Information and Communication Technologies for Poverty Alleviation/Towards a General Framework Poverty Alleviation with ICTs
What are the policy dimensions relating to ICTs for poverty alleviation?
Most developing countries are adopting policies to break down the monopoly provision of telecommunications services, with rural development as a target outcome. Despite limited understanding of the relationship between ICTs and rural development, as well as deficiencies in key resources, governments are generally enthusiastic about the prospects for rural development through the widespread deployment of ICTs. ICT policy formulation and implementation for rural development at the national level typically involves:
- A high-level authority, often under the direct control of the head of government
- Telecommunications reform
- Expansion of the physical infrastructure
- Focus on e-government and e-commerce
- Revised regulatory environment and legal framework
- Private sector participation
- Universal service arrangements
- Pilot projects
The largest numbers of poor people in Asia live in rural settings. Consequently, poverty alleviation is inextricably interwoven with rural development, and urban development without rural development is ill advised. Most rural areas are typified by scattered settlements, villages and small towns, which may be hundreds of kilometres from the nearest major urban centre. Rural and remote areas share some or all of the following characteristics:
- Shortage or absence of public services and health and education services;
- Shortage of qualified technical staff;
- Geographical or topological features that militate against the establishment of a telecommunication network at affordable cost;
- Harsh climatic conditions that impose severe equipment constraints;
- Limited economic activity, centred primarily on agriculture, fishing and cottage industries;
- Low per capita incomes, generally well below those in urban areas;
- Low population density; and
- High levels of traffic per telephone line due to the inadequacy of telecommunication services and the large numbers of users per line.
Accordingly, policy making for rural development must take each of these aspects of rural life into account.
Many of the examples included here demonstrate that ICTs can be used to alleviate the adverse impact of most or all of these negative aspects of rural life. For example, in the majority of developing countries, teledensity (expressed as the number of lines per 100 inhabitants) is low and in some cases very low in rural remote and poorly served areas. One of the prime causes of low teledensity is the high cost of installing equipment in return for low usage. However, new technologies already available or in an advanced stage of development offer scope for marked improvement. Benefits to be derived from the improvement of rural teledensity include the following:
- Integration of the rural population into national economic, social and political life
- Regional decentralization
- Improved effectiveness of government programmes
- Improvements in social welfare
Apart from the disparities between developed and developing nations, the rural-urban divide in most Asian developing countries leaves the majority of poor people at a huge disadvantage. For serious and measurable alleviation of poverty to occur, effective policies that specifically target rural development are necessary. By adopting and promoting ICTs for poverty alleviation, governments can make such policies more effective, increasing their scope of application across broad sections of the population, deepening their impact within narrow sections of the population, and generally making development more efficient.
Is there a general framework describing poverty alleviation with ICTs?
From an examination of the examples quoted here, it is possible to trace events and influences backward from beneficiary to inception and to suggest a framework of ICT implementation that is engaged with relevant processes and principles of poverty alleviation. The framework so derived facilitates an understanding of how ICT can help alleviate poverty.
A pro-poor ICT policy begins with a development commitment that targets poverty alleviation, with government acknowledging its role as a major employer and user of ICTs. This leads to the infrastructure development that will be required to achieve widespread poverty alleviation through local access combined with suitable methods to ensure that access is used to the best effect. Government also encourages institution reform leading to the delivery of effective services capable of exploiting the infrastructure. The services are directed towards and delivered to the local access points of the poor people who need them.
Figure 8. A framework for poverty alleviation using ICTs
ICT policies should be concerned both with ICT production and ICT use. The concern here is for policies for ICT use that specifically target poverty alleviation, as opposed to e-commerce, e-government, e-learning, and the like. Although these carry the potential for poverty alleviation, they directly benefit better-off citizens and may not necessarily deliver benefits to poor people. ICT policies for poverty alleviation should directly address the causes of poverty.
Specific strategies need to articulate how poverty alleviation will occur, for instance through enterprise development, micro-credit programmes, social mobilization, pro-poor tourism and HIV/AIDS awareness. Priorities reflecting needs that have been articulated by poor people themselves usually result in implementation that is more effective at alleviating poverty than those that are decided by governments or their advisers.
Access to technologies has to be planned, organized and well managed. This is likely to be some form of shared access, perhaps through existing institutions such as libraries or post offices, or through the creation of new institutions such as multi-purpose community telecentres. Sharing access implies organizational arrangements that are not present when access is predominantly one-to-one, as in the rich countries, which means that modalities for shared access will be exclusively generated in developing countries.
Government as a user
Governments typically control half of the ICT assets in developing countries. They are a major employer and a major supplier of public services. Their role as users of ICTs is critical to the national response to ICT-based opportunities and the rate of ICT adoption. They are also responsible for actually implementing policy, which is different from merely stating it.
Information and physical infrastructures
The physical infrastructure is concerned primarily with the diffusion of telecommunications to rural and under-served populations, usually in some form of universal service scheme. Information infrastructures include existing media that serve to mobilize information within the country. ICTs open opportunities for new forms of information delivery that can be complementary to existing flows, without rendering them obsolete.
Experience indicates that bottom-up approaches to the design of information systems for community development are superior to alternatives. Development that is demand-driven has a far greater likelihood of achieving its aims, and methods that foster listening to the poor and factoring their wishes into the design of solutions are usually more sustainable and more substantial. Policies have to cater for the inclusion of such methods.
Significant returns from ICTs are achieved when institutions adopt transformational approaches to service delivery, which often completely change the nature of the organization and revitalize its purpose and goals. If new technology is used merely as a substitute for old technology, without affecting existing patterns of behaviour, organization and relationship management, then sub-optimal outcomes can be expected.
Here the concern is what services ICTs are directed at—for example, education, health, and commerce—and how stakeholders are drawn into productive relationships that result in poverty alleviation. Looking at specific purposes includes determining who is responsible for what, and how activities are coordinated.
The target population for policy-making for poverty alleviation must be known in relation to each specific service. Service must be capable of differentiating between the poor and the not-so-poor, so that benefits can be directed to their intended recipients.