Reflection: Women, Foss, and Microfinance

           A critical point that Burns (2011) makes in his discussion of software, information access, and social justice is the following: “Thus, free software acknowledges and spotlights the user’s integrity and freedom, or the user’s moral agency” (Burns, 2011, p. 21). As I am interested in microfinance, this statement, for me, bridges free and open source software (FOSS) to women seeking self-, community-, and national empowerment as its founding principles are integrity, freedom, and morality.  The four specific software freedoms that Burns (2011) and Sullivan (2011) delineate parallel the notions of self-empowerment for women embracing and beginning a new idea, project, or program: the freedom to run the program however they want; the freedom to study it and make it better for themselves; the freedom to use what they have thus created to help their neighbors; and the freedom to help their communities as well.

            Burns (2011) quotes the Free Software Foundation’s statement on choosing and using free software: “To use free software is to make a political and ethical choice asserting the right to learn, and share what we learn with others. Free software has become the foundation of a learning society where we share our knowledge in a way that others can build upon and enjoy” (p. 21).  Further, according to Burn’s proposition, the “active and intentional decision to select a particular software model (or any product) is not simply an agent’s decision as a consumer, it is an agent’s decision as an ethical being, or what we call her moral agency” (p. 22).  That works well for computer programmers or for those who, at the very least, are aware of what programming is.  Only in this past month of class has this even become a factor for me.

            So for developing and Third-World countries, particularly, war-torn countries where women are mostly responsible for their families, their political and ethical choices may not necessarily extend to which software—free or proprietary—they will use to address their needs.  The political and ethical choices become what will address their needs best, regardless of the principles of upon which FOSS was founded.  The notion of moral agency cannot be applauded only when the agency extends to users choosing and using FOSS; otherwise, FOSS dawns a proprietary stance on morality just like its non-FOSS competitors on product in that it seeks to close its doors to users who have only at their disposal proprietary software.  In the absence of FOSS, what options do lesser privileged consumers have?  If she is a moral agent, does her morality sour if her choice is not FOSS but her survival?  Does she really sacrifice her learning and the learning of her community members if she chooses the propriety product, as if proper learning only happens with FOSS?  I take issue with the notion that “if an agent chooses a proprietary model and not a free and open source model, the agent willingly gives up this important freedom [to learn from the world around her]” (Burns, 2011, p. 24).

            That being said, ensuring that all consumers have the ability to learn and make decisions among all relevant alternatives is a moral issue.  This is most important when it comes to developing economies of women and their families and communities.  It is a moral issue not only for women and communities but of the suppliers as well as all parties involved in the process.  Technology and access to information are becoming as critical to survival for advanced and developing countries as humans’ fundamental needs of air, water, food, and shelter; thus, denying people and communities access to these needs is a social injustice (Andrews et al, n.d.). 

            Today, software is released with free software implementation and open source programming is now the norm (History of Free and Open-Source Software, 2013).  FOSS has already become institutionalized as a social movement starting from the 1980s with Stallman and the General Public License (GPL) then moving through the 1990s with Tolvards and his Linux operating system and the 2000s with Lessig and the Creative Commons (Sullivan, 2011).  Its larger goal of collectivism drives it as a necessary social justice movement (Sullivan, 2011). 

            Thus, as the digital divide decreases, more and more consumers in advanced and developing communities across the globe have a choice between FOSS and proprietary software, for example, Microsoft Windows versus Linux, Debian, and Ubuntu, Microsoft Office versus OpenOffice and LibreOffice, and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer versus Apache, Mozilla’s Firefox, or Google’s Chrome (Burns, 2011; Sullivan, 2011).  More and more organizations in developing countries across the world use FOSS much more so than proprietary software since FOSS reduces the costs of these organizations substantially while allowing knowledge and skill acquisition and unique software adaptation by its workers (Clarke, n.d.).   

            These technological advances and communities founded and developed on philosophies of human freedoms are well poised to support women and microfinancing in developing communities across the world.  FOSS has proven beneficial in helping organizations map reports of political violence in Kenya, target better relief areas in Haiti, coordinate relief efforts in natural disasters in Asia, and train teachers and students to use free software tools in Namibia (Sullivan, 2011).  Because FOSS is typically designed to handle all makes and models of hardware, old and new, it extends the life of the hardware and lessens the financial burden of users and organizations by reducing the need to purchase new computers, and in turn, lessens the economic burden of organizations and communities by reducing the need to unnecessarily expend natural resources (Andrews et al, n.d.).  Such economic conservation is crucial for women seeking alternative means to economic empowerment for themselves and their communities since traditional banking services have consistently denied them.

            Starting with Grameen Bank in 1983 under Dr. Mohammad Yunus, microfinancing has reached a vastly increasing number of poor women over the decades, with estimates of about 160 million people being served by microfinance (http://web.worldbank.org).  Providing microfinancing for women has demonstrated positive impacts in promoting gender equity, meeting individual and household economic welfare, providing stability or growth in family and community enterprise and employment, and in some cases, lessening in the incidences of violence against women (http://www.kiva.org).  Microfinancing, most fortunately, for women extends past microloans for business capital as “women, in particular as primary caretakers, need more than just business capital. They need the opportunity to build assets and protect against disaster, which is why it is incredibly important that microfinance encompass savings, insurance, and even pension plans” (Quast, 2011, p. 1).  To help support microfinancing, the Grameen Foundation started Mifos (originally standing for Microfinance Open Source), open source software that provides key functionality for microfinance institutions and currently supports over 850,000 microfinance clients around the world (Mifos, 2013).       

            For me, this is where the “rubber meets the road.” In the big picture, the issue is less about whether one chooses to use Gimp over Photoshop (although that is a legitimate concern in some smaller contexts), but rather, how we collectively use this FOSS technology to really change lives by advancing human freedoms on a global landscape.

 

 

 

 

 

References

Andrews, C., Culp, E., & Shinsato, C. (n.d.). An ethical commentary on software: Proprietary vs. open-source. 1-11. Retrieved from http://www.ethicapublishing.com/confronting/5CH15.pdf

Burns, C. S. (2011, December). Social justice and an information democracy with free and open source software. Information, Society and Justice, 2(2), 19-28.

Clarke, A. (n.d.). Free (libre) and open source software: A social justice primer for churches. Retrieved from https://groups.drupal.org/files/Open%20Source%20Social%20Justice%20Backgrounder.pdf

History of free and open-source software. (2013). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_free_and_open-source_software

Mifos. (2013). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mifos.

Quast, L. (2011, May 9). Microfinance 101—Part 1 of 3: Microfinance for women. Forbes Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/lisaquast/2011/05/09/microfinance-101-part-1-of-3-microfinance-for-women

Sullivan, J. (2011). Free, open source software advocacy as a social justice movement: The expansion of F/OSS movement discourse in the 21st century. Journal of Information Technology & Politics, 8, 223–239. doi: 10.1080/19331681.2011.592080

 

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