Chris Blattman

What should Google do? Information for Africa.

The New York Times reports on’s priorities for philanthropy, including early warning systems for natural disasters and middle-class entrepreneurship in Africa. All good causes.

The organizers say that they want to focus on what “DotOrg” can do “uniquely”. So I was surprised that they have not prioritized information access for Africa.

One of the saddest aspects of distance and underdevelopment access is that even the most educated have almost no access to books. There are few if any libraries. My friend Michael could not even find a bookstore in Guinea-Buissau.

Two thoughts:

  1. First, what if publishers (especially academic presses) agreed to let their books, especially those more than a few years old, be printed without copyright in Africa for distribution within that continent alone? For volumes priced less than $30, re-exports to the rich world would be so expensive that little incentive would exist for them to attempt to reship and resell.
  2. Or what if Google’s vast mass of online books, or the major publishers and academic journals, made online content free to those coming from African IP addresses? Or even from specific ones, like African universities?

The idea has much in common with Jenny Lanjouw’s proposal that drug companies have to choose whether to enforce their patents in either rich or poor countries, but not both.

What can DotOrg do? Someone needs to lead this charge, and get the publishers and copyright owners on board. Is this mission right for DotOrg? Google’s stated mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. Sounds close to me.

15 Responses

  1. I found a wonderful resource of information on books and libraries in Africa which I wanted to pass along. African Digital Library – provides FREE access to full textbooks for anyone with an African email address. thanks for share

  2. Chris-

    This is a great blog! Just found it the other day, but you bring up some fascinating discussions here.

    Question on the access to information. What do you see as being the mechanism of societal improvement here? I am intrigued by the argument, but unconvinced that access to a wide variety of information leads to societal change. First, I think that there is often a disconnect between our reading and our action (see the discussion by Stanley Fish on the humanities that has been initiated on the NY times webpage). Second, from an infrastructure angle, I would imagine there are significant problems in moving from ‘making available information’ to making this available information (and by that I mean on the internet) actually used given the limited access to internet/ computers and the like.

    That all being said, I think this is an interesting approach, and would have some validity, I guess I would just love to hear you flesh it out a bit more!~

    Peter B

  3. I have difficulty seeing the benefits from providing aging, generally esoteric (at the very least difficult) books (that would often need translating) to areas that don’t even have public libraries and where general literacy is an issue.

  4. Free access to medical literature is available in Africa and other resource-limited locations via the WHO’s HINARI. Perhaps Google could do something similar in other areas of study as you suggest.

    About HINARI
    The Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative (HINARI) provides free or very low cost online access to the major journals in biomedical and related social sciences to local, not-for-profit institutions in developing countries.

    HINARI was launched in January 2002, with some 1500 journals from 6 major publishers: Blackwell, Elsevier Science, the Harcourt Worldwide STM Group, Wolters Kluwer International Health & Science, Springer Verlag and John Wiley, following the principles in a Statement of Intent signed in July 2001. Twenty-two additional publishers joined in May 2002, bringing the total number of journals to over 2000. Since that time, the numbers of participating publishers and of journals and other full-text resources has grown continuously. Today more than 70 publishers are offering their content in HINARI and others will soon be joining the programme. An evaluation is in progress which will determine the long term future of HINARI.

    HINARI was developed in the framework of the Health InterNetwork, introduced by the United Nations’ Secretary General Kofi Annan at the UN Millennium Summit in the year 2000.

  5. Good ideas. However, Google has a bit complicated relationship with publishers due the its Book Search project (it has scanned tons of copyrighted books and not all publishers are happy about it).

    Re: information in Africa. I wonder what you thing about the One Laptop per Child initiative. It seems to be derailed now. Is that a pity?

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