Information and Communication Technologies for Poverty Alleviation/The Lessons of Experience

What lessons can be learned so far? edit

It should be evident from the examples that where demonstrable results have emerged, it has been because of a clear focus on the development strategy. As the G8 DOT Force states, “Efforts to increase access to ICTs should be rooted in a broader strategy to combat poverty.” From the examples cited, we can make the following observations:

ICTs alone are insufficient for significant benefits to emerge.
If there is no attendant workable development strategy, ICTs cannot be expected to result in optimal outcomes. Giving voice to the poor and helping them apply their knowledge is a key element in combating poverty, and should be incorporated into ICT approaches to poverty alleviation. Directly addressing the needs of the poor and most marginalized, particularly women and girls, is vital.

ICTs will not transform bad development into good development, but they can make good development better.
ICTs act as an amplifier of underlying processes. What makes development work well will be made to work better by using ICTs. On the other hand, if used inappropriately, ICTs add unnecessary costs to the process. Also, users and promoters could get disillusioned when expected benefits from ICT use fail to emerge, which in turn could hinder subsequent efforts to use ICTs appropriately.

Effective applications of ICTs comprise both a technological infrastructure and an information infrastructure.
The information infrastructure includes all that is required to make the ICTs relevant to their context, including all sources of information and its consumers. Mobilizing them into a coherent infrastructure requires methods and skills that are quite different from those required to assemble the technology infrastructure. While ICTs can be effective tools for tackling poverty, the spread of technology should not be an objective in itself. Poverty, not the digital divide is the problem.

In rural settings in developing countries (where the vast majority of poor people live), it is always a challenge to install the technological infrastructure, but the task is relatively simple compared to establishing the information infrastructure.

Developing countries suffer from poor and underdeveloped infrastructures and creative approaches to supplement the existing infrastructure are often necessary in order to achieve connectivity. No single technology is suitable for all needs. Each ICT (old and new) will be appropriate in different circumstances. Solutions can be technically demanding, making it advisable to recruit the best technical people that can be found. However, they should not be put in charge. First, no matter how creative and efficient the technology, its implementation will always be judged by development outcomes. Second, technical people need to devote their energies and expertise to the technology and should not be burdened with the issues of designing the information infrastructure and mobilizing system users. Generally, the two sets of skills that are required tend to be mutually exclusive.

The application of ICTs in the absence of a development strategy that makes effective use of them will inevitably result in sub-optimal outcomes.

It is important to be able to differentiate between types of outcomes and to balance them against the intentions, aspirations and potential of the technology and its users. At the same time, it is important to recognize that unexpected outcomes can turn out to be more desirable than those that were expected. ICT implementations have their own dynamics, and projects should acknowledge that introducing technology itself changes the dynamics of the problem that the technology is intended to solve. Sub-optimal outcomes are often a product of failing to respond to system dynamics in a way that would have directed the technology more closely towards better development, and failure to adapt to the dynamics of a responsive development strategy.

While ICTs provide opportunities for development, desirable outcomes always arise from the actions of people.
The information infrastructure, and especially the people in it, makes up the key enabling environment that will determine the nature of the outcomes. When the main focus is on technology, there is a tendency to leave the people issues to chance. However, the enabling environment is crucial to providing information and communication services, innovation and entrepreneurship, and free flow of information. Education and skills are key enablers of the effective use of ICTs.

Other studies have drawn similar conclusions. The DFID report concludes, “Information, communication and knowledge are critical elements of poverty reduction and meeting the international development targets. ICTs, used appropriately, can be effective tools to advance DFID’s mission” (Marker et al., 2002). But to succeed, ICT projects must build on an assessment of local needs, as defined by local people. Well-meaning government officials, officers of international aid agencies and workers in NGOs sometimes assume that they know what is needed at the grass roots. Thus, projects are often not based on any real assessment of local needs. Furthermore, they assume a uniformity of needs in distinct localities with different populations, economic bases, cultures, social organization and levels of need. They also take for granted that providing computers and/or web connections will (without additional efforts) provide increased social justice, enable local peoples to sell their products in the world market, feed the hungry, meet unmet medical needs, and so on (Keniston and Kumar, 2000).

What are the key social dimensions to ICTs for poverty alleviation? edit

Research from Latin America advocates a social vision for using ICTs to eliminate and/or redress the deeply rooted inequalities of modern societies. [6] The vision is based on the following premises:

  • Connectivity is important, but it is not sufficient to contribute to development.
  • Equitable access, meaningful use and social appropriation of ICT resources are all necessary to take advantage of available opportunities and achieve positive results.
  • Certain enabling environments must exist for ICTs to contribute effectively to development.
  • Risks and threats exist in the use of ICTs for development and should be avoided or minimized.

