Over at First Monday, Siobhan Stephenson posts a long essay that "explores the increasingly important role a new corporate social responsibility movement is playing in international development." She focuses, however, on Microsoft's Unlimited Potential program -- which is basically an umbrella under which all somewhat-generous-things-Microsoft-that-don't-stem-from-BMGF are sheltered. Included in this beneficence is Partners in Learning, which combines lots of low-cost software licenses with training on Office products in one bundle that UP delivers to teachers, usually, in bunches of developing countries around the world.
OK, I'm all over most of this--UP, PiL, and the integration of CSR and int'l development. The entrance of corporate dollars into development is a huge swing in the pendulum, one that most development-agency pros will acknowledge, with impetus coming from several facts: Multinational corporations have way more cash on hand these days than do, say, UNESCO or FAO; MNCs are also pretty highly motivated to move into emerging and developing markets by the "maturing" of OECD markets, and CSR is definitely part of that effort; and a lot of country governments find it way easier and more productive to work with MNCs than with donor agencies, for reasons both licit and not.
But Stephenson's article is largely written from the POV of the Free (and Libre) and Open-source Software (FOSS or FLOSS) movement. There's some effort to argue that FOSS has benefits for developing-country economies and individuals, but the arguments given are 10 years old at this point, haven't borne fruit as far as I have seen, and are unsupported by evidence of any kind in the article in question. Plus, there are boatloads of questionable statements early on:
.... FOSS' ability to function as an organizing vehicle for a global worker, particularly in less developed countries (LDCs), through its attempt to wrest control of software ownership away from the private sector...
... perhaps the biggest argument in favor of FOSS was its suitability for developing local and indigenous software industries by providing individuals not only with the free access to software code but also to a global community of programmers, mentors and potential customers.
Leaving aside the improbability of "the global worker" and "indigenous software industries," these statements just blow, in combination. Most LDCs (which are not "less-developed countries" but "_Least_ developed countries, in UN parlance, so as to distinguish them by their crappy social and economic conditions from other developing countries such as, say, Indonesia, where in fact most people actually have pots to piss in) are at best a decade (Rwanda) and at worst an eternity (Burma) from developing a knowledge-work sector that has any significant role in the economy. Hell, half of them have fewer than 10 mobile phones per 1,000 (that's a guess, actually, but not a ridiculous one). So the idea -- which really sums up Stephenson's argument -- that Microsoft's CSR efforts are hegemonic, and destructive of workers' rights and opportunities in developing countries, is frankly built on a profound misunderstanding of poverty in LDCs and in other countries (including, possibly, OECD countries).
I'll come back to this if I have time. I object, frankly, to PiL on pedagogic grounds, and to UP because it swings policy decisions in odd directions, makes politicians seem effective when they are anything but, and so on. But in my experience development barely happens at all, and it certainly doesn't happen unless every group with a stake in development is actually contributing. So I try not to diss the increasingly strong influence of Christian churches in social-development activities in Africa, nor the economic efforts made by Chinese government-owned businesses, nor the blind embrace of micro-finance in the US, nor the establishment of Cisco Networking Academies (now, there's hegemonic CSR for ya), nor UP and PiL, despite the fact that they ALL bug me.
Hell, didn't the FOSS movement lose the battle for the desktop, pretty much--partly as a result of UP and Window' ubiquity, I'll give you that, but also partly as a result of cloud computing, and just the fact that generally who gives a damn about their OS anyway? And didn't FOSS win a few battles too, based on Apache, MySQL, Ubuntu, Drupal and other tools not for end users? (See Microsoft on how happy they are to be fighting Droid with Windows Mobile 70000, and MySQL with SQLServer...) And hasn't there been a bunch written about WHY these kinds of software initiatives, essentially hitting where the tech industry is, rather than where its customers are, are better suited for FOSS development than end-user tools are?
In any case, in my opinion, the FOSS efforts that are really paying off today in developing countries are smaller-bore but higher impact than anything OS-related or productivity related: Frontline SMS is FOSS, and enables basically anyone to set up low-cost narrowcast text messaging; Ushahidi supports crowd-sourcing of information from crisis areas (using any format, basically); and OER Africa is doing what can be done to get free learning resources into African schools. (Note that OER Africa is partially funded by the Hewlett Foundation. Hmmm. Should we be worrie?) All of these groups have targeted real needs in real places and have developed stuff that they're giving away. (Note, however, that the first two are exogenous, their tools have been developed by groups outside of the countries where the tools will be used.)
It's _possible_ that having more free, customizable PC OS software would be of value. But there's so much going on already (including Open Office, which I'm not using just now, nor, I suspect, are you. And in my case, it's certainly NOT because Microsoft is limiting my choices!) And, frankly, when I see the dangers of overlooking the FOSS/Microsoft desktop wars couched in terms such as "failure to interrogate* the meaning of these benefits within the context of historic class struggle over the ownership....," as per Stephenson's article, I just feel, well, as though there are other failures more worthy of our contemplation.
*Also, I gotta say that I don't find any great distance between post-structuralists who "interrogate" meanings and San Francisco Giants baseball fans who say of their team's season, "Giants baseball, it's torture!" Casual uses of both terms should be swiftly retired out of respect for people who are actually interrogated and tortured.