Information and Communication Technologies for Poverty Alleviation/The Lessons of Experience
What lessons can be learned so far?
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 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.
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.
Research from Latin America advocates a social vision for using ICTs to eliminate and/or redress the deeply rooted inequalities of modern societies.  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?
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?
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.
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.