Information and Communication Technologies for Poverty Alleviation/Concepts & Definitions

What is poverty, where is it, and how does it look when it has been alleviated? edit

Before examining how ICTs might be used to alleviate poverty, it is appropriate to consider what is actually meant by poverty. The World Bank reports that of the world’s six billion people, 2.8 billion, almost half, live on less than US$2 a day, and 1.2 billion, a fifth, live on less than US$1 a day, with 44 percent of them living in South Asia. The Millennium Development Goals set for 2015 by international development agencies include reducing by half the proportion of people living in extreme income poverty, or those living on less than US$1 a day. The figure of US$1 income per day is widely accepted as a general indicator of extreme poverty within development discourse, but of course there is no absolute cut-off and income is only one indicator of the results of poverty, among many others.

Figure 1: Indicates the Global Distribution of Poverty (World Bank, 2001/2002)


This image is available under the terms of GNU Free Documentation License and Creative Commons Attribution License 2.5

The World Bank report goes beyond the view of income levels in its definition of poverty, suggesting that poverty includes powerlessness, voicelessness, vulnerability, and fear. Additionally, the European Commission suggests that poverty should not be defined merely as a lack of income and financial resources. It should also include the deprivation of basic capabilities and lack of access to education, health, natural resources, employment, land and credit, political participation, services, and infrastructure (European Commission, 2001). An even broader definition of poverty sees it as being deprived of the information needed to participate in the wider society, at the local, national or global level (ZEF, 2002).

The assertion that a knowledge gap is an important determinant of persistent poverty, combined with the notion that developed countries already possess the knowledge required to assure a universally adequate standard of living, suggest the need for policies that encourage greater communication and information flows both within and between countries. One of the best possible ways to achieve this greater interaction is through the use of ICTs. But when this happens, how is it possible to measure the effects?

Increases in household income that can be directly attributed to the use of ICTs are probably easy to isolate with careful research. Changes in the other characteristics of poverty, such as voicelessness and vulnerability, will be harder to tease out with research, and are best detected by asking the people concerned directly.

Experiences with field evaluations of ICTs that were deployed to alleviate poverty have been mixed and are controversial. Pilot projects have often failed to deliver expected benefits quickly enough for their funding agencies, or they have delivered unexpected benefits that the evaluators have difficulty accounting for. Usually, the time scales that communities require to fully appropriate ICTs and to use them to achieve significant benefits far exceed the expectations of the technology promoters and/or evaluators, who run out of patience and prematurely and inappropriately declare the project a failure.

What is the “digital divide”? edit

The uneven global distribution of access to the Internet has highlighted a digital divide that separates individuals who are able to access computers and the Internet from those who have no opportunity to do so. Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, has said:

The new information and communications technologies are among the driving forces of globalisation. They are bringing people together, and bringing decision makers unprecedented new tools for development. At the same time, however, the gap between information ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is widening, and there is a real danger that the world’s poor will be excluded from the emerging knowledge-based global economy. (Anan, 2002)

A few statistics serve to highlight the alarming differences between those at both ends of the digital divide:

  • All of the developing countries of the world own a mere four percent of the world’s computers.
  • 75 percent of the world’s 700 million telephone sets can be found in the nine richest countries.
  • There are more web hosts in New York than in continental Africa; there are more in Finland than in Latin America and the Caribbean combined.
  • There were only 6.3 million Internet subscribers on the entire African continent in September 2002 compared with 34.3 million in the UK. (Nua Internet)

Table 1 shows the gap in Internet access between the industrialized and developing worlds. More than 85 percent of the world’s Internet users are in developed countries, which account for only about 22 percent of the world’s population.

Figure 2


Looking more closely at the access statistics reveals further levels of inequality within the developing countries that are least served. Typically, a high percentage of developing country residents live in rural areas. The proportion can rise to as much as 85 percent of the population in the least developed countries and is estimated at 75 percent overall in Asia. Rural access to communication networks in developing countries is much more limited than in urban areas. Table 2 depicts global teledensity levels (main lines plus cellular subscribers), indicating that the USA has more telephones than people, whereas Africa has a mere 6.6 telephones per 100 inhabitants.

In developing countries, rural teledensity is even lower than the global figures might suggest because of the differences between them and their urban counterparts. In the poorest countries, the already low urban teledensity can be three times or more that of the rural areas, whereas in the richest countries it is about the same. Table 3 shows how Internet host and personal computers are distributed throughout the world, further highlighting the gaps between developed and developing nations.

