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What can computers do for the poor?

Maartje Op de Coul
13 June 2004

What can computers, telephones and internet actually do for the poorest people in rural societies around the world? Millions are spent by foundations, governments and private companies on what is commonly known as the ICT4D sector – information and communications technology for development. This is a term invented by the United Nations for initiatives that use technology to address disparities between the developed and developing world. Is the investment worthwhile? And can projects be made to turn a profit?

Oneworld holds a seminar on “ICT for Development” (16 June 2004, 4.15pm) at The Guardian Newsroom Archive and Visitor Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, London. There, OneWorld presents and discusses the findings of its case study research, produced for the Building Digital Opportunities (BDO) programme – funded by The Netherlands’s directorate-general for international cooperation (DGIS), Switzerland’s agency for development and cooperation (SDC), and Britain’s department for international development (DfID)

In 2003, I conducted several case studies for OneWorld International in seven developing countries in south Asia, southern Africa and Central America. I visited more than twenty ICT4D projects that all work with their own goals under very different circumstances. The idea was to gain a clear picture of how civil society is using ICTs and to assess their impact on major development factors like poverty.

Their activities vary from offering wireless communication equipment to tribal nomads, teaching slum children how to use a computer, or training NGOs how to build a website and broadcast radio programmes online. The organisations were not selected as existing success stories. Many projects were working on miniscule budgets, and could not afford to pay staff. One of the biggest overall problems I saw was sustainability; without it, any project is unable to plan, maximise its potential, or secure its future.

In this article, by sharing three different case studies and some observations on what it will take to make projects like these workable for the future, I ask what people in the global south gain from the availability of ICTs, and how it affects their human development.

Transparency

Corruption and fraud in the developing world are among the main obstacles to economic growth. Making state institutions more transparent and accountable is crucial in the struggle against poverty.

From a small office in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, two figures – Linda Hemby, an American political scientist and Jaime López, a Salvadorian specialist in information systems, fight state corruption with a mighty weapon: the internet.

With the internet, websites and email, Linda and Jaime can quickly and inexpensively alert a wide audience about corrupt state bodies, without the usual retaliatory threats that accompany such activity.

For more than fifteen years they have been fighting corruption through the internet. Their organisation, Probidad Latin America, collects and publishes all resources on corruption in Latin America, supports 750 allied journalists who report corruption, sends out alerts, takes action when journalists are persecuted and energetically monitors corruption.

The most spectacular feature on their website is the “Gallery of the Corrupt” that lists all the former Latin America presidents who presided over governments where corruption blossomed due to legal impunity or lack of regulation.

The activities of Probidad, conducted almost exclusively online, have effects that are far from virtual. Over the years their alerts have caused governments to admit and apologise for corrupt practices, and free or offer exile to incarcerated journalists.

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Gallery of the corrupt

One of the most interesting proofs of their influence is the email exchange Probidad had (and published) with the president of Ecuador, Lucio Gutiérrez, a star of the Gallery of the Corrupt whom they had accused of nepotism.

Groundwork

A significant cause of poverty on an individual level is lack of skills and opportunities. Knowledge of computers and other information and communications technologies like video and mobile phones is an invaluable means of access to employment for many poor people.

Also in openDemocracy on information, computers and development, see our “e-democracy” debate , with contributions from Weigui Fang, James Cowling, Solana Larsen, James Goodman, Hossein Derakhshan, and Edward Cherlin

“Nowadays, computers are like ABC,” explains Mrs Shikha Pal, the principal of the Deepalaya school for slum children in New Delhi, India. The aim of the computer lessons is to build confidence in the students and increase their ability to operate in the labour market.

Three hours a week, teenage students learn how to use DOS and Windows computers, Microsoft Office, how to browse the internet and write emails. Adults and school dropouts can also take courses.

In this school, as in many others around the world, children from the lowest social classes are not taught computer skills in order to become programmers or IT professionals. More modestly and realistically, their computer skills motivate them to enter further education or to find a more than menial job.

At another computer course project in Costa Rica, Tecnoclub, a teacher explains the potential for progress: “When working in a supermarket, these boys and girls will now be able to work as a cashier in stead of sweeping the floor, because they know the basics of operating a machine.”

Connectivity

The most impressive evidence I (and my Indian counterpart) saw of the positive impact of modern technologies on human development is in the tribal, nomadic community of the Van Gujjar, in their winter homes in the Shivaliks National Park in Uttaranchal, India. The Van Gujjar take their buffalo to the Himalaya mountains every summer. Without a permanent home, they are excluded from all government benefits and schemes.

A local NGO called Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK) has been fighting for the rights of the Van Gujjar for fifteen years. RLEK has also brought communications technology to people living deep in the forests, far from roads and the settled life even of villages.

This transformative technology is neither mobile phones, satellite dishes nor broadband internet connections – but simple wireless communication sets, the equivalent of “walkie-talkies”. RLEK has distributed eighty handsets in the community; the ministry of telecommunications has allotted it two frequencies.

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A Gujjar woman uses a wireless set © Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, Dehra Dun

“Wireless is a lifesaver that can make the difference between life and death in case of accidents,” explains Talib Hussein, one of the nomads. The wireless sets helped bring urgent medical help to a young boy who had fallen from a tree. They are also used to check for poachers, illegal felling of trees, and forest fires, as well as to aid communication among the community. “Wireless”, says Talib, “helps us assert our rights over forests and empowers us against harassments by forest officials.”