In this vision, ICTs are neither positive nor negative in themselves, but they are not neutral either. ICT deployment could end up reproducing and deepening existing inequalities in society. The term social appropriation is used to describe the process that leads to the social transformations that occur as a result of using ICTs. Social appropriation occurs when Internet resources help transform daily life by contributing to the solution of concrete problems. Evidence of appropriation is not found in the use of ICTs, but rather in the changes that they have brought about in the real world.

The social appropriation of ICTs for development can be demonstrated in a number of ways, such as by offering better medical information to patients; improving the quality of education through the use of innovative teaching resources; introducing varied, relevant programming into community radio broadcasting; increasing sales of local products in the marketplace; disseminating the results of local research; and coordinating action among diverse groups with common goals.

One way of achieving social appropriation is the methodology known as infomobilization. This methodology is based on socio-technical systems theory, which claims that separate efforts to optimize the technical system and the social system will lead to sub-optimal results, and can even be infeasible. The same information system can be a success in one organization/community but a failure in another, while the same organization/community can experience success with one information system but fail with another. Hence, the information system and its context must be studied, understood and managed together, not separately. Infomobilization applies these theories to rural communities in a developing country.

Infomobilization is concerned with the information requirements of communities. It addresses the design, delivery and utilization of community information systems by:

  • Defining community information requirements based on needs and priorities that have been expressed by the communities themselves;
  • Igniting community aspirations and empowering communities with appropriate skills for fostering local development that is information-based;
  • Expanding a community’s social capital through enhanced access to communication facilities and information resources;
  • Embedding community-based ICT services within existing economic, governance and social structures;
  • Infusing enhanced capability for information access within communities;
  • Achieving sustainability of financing, service delivery and operating functionality;
  • Ensuring that benefits arising are not usurped by existing elites, and are equitably disseminated among the socially and economically disadvantaged groups; and
  • Extending and intensifying existing development programmes that carry a significant potential for additional community benefit from enhanced information management capabilities that are based on ICTs.

The methodology consists of the actions necessary to ensure that ICTs have optimal impacts for development within rural communities in developing countries. The process is made up of techniques for

  • Familiarizing communities with their existing use and sources of information as well as with the gaps that exist between existing and desired information resources;
  • Alerting communities to the potential application of information to their problem-solving efforts and to their development aspirations;
  • Sensitizing communities to the existence and accessibility of abundant information resources and to the capabilities of ICTs for accessing and manipulating information;
  • Propelling communities towards the acquisition of the new knowledge they will require in order to exploit the power of ICTs;
  • Empowering communities with information literacy, the skills necessary for the mastery of new media, the Internet and multimedia;
  • Motivating communities to apply ICTs to the new opportunities that become possible from their relationship with ICTs;
  • Encouraging the collection, classification, preservation and dissemination of indigenous knowledge and cultural information artefacts; and
  • Fostering appropriate local mechanisms for sustaining the equipment, services and operations of community-based ICTs.

These techniques comprise a community learning system, whereby the community starts by learning about its information needs, and then begins to satisfy those needs and, as a result of the experience, becomes increasingly capable of understanding and satisfying information needs of an increasingly higher order.

How should project implementers engage with communities? edit

The World Bank’s advice regarding a participatory style of community engagement is relevant for ICT implementation methodologies:

  • Methodologies for designing and implementing useful information systems should emerge from participatory action-oriented analytical activities
  • Data should be obtained using a combination of surveys, direct interviews, workshops and discussion groups
  • Useful information systems should be embedded within the needs of the community
  • Specific actions are required by both the implementers and the community in order to articulate those needs
  • The implementers should learn about life in the beneficiary communities
  • The community should learn about ICTs from the implementers
  • Community members should perform major portions of the implementation
  • The implementers should be able to identify with the community
  • As a team, the community-implementers should be capable of critically reflecting on iterative cycles of action in order to achieve beneficial outcomes from the project

Participatory forms of analysis in which community aspirations and development activities are moulded and tracked in a cyclic manner are more likely to achieve desirable results than technology implementation that is predicated on fixed expectations and inflexible assumptions of what outcomes should look like.

What are other project implementation considerations? edit

Unexpected outcomes

The social dynamics of communities, when combined with the characteristic of ICTs as intellectual (as opposed to industrial) technologies, can lead to unexpected outcomes of ICT implementation. In some cases, these can turn out to be more desirable than those that were targeted, and they are to be encouraged. Figure 7 illustrates a combination of possibilities:

Figure 7: Project Outcomes


Monitoring and evaluation of social interventions tend to be too quantitative. Evaluation can benefit from the richness of qualitative approaches, such as story telling. Stories are based on experience and they represent empirical evidence of events. They capture the richness of events and the circumstances of the people involved in the events, their emotions and perspectives of reality. They also reveal life histories and the connection between personalities and events. In describing how things actually happened, stories offer learning opportunities for understanding causalities and the shifting dynamics that occur between people, events, technology, institutions and the environment. Besides, stories evoke a response from the listener, and this can add depth to the communication that is taking place during the re-telling.

