Information and Communication Technologies for Poverty Alleviation/Development Strategies and ICTs
What is the relationship between development, information and ICTs?
There is a risk that the argument in support of ICTs for development will be used excessively, in support of projects that cannot otherwise be justified by more rational means. The attendant danger is that the concept of ICTs for poverty alleviation loses credibility among development planners and decision makers. Nevertheless, the potential of information as a strategic development resource should be incorporated as a routine element into the development planning process, so that project managers become used to thinking in these new terms.
The most effective route to achieving substantial benefit with ICTs in development programmes is to concentrate on re-thinking development activities by analysing current problems and associated contextual conditions, and considering ICT as just one ingredient of the solution. This implies an approach to developing strategies for information systems and technology that are derived from and integrated with other components of the overall development strategy. This approach is depicted in Figure 6.
Figure 6. The Relationship Between Development, Information and ICTs
The general rule is that the application of ICTs to development should always begin with a development strategy. From that, an information plan for implementing the development strategy can be derived and only out of that should come a technology plan. While strategic thinking can be informed by an appreciation of the capabilities of ICTs, it is essential to have clear development targets that are specific to the context before the form of use of the ICTs is defined. Additionally, in considering the development strategy, bottom-up, demand-driven development objectives are usually preferable to top-down, supply-driven objectives, so that goals begin with an appreciation of the needs of development recipients as they would themselves express them.
From an unambiguous articulation of the development strategy, an information plan is drawn. This will set down the information resources required to achieve the development strategy. Again, this determination can be made against an informed background with regard to the capabilities of ICTs, but it should not be driven by the mere application of technology. Finally, a plan for the technology can be drawn up that will be capable of delivering the information resources required for the achievement of the strategy.
Although such an approach makes sense intuitively, there are many examples of technology-related development projects that are technology-driven, top-down and supply-driven, and they often result in sub-optimal outcomes because of this.
Modelling the relationship between ICTs and development addresses the earlier comments about the digital divide in greater depth. The model is applicable at all points at which closing the divide is attempted. It was developed to facilitate a grass-roots implementation targeting community development where heavy emphasis was placed on empowering the community to construct their own agenda for ICT-assisted development, prior to introducing the technology (Harris et al., 2001).
In the next section, a number of technology-related development initiatives are described, and the reader might wish to reflect on the extent to which the outcomes of each were a result of deploying technology or of implementing a sound development strategy. The earlier discussion of some of the technology choices available underscores the need to be clear about the development and information delivery strategies before deciding on the technology. In highlighting where such strategies may be applied, subsequent sections provide a brief overview of the major areas of application of ICTs to poverty alleviation that have been observed to offer some promise.
What strategies for poverty alleviation have been successfully pursued with the use of ICTs?
Distributing locally relevant information
In the case of Internet diffusion, a consistent finding of surveys of Internet users and providers in developing countries is that the lack of local language and locally relevant content is a major barrier to increased use. Unless there is a concerted effort to overcome this constraint, Internet growth in many developing countries could be stuck in a low-use equilibrium (Kenny et al., 2001). The undersupply of pro-poor local content inhibits the virtuous circle, known as the network effect, whereby the growth of the on-line community makes the development of Internet content a more attractive commercial and social proposition, and increasing amounts of attractive content encourages the growth of the on-line community.
In the Village Information Shops in Pondicherry, India, a major contributory factor to all operations is the use of Tamil language and Tamil script in the computers (Sentilkumaran and Arunachalam, 2002). Despite there being no standard for the representation of Tamil in software at the time of implementation, the project staff were able to develop the use of Microsoft Office applications in Tamil script. Moreover, the applications are operated in Tamil using a western, Roman script QWERTY keyboard. The operators (semi-literate women) have learned the appropriate keyboard codes for the Tamil characters and are quite proficient at data entry. The centre in Villianur has generated a number of databases for local use, and all but one are in Tamil. The centres collect information on indigenous knowledge systems and are developing useful brochures in Tamil.
Beyond the entry of data, the extent to which use of the Tamil language has promoted the use of the information shops and fostered interactivity and engagement between the various information systems that are available and their intended beneficiaries, cannot be underestimated. Local content is directed towards the information needed to satisfy the communities’ needs, and is developed in collaboration with the local people. There are close to a hundred databases, including rural yellow pages, which are updated as often as needed. An entitlements database serves as a single-window for the entire range of government programmes, fostering greater transparency in government. Relevant content is obtained from elsewhere if it is found useful to the local community. For example, useful information has been collected from Government departments, the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Aravind Eye Hospital and the US Navy’s web site. The centres have held health camps in the villages in cooperation with local hospitals as part of gathering information about local health care needs. The centres use multimedia and loud speakers to reach out to illiterate clients, and publish a fortnightly Tamil newspaper called Namma Ooru Seithi (Our Village News), which has become so popular that Government departments such as the District Rural Development Agency, Social Welfare Board, and the Small Scale Industries Centre use it to publicize their schemes (Arunachalam, 2002).
The Gyandoot project in Madhya Pradesh State of India is an intranet in the district of Dhar that connects rural cyber cafés catering to the everyday needs of the masses  . It provides the following services:
- Commodity marketing information system
- Income certificate
- Domicile certificate
- Caste certificate
- Landholder’s passbook of land rights and loans
- Rural Hindi e-mail
- Public grievance redressal
- Forms of various government schemes.
- Below-Poverty-Line Family List
- Employment news
- Rural matrimonial
- Rural market
- Rural newspaper
- Advisory module
Targeting disadvantaged and marginalized groups
Within populations of poor people, disadvantaged and marginalized sections of society usually face impediments to using, and making good use of, ICTs in much the same way that they might face impediments in using other resources. Women in developing countries in particular face difficulties in using ICTs, as they tend to be poorer, face greater social constraints, and are less likely to be educated or literate than men. Moreover, they are likely to use ICTs in different ways, and have different information requirements than men. Women are also less likely to be able to pay for access to ICTs, either because of an absolute lack of funds or because they lack control of household expenditure. Constraints on women’s time or their movement outside of the home can also reduce their ability to access technologies (Marker et al. 2002). Such groups usually require special assistance and attention in order to benefit from programmes that are targeted at poor people.
People who do not understand the English language are also a marginalized section of society on the Internet. Such people include the majority populations of French-speaking Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Latin America. Even when users have basic English proficiency, they are discouraged from using web sites that are only in English.
Strategies for reaching marginalized sectors of society through ICTs include the collection, classification, protection, and commercialization of indigenous knowledge by minority groups using ICTs. Traditional remedies are being recorded in databases and afforded protection from foreign applications for patents. The value of such practices is evident from the stringent rules imposed by the state government of Sarawak, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo, over the collection of flora samples in their rainforests, where a particular tree species promises to yield substances that might lead to a cure for HIV/AIDS. The Honey Bee network in India collects local innovations, inventions and remedies, stores them on-line, and helps owners obtain incomes from local patents and commercialization of inventions. The database contains more than 1,300 innovations. Similarly, the Kelabit ethnic group of Sarawak, one of Borneo’s smaller ethnic minorities, are recording their oral history in a database of stories told by the old people. They are also using computers to assemble their genealogical records.
The selling of handicrafts on the Internet by local artisans, a form of e-commerce, also provides buyers with the historical and cultural background of indigenous products. Traders in such products deliberately disconnect ethnic artefacts from the identity of the artists in order to keep down the prices at which they can obtain the artists’ works. Providing the artisans with more direct access to their market through the Internet allows them to build up a clientele and achieve recognition as the creator of original art and crafts. Relatedly, web sites that feature aboriginal art can now be found with strict warnings against using Australian aboriginal designs without permission, seemingly in response to complaints that T-shirt manufacturers freely plagiarize designs without any recompense to the creators. Whether such warnings are effective is hard to tell, but at least the web site can be used to register ownership rights and to demonstrate priority in the creation of designs.
Nearly 80 percent of the world’s disabled population of 500 million people lives in developing countries. Usually their disability only compounds the difficulties they already face as (possibly poor) citizens of developing countries. But like people who live in isolated and remote locations, they probably stand to gain far more benefit from being able to make good use of ICTs. Efforts to enable access to ICTs by disabled people are under way. One such effort relates to the development of adaptive technology, which is a major prerequisite for many people with disabilities to use computer technology. These are modifications or upgrades to a computer’s hardware and software to provide alternative methods of entering and receiving data. Many of the modifications can be made relatively inexpensively. Some modifications can be as simple as lowering a computer desk while others can be as elaborate as attaching an input device that tracks eye movements. Common adaptive technologies include programs that read or describe the information on the screen, programs that enlarge or change the colour of screen information, and special pointing or input devices. There are standards and guidelines for World Wide Web accessibility and electronic document accessibility for individuals with disabilities. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines set out by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)  is the world standard for WWW contents accessibility.
Digital Divide Data Entry is a philanthropic organization that uses the Internet, the English language and the computer skills of Cambodia’s youth to provide basic information services to North America corporations. They employ 10 disabled people to copy type documents into a computer, a simple task that requires only typing skills and a basic knowledge of English. The organization is currently working on a US$30,000 contract to input more than 100 years of archives of the Harvard University newspaper. Once completed, the work can be sent to the US via e-mail. There are plans to hire more disabled people, more women and more poor people, and to expand from data entry to more complicated tasks, like creating web pages and Power Point presentations.
Promoting local entrepreneurship
It has been claimed that ICTs have the potential to impact the livelihood strategies of small-scale enterprises and local entrepreneurs in the following areas:
- Natural capital - opportunities for accessing national government policies
- Financial capital - communication with lending organizations, e.g., for micro-credit
- Human capital - increased knowledge of new skills through distance learning and processes required for certification
- Social capital - cultivating contacts beyond the immediate community
- Physical capital - lobbying for the provision of basic infrastructure
To cite an example, India Shop is an Internet-based virtual shopping mall selling Indian handicrafts. Established by the Foundation of Occupational Development (FOOD) in Chennai, India Shop involves e-marketers who promote the goods over the Internet, through chat-rooms and mail lists. They work from a computer, either at home or in a cyber café, and draw commissions on the sales that they achieve. The e-marketers respond to sales enquiries and liase with the craftspeople, typically exchanging multiple e-mails with clients before sales are closed. There are more than 100 people marketers, earning between Rs2,000Rs10,000 per month.
In Gujarat, computerized milk collection centres using embedded chip technology are helping ensure fair prices for small farmers who sell milk to dairy cooperatives. The fat content of milk used to be calculated hours after the milk was received; farmers were paid every 10 days and had to trust the manual calculations of milk quality and quantity made by the staff of cooperatives. Farmers often claimed that the old system resulted in malfeasance and underpayments, but such charges were difficult to prove. Computerized milk collection now increases transparency, expedites processing, and provides immediate payments to farmers (World Bank, 2002).