Who should pay?

Nearly all the projects I investigated had some impact on poverty. But their most difficult challenge was achieving long-term financial stability. The main sources of funding are international charities, bilateral and multilateral development agencies and private sector sponsorships. In El Salvador, the government invested revenues from the privatisation of the telecom sector in big programmes aimed at providing access to technology to Salvadorian citizens.

Yet all the organisations I studied are constrained by fairly severe financial problems – especially the ones who offer training in telecentre settings. Some depend hugely on voluntary staff; many work with much lower budgets than needed, and a few are not sure whether they will survive.

Why is this? The answer may lie in the late 1990s, when the IT boom first raised the issue of the “digital divide” between the developed and the developing world, when information and the services provided by computers and the internet in the ICT4D sector became considered as a profitable asset.

For local groups and initiatives, initial donations for equipment and connectivity are relatively easy to obtain. The problem arises after the first few years when funds run out, yet members of staff need to be paid and hardware and software require maintenance and upgrading. The selling of services or information often cannot cover these costs.

The tension here between serving the poor and being self-sustaining is clearly shown by the Infocentros in El Salvador.

A market for the poor

The Infocentros foundation was one of the organisations that benefited from a government investment that in reality was a loan. Infocentros (internet cabins) were franchised and expected to make a profit. Money was invested in hardware and connectivity, but also in creating online content related to human development.

The franchise model was only a partial success. Only twelve out of forty Infocentros were effectively franchised. When the government loan was due to be repaid, all non-profit activities had to be suspended. The staff working on content related to human development were made redundant.

Now, the Infocentros are upmarket internet cafés that are not found in poorer, rural areas. The original mission of “democratisation of access to knowledge” was, at least temporarily, abandoned.

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Infocentros cybercafé in La Libertad, El Salvador

There are some examples of successful, income-generating ICT4D activities. A famous success story is the Grameen Village Phone project in Bangladesh. Here, poor women in rural areas take out a loan to buy a mobile phone and a subscription to the mobile service. They then rent the phone to their fellow villagers to make business deals or emergency calls. The profit made is more than enough to pay back the interest of the loan.

This model is based on so called “bottom of the pyramid” (BOP) thinking, applied most successfully by Mohammed Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank.

BOP refers to the lowest layer of a pyramid made up of 4 billion people worldwide with an annual income of less than $1,500. Despite their relative poverty, their lives can be improved by the development of a market catering to their needs, adapting products and services to meet their consumer patterns and enhancing their purchasing power. Such ideas are growing worldwide.

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The students of the Tecnoclub in San José, Costa Rica

Small steps, big wins

“Hola, cómo estás? These words just popped onto my screen while typing the previous sentences. It is Anthony, one of the Tecnoclub students from Costa Rica over the Yahoo! Messenger free instant messenger programme. We chatted about his recent visit to the National Museum for the Child and I directed him to an online picture of him I had taken in his homeland.

Anthony comes from a disadvantaged community in the San José metropolitan area of Costa Rica, and if he goes to school at all, he certainly doesn’t learn there how to use a computer. Nor does he have the money to go to an internet café.

Learning how to use a computer, and communicate with people in other countries, improves children’s lives: they progress in school, develop social skills, and learn to express themselves better in writing. Their confidence, self-esteem and sense of independence increase. Anthony has become a volunteer for some of the easy maintenance work on the computers, and acquired the confidence to drop a note to someone he barely knows on the other side of the world to try to find out what life is like there.

This small example in its way shows why donor agencies, governments and the private sector should continue to fund initiatives like the Tecnoclub, whose financial situation is precarious.

For Oneworld’s full case study reports of around twenty organisations in south Asia, southern Africa and Central America are profiled in its report

Conditional optimism

My consultations and case studies in seven developing countries in three continents make me confident about the benefits of ICT use by deprived people.

Within the development sector it is widely accepted that information, knowledge and communication play a vital role in processes of social and economic change. Yet modern technologies are just tools to enhance the benefits of information and communication processes – no less and no more. Under what conditions do those tools work best? From my research I draw three conclusions.

First, the technologies must be compatible with the particular information and communication context. One organisation in Zambia received a set of brand new PCs intended to offer access to the internet to rural women. Since no one in their district offices has been trained to offer the necessary support to these mostly illiterate women, the computers couldn’t be effectively distributed and gathered dust in the organisation’s Lusaka headquarters for months. By contrast, the “walkie-talkies” used by the Van Gujjar show how simple technologies can serve high-level aims.

Second, the technologies must be embedded in “traditional” information and communication activities, or at least included in an information flow that also contains traditional media – so that the technology is seen as serving the theme or message, rather than the other way around.

The website of the gay rights organisation Entre Amigos in El Salvador is a perfect mechanism for extending their message to a mainly “straight” online audience. However, the group’s idea to open a regular cybercafé, only to make some money, has little to do with their mission and seems deemed to fail.

Third, the financial base must be secure. It would be too easy merely to demand that more funds be dedicated to ICT4D activities. Rather, available budgets should be better spread over the implementation period, revenue-raising expectations should leaven vision with realism, and investment in feasibility and baseline studies should help ensure that expectations can be met.

In the 1990s, the inflated IT bubble burst for business. There is too much human suffering at stake to let the same thing happen for ICT4D.

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