3 key open source challenges in developing countries

When I go back home and talk to people in the tech industry, or any other industry for that matter, about what I do and the topics I’m involved in daily, I’m usually met with bemusement at the idea of an Open Source Programs Office (OSPO). The concept of a company contributing to an open source project without obvious immediate financial benefit can be culturally strange to understand or explain.

As someone born and raised in a country that has been trying to develop for quite some time, I understand and relate to that. There was a point in time when my only understanding of open source was that it was software that I could use without paying and without needing to wait for a specific issue or additional feature to be released. I could just do whatever I needed myself, locally.

Open source faces many struggles in developing countries that make how it’s perceived and its associations inaccurate and out of touch. I will discuss these struggles in this article.

Open source challenges in developing countries

The challenges that open source faces in these regions can be divided into three main areas:

  • Society and culture
  • Resources and infrastructure
  • Governance

Society and culture

It’s no secret that the culture of tech in general, and specifically the open source part of it, feeds off the culture of the society where it exists. That’s why, in today’s world, open source has a better chance of being sustained and maintained in the more developed parts of the world.

But imagine a perfect society, optimal for open source to grow, be sustained, and maintained. What does the culture of that society look like? What are its main characteristics?

Open and transparent

For open source to thrive, the society’s culture must be as open and transparent as possible. Information must be freely and publicly accessible, which is a huge issue in many underdeveloped regions. Information is often red-taped and is unavailable to the average citizen, let alone someone who’s trying to contribute to open source.

[ Related read Global communication in open source projects ]

Free

The word “free” has many different meanings and implications. There’s freedom of speech, expression, choice, belief, religion, and many others. The aspect of freedom I’m most concerned with in this context is the ability to start new communities and organizations without a higher authority intervening. That’s the essence of open source. Distributed modes of collaboration, in which large groups work together without a strong centralized authority directing them, are highly effective. This is another major challenge in most of these regions. New communities and organizations are often questioned, closely monitored, and unfortunately, in some cases, even prosecuted and eventually shut down for fear of the new ideas that may emerge or other reasons.

Dynamic

A dynamic culture is essential for the growth of open source. A culture that’s ready to accept and implement new ideas is the perfect place for open source to grow. Being resistant to change and preferring to stick with traditional approaches can limit society’s willingness to adopt new technologies and solutions, which is a major issue in most underdeveloped countries.

The greatest and most common reason behind resistance to change in these regions is the fear of the unknown. It would be unfair to discuss fear of the unknown as a “developing countries” problem. It’s a common issue everywhere, even in the developed world. But some reasons behind this fear are specific to underdeveloped regions. The two main reasons are a lack of trust in the competence of the tech industry and a lack of accountability. Businesses and individuals do not trust the capabilities of the software solutions on offer, let alone open source solutions. There’s an idea that open source software is unsafe and insecure. This concern is magnified when people do not trust the competence of the software developers. Second, people do not trust the system to hold anyone accountable for any possible mistakes or issues arising from using the software or in legal conflicts.

Resources, infrastructure, and economy

Economic challenges are the most obvious struggle for open source in developing countries, impacting open source developers and communities in these regions.

Access and funds

Open source developers struggle with issues of accessibility in developing countries. Whether it’s access to the internet or equipment, it can be difficult to become a regular open source contributor when you struggle to reach resources daily. The digital divide in these regions is huge. There are still many areas without regular, stable, and high-speed internet connections. There’s also a market gap between these regions and the rest of the world when it comes to equipment. There’s always the challenge of not having enough funds to buy the latest, most powerful machines, but there’s also an availability problem. The modern, powerful tech equipment needed to build and run the biggest open source projects isn’t always available in these regions.

These concerns make self-education and learning challenging. It’s difficult for an open source developer to pick an open source project, learn all about it on their own, and start contributing to it due to these access issues.

And how do you build an open source community under these circumstances? Projects would end up being maintained by the privileged few with access to stable high-speed internet connections and the latest equipment. The rest would be spotty, occasional contributions from others that can hardly be considered a community. And even those would disappear once the chance of paid work appears. I’ve personally seen it multiple times. Someone would start learning about an open source project to research a specific stack or improve their skills and begin contributing to it. But once the opportunity of paid work appeared, even as a second job, they dropped the open source project completely. It makes sense. Any individual must prioritize a means of survival for themselves and their family.

This lack of resources and dependence on a privileged few would also make it almost impossible to fund marketing campaigns, community-building events, and, last but not least, documentation localization attempts.

Localization

English is the language of the internet, but not for many these countries. While almost all developers speak English at a basic level, not everyone has the ability to comprehend and understand documentation, architecture resources, and technical specifications to the level that enables them to meaningfully contribute to an open source project. The non-existence of adapted documentation makes it difficult for developers in developing countries to find an entry point into open source projects. The time and resources required to do that usually discourage potential contributors from these regions.

[ Also read How open source weaves connections between countries ]

Employee contracts

Almost all software employee contracts are designed to monetize every single line of code, contribution, or thought the developer might have. Any participation in external projects can be a cause for questioning by the employing company, which all too often discourages developers from contributing to open source to avoid legal issues. Laws favor corporations and organizations and prevent software developers from making external contributions.

Intellectual property laws

Legal frameworks in developing countries are often ill-equipped to handle the nuances of intellectual property rights and open source licensing. Intellectual property laws in developing countries may be weaker or less comprehensive than those in developed countries, and enforcement may be less effective. This can make it difficult for creators and contributors to protect their work and prevent others from using it without permission.

In addition, open source licensing can be complex. Many developing countries may not have the legal expertise or resources to navigate these licenses effectively. This can make it tough for developers to contribute to open source projects without inadvertently violating the terms of the license.

Another issue is that intellectual property laws and open source licensing are sometimes seen as hindrances to innovation and development in developing countries. Critics argue that these laws and licenses can stifle creativity and prevent the spread of knowledge and technology, particularly in areas where access to resources and technology is limited.

Overall, the challenges surrounding intellectual property laws and open source contributions in developing countries are complex and multifaceted, requiring a nuanced approach that accounts for the unique circumstances and challenges these countries face.

Proprietary software deals

Tech giants based in the US and Europe enter into billion-dollar, decades-long deals with governments in developing regions to supply them with software. On the off chance that someone gets elected into a position and decides to start an initiative to adopt open source software, they find that getting out of these deals would cost a fortune.

Open isn’t always easy

These are just some of the struggles open source faces in developing countries. There’s much to be done to improve the situation and make adopting and growing open source feasible. In future articles, I will delve into specific solutions, but for now, I’ll note that, as with everything, it starts with the individual. As we each “crowdsource” an open culture, the culture of the regions where we live and work changes. Bring open source to your community in whatever small way you can, and see where it leads.