Indeed, small-scale entrepreneurs in developing countries, especially women, have shown the ability to harness ICTs for developing their enterprises. For example, a group of ladies in Kizhur village, Pondicherry decided that they wanted to start a small business enterprise manufacturing incense sticks. They began as sub-contractors but their confidence and enterprise grew from utilizing the local telecentre. As a result of some searches by the telecentre operators, they were able to develop the necessary skills for packaging and marketing their own brand name incense. The ladies were quickly able to develop local outlets for their products and they are confidently using the telecentre to seek out more distant customers.
ICT and e-commerce are attractive to women entrepreneurs (who in many developing countries account for the majority of small and medium-size enterprise owners), as it allows them to save time and money while trying to reach out to new clients in domestic and foreign markets. There are many success stories in business-to-consumer (B2C) retailing or e-tailing from all developing-country regions, demonstrating how women have used the Internet to expand their customer base in foreign markets while at the same time being able to combine family responsibilities with lucrative work. However, in spite of the publicity given to e-tailing, its scope and spread in the poorer parts of the world have remained small, and women working in micro-enterprises and the informal sector are far from being in a position to access and make use of the new technologies. Moreover, B2C e-commerce is small compared to business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce and thus benefits only a small number of women (UNCTAD, 2002).
Improving poor people’s health
Health care is one of the most promising areas for poverty alleviation with ICTs, based largely as it is on information resources and knowledge. There are many ways in which ICTs can be applied to achieve desirable health outcomes. ICTs are being used in developing countries to facilitate remote consultation, diagnosis, and treatment. Thus, physicians in remote locations can take advantage of the professional skills and experiences of colleagues and collaborating institutions (DOI, 2001). Health workers in developing countries are accessing relevant medical training through ICT-enabled delivery mechanisms. Several new malaria Internet sites for health professionals include innovative “teach-and-test” self-assessment modules. In addition, centralized data repositories connected to ICT networks enable remote health care professionals to keep abreast of the rapidly evolving stock of medical knowledge.
When applied to disease prevention and epidemic response efforts, ICT can provide considerable benefits and capabilities. Public broadcast media such as radio and television have a long history of effectively facilitating the dissemination of public health messages and disease prevention techniques in developing countries. The Internet can also be utilized to improve disease prevention by enabling more effective monitoring and response mechanisms.
The World Health Organization and the world’s six biggest medical journal publishers are providing access to vital scientific information to close to 100 developing countries that otherwise could not afford such information. The arrangement makes available through the Internet, for free or at reduced rates, almost 1,000 of the world’s leading medical and scientific journals to medical schools and research institutions in developing countries. Previously, biomedical journal subscriptions, both electronic and print, were priced uniformly for medical schools, research centres and similar institutions, regardless of geographical location. Annual subscription prices cost on average several hundred dollars per title. Many key titles cost more than US$1500 per year, making it all but impossible for the large majority of health and research institutions in the poorest countries to access critical scientific information.
Apollo Hospitals has set up a telemedicine centre at Aragonda in Andhra Pradesh, to offer medical advice to the rural population using ICTs. The centre links healthcare specialists with remote clinics, hospitals, and primary care physicians to facilitate medical diagnosis and treatment. The rural telemedicine centre caters to the 50,000 people living in Aragonda and the surrounding six villages. As part of the project, the group has constructed in the village a 50-bed multi-speciality hospital with a CT scan, X-ray, eight-bed intensive care unit, and blood bank. It also has equipment to scan, convert and send data images to the tele-consultant stations at Chennai and Hyderabad. The centre provides free health screening camps for detection of a variety of diseases. There is a VSAT facility at Aragonda for connectivity to Hyderabad and Chennai. The scheme is available to all the families in the villages at a cost of Rs.1 per day for a family of five.
In Ginnack, a remote island village on the Gambia River, nurses use a digital camera to take pictures of symptoms for examination by a doctor in a nearby town. The physician can send the pictures over the Internet to a medical institute in the UK for further evaluation. X-ray images can also be compressed and sent through existing telecommunications networks.
Across Sub-Saharan Africa, the Internet is used to report daily cases of meningitis to monitor emerging epidemics. When threshold levels are reached, mass vaccination is required and the Internet is used to rapidly mobilize medical personnel and effectively coordinate laboratories and specialist services.
In Andhra Pradesh again, handheld computers are enabling auxiliary nurse midwives to eliminate redundant paperwork and data entry, freeing time to deliver health care to poor people. Midwives provide most health services in the state’s vast rural areas, with each serving about 5,000 people, typically across multiple villages and hamlets. They administer immunizations, offer advice on family planning, educate people on mother-child health programs and collect data on birth and immunization rates. Midwives usually spend 15–20 days a month collecting and registering data. But with handheld computers they can cut that time by up to 40 percent, increasing the impact and reach of limited resources (World Bank, 2002).
The growth of distance education is being fuelled by the urgent need to close the education gap between poor and rich nations. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), only about three percent of young people in sub-Saharan Africa and seven percent in Asia attend some form of postsecondary education. This compares with 58 percent in industrialized countries as a whole, and 81 percent in the United States.
Developing countries see investing in distance education programmes as a way to educate more people for less money. UNESCO and the World Bank have reported that in the world’s 10 biggest distance education institutions, the majority of which are in the Third World, the cost of education per student is on average about one third the cost at traditional institutions in the same country. In China, where only one out of 20 young people receives higher education, distance learning is helping the education system move from elite to mass education because traditional universities cannot meet the demand. China Central Radio and Television University has 1.5 million students, two-thirds of them in degree programmes. The university caters to working adults. It broadcasts radio and TV lectures at fixed times to students at 2,600 branch campuses and 29,000 study centres, as well as at workplaces.
