Law in the Internet Society

Free Software's Role in Developing Countries

-- By JuvariaKhan - 10 Dec 2009

Having lived and worked in India, I have closely followed the debates surrounding the country’s rapid growth as it emerges as a global force. Critics point to the gross disparity between India’s rich elite and its poverty-stricken masses, a gap exacerbated as the benefits and opportunities brought about by globalization continue to leave the latter group behind. Indians on the lower end of the socio-economic scale are kept isolated by a myriad of barriers – such as caste differences, religious differences, and nepotism – that block the benefits of development from trickling down to them. Free software provides a unique opportunity for these individuals to level the playing field by allowing them to potentially overcome these barriers and access the same resources the rest of the country benefits from.

How Does Microsoft Hinder Developing Countries?

I worked with an NGO in India that focused on sustainable development. As part of my job, I taught high school students at a government school in rural Tamil Nadu. The education system in India epitomizes the flaws in the country’s development. Parents with any extra resources send their children to opulent private schools, while the rest of India’s children – those who do go to school, that is – are sent to a crumbling government school similar to the one where I taught. Few teachers showed up for work and there was no guided curriculum.

Through my organization, however, I was able to secure enough money to build a small library, the first the students had ever seen. Given that the village was located in the south of India, close to Bangalore and the hub of the IT boom, we also tried to get computers donated. The only company that would provide us with computers was Dell; their machines came installed with Microsoft.

At the time, I was pleased. Four computers were better than no computers and these children now had an opportunity to potentially surpass the status quo. However, I now realize that the computers only placed a new barrier between the students and their access to the other side of globalization. Microsoft has locked these students into their software. Soon, the program will start to have problems and most likely, the school will be unwilling to funnel its scarce resources into updating the software system…again…and again…and again.

A Possible Solution

Ideally, free software would remedy this problem by allowing the students to develop the skills they need to change the software to satisfy their needs. Further, software programmers would have much greater freedom to collaborate on addressing development issues and designing unique software that would meet the needs of students at poorly-funded government schools. Instead of software companies catering to Indians on the higher end of the socio-economic scale (who generally make up the bulk of consumers), free software would distort the market incentives so that software engineers will start making products that cater to previously underserved socio-economic communities. Moreover, free software will provide these government-school students the capabilities to use the software to their advantage, thus giving a voice to a previously voiceless group. This power to be heard is arguably one of the strongest powers that any group can have.

Finally, extending the free software movement to allow free access to educational resources would allow these students to overcome one of the greatest barriers standing between them and equal education and opportunities. The students I taught had received the short stick in society on almost every level, yet they were engaged and willing to learn – they just did not have the resources. Allowing them to access the same learning materials as private-school students would provide them to opportunity to learn when society has otherwise failed to do so. Free software’s potential power should thus not be underestimated.

Free Software Dialogue in Development Work

A key step in turning these ideas into reality is to begin integrating a dialogue about free software in development work. NGOs and policy-makers need to understand the consequences of failing to use free software in developing countries like India. Although India is currently not one of the largest consumers of Microsoft, the company is well aware of the country’s growth and consumption potential and continues to work heavily in the region. Development NGOs should partner with the Free Software movement to implement free software in all of its work. Perhaps Nicholas Negroponte had a similar idea of leveling the playing field in mind with his One Laptop Per Child Program. See

The consequences of inaction will not only affect those shut out by the benefits of India’s growing economy but will reach all members of society by hindering the country’s future growth.

  • You might have looked closer than Bangalore, in Kerala, where the entire State uses free software in government and education. You might have consulted the Communist Party of India (Marxist) program in Tamil Nadu, which calls for adoption of free software in government and education, in imitation of the party's successes in Kerala, or mentioned the extensive use of free software through the education system in West Bengal, or pointed to the recently unsuccessful national election manifesto of the BJP, which called for standardizing a free-software powered netbook computer to be available at Rs10,000 throughout the nation.

  • In other words, if you had done some work looking, you'd have found that things are a great deal farther along than you think. You might even have discovered that Ms. Mishi Choudhary, who was an LLM student in this law school in 2008-09--on a fellowship provided by the Software Freedom Law Center--is the founding executive director of SFLC India, just starting up in New Delhi with resources provided by SFLC and the Soros Foundation/Open Society Institute.

  • You might want to ask, then, what comes after where the current essay assumes it can sound good by telling people they ought to be trying to get.


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r4 - 07 Sep 2011 - 00:44:00 - IanSullivan
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