Also, stories can summarize multiple events that are linked in some meaningful way in a cumulative manner that helps to identify trends so that future behaviour can be directed towards desirable outcomes. Hence, stories cultivate social change, becoming part of the intervention rather than being separate from it. As the outcome of story telling is in large part determined by the context of the telling, stories can be re-used within multiple contexts, thereby serving multiple purposes. While it is improbable that statistical analyses would contain stories, it is possible for stories to contain statistical analyses. Moreover, stories collect data that are difficult to represent in statistics, such as emotions, and evidence suggests that such factors are influential in determining community-based reactions to social interventions.

Time scales
Donors and implementers often set the time scales for ICT projects with little reference to the recipient community. In some cases the time scales are determined within frameworks of national or international budgeting that have no bearing on the conduct of the project. Experience suggests that communities will determine for themselves the rate at which they take up innovations, and project implementers should be prepared for this. In the case of the Gujarat Milk Co-operative, implementation efforts spanned 10 years before the full potential of the application was achieved. Sometimes a focus on “deliverables” denies the dynamics of the social context of the project. Even use of the term “project” can be problematic. Projects have definite start and end points, which are important milestones for management, but the activity is often regarded by the recipient community more as a continuous process, with no ending in sight. These different perspectives can create tension between implementers and recipients.

Top-down or bottom-up
ICT deployment tends to fall into one of two categories: top-down projects by central or state governments and bottom-up grass-roots initiatives by local communities and NGOs. Top-down national programmes have difficulty incorporating the specifics of the local context of a rural community. On the other hand, scaling up the successes of focused grass-roots initiatives is also proving to be a challenge.

There is a need for a methodology that will enable field workers involved with ICT projects to mobilize communities towards achieving optimum outcomes from them. If a detailed methodology can be formulated, tested and documented, then large numbers of field operatives can be trained to implement it across many communities. Such a capability would enhance the likelihood of optimal development outcomes from a nationwide implementation, effectively incorporating the benefits of focused small-scale grass-roots projects into a large-scale national programme.

Social mobilization has already been demonstrated to be an efficient means of alleviating poverty on a wide scale, using methods based on the exploitation of physical assets. An equivalent technique that focuses on exploiting information assets is now required. Methodologies are important for ICT professionals as they bring together simple tools and techniques that are useful in assuring a high degree of success with ICT implementation. Methodologies for the analysis, design and implementation of information systems account for all of the logical processes that need to be considered for an ICT project to achieve, or exceed, its objective. They go beyond the mere installation of technology by addressing the behavioural changes of technology users that are known to be necessary for technology to fulfil its potential. The most useful methodologies are those that can accomplish this aside from being easily taught to operatives who need not be highly qualified. Such methodologies incorporate simple-to-use tools and techniques that are structured together in such a way as to ensure that all aspects of the system problem are properly addressed.

Can ICTs for poverty alleviation be sustainable? edit

The concept of sustainability in development can be traced back to a 1987 report by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, 1987), known as the Brundtland Report. It states:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainable development focuses on improving the quality of life for all of the Earth’s citizens without increasing the use of natural resources beyond the capacity of the environment to supply them indefinitely.

Sustainability discourse has since extended beyond issues relating to the irreversible depletion of the environment and the inevitable exhaustion of finite natural resources. Sustainability in development is now more widely regarded as the ability of a project or intervention to continue after the implementing agency has departed, a condition that often has little to do with environmental protection or with the preservation of natural resources. In view of the seemingly common occurrence of project breakdowns after the departure of the implementing agent, sustainability in terms of continuity has become a key indicator of success of development activities, as well as an important criterion in pre-implementation planning for obtaining funds.

In many cases, the sustainability of development projects focuses on the single question, “Who will pay for the project after the implementing agent departs?” A popular response is for project implementers to design interventions that will generate sufficient income so that they will pay for themselves. In these cases, the role of the implementing agent is to provide seed inputs, including, but not limited, to capital that will get the project started and enable it to continue under its own impetus after the implementer departs.

But sustainability is not limited to the need of development to pay for itself. The International Institute for Sustainable Development lists three common characteristics of sustainable development:

  • Concern for equity and fairness
  • Long-term view
  • Systems thinking

Concern for fairness and equity reflects the need for the benefits of development to reach the least privileged, those least endowed with resources and the most vulnerable. The long-term view encompasses the unexpected and undesirable outcomes of development efforts, as well as the tension that emerges between implementers with short-term project orientations and beneficiaries with long-term process considerations. For example, building a bridge is a short-term project, whereas crossing the river is a long-term process. Systems thinking includes multidimensional perspectives, the identification of feedback loops and the consideration of the consequences of actions, acknowledging the complexity of social life everywhere and the inter-relatedness of everything.

