By Hasaan Khawar
Pogrammes like ‘One Laptop Per Child’ are aimed at fighting poverty through the use of technology and have paved way for some remarkable innovations, creating ripples on the socio-economic development landscape. Such initiatives are known as Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D).
The phenomenon has been gaining popularity in developing countries like India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Even in Pakistan, ICT4D has gained some roots. But its tremendous potential for poverty alleviation programmes have yet to be realised.. Despite claims of outstanding macroeconomic performance during the last few years, the incidence of poverty has, in fact, substantially increased. According to an estimate, close to 57 million people live below poverty line and this estimate include 11 million people pushed below the poverty line over the last three years. The situation is likely to worsen in the years to come, especially in the wake of rising food and oil prices. Under this scenario, ICT can play a critical role in pro-poor development.
Poverty is commonly perceived in terms of population living under a certain income threshold, however, in socio-economic context, certain other dimensions are considered critical, while defining poverty. These dimensions include availability of economic opportunities, social empowerment and access to basic amenities, such as drinking water, food, shelter and primary healthcare.
The term ‘information and communication technology’ encompasses a wide variety of services ranging from traditional electronic channels such as TV, radio and telephone to more recent technologies such as Internet and mobile telephony. The marriage of these two concepts – ICT and poverty – have given rise to some very innovative and highly effective development models, including rural access to modern healthcare services, through telemedicine, agricultural productivity enhancement initiatives, by linking farmers to agricultural and livestock research institutes and enhanced educational programmes, through distance-learning models.
In neighbouring India, projects like AGMARKNET are successfully linking hundreds of thousands of farmers to a number of agricultural produce wholesale markets, providing them up-to-date market information. This information, in turn, helps the farmers in gauging price movement in agricultural commodities, enabling them to capture maximum value for their goods and resulting in substantial income enhancement. Incorporation of ICT into governance has also shown tremendous potential in India, where projects like Bhoomi and e-Seva provide a wide range of important public services, such as payment of bills and taxes, licence renewal, etc., to citizens at their doorstep, both in urban and rural areas.
Before ICT4D initiatives can be successfully implemented on a broad scale, there are a few pre-requisites that must be met. On the technological end, these pre-requisites include a well-laid out ICT infrastructure providing connectivity to the rural areas and a localised interface to overcome language barriers.
In Pakistan, Universal Service Fund, a government-owned company is taking some substantial steps to provide connectivity, including both voice and data services, to un-served and under-served areas. On the localisation front, research organisations like Centre for Research in Urdu Language Processing (CRULP), based at FAST, have developed solutions for content and interface localisation, not only in Urdu but also in other regional languages.
These technological advancements, however, only present one side of the picture. In order to exploit the true potential of ICT-based development initiatives, efforts must be made to ensure community response towards such projects. In countries like Pakistan, where the digital divide between urban and rural areas is fairly wide, such responsiveness must be preceded by acceptance and adoption of technology in rural communities. For instance, in Bangladesh, Grameen Telecom – a sister concern of the famous Grameen Bank – is successfully penetrating mobile telephony into rural communities, to create widespread technology use, while providing an alternative source of income. In its own words, Grameen Telecom is using ‘telecommunication as a new weapon against poverty’.
Another way to ensure community responsiveness towards ICT4D programmes can be to introduce simpler ICT initiatives in the beginning, such as IT literacy training, email and web usage, etc. These initiatives can also be linked with community schools, after giving requisite training to school teachers, not only to provide enhanced educational experience to the school children but also to launch adult IT literacy training programmes. Once these initiatives take roots in rural communities, more advanced interventions can be undertaken such as developing market information systems or agricultural productivity enhancement programmes. Similarly, developing strategic linkages with other stakeholders is yet another area, critical for the success of ICT4D programmes. In case of agriculture, for example, institutes like University of Agriculture Faisalabad, or University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, can prove to be instrumental in transferring knowledge of modern agricultural and livestock farming techniques to far-flung rural communities. On the other hand, for educational projects, there is need to develop localised syllabi for the rural population, for IT literacy programs as well as for enriching the general school curriculum.
To encourage private sector support, privately owned schools can be motivated to participate in such initiatives. While most of these schools might be able to purchase a computer on their own, they would be clueless on its optimal utilisation in enhancing the educational experience. Support can therefore, be extended to such schools, not only for providing them connectivity but also by developing a centralised hub for content development and linking these satellite schools with it to create maximum impact.
All over the world, there are a number of success stories, where ICT is being effectively used to alleviate multiple facets of poverty. These examples, if replicated, can greatly help in developing indigenous ICT-based poverty alleviation programmes. Implementation of these international models at the pilot level can significantly help in understanding the local constraints, facilitating in customising these models to suit the local requirements. Special focus should be given to scalability and sustainability of these programmes. While easy and efficient scalability can ensure spreading the fruits of a proven model to a wide range of population, long-term sustainability can ensure ultimately handing over these projects to the private sector or respective communities, reducing the burden on the state.
ICT4D is a vast field and is likely to emerge as a key area in future development initiatives. How soon it happens is to be seen. However, to catalyse this process, the government must employ innovative solutions to create widespread response, bridging the urban-rural digital divide, and create a network of resources and stakeholders to have maximum impact.