Figure 3


Not surprisingly, the digital divide mirrors divides in other resources that have a more insidious effect, such as the disparities in access to education, health care, capital, shelter, employment, clean water and food. These other divides can arguably be viewed as being a result of an imbalance in access to information— in short, the digital divide—than its cause. Information is critical to the social and economic activities that comprise the development process. Thus, ICTs, as a means of sharing information, are a link in the chain of the development process itself (ILO, 2001).

Figure 4


Does the digital divide refer only to access to technology? edit

Eliminating the digital divide requires more than the provision of access to technologies. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), although ICTs can contribute significantly to socio-economic development, investments in them alone are not sufficient for development to occur (ILO, 2001). Put simply, telecommunications is a necessary but insufficient condition for economic development (Schmandt et. al, 1990).

Martin and McKeown suggest that the application of ICTs is not sufficient to address problems of rural areas without adherence to principles of integrated rural development. Unless there is at least minimal infrastructure development in transport, education, health, and social and cultural facilities, it is unlikely that investments from ICTs alone will enable rural areas to cross the threshold from decline to growth (Martin and McKeown, 1993).

The digital divide then goes beyond access to the technology and can be expressed in terms of multiple dimensions. And if societies wish to share the benefits of access to technology, then further provisions have to be made in order to address all of the dimensions of the digital divide. Table 4 summarizes these dimensions.

These dimensions of the digital divide imply a variety of societal concerns that have to do with education and capacity building, social equity, including gender equity, and the appropriateness of technology and information to its socio-economic context.

Figure 5


Furthermore, some consider even the use of the term “digital divide” to be problematic. First, it is not the real issue; it is the information and knowledge gap that is the real concern and in that regard, the multiple dimensions in Table 4 deserve equal attention. Second, talk of a digital divide often implies that digital access alone will overcome the associated problems. Digital access requires only purchase and installation of technology. In fact, the multiple dimensions of the digital divide imply that it is not money and technology that matter but the right approach, and unless the other divides are also addressed, crossing the digital bridge will not achieve much. Finally, and possibly more significant, is an understanding of the patterns of cause and effect. As the G8 DOT Force report points out, the digital divide is a reflection of existing broader socio-economic inequalities, and a symptom of much more profound and long-standing economic and social divides within and between societies. The report goes on: “There is no dichotomy between the ‘digital divide’ and the broader social and economic divides which the development process should address; the digital divide needs to be understood and addressed in the context of those broader divides.” (G8 DOT Force, 2001).

The argument seems to be that the digital divide is the result rather than the cause of poverty, and that efforts to “bridge the digital divide” and increase access to ICTs, unless clearly rooted in, and subordinate to, a broader strategy to combat poverty, risk diverting attention and resources from addressing its underlying causes, such as unfair trade policies, corruption, bad governance and so on. In the next section, we examine the crucial aspect of how ICTs should be embedded within strategies for combating poverty so that both (the ICTs and the strategies) can achieve their optimal effect.

What information technologies are capable of alleviating poverty? edit

In this section we will discuss the following ICTs: radio, television, telephones, public address systems, and computers and the Internet.

Radio has achieved impressive results in the delivery of useful information to poor people. One of its strengths is its ubiquity. For example, a recent survey of 15 hill villages in Nepal found radios in every village, with farmers listening to them while working in their fields. Another survey of 21,000 farmers enrolled in radio-backed farm forums in Zambia found that 90 percent found programmes relevant and more than 50 percent credited the programmes and forums with increasing their crop yields (Dodds, 1999). In the Philippines, a partnership programme between UNESCO, the Danish International Development Agency and the Philippine government is providing local radio equipment and training to a number of remote villages. The project is designed to ensure that programming initiatives and content originate within the communities. According to UNESCO, the project has not only increased local business and agricultural productivity, but also resulted in the formation of civic organizations and more constructive dialogue with local officials (UNESCO Courier 1997).

In South Africa, clockwork radios that do not require battery or mains electricity supplies are being distributed to villages to enable them to listen to development programming. The Baygen Freeplay radio marks one of the first commercially successful communication devices to employ a clockwork mechanism as its power supply. It is sold on a commercial basis for approximately US$75 and has been used extensively by a number of non-governmental organizations as a key element in community education programmes and disaster relief efforts. For instance, the National Institute for Disaster Management in Mozambique distributed Freeplay radios so that flood victims could receive broadcasts on the weather, health issues, government policy toward the displaced, missing family members, the activities of the aid community, and the location of land mines. In Ghana, the government distributed 30,000 Freeplay radios so villagers could follow elections.

