Many developing countries, governments and developing agencies are focusing on extending Information and Communication Technology (ICT) services into rural areas, as they seek to alleviate poverty, encourage economic and social growth, and overcome a perceived ‘digital divide’. However, relatively little is done about how rural communities can benefit from IT services and what impact it is having on rural development. This paper endeavours to point out diverse areas in which Information and Communication Technology can be used for rural development and poverty alleviation..
Information and Communication Technology (ICTs) are those technologies that can be used to interlink information technology devices such as personal computers with communication technologies such as telephones and their telecommunication networks. The PC and laptop with e-mail and Internet provides the best example. Michiels et al. (2001) have defined ICTs ‘as a range of electronic technologies which when converged in new configurations are flexible, adaptable, enabling and capable of transforming organisations and redefining social relations’. The range of technologies is increasing all the time and ‘there is a convergence between the new technologies and conventional media.
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) now plays a major role in all aspects of life and has revolutionized the way we live, work and interact. But the question remains – does IT contribute to poverty reduction and development in rural areas?
Poverty is a complex and multidimensional phenomenon. Its attributes can be captured in a myriad of images ranging from malnutrition, disease, lack of education, inadequate shelter, vulnerability and an absence of voice and powerlessness in society. Since poverty is a complex problem, any strategy to tackle poverty has necessarily to encompass a wide range of interventions and policies. Democracy, culture, human rights, gender rights, education, health care, housing, are all important to the lives of people (Sudan 2001). The poor experience shortfalls in economic welfare; gaps in access to good quality education and health care; deficiencies in the provision of physical infrastructure; and political barriers that stifle personal initiative and self-development. They are unable to participate in governance, which is necessary for a healthy democracy and peaceful development. Moreover, despite the vast advances that are being made in the spheres of science and technology, medicine, capital mobility, etc., income disparities are ever widening, both within countries and nations – world’s rich and poor nations.
Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs), including the Internet, are generating changes in markets, private and public sectors and economies in the more and less developed world. Some ‘sectoral’ changes are very large (business services, education) while others are to date small. But they are present and advancing in every area of economic, social and political activity however, ICT investments in rural areas are often least prioritized because of inherent difficulty in deployment, perceived high investment costs, indirect developmental impact, and need for an extended period of time to reap actual benefits. However, the importance of information and communication investments is that once information is accessed, absorbed, and translated into knowledge, this knowledge can be stored, further developed, passed on, and even multiply.
There are today widely divergent views on the relevance of information technology for tackling poverty. According to the UNDP, “Information and communications technology (ICT) has become an indispensable tool in the fight against world poverty. ICT provides developing nations with an unprecedented opportunity to meet vital development goals such as poverty reduction, basic health care, and education far more effectively than before. Those nations that succeed in harnessing the potential of ICT can look forward to greatly expand economic growth, dramatically improved human welfare, and stronger forms of democratic government. According to a somewhat contrarian view, existing inequalities seriously constrain the use of information and communication technologies by the poor. These technologies require “a lot of overt resources including a telecommunications infrastructure to provide network access, an electrical infrastructure to make the ICTs work, a skills infrastructure to keep all the technology working, money to buy or access the ICTs, usage skills to use the ICTs, and literacy skills to read the content (Sudan 2001).
The ‘Rural Livelihoods’ thesis argues that the reduction of poverty hinges on the capability of the poor to combine different livelihood strategies and sources, which allow them to become less vulnerable to shocks and risks. As diversity is related to flexibility, resilience and stability, diverse livelihood systems are seen to be less vulnerable than undiversed ones (Ellis 2000, 1999). This implies that relevant to improving livelihoods are interventions that facilitate diverse household strategies and opportunities. A key concern is directed at which institutional arrangements, policies, and interventions help the rural poor to achieve more secure livelihoods.
Chapman et al. (2004) emphasized the importance of ICTs both in generating information required by the rural poor to make decisions on livelihood strategies and generating information required by institutions responsible for making decisions about policies and processes that affect those strategies. They emphasized that effective information systems need to integrate the productivity-based needs of rural communities with information.
Three of every four poor people in developing countries live in rural areas, i.e., 2.1 billion living on less than $2 a day and 880 million on less than $1 a day (World Development Report 2007). Thus, any comprehensive poverty reduction strategy has to address rural poverty. This paper makes the argument that it is important to include ICTs for the rural people due to the potential impact ICTs can make on their lives and livelihoods.
The lack of affordable access to relevant information and knowledge services among the rural poor has been a concern to development economists for some time. Traditionally, information is regarded by economists as a critical element in the efficient functioning of markets. For example, the first fundamental theorem of welfare economics (i.e., competitive equilibria are Pareto efficient) and the law of one price (i.e., the price of a good should not differ between any two markets by more than the transