USAID Managers Guide to Microcomputers in Development

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Today we continue our ICT4D flashback with the 1983 USAID Managers Guide to Microcomputers in Development, which contains the first use of the phrase “artificial intelligence” in the Development Experience Clearinghouse.

In Africa recently, several donor agency personnel, Ministry officials, and one of the authors were discussing development. Inevitably, they talked about microcomputers.
One member of the group mentioned that he was ordering an “Apple II Plus” system to help him write reports. A high-ranking government official commented that foreigners seemed to be crazed by jogging and “microprocessors” – the local term for microcomputers.
The official asked why so many people were purchasing microcomputer systems: was this only another Western fad or was this the beginning of a new microelectronic era?
Indeed, it may be difficult for microcomputer advocates to understand that many people do not share their zeal for electronic equipment. Providing officials with evidence of the utility of microccmputers can be a delicate and difficult task, particularly if there is some feat that people will be put out of work.
Conversely, persuading overly enthusiastic officials of the possible problems of installing computer systems may be an equally arduous undertaking. Thus, donor, contractor, and host-country personnel mus, be involved in the entire decision-making process if microcomputers are to be accepted and appropriately used within their project or institutional settings.
Who Should Use the Microcomputer Guide?
The USAID Managers Guide to Microcomputers in Development is intended for development personnel who are associated with the management of projects or institutions. It focuses on individual managers, management teams, or related support personnel who are likely to purchase a single-user microcomputer or who already have one and are interested in expanding and sustaining its use in a development organization.
This guide has been written to provide host-country, donor agency, and contract managers with relevant information about microcomputer acquisition, installation, and use. To determine if this guide will be useful to you, ask yourself the following questions.

  • Are you a professional working in a developing country setting such as a ministry or donor agency office, or a program implementation unit in a field site?
  • Are you involved in the management or administration uf a development program, project or institution (that is, do you have some responsibility for combining human and material resources to accomplish development results)?
  • Are you working in some rural or urban sector development activity?
  • Are you long a believer in (or recently intrigued by) the potential of the microelectronic revolution for handling some of your more repetitive, time-consuming administrative tasks and/or improving your own or your office’s productivity and performance?

If you have a positive response to at least three of these questions, including the final one, then there is a high probability that you will find this guide to be both of interest and value.
The Benefits of Microcomputers
Today a $4,000 desk-top computer system can perform functions that would have cost a million dollars co execute in 1950. This tremendous reduction in cost has been accompanied by other profound changes, many of which have occurred only in the last few years.
The microcomputer represents a significant advance in computer technology both in terms of reductions in the cost of computer power and the ease with which the system itself can be used. Important technological advances include:

  • the development of inexpensive, high-powered memory devices in very small “chips” that are much sturdier than previous devices;
  • the increased reliability and durability of micro­ computers, attributable to the reliability of components and modular construction; and
  • the proliferation of relatively low-cost software programs that enable non-programmers, including managers, to make effective use of computers with relatively little training.

The implications for managers are far-reaching. For large and complex projects, it is clear that the mere mechanics of entering and computing data by hand is a formidable obstacle to better management-­particularly in countries with meager pools of skilled workers.
The advantage of using a microcomputer in such circumstances has been so obvious (and so desirable) to a number of managers working in developing countries, that they purchased microcomputers with their own funds and used them to achieve more effective results. Research that supports the findings and recommendations reported here relies heavily on the experiences of these early microcomputer users.
The Effects of Microcomputers
But as we shift from limited to wide-spread use of microcomputers, we must consider the effects of such proliferation on human resources and look closely at the question of potential labor displacement.
If, indeed, a microcompater is like a cadre of efficient and accurate workers working overtime to get the job done, what happens to the people who could be employed in its stead? The proliferation of the new technology will present many dilemmas to which there are no simple answers. Circumstances will dictate how the issues will be resolved.
There is one circumstance when the case for using microcomputers is obvious: this is where skilled personnel are scarce and the microcomputer becomes the primary option for processing the information necessary to achieve development objectives. In the
Sahel, for example using a microcomputer to do the work of a number of people is a clear-cut solution to personnel shortages. The choice is less obvious in developing countries with substantial pools of educated and skilled persons available to work as support staff.
The issue of employment remains a primary consideration in whether you should acquire a microcomputer for your management purposes.
Indeed, purchasing j microcomputer, retraining existing staff, or hiring additional staff are three options among many for accomplishing task priorities.
What a Microcomputer is Not
Nevertheless, the microcomputer can be highly efficient and, given its capabilities, it is not hard to understand why it is becoming as indispensable as the pencil, the pocket calculator, and the telephone. Many stateside managers find it inconceivable to work without their computers. However, having a microcomputer in a third-world setting may present many problems.
Throughout this guide we will attempt to establish a careful balance between the advantages and disadvantages of having a microcomputer in a development project setting. Thus, it is important to look at computer capability in a realistic manner, to consider what the microcomputer cannot do for you, and to assess and understand the limits of the technology as they apply to development and your job
Here is a list of basic considerations. The microcomputer:

  • will not make you more organized;
  • will not make decisions for you;
  • will not improve your basic data (i.e. junk in, junk out);
  • does not accept responsibility for anything;
  • does not do forecasting and trend analysis (but helps you do it);
  • cannot define problems or set objectives.

You are still the most important part of the system. No matter how fast your computer can come up with the information you need, you still have to decide what to do with that information. It takes time and money to set up a system. It takes time to become trained even in the most easy-to-use software programs.
The microcomputer can help you and your staff perform routine tasks. It can help you plan and account for expenditures, but whether a system will really work for you depends on the information you put into it, the computer’s integration into the work setting, and an environment conducive to its functioning properly. Only you can assess whether or not these conditions can be met.
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