Sustainability of ICTs has emerged as a key issue in the debate surrounding their use in development. In most cases, the discussion refers to financial selfsustainability, which is often regarded as a condition for the continued use of the technology. In fact, there are four types of sustainability that apply to telecentres:

  • Sustaining financial viability (Hudson, 1999)
  • Sustaining staff capability (Baark and Heeks, 1998)
  • Sustaining community acceptance (Whyte, 1999)
  • Sustaining service delivery (Colle and Roman)

Financial viability refers to the capacity to generate sufficient income to cover costs of operation and/or the cost of initially establishing a telecentre. While this ability to pay for itself generally requires the derivation of revenue directly from those who use the services, it does not preclude the possibility of other continuing sources of revenue, such as funding from government (Hudson, 1999).

Projects that introduce new skills also need to maintain the sustainability of the capabilities developed. This is possible only to the extent that trained people, or their trained replacements, continue to work in the same area and their capabilities are maintained and utilized. Sometimes, trained staff discover a better market for their skills and are lured away from the project (Baark and Heeks, 1998).

It is important to note that a technology’s sustainability will be determined by the degree of community acceptance that it is able to generate. For example, the introduction of a community telecentre, if successful, is going to have a major impact on the community—its culture, communication patterns, economy, social structure and future development. Telecentres that are seen as mere technological providers rather than social and cultural community centres have been found to be less sustainable. The degree of community involvement in, and commitment to, a telecentre is a success factor, and measures of user behaviour and perceptions are at the heart of any evaluation of telecentres (Whyte, 1999).

Sustaining service delivery relates to the continuation of flows of information that communities find useful and useable. But it also relates to sustaining the overall services in terms of adapting to evolving community needs, proactively seeking new sources of useful information, and alerting the community to the value of information. Colle and Roman suggest strategies for technology implementation that foster sustainability of service delivery, namely; having local champions or innovators to mobilize others to accept the vision of an ICT initiative; raising awareness about information and ICTs as a valuable resource for individuals, families, organizations and communities; and focusing on information services rather than on technology to build a local institution that is fully woven into the fabric of the community.

Sustainability of ICTs shines a spotlight on the issue of sustainability in development as it embodies many of the dimensions of the sustainability theme as it has evolved since first coming to the attention of development practice. Of these dimensions, financial sustainability might be argued to be the most critical or even the most difficult to achieve. Despite the plummeting cost-power ratio of computers, their price typically remains many orders of magnitude beyond the average annual incomes of potential users in developing countries. Therefore, the cases in this primer are described from the perspective of financial sustainability. In addition, financial sustainability warrants special attention because of the reassurance required by governments that telecentres will result in net benefits and will not become a drain on resources.

Because most ICT projects are recent and experimental, experience with their sustainability is limited. Many current experiments are more concerned with establishing the social value of ICTs. For instance, few of the Gyandoot kiosks have achieved commercial viability (World Bank 2002), and even though the Village Information Shops in Pondicherry are expanding their operations to new locations, they still require outside financial support. It is commonly assumed, however, that effective rural ICT access requires economic subsidy and financial loss. Others argue that ICTs should be economically viable if they are to gain wide, robust and long-lived usage. One report suggests that there are at least six broad categories that must be considered for economic self-sustainability: costs, revenue, networks, business models, policy and capacity (Best and Maclay, 2002). Best and Maclay (2002) prescribe the following actions for achieving sustainability:

Keep costs low

  • Reduce capital costs with new devices and wireless applications
  • Use appropriate technologies to reduce recurrent costs
  • Generate revenue from diverse fees and services
  • Focus first on core communication applications
  • Promote gradual growth of other revenue sources

Create jobs and revenue with remote ICT-enabled services (e.g., transcription of hard copy records)

  • Benefit from network effects, scope and scale
  • Aggregate markets and leverage the benefits of large networks
  • Exploit economies of scale and scope by promoting larger networks
  • Design context-appropriate business models
  • Create rural service providers for Internet, computing and telephony
  • Add telecentres to existing businesses
  • Add businesses to telecentres
  • Promote rural-urban cooperation
  • Guard against potential negative externalities, e.g., location, marketing/awareness, and staff composition

Support rural access with policy

  • Adapt to the dynamics of rural markets and limited competition
  • Remove regulatory barriers to rural services
  • Promote universal access policies and support incentives
  • Require and enforce interconnection
  • Be wary of time-metered calling charges
  • Use Voice over IP(VoIP) to promote competition
  • End spectrum allocation regimes that punish rural wireless
  • Improve the overall business environment, e.g., for credit
  • Build local capacity