ICT - what does it all mean?

New developments can make a huge difference to our lives. Telephones, radios, emails, videos, faxes: so many of us take these communication technologies for granted. But, says Kimberly Clarke, for millions of people, they remain no more than a dream.

ICT spreadThroughout the developing world, communication with and among poor communities is essential in the fight against poverty. And information communications technology (ICT) has a vital role to play, not only to help people gain information, but to communicate, whether that is with friends, other communities, or local officials. Lives can be saved if people understand the consequences of risky behaviour, for example, in relation to HIV/AIDS. Incomes can be increased if farmers, producers and traders have better information about markets and customers. Children’s education in remote communities can be greatly enhanced using radio, television, or audio and video cassettes. Teachers can be trained in the same ways. Health professionals can provide a better service if they can get advice and order appropriate medicines. Livelihoods can be improved if people are able to persuade officials to make laws and rules that are more appropriate to their needs.

New technologies

In addition to these communications mechanisms, the last decades of the 20th century saw more new ICTs developing, including the growth of email, the internet and cell phones. There is a role for agencies and governments to play – mainly through policy, regulation, and funding – in enabling those people in developing countries who can afford and want to use these new ICTs to do so. One investment that has great potential to help in the fight against poverty is training: training the people who control the technologies and the resources to consult poor communities, listen to them, and respect what they say. Training them to involve end-users in designing and applying information and communication solutions, and to understand that although communities need information, they have information to share too.

Empowering communities

Once those controlling the resources truly understand that communication is a two-way street, problems can begin to be solved. Any attempt to improve poor communities’ access to information has to start with the community itself. First find out what information they need or want most, what they want to tell others, and who they want to communicate with. Nothing can be assumed. In the 1960s, a social scientist working in Cape Town was authorised to provide a local community with some additional classes or training courses. She asked them what kind of courses they would like. To her astonishment, they said they wanted for Latin courses for their children. At the time, students could not get into medical school or law school without Latin.

Secondly, which of the potential information delivery options does that community prefer? Building the capacity within a community to evaluate all the different options is part of a long-term development strategy that enables that community to judge and choose other technology options in the future. Only they know which option will be accessible to those who want to use it, and at what price. Would the information that the community really needs be available on the Web, in a language that they will understand? Is there an opportunity for the community to design their own website, containing information that they want to tell other people? Will women and young people have equal access? Is electricity available, and is the supply reliable? Is a telephone line available, reliable, and of a standard to carry data? Does the community have the money to control how often they access the technology? Would they rather improve the flow of accurate information to a particular individual in their community by enabling that person, for example, to travel to a nearby city to visit markets and government offices, buy newspapers, and talk to other people outside their normal network?

There is no doubt that some new ICTs are mushrooming in popularity in countries and communities where there is a market. In Venezuela, Cambodia, and Cote d’Ivoire, for instance, there are now proportionately more cellular phone lines per thousand people than land lines. Subscribers who can afford to have signed up for a number of reasons, including long waits for land lines, convenience and fashion, but they clearly believe that they are getting value for money considering the options available.

Fools rush in

But for the vast majority of poor people in developing countries, the best solutions will continue to be the ones that they are already relying on now: other people in their social network, radio, and in some cases printed materials. There is huge room for improvement in many of these ‘old’ ICTs. Freedom of information and censorship continue to be great problems in many poor countries, and 2001 was an appalling year for journalists from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

While there are success stories of new ICTs, particularly where governments or NGOs have developed long-term and well-funded programmes, sustainability in the sense of self-financing is a long way off. Recent worldwide research carried out by the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) for DFID concluded that ‘the applicability of new ICTs to the problems of the poor is unproven’.

In ITDG’s long experience of working with poor people across a wide range of technologies, people apply the same basic principles when considering any technology option. Is it:

  • Affordable?
  • Accessible?
  • Appropriate?

If people living on $1 or even $2 a day in already marginalised communities in poor countries cannot afford a technology, access it, and adapt it to their social, economic, and cultural needs, then they will never invest in it. And while there is no doubt that all poor communities need more information than they currently get, if the community was able to make the choice, how would people solve their own information problems?

A word of caution

Family with satellite dishAny mention of the term ‘ICT’ more often than not conjures up images of computers and the internet. Even UNDP, in its Human Development Report 2001, adds to the confusion: a timeline of milestones in ‘Communications technology’ includes Morse code, the telephone, wireless transmission, television, and satellite, mobile and fibre optic telecommunications. There is no mention of the invention or evolution of papermaking, the printing press, or basic writing instruments such as pens and pencils. Relatively cheap technologies such as cameras, typewriters, tape recorders, VCRs and fax machines are ignored, as are the services and transport technologies that have revolutionised communications: the postal system, bicycles, cars, trains and aeroplanes, to name a few. Worryingly, HDR 2001 then identifies the future of communications technology as: ‘High-speed connection to every home, Internet coupling with game devices, [and the] merger of cellular phones and personal digital assistants’.

The future for whom? Certainly not for the two billion people without electricity, or the estimated one-half of the world’s population who have never used a telephone. According to the World Bank, 2.8 billion people – nearly half the world’s population – live on less than $2 a day. This is not just semantics. The appropriation of the ICT issue by the mainly Northern developed industrial community has been efficient and overwhelming, and many people in Northern-based agencies and NGOs – whose own working lives and leisure activities have been so changed by Internet technology – have been seduced into thinking it could be the answer to everyone’s information problems.

Despite these gloomy figures, though, there is no doubt that access to new ICTs is growing. In China, for example, user numbers are expected to double from just over 4 million users to more than 8 million in the next year, according to the OECD’s 2001 report Understanding the Digital Divide. Understanding is exactly what is required. Not just the facts and figures, but the people behind the statistics. Some thought and attention to the needs and desires of people who feel isolated and left behind, and an acknowledgement that their problems will not be solved by widget alone.

Kimberly Clarke is a freelance writer and editor on development issues. kimberly@gn.apc.org

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Image: ICT spread © Giacomo Pirozzi/Panos Pictures

Image: Family with satellite dish © Panos Pictures

Once those controlling the resources truly understand that communication is a two-way street, problems can begin to be solved.