Distance education seems a natural pre-cursor to on-line education, but the two are not the same, and the transition from the former to the latter can be a challenge. Even the pioneering British Open University still bases its course work on hard copy material, using the Internet for the support aspects of education, such as student and tutor interaction. Initial enthusiasm for the idea of a virtual university has been slow to materialize and there are still very few fully accredited degree programmes that can be taken entirely on-line. Some of the difficulties arose from the slow emergence of understanding about what ICTs contribute to the pedagogical aspects of the teaching-learning process. Other barriers to e-learning include the time and cost required to prepare digital learning materials.
On-line distance education is better suited to adult learners and there are now many organizations opening virtual universities to cater for them. The element of flexible timing for learning appeals to adults who are employed and who realize the value of life-long learning in a changing work environment.
Most developments in e-learning benefit the already privileged. Nevertheless, examples of pro-poor learning indicate the possibilities for the less privileged. It is almost a universally observable phenomenon that children seem to take to computers naturally, and in a unique experiment in India, this has been turned into a new mode of education called minimally invasive education. In 1999, Sugata Mitra of NIIT Ltd. placed an Internet-capable personal computer behind a glass screen in a wall of his office building that looked out to a piece of land occupied by street kids. In what became known as the “Hole in the Wall” experiment, the children very quickly learned an impressive range of computer skills without any tuition at all. As one child learned something new from experimentation, he/she passed it on to the next child. The experiment has since been repeated in half a dozen locations, and Mitra is making plans for 100,000 kiosks to create 100 million computer literates in five years.
In primary and secondary education, radio and television are increasingly important means of reaching the rural poor. In Mexico, over 700,000 secondary-school students in remote villages now have access to the Telesecundaria program, which provides televised classes and a comprehensive curriculum through closed-circuit television, satellite transmissions and teleconferencing between students and teachers. Studies have found that the program is only 16 percent more expensive per pupil served than normal urban secondary schools, while students benefit from the much smaller student-to-teacher ratios. Rural students enter the program with substantially lower mathematics and language test scores than their counterparts at traditional urban schools, but by graduation, they have equalled the math scores of those in the urban schools and cut the language score deficit in half (de Moura et al. 1999).
Further evidence that the impact of the Internet need not be limited to higher education or wealthier students can be found in Brazil’s urban slums. The Committee to Democratise Information Technology (CDI) has created 110 sustainable and self-managed community-based Computer Science and Citizenship Schools using recycled technology, volunteer assistance and very limited funds. CDI schools train more than 25,000 young students every year in ICT skills that give them better opportunities for jobs, education and life changes. CDI also provides social education on human rights, non-violence, the environment and health and sexuality. CDI cites many cases of participants developing renewed interest in formal schooling, resisting the lure to join drug gangs, and greatly increasing their self-esteem. Also, many of the program’s graduates are putting their computer skills to work in various community activities, including health education and AIDS awareness campaigns. Most teachers in CDI schools are themselves graduates of the program who have embraced technology and want to continue CDI’s work in their own communities (InfoDev).
Promoting trade and e-commerce
It is in the Asia Pacific region that e-commerce is spreading most quickly among developing countries. The region’s enterprises, particularly in manufacturing, are exposed to pressure from customers in developed countries to adopt e-business methods and are investing to be able to do so. China’s population of Internet users is already the world’s third largest.
M-commerce, defined as the buying and selling of goods and services using wireless handheld devices such as mobile telephones or personal data assistants (PDAs), is likewise growing at a rapid pace. In the last four years, growth in the number of mobile telephone users worldwide has exceeded fixed lines, expanding from 50 million to almost one billion in 2002. This rapid growth stems from the cost advantage of mobile infrastructure over fixed-line installation and from the fact that mobile network consumers can simply buy a handset and a prepaid card and start using it as soon as the first base stations are in place, without having to open a post-paid account. The introduction of wireless communications has also brought wireless data services, which are essential to conducting m-commerce, to many developing countries. If the convergence of mobile and fixed Internet and ICTs continues, first access to the Internet for a significant part of the world will be achieved using mobile handsets and networks. Wireless technologies have made inroads even in relatively low-income areas, where prepaid cards allow access to people who cannot take out a subscription because of billing or creditworthiness problems. Developing Asia is the leader in this area (UNCTAD 2002).
The main areas of m-commerce use are in text messaging or SMS (short messaging service), micro-payments, financial services, logistics, information services and wireless customer relationship management. Text messaging has been the most successful m-commerce application in developing countries, where rates of low fixed-line connectivity and Internet access have made it an e-mail surrogate. Operators in China and other Asian developing countries are gearing up for m-commerce applications for financial services in particular. However, difficulties in making electronic payments and concerns over the security and privacy of transactions are limiting the conduct of m-commerce. It may have to wait for third-generation wireless technologies and fully Internet-enabled handsets.
ICTs have been widely touted as windows to global markets for small-scale developing country producers. However, there are significant barriers facing artisans in the developing world who are trading directly with consumers (business to consumer) via the Internet. Apart from anecdotal stories, there is little evidence of craft groups successfully dealing direct with end consumers on a sustainable basis. Business-to-business e-commerce offers the greatest opportunities for artisan groups to enhance the service given to business customers (exporters, importers, alternative trade organizations, wholesale and retail buyers etc). This is likely to be much more fruitful and cost-effective for artisans.