In Nepal, a digital broadcast initiative is being tested that will broadcast digital radio programming via satellite to low-cost receivers in rural and remote villagers. The programme is targeting HIV/AIDS awareness, and has the potential to link with computers to receive multimedia content.

Community radio projects indicate how communities can appropriate ICTs for their own purposes. For example, in Nepal, two community radio stations are well established—Radio Lumbini in Manigram in western Nepal and Radio Madan Pokhara in Palpa District. The Village Development Committee holds one licence and a community group holds the other. Both services have proven to be very popular. Ownership of radio receivers in the coverage areas has increased dramatically (shown as 68 percent in the census). Programmes include valuable development messages, such as AIDS awareness and prevention. The Kothmale community radio station in Sri Lanka [1] accepts requests for information from community members and searches the Internet for answers, which it then broadcasts on the air.

Television is commonly cited as having considerable development potential, and some examples of using it for education are given later in the report. Probably the most notable example of TV for development comes from China with its TV University and agricultural TV station. In Viêt Nam, two universities in the Mekong Delta Region work with the local TV station to broadcast weekly farmers workshops that are watched by millions.

The well-known case of Grameen hand phones in Bangladesh, in which the Grameen Bank, the village-based micro-finance organization, leases cellular mobile phones to successful members, has delivered significant benefits to the poor. The phones are mostly used for exchanging price and business and health-related information. They have generated information flows that have resulted in better prices for outputs and inputs, easier job searches, reduced mortality rates for livestock and poultry, and better returns on foreign-exchange transactions. Phone owners also earn additional income from providing phone services to others in the community. Poor people account for one-fourth of all the phone calls made. For villagers in general, the phones offer additional non-economic benefits such as improved law enforcement, reduced inequality, more rapid and effective communication during disasters and stronger kinship bonding. The phones also have perceptible and positive effects on the empowerment and social status of phone-leasing women and their households (Bayes et al., 1999).

A study in China found that villages that had the telephone, the most basic communications technology, experienced declines in the purchase price of various commodities and lower future price variability. It also noted that the average prices of agricultural commodities were higher in villages with phones than in villages without phones. Vegetable growers said that access to telephones helped them to make more appropriate production decisions, and users of agricultural inputs benefited from a smoother and more reliable supply. Better information also improved some sellers’ perception of their bargaining position vis-à-vis traders or intermediaries. Finally, village telephones facilitated job searches, access to emergency medical care and the ability to deal with natural disasters; lowered mortality rates for livestock thanks to more timely advice from extension workers; and improved rates in foreign-exchange transactions (Eggleston et al., 2002).

Public address systems
Public address systems are commonly found in China and Viêt Nam where they are used to deliver public information, announcements and the daily news. One community in Viêt Nam is planning to augment its public address system by connecting to the Internet to obtain more useful information for broadcasting. Public address systems are more localized than radio, but are technically simpler and less expensive. However, research on poor communities suggests that the telephone and radio remain the most important (direct access) ICT tools for changing the lives of the poor (Heeks, 1999).

Computers and the Internet
Computers and the Internet are commonly made available to poor communities in the form of community-based telecentres. As the examples cited in this report and the case studies in the annex show, community-based telecentres provide shared access to computers and the Internet and are the only realistic means of doing this for poor communities. Although telecentres come in many guises, the two key elements are public access and a development orientation. It is the latter characteristic that distinguishes telecentres from cyber cafés. Of course, the cyber café can be a useful device in fostering development through ICTs, but the difference is crucial, because development-oriented telecentres embody the principle of providing access for a purpose—that of implementing a development agenda.

To achieve their development objectives, telecentres perform community outreach services in order to determine the types of information that can be used to foster development activities. Computer literate telecentre staff act as intermediaries between community members who may not be familiar with ICTs and the information services that they require. Telecentres can provide a range of ICT-based services from which they can earn an income, such as telephone use, photocopying and printing, email and word processing. This helps with financial self-sustainability, which telecentres are often required to attain, although some argue that ICT-based development services should not have to be paid for by poor people, and should be provided as a public service, rather like libraries. The results of experiments with telecentres are mixed: some have demonstrated considerable benefits for their target audiences; others are struggling with fragile connectivity and uncertain communities. Very few have achieved self-financing sustainability.