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Communication and Human Development: The Freedom Connection?

Amartya Sen, Michael Spence, Yochai Benkler, Clotilde Fonseca

 Sponsored by Canada's International Development Research Centre

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Sen, Spence, Benkler, Fonseca

During the International Development Research Centre's second Harvard Forum, Nobel Laureates Amartya Sen and Michael Spence joined leading Information and Communication Technology (ICT) experts Yochai Benkler and Clotilde Fonseca in a public discussion of the role of communication and ICTs in human development, growth and poverty reduction. Professor Michael Best moderated the panel, which was hosted by the Berkman Center on the evening of September 23, 2009, in the Ames Courtroom of Harvard Law School and online via live webcast.

Panel multimedia

Forum and panel resources

With the help of media partner Global Voices Online (GVO), resources like the Berkman Center's Question Tool were assembled and used to foster conversation, debate, and further engagement during the Forum, during the public discussion, and, hopefully, beyond...

Framing the panel

Six years ago, the IDRC's first Harvard Forum, "A Dialogue on ICTs and Poverty Reduction," brought together Professors Spence and Sen with 30 leading thinkers and practitioners from around the globe. In the worlds of ICTs and development, many important and transformative changes have occurred over the last six years, including:

  • explosion of mobile phone use in the developing world – the ending of isolation;
  • new social network technologies – social/political mobilization and participation;
  • penetration of open and collaborative content development and delivery models;
  • focus on the largest but poorest socio-economic group (the "Bottom of the Pyramid") and the new business and non-profit models that target and serve this group;
  • increasing pressure and need for collective global action on climate change; and
  • realization from crisis and recession that poverty strikes everywhere, and the economic management and risk mitigation capabilities of most countries need serious strengthening.

Communication and knowledge offered by emerging technologies enable or enhance a wide range of benefits and opportunities for the poor, and for everyone, including:

  • family and social interaction, a source of individual happiness;
  • economic services, market information, banking and micro credit, insurance;
  • employment opportunities and means of increasing convenience and earnings;
  • public and social services, distance education, telehealth, social protection;
  • access to knowledge, innovation support services and open, collaborative undertakings;
  • ICT sector growth, jobs and incomes, connection to the market and non-profit economies.

There are also emerging risks in the expanded prevalence of new technologies, including:

  • political and technical control and repression, commercial and social manipulation;
  • social mobilization for destructive purposes, e.g. the use of mobiles in instigating conflicts;
  • privacy invasion – increased ability/opportunity for governments and the private sector;
  • cyber-crime and national vulnerabilities to cyber-warfare, and the list goes on.

Regarding the role of communication and ICTs in human development, growth and poverty reduction, what has changed, been learned, not been learned, needs to be learned, needs to be done most urgently? The in-person and online audiences will debate a range of topics, including:

  • Communications and the technologies that enable them, like education, comprise a basic building block of human development at all levels of poverty/prosperity and freedoms.
  • The "connectedness revolution" is a major dimension of globalization, with the expansions and contractions of prosperity and freedoms that globalization causes for different peoples.
  • Communications, enabled by ICTs, are increasing informed public dialogue and debate in many countries and societies.
  • Informed public debate at national and international levels will be essential in achieving solutions to global warming, and better management of the global economy.
  • Crisis prevention and management – financial, economic, pandemic, natural disaster – are being improved by ICT-enabled communication and information delivery.
  • Openness is always better than protection in principal; how far can it reach in practice? (See also ITID call for papers.)

About the panelists

Amartya Sen is Lamont University Professor, and Professor of Economics and Philosophy, at Harvard University and was until recently the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. He has served as President of the Econometric Society, the Indian Economic Association, the American Economic Association and the International Economic Association. In 1998, he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

Michael Spence is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Philip H. Knight Professor Emeritus of Management in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. He is the chairman of the independent Commission on Growth and Development, focusing on growth in developing countries. He was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2001 and the John Bates Clark Medal from the American Economics Association in 1981.

Yochai Benkler is the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard, and faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Before joining the faculty at Harvard Law School, he was Joseph M. Field '55 Professor of Law at Yale. He writes about the Internet and the emergence of networked economy and society, as well as the organization of infrastructure, such as wireless communications.

Clotilde Fonseca is a Founding Director of the Costa Rican Program of Educational Informatics created in 1988 in Costa Rica by the Omar Dengo Foundation and the Ministry of Public Education, a program that has reached over one and half million children and teachers during its more than two decades of work. She has been Executive Director of the Omar Dengo Foundation from its founding in 1987 to 1994 and from 1996 to present.

Michael L. Best will moderate the session. Dr. Best is an assistant professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology where he is a researcher with the GVU Center. He is also a Faculty Associate of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Professor Best is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Information Technologies and International Development. He is a frequent consultant to the World Bank, ITU, and USAID. He holds a Ph.D. from MIT and has served as Director of Media Lab Asia in India and head of the eDevelopment group at the MIT Media Lab.


Photo of Yochai Benkler: / CC BY 2.0


Past Event
Wednesday, September 23, 2009 - Thursday, September 24, 2009
7:00 PM - 10:00 PM

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