PEOPLink is a non-profit organization that has been equipping and training grass-roots artisan organizations all over the world to use digital cameras and the Internet to market their wares while showcasing their cultural richness  . Between 1996 and 2000, PEOPLink developed training modules and used them as the basis for on-site workshops and on-line support for web catalogue development by 55 trading partners serving more than 100,000 artisans in 22 countries. PEOPLink offers a tool-kit to communities that enable them to create a digital catalogue of their handicrafts for posting onto a web site. It also provides additional services such as on-line trend reports, product development and feedback tools, as well as providing logistical support and services such as payment collection, distribution and handling of returns. Many new jobs were created for hundreds of poor artisans in isolated Nepalese villages. The Rockefeller Foundation, which commissioned a strategic plan for PEOPLink, found that “Internet commerce is essential for third world artisan and SME development and PEOPLink can be a leader [in this area].”
However, while some reports suggest that PEOPLink is generating substantial revenue, with daily sales ranging from US$50–500, other reports indicate that PEOPLink has achieved very low sales. There seems to be little evidence to suggest that these operations are selling a significant amount of craft goods direct to consumers. According to a Department for International Development (DFID) report, PEOPLink has had a disappointing level of sales, with no producer contacted having sold any products through its site (Batchelor and Webb, 2002). PEOPLink is now focusing on its CatGen system, software to assist in the creation of on-line catalogues to enhance B2B (business-to-business) operations.
One area of e-commerce that shows potential is the promotion and marketing of pro-poor, community-based tourism. Pro-poor tourism aims to increase the net benefits for the poor from tourism, and ensure that tourism growth contributes to poverty reduction. It is not a specific product or sector of tourism, but a specific approach to tourism. Pro-poor tourism strategies unlock opportunities for the poor, whether for economic gain, other livelihood benefits or participation in decision-making (Ashley et al., 2001). Early experience shows that pro-poor tourism strategies are able to ‘tilt’ the industry at the margin, to expand opportunities for the poor and have potentially wide application across the industry. Poverty reduction through pro-poor tourism can therefore be significant at a local or district level. Moreover, the poverty impact may be greater in remote areas, though the tourism itself may be on a limited scale (Roe and Khanya).
Poor communities are often rich in natural assets—scenery, climate, culture and wildlife. Community-based tourism is closely associated with ecotourism and is regarded as a tool for natural and cultural resource conservation and community development. It is a community-based practice that provides contributions and incentives for natural and cultural conservation, as well as opportunities for community livelihood. Community-based tourism provides alternative economic opportunities in rural areas. It has the potential to create jobs and generate a wide spectrum of entrepreneurial opportunities for people from a variety of backgrounds, skills and experiences, including rural communities and especially women. 
Tourism and e-commerce are natural partners (UNCTAD, 2001). Tourism is highly information-intensive. During the intermediary period, the tourism product exists in the form of information only (reservation number, ticket, voucher). Value added by international tourism intermediaries, who are often no more than marketers and information handlers and who rarely own or manage physical tourism facilities, can be as high as 30 percent or more, which gives them control over terms and conditions throughout the whole value chain. Although it is the destination’s socioeconomic, cultural and geographical content that forms the fundamental tourism product, it often happens that with each intermediary party taking a commission, little income remains for the destination at which the product is consumed. Electronic commerce for tourism (e-tourism) can disintermediate and deconstruct the tourism value chain, driving income closer towards the actual providers of tourism experiences. But the lack of on-line payment facilities, which are fundamental to closing sales, and the lack of local financial and technological infrastructure that is typical of rural and remote locations in developing countries, regularly force e-businesses to establish external subsidiaries and accounts, thereby perpetuating dependence on established intermediary operations.
Supporting good governance
E-governance is an area of ICT use that shows rapidly increasing promise for alleviating the powerlessness, voicelessness, vulnerability and fear dimensions of poverty. Where national or local governments have taken positive steps to spread democracy and inclusion to the poor, ICTs have dramatically demonstrated how they can be used to facilitate the process. The effect can be to break down traditional patterns of exclusion, opaqueness, inefficiency and neglect in public interactions with government officials (Bhatnagar, 2002).
In the Bhoomi project of online delivery of land titles in Karnataka, India, the Department of Revenue in Karnataka has computerized 20 million records of land ownership of 6.7 million farmers in the state. Previously, farmers had to seek out the village accountant to get a copy of the Record of Rights, Tenancy and Crops (RTC), a document needed for many tasks such as obtaining bank loans. There were delays and harassment and bribes often had to be paid. Today, for a fee of Rs.15, a printed copy of the RTC can be obtained on-line at computerized land record kiosks (Bhoomi centres) in nearly 200 taluks (districts) or at Internet kiosks in rural area offices. The Bhoomi software incorporates the bio-logon metrics system, which authenticates all users of the software using their fingerprint. A log is maintained of all transactions in a session. This makes an officer accountable for his decisions and actions. Previously, requests for changes to the records could take months to process and were subject to manipulation by the officers. Now, farmers can get an RTC for any parcel of land and a Khata extract (statement of total land holdings of an individual) in 5-30 minutes from an RTC information kiosk at the taluk headquarters.
There are plans to use the Bhoomi kiosk for disseminating other information, such as lists of destitute and handicapped pensioners, families living below the poverty line, concession food grain cardholders and weather information. The response of the people at taluk level has been overwhelming. Queues can be seen at the kiosks, and 330,000 people have paid the fee without complaint. When asked what single factor contributed most to the success of this project, the manager unhesitatingly replied, “political will”.
