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How the U.S. funds open source abroad

The United States may buy a lot of proprietary software, but when it comes to international development, it's betting on open source.

President Obama gets a lot of credit for his pro-open source policies, but the United States has been funding open source well before he took office.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which describes itself as the principal federal agency for extending "assistance to countries recovering from disaster, trying to escape poverty, and engaging in democratic reforms," has been in the habit of funding open source abroad since at least 2007.

As but one example, USAID kicked off its Open Source Development 2.0 challenge last fall.

The contest and other USAID activities led to a wide roll-out of Joomla, an open-source content management system, throughout the Mongolian government, including 200 of its Web sites, as Elin Waring, president of Open Source Matters, a company that advocates Joomla adoption, told me.

But Joomla is just one part of USAID's global investment in open source. The agency has also created the Global Development Commons, which promotes U.S. interests by encouraging open development abroad. Apparently, the idea is that U.S. interests are served as local economies sustain and grow on their own, rather than requiring ongoing foreign investment.

Microsoft recently funded an IDC study, which finds that "software is a significant contributor that drives productivity and innovation in almost every sector of the economy." This may be true, but as I've argued before, governments would do better to expand local economies by building upon open-source software rather than shipping rubles/pesos/etc. abroad to import software from vendors like SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft.

In the case of open source, the software may come from elsewhere but it quickly becomes a domestic good as local firms tailor and improve it. With proprietary software, local firms can provide implementation services but they, as well as the end-customers, are always dependent on a foreign vendor for the core value.

The U.S. continues to buy plenty of proprietary software, but it's encouraging that when it comes to international development, the federal government recognizes that open source pays better long-term dividends than subsidies for the export of proprietary software. Even more encouraging, this practice appears to be neither Democratic nor Republican in origin.

Perhaps there's hope for bridging America's partisan divide, after all.