Touring the Balkans to promote Free Software

James Michael Dupont (Mike) is a software developer that is doing a lot to promote Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) in Kosovo and other Balkan countries. This year, Mike invited a first class team to spend a couple of weeks in the southern Balkans, to explain why and how FOSS can play a great role in the social and economic development of those countries.

The team included (I’m only naming those I met personally) Gnash developer Rob Savoye, technology historian Peter Salus, former member of the Board of Directors Leon Shiman and LibreDwg developer Rodrigo Rodrigues da Silva.

I attended the first and final parts of the tour, that is the two conferences FreeSB (Free Software in Balkans) and SFK10 (Software Freedom Kosova 2010). All the guys mentioned above gave really great talks that you can find (both slideshows and video!) on the conference websites. A few , only apparently “minor” talks that I found very relevant for the issues presented below are described in a separate page: Free Software solutions to Balkan problems.

Keeping an eye on the Balkans

FreeSB (see Rodrigo’s post on it) was a small meeting, really just a starting point to stimulate future talks about FOSS in Albania. SFK10 was a bigger event, thanks to the experience made last year and to the enthusiasm of the FLOSSK guys. However, Mike and his gang did much more in those two weeks than two conferences. Between FreeSB and SFK10 they’ve traveled all that time in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia to give other talks, run workshop and crash courses, meet public officials (I’ll add relevant links to this page as soon as possible).

Why? Well, the common theme of the tour was that FOSS isn’t just some software-fanatic’s philosophy, a wonderful tool or a smart business strategy (which it is, of course). These are countries with average salaries of just a few hundreds USD/month, a growing and very young population (at least in Kosovo) and really high unemployment rates, just outside Western Europe’s backdoor. Not a really stable social combination, wouldn’t you say?

That’s why, right now, there are plenty of opportunities and pressure, around there, to set up call centers or software services companies living of outsourcing from Western Europe. Of course, some of those companies would offer high-quality jobs that would look good on any resume. Many others, instead, would just increase the long-term dependence of their own employees and countries on proprietary software from foreign multinationals… until the day they disappear in a flash because some other place (Africa is almost as close as the Balkans…) becomes the next outsourcing heaven.

Of course, in such a situation every new local job created now can make life easier and increase social stability in the area. It’s really hard to resist such pressures or ignore the seriousness and urgency of some issues.

For the very same reason, however, it is very important to explain that alternatives like FOSS, that can provide more wealth more sustainably in the long run, already exist. This is just what this FOSS team did. I’m glad that I could help them a little, and I’ll sure keep an eye on the Balkans to see what happens next.