In Kerala, the state government is sponsoring the e-shringla project to set up Internet-enabled information kiosks throughout the State. The concept grew out of the state government’s experiences with a bill-payment service called FRIENDS, (Fast, Reliable, Instant, Efficient, Network for Disbursement of Service), which operates as a one-stop service centre equipped with computers for paying bills as well as for obtaining applications and remitting registration fees. E-shringla is the next logical step from FRIENDS. It networks with a variety of government departments and providing Internet access, enabling online services and e-commerce facilities for citizens. The Karakulam Panchayat has developed a Knowledge Village Portal as an example of a community portal system that delivers a range of government and community information.
Since January 2000, Gyandoot, a government-owned computer network, has been making government more accessible to villagers in the poor, drought-prone Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh. Gyandoot reduces the time and money people spend trying to communicate with public officials and provide immediate, transparent access to local government data and documentation. For minimal fees, Intranet kiosks provide caste, income, and domicile certificates, helping villagers avoid the common practice of paying bribes to officials. The kiosks also allow small farmers to track crop prices in the region’s wholesale markets, enabling them to negotiate better terms for crop sales. Other services include on-line applications for land records and a public complaint line for reporting broken irrigation pumps, unfair prices, absentee teachers and other problems. Kiosks are placed in villages located on major roads or holding weekly markets, to facilitate access by people in neighbouring villages. The network of about 30 kiosks covers more than 600 villages and is run by local private operators along commercial lines (World Bank, 2002).
Building capacity and capability
The meaning of the term capacity building seems to vary according to the user, but there appears to be no doubt that ICTs can help achieve it. Capacity building refers to developing an organization’s (or individual’s) core skills and capabilities to help it (him/her) achieve its (his/her) development goals. This definition suits the context of ICTs well as it assumes knowledge of the existence of development goals without which ICTs are unlikely to be of much value. Hans d’Orville, Director of the IT for Development Programme, Bureau for Development Policy, United Nations Development Programme, puts it simply: “The full realisation of the potential of ICTs requires skills, training, individual and institutional capacity among the users and beneficiaries”.
But the key question for poverty alleviation seems to be whether ICTs can build the capacity of the poorest people to achieve whatever goals they may have. If you are illiterate, destitute, disabled, malnourished, low caste, homeless and jobless, will ICTs help? The most likely scenario is that these very poor people will receive assistance from organizations and institutions that use ICTs and whose programmes specifically target them as beneficiaries.
ICTs in the form of multimedia community centres/telecentres, especially at the rural level can act as a nodal point for community connectivity, local capacity-building, content development and communications, and serve as hubs for applications, such as distance education, telemedicine, support to small, medium-sized and micro-credit enterprises, promotion of electronic commerce, environmental management, and empowerment of women and youth. Where such services have a pro-ultra-poor strategy, then the benefits of ICTs can be directed to them.
The Village Information Shops in Pondicherry, India have adopted such a programme. They have used ICTs to build awareness in poor communities of the government programmes and entitlements that are available for their assistance. They have a database of more than 100 such entitlements. Moreover, they have acquired the list of ultra-poor people that the government maintains, and made it available through the centres. The staff proactively notifies the people on the list that they are entitled to claim certain benefits (the government officials had not been well known for promoting these schemes), and they provide assistance in submitting the claims, contacting the appropriate bureaucrat and moving the application forward. As a result, every household in one fishing village is now in receipt of the housing subsidies to which they are entitled, whereas previously none of them were.
Capacity building also relates to the accumulation of social capital, which refers to those features of social organization such as networks, norms and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit. The establishment of networks for mutual benefit can be nurtured and extended through the use of ICTs. ICTs can help create and sustain on-line and off-line networks that introduce and interconnect people who are working toward similar goals.
Many organizations in the women’s movement recognize this potential and have projects that provide support for ICT to be used as an advocacy tool. ICTs can also enable certain individuals, especially early adopters, to spark catalytic change in their communities. For example, one very resourceful lady in a small Mongolian town who single-handedly runs an NGO supporting women’s micro-enterprises used the local telecentre to contact a donor agency in the UK and received an award of US$10,000, a huge sum in that context, to help her in her work.
The 220,000 women members of India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) who earn a living through their own labour or through small businesses have started using telecommunications as a tool for capacity building among the rural population. SEWA uses a combination of landline and satellite communication to conduct educational programs on community development by distance learning. The community development themes covered in the education programs delivered include organizing, leadership building, forestry, water conservation, health education, child development, the Panchayati Raj System and financial services.
ICTs can simultaneously be a threat and an opportunity to a culture. On the one hand, ICTs threaten to engulf indigenous minorities in the relentless processes of globalization. On the other hand, ICTs can be used as tools to help indigenous minorities to engage positively with globalization on their own terms. The concern at this stage is that the former is more likely to happen than the latter. ICTs alone will not achieve cultural diversity. As with all successful applications of ICTs, adaptations in the behaviour of individuals, groups and institutions are necessary before significant cultural benefits can emerge from the deployment of ICTs.
Existing institutions such as libraries and museums can help in the process of democratizing ownership of cultural assets, provided they face up to the limitations of their traditional roles. The Internet has made the conventional role of libraries and museums obsolete. Yet such institutions have major roles to play in mobilizing communities towards a more open and dynamic approach to the assembly and preservation of indigenous culture. Libraries and museums can facilitate a more dispersed pattern of ownership and custodianship of cultural artefacts that can be increasingly represented digitally. Networks that connect digitized cultural artefacts to the communities from which they were derived can be used to foster a wider appreciation of their value and importance as well as a more inclusive approach to how they are used and interpreted.
Studies of indigenous communities regularly point to the importance they place on their cultural heritage. But they also highlight the almost complete lack of control or participation such communities have in how their culture is collected or represented. The Kelabit people in Sarawak, for example, do not feel that they exercise ownership rights over their own cultural heritage. They are concerned that outsiders are able to more easily gain access to both the records and the artefacts related to their cultural heritage than they are. They are also concerned that this can give rise to misinterpretation of the meaning of their cultural heritage. They feel powerless to present to the outside world a picture of themselves, their history and achievements, which they themselves would wish to have known. They see the situation getting worse rather than better, as technology empowers a few people to engage with information relating to their heritage, while depriving the majority of an equal opportunity.
On the other hand, ICTs can be used to help rural indigenous and minority communities achieve custodial ownership and rights of interpretation and commercialization over their own cultural heritage. The Kelabit people of Sarawak are in fact starting to use their telecentre to redress this imbalance by recording their oral histories and genealogical records.
UNESCO is currently formulating a charter and guidelines for the preservation of digital heritage. Digital heritage is that part of all digital materials that has lasting value and significance. New strategies need to be developed to ensure that they are saved for posterity. Digital heritage is either ‘born digital’ where there is no other format, or created by conversion from existing materials in any language and area of human knowledge or expression. It includes linear text, databases, still and moving images, audio and graphics, as well as related software, whether originated on-line or off-line, in all parts of the world. The preamble to the UNESCO charter states that the intellectual and cultural capital of all nations in digital form is at risk due to its ephemeral nature. Thus, the charter details the need for digital preservation principles and strategies to ensure that this heritage is available to all now and into the future.
Aside from digitization of indigenous cultural artefacts, ICTs provide a means for cultural communities to strengthen cultural ties. To cite an example, the Internet is a means to unite the more than five million Assyrians who are scattered all over the U.S., Europe and Australia. The Assyrians are the direct descendants of the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian empires. The Internet is finally uniting Assyrian communities, regardless of their geographic, educational, and economic backgrounds (Albert).
ICTs can either homogenize cultures or provide an opportunity to celebrate the diversity of culture. Whichever outcome prevails depends on how ICTs are used. Among the few experimental ICT projects involving ethnic indigenous people, short-term thinking and the pressure for tangible results (deliverables) cause donors to focus on poverty alleviation outcomes alone. However, when you talk to members of the communities themselves, it is easy to find considerable interest in using the technology for preserving and strengthening their cultural heritage.
Research suggests that increasing agricultural productivity benefits the poor and landless through increased employment opportunities. Because the vast majority of poor people live in rural areas and derive their livelihoods directly or indirectly from agriculture, support for farming is a high priority for rural development. ICTs can deliver useful information to farmers in the form of crop care and animal husbandry, fertilizer and feedstock inputs, drought mitigation, pest control, irrigation, weather forecasting, seed sourcing and market prices. Other uses of ICTs can enable farmers to participate in advocacy and cooperative activities.
To illustrate how useful ICTs can be for farmers, consider the case of farmers in India who in the past were harvesting their tomatoes at the same time, giving rise to a market glut that pushed prices to rock bottom. At other times, when tomatoes weren’t available and the prices shot up, the farmers had none to sell. Now, they use a network of telecentres to coordinate their planting so that there is a steady supply to the markets and more regulated and regular prices.
The Maharashtra State government has plans of linking 40,000 villages with Agronet, a specially developed software package for farmers that aims to provide the latest information on agriculture.
Samaikya Agritech P. Ltd. in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh operates 18 “Agritech Centres”, which provide agricultural support services to farmers on a commercial basis. They are permanently operated by qualified agricultural graduates called Agriculture Technical Officers (ATO) and are equipped with computers linked to the head office in Hyderabad through a modem-to-modem telephone connection. Through these centres Samaikya provides technical assistance to member farmers; inputs such as seeds, fertilizers and pesticide, machinery hire, tools and spares for sale; soil and water analyses; weather monitoring; field mapping; weekly field inspections and field visits by specialists.
Farmers register with centres and pay per growing season (two or three seasons per year) a fee of Rs.150 (about US$3) per acre/crop. A farmer registers by the field and receives support services that are specific to the fields registered. On registration, the farmer provides detailed information concerning his farming activities; the information is kept in the centre’s database, providing the basis for the technical support provided. The centre in the village of Choutkur has 53 registered farmers, covering 110 acres of registered land. This is out of a total of around 1,000 farmers within the centre’s catchment area. Major crops include sugar cane, padi and pulses.
Advice from the centres is based on data generated from pre-validated crop cultivation practices adopted in the State and provided by government agricultural services and local institutions. Farming information is up-linked from headquarters to the computers at the centres. If farmers have specific needs for information that cannot be satisfied immediately by the ATO at the centre, then the technician completes an on-line enquiry form on the computer and transmits this via modem to the headquarters. At the headquarters, specialists with more experience and qualifications organize and coordinate replies, which are typically transmitted back to the centre within 24 hours. The database and information systems are operated in the English language. Information is interpreted for the farmer by the ATO. Because some farmers are illiterate, the technicians have to spend time with explanations and descriptions. There is no standard for a computerized Telegu script.
Prior to setting up a centre, Samaikya performs a survey of local farming and cultivation practices and ascertains the political and cultural context of the potential centre. It conducts a pre-launch programme to familiarize farmers with the services. One centre closed down within three months of opening as no farmers registered for the service. This was due to the pressure placed on them by local marketeers, financiers and suppliers of inputs who perceived a threat to their livelihoods from the competing Samaikya services. Farmers were told that anyone who registered with the centre would not receive credit or essential supplies.
Creating employment opportunities
Two areas of employment opportunity arise from the deployment of ICTs. First, unemployed people can use ICTs to discover job opportunities. Second, they can become employed in the new jobs that are created through the deployment of ICTs.
Poor people in rural localities lack opportunities for employment because they often do not have access to information about them. One use of ICTs is to provide on-line services for job placement through electronic labour exchanges in public employment service or other placement agencies. Normally, job brokering is carried out as a closed system involving intermediaries on behalf of their clients. The greater transparency enabled by ICT opens up possibilities for more precise information seeking. Through open job seeker banks, for example, employers can search and directly access résumés, which in turn are linked electronically to job vacancy banks. Tools have been developed to assist employers in screening résumés, or to send e-mails automatically to jobseekers when job vacancy announcements fitting certain pre-selected criteria are posted.
The ILO notes that some developing countries have been able to create employment for thousands of women and men through community-access points and telecentres. One common option is to purchase a mobile phone through a micro credit program and to earn income by providing low cost phone calls to others (Curtain, 2001). Telecentres can also offer use of ICT facilities for business purposes to small and micro-enterprises that do not have their own private facilities.
In some countries in the region, telecentres are being set up through public and private initiatives in telephone shops, schools, libraries, community centres, police stations and clinics. Sharing the expense of equipment, skills and access among an ever-increasing number of users also helps to cut costs and make these services viable in remote areas. India, for example, has seen rapid growth in cyber kiosks that provide access to social communication as well as business support services for underprivileged groups. The kiosks are often upgraded Subscriber Trunk Dialling booths that are widely found in all parts of the countryside in India. These are small street shops, offering access to public phones for long distance calls. They number about 300,000 and have generated more than 600,000 jobs. Youth unemployment constitutes over 30% of total unemployment in Asia Pacific and young people are particularly well placed to take advantage of such growth areas.
People with appropriate skills, possibly obtained from ICT-based learning facilities, may gain employment as a result of the growth in remote ICT processing facilities that are located outside high-income countries. The facilities provide a range of services, including help lines, technical support, reservations handling, sales, data conversion, as well as voice and data transcription. Other remote processing services are payroll accounting, internal auditing and credit appraisals. High-end remote processing includes creating digitized maps of townships, utilities, roads and other facilities. It is claimed that back office functions that are likely to grow in importance are settling insurance claims and summarizing legal documents, such as witness depositions.
The widespread use of English on the Internet has created the need for local content and applications for non-English speakers. For the poor in particular, the vast amount of information on the Internet requires an intermediary to sift through it to identify what is relevant and then to interpret it in the light of the local context. People with language and ICT skills are well placed to perform this role of ‘information intermediary.’
A related source of ICT-generated employment for young people is through Call Centres. These offer telephone-based services from a central office to customers in a variety of business sectors. Call Centres handle telephone calls, fax, e-mail and other types of customer contact, in live and automated formats. They have expanded rapidly in Europe and are important sources of work in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.
The Internet can also play a pre-eminent role in a pro-poor tourism marketing strategy by providing information about remote tourist locations, including photos of key features, and by providing a ready means of low cost communication via e-mail. The Namibia Community-Based Tourism Association in southwest Africa assists local communities to set up tourism enterprises in the previously neglected rural areas of Namibia. The Association has set up a web site with detailed information, including a map about each of the seven regions in rural Namibia and the community-based tourism facilities in each region.
An example of the use of ICT to help bridge the gap between employment in the informal sector and the mainstream economy is India’s Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). Its 220,000 members are women and young women who earn a living through their own labour or through small businesses. SEWA was one of the first organizations in India to realize the potential for harnessing ICT to help women in the informal sector. It has sought to develop the organization’s capacity to use computers by conducting awareness programs and imparting basic computer skills to its team leaders, “barefoot” managers and members of its various member associations. Many of SEWA’s member organizations have launched their own web sites to sell their products in the global virtual market place.
Reinforcing social mobilization
Social mobilization is a process for harnessing local resources that can foster sustainable forms of community self-development. This was pioneered by the UNDP South Asia Poverty Alleviation Programme (SAPAP), which was established in 1993 to enhance national capacities for integration of growth and poverty alleviation policies and to demonstrate the feasibility of functioning social mobilization mechanisms in each of the participating countries. SAPAP is UNDP’s largest regional programme in Asia, with an allocation of $11.3 million. The programme is operating in six of the seven SAARC countries: in the Syangja District in Nepal, in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India, in the Kishorganj Sadar Thana in Bangladesh, in the Kohat District of the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan, in the Nuwera-Eliya District in Sri Lanka and on the Noonu Atoll in Maldives.
The programme’s major aim is to help remove the constraints that poor rural communities face in harnessing their potential to develop themselves. To this end, a three-tier strategy is followed, based on social organization, capital formation and human resource development. First, villagers are brought together to discuss local development issues of common interest and to initiate local development initiatives. Second, they are persuaded of the need to save, which after some time becomes an important source for credit operations. Third, they are trained, mainly in management techniques and income generating activities, in order to create the foundation for grass-roots institutional development, to improve sectoral service delivery and to support those who want to undertake socio-economic activities.
What is relevant here is not just that all these activities can be facilitated through the use of ICTs, but that such activities have been demonstrated to be instrumental in helping communities make the most out of ICTs. A study of the Nepal component