The major aid agencies and donors, as well as many developing country governments, are becoming increasingly enthusiastic about the prospects for improving the effectiveness of their development activities by making Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) available to poor people. This primer describes how ICTs are being used to alleviate poverty. It addresses the so-called digital divide, which describes the stark disparities between the few people with abundant access to ICTs and the vast numbers of people without any access at all, and describes the efforts that are being applied to overcome it.
Information and knowledge are critical components of poverty alleviation strategies, and ICTs offer the promise of easy access to huge amounts of information useful for the poor. However, the digital divide is argued to be the result rather than the cause of poverty, and efforts to bridge it must be embedded within effective strategies that address the causes of poverty. Moreover, earlier patterns of adoption and diffusion of technology suggest that ICTs will not achieve their full potential without suitable attention being paid to the wider processes that they are intended to assist and to the context within which they are being implemented.
There are many examples of successful implementation that allow for a synthesis of experience that can lead to an understanding of how to approach the use of ICTs for widespread alleviation of poverty.
ICTs are usually understood to refer to computers and the Internet, but many consider this view to be limited, as it excludes the more traditional and usually more common technologies of radio, television, telephones, public address systems, and even newspapers, which also carry information. In particular, the potential value of radio as a purveyor of development information should not be overlooked, especially in view of its almost ubiquitous presence in developing countries, including the rural locations in which the vast majority of the poor live.
This primer describes several examples of how ICTs have contributed to poverty alleviation, to a greater or lesser extent. Several case studies are given at the end. Some lessons learned from the examples are synthesized and it is shown how implementation efforts have to take into account the wide variety of factors that are critical for success. A poverty alleviation framework is presented to facilitate the full consideration of all such factors and the framework is used to analyse the outcomes of the cases and the factors that have influenced them.
Many of the factors that will define how ICTs will be integrated into existing community and national development initiatives are highly contextual in nature; dependent on existing norms of institutional behaviour and on how vigorously reforms can be implemented. As a result, diffusion and replication rates will vary among communities and between nations. In some cases, we can expect slow progress towards further diffusion of ICTs for poverty alleviation.