marketing would make donations to influence future sales, and these were directed strategically at schools, researchers, education ministers, and other decision makers. I remember one marketing executive who was angry because I would not make a grant to University of Southern California library in order to clinch a big sale of Macintoshes on campus, but I was able to maintain relative independence in how I awarded equipment and software. My donations were not tied directly to making sales, but in a general way they were meant to influence opinion about Apple in the sectors where we donated (community networks, libraries, indigenous groups).

The above description demonstrates that different parts of a medium-sized company have different goals for their donations. This holds true for companies like IBM, HP, and of course Microsoft. All are meant to promote brand loyalty and sometimes dependence on a product line.

Smaller technology companies in manufacturing and telecommunications have used the promise of providing equipment and support for schools in some developing countries as a way of getting favorable treatment from the government authorities for the establishment of a branch of the enterprise or service. It is not bribery but just a way to get the bureaucracy or licensing agency to move and to differentiate the company from more "mercenary" competitors. In some cases the schools were asked to accept equipment that was expensive to maintain and use to full capacity, even if there was no initial charge.

At the 2003 CTCNet conference Gifts In Kind international "The World's Leading Charity in Produce Philanthropy" was distributing new software for free to non-profits affiliated with CTCNet. Last year they donated almost $800 million in products including computers, software, office equipment, automotive parts, personal care products, and building materials. They also provide discounted services for ICT training and web design. There is a small registration fee that varies with the non-profit's budget. I asked the representative what the motivation was for the many companies that donated though Gifts In Kind. First of all, there is the tax deduction. Some want to do good, and this is a way with low administrative costs for the companies to help.

Toshiba, the giant Japanese hardware company lost a $2.1 billion class action suit (while admitting no guilt in the matter), and the public is benefiting. Toshiba products are being donated through the Texas-based Beaumont Foundation to schools, libraries, individuals, and non-profits in the United States.(6) However, it's an equipment-only program, and by now everyone knows the other costs for training, integration, and support can exceed the cost of hardware and software.

In the past few years the large technology companies have shown a great deal of interest in developing countries. We have the high profile of HP's Carly Fiorina at the Digital Opportunity Task Force(7) that was formed prior to the rapid deflation of the Internet bubble and subsequently the shrinking of the much touted e-inclusion program. This program was influenced by C.K. Prahalad's article on selling to "the bottom of the pyramid" which tries to make the case for Western companies to open new markets for products and services to the poor. The phase used by several companies including HP is doing well by doing good. This line of reasoning is criticized by some as the reaction of companies in countries with stagnant and declining markets looking for new markets. Many industries have too much production capacity so there is a strong motivation to establish new in order to "move more boxes" as we in the computer industry used to say.


In January 2003 I was asked to help with a survey of telecenters (community technology centers) in a number of countries. Microsoft had engaged a large non-profit working in the development industry, Academy for Educational Development, to do a rush job. I serve on an advisory board for an AED/USAID consortium called Dot-Com Alliance and was also working on an AED project in Uganda at the time. The deadline for the research was before I returned from Uganda, so I did not take part. I did see queries from researchers posted on development and telecenter mailing lists, and I assumed the results would find their way into the Microsoft report.

In early June 2003 I received an inquiry from Julie Schoknecht at Catalyst Alliance (an Accenture-sponsored non-profit). She said that her consulting group and World Links were doing a survey of telecenters and related networks around the world and wanted to interview me. Of course, as a consulting firm they did not intend to pay other consultants for their time, so I ignored it. A week later I began receiving inquiries from colleagues around the world about a Microsoft-World Bank initiative. It turned out all to be related. I replied to the Catalyst Alliance and World Links contacts to set up a phone interview.

World Links was a pet project of World Bank director James Wolfensohn. It has been spun off into a separate organization with a competent board that has managed to raise a lot of money to support its school technology programs around the world. The man who directed it is returning to the World Bank. The main activity of World Links has been setting up computer labs and training programs in high schools in developing countries. In Uganda and Zimbabwe, among other countries, some of these school computer labs have also been running as telecenters to provide fee-based services for people other than students. They hope this will be a model that will work elsewhere to make the other school projects "sustainable." World Links has received different kinds of support from Microsoft in the past: $1 million in software, and more recently a large contract to do training (in Microsoft products), and now this telecenter research project.

In talking with the women gathering data for Microsoft, I shared what I knew about the status of community technology in some of the regions they are covering. They have divided the world into nine regions, and we only talked about Western Europe and Latin America. In Latin America and Europe some experts did not want to talk with them or declined to serve on an advisory board for the big initiative Microsoft was planning. The central board members helped plan this at a meeting in Paris earlier in 2003. It included people from North American aid agencies, World Bank InfoDev program, the World Economic Forum (the folks who meet in Davos), MIT's Media Lab, and World Tel, an ITU spin-off.

I told the World Links and Catalyst Alliance consultants if they had been more open about who they were working for, they would have a better response. "We had to sign NDAs," they replied. An NDA or Non-Disclosure Agreement is a favorite instrument of technology companies when they are going to reveal secret information to an outside party including partners, journalists, and financial analysts. Non-Disclosure Agreements are a standard way of trying to protect company secrets, but in a world where transparency is needed and in short supply (just look at the World Bank's rhetoric), the lack of transparency in this project has raised suspicions about the aims of Microsoft and the group.

People approached me with pointers, rumors, documents, and fears about what will transpire when Microsoft teams up with World Bank organizations and other national aid organizations. This article is not meant to betray any confidences or spread rumors, but those of you involved in telecenters and community technology centers should find ways of discussing this openly before the project is rolled out with great fanfare. This project will entail a lot of money for community technology learning centers/telecenters. There will be grants, annual prizes, and publicity for the community technology movement. On the business side there is telecenter software recently developed by Microsoft (in Spanish at least) which will be distributed for free at first and will be tested and improved just as happened with Explorer. There are, of course, alternatives to this software, but the parties who have developed it will not have the resources to publicize it in the same way as Microsoft does.

The points everyone should think about: what are the tradeoffs when you accept equipment and software donations from certain groups or companies? Of course you are expected to use the software. Most companies hope it will lead to great sales. A deep discount for the first version of an Office suite can lead to an organization that pays for upgrades and brings in more profit in the long run. Many places in developing countries continue to use pirated software, but some want their operations to be legal, yet they are not sure they can pay even the reduced license fees for commercial software.


Bill Gates is a very public figure, and he has spoken out on a number of issues besides Microsoft. Most forcefully he has committed a vast proportion of his wealth to solve very serious health problems, especially those where the market has failed and little research was being done to combat malaria and of course AIDS. In the interview with Bill Moyers on Public Broadcasting he said,

"So we should be doing the things that the normal approaches can't do, whether it's approaches to the AIDS vaccine or malaria or delivery systems. We've got to be out there and accept some kind of failure rate."(7)

He also related his experience in Soweto, South Africa, where he saw computer centers as a low priority in that community compared to dealing with AIDS, and that has driven the bulk of his philanthropic efforts. At the same time he sees the link between improving information flow with ICT donations and health problems because he funds very large programs for public libraries to provide access and training at no cost to people in Colombia, Guatemala, Chile, Mexico, as well as the U.S. and other developed countries, but it is much smaller than his philanthropic efforts for world health.


Microsoft has some of the most popular applications in the world, but it is also challenged by the open source software movement, and the company has strategies to stop or inhibit the spread of this model for software development and support. Their statements on the subject have ranged from Steve Ballmer's comment likening open source to "cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches," to claims that Microsoft likes and embraces open source. Microsoft backs a lobbying organization called Software Choice which was formed to persuade legislators not to pass laws that required the use of just open source products.(8) Open source as a way of working and sharing ideas fits very well with the community telecenter movement. This sort of ICT-enhanced collaboration may be more important that the code generated by the project. Will telecenters using and promoting open source clash with the axis formed by the cluster of organizations planning this Microsoft project? World Links claims that the program will not penalize telecenters that happen to be using open source solutions, but the evidence in other parts of the Microsoft/Open Source battlefield makes me skeptical.

In an April 2002 speech delivered to the Government Leaders' Conference in Seattle, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates likened the concept of open source to anti-capitalism. Warning developing countries against using software based on the Gnu Public License (GPL), Gates said those who put development time into it are denying themselves the benefits of essential taxes.(9)

The DOT Force final report in 2001 delivered at the Genoa, Italy, meeting of the G8, had strong statements about open source that were removed after Microsoft Russia pounded on the table during a planning meeting and ranted about the dangers of open source. What was left in the document? Only these words: "Encourage the software community, including the open source and commercial software communities, to develop applications relevant to developing countries,"(10)

All non-profits, libraries, schools, universities, and community technology center should look at equipment donations and discounts with some of these factors in mind. Many of the proposed initiatives are described as "public-private partnerships" or "collaborations between civil society, government, and industry." Unfortunately, the genesis of these projects is not always clear, and the projects are rolled out with much fanfare and limited transparency about what tradeoffs have been made and what the ultimate goals are. For struggling projects in poor countries, it is difficult to reject any offer of assistance whether it is vaccine, corn, computers, or educational materials. The aid agencies and international organizations see the alliance with Microsoft as beneficial. It seems that each is hoping to leverage the resources of the others in order to carry out their own agenda. Let's hope that is benefits the people whom our grassroots groups serve and not just the goals of the council steering this new structure.


Larry Cuban, the Stanford University professor who is the most articulate critic about the use of computers in education has made available online the in-depth study, "Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom". It goes into far greater detail on the ways that companies, allied with government, citizens and educators have pushed for massive spending on ICT in schools. It is an extremely useful background to similar initiatives in developing countries.


(1) Keystone Mast collection Stereopticon information
(2) Keyboarding in elementary schools: curricular issues, by Stephen Shuller
(4) A brief history of the Apple Library of Tomorrow program
(5) Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow
(6) Beaumont Foundation
(7) Digital Opportunity Task Force papers, agenda, members.
(8) The Initiative for Software Choice MS leads lobby against open source
(9) Government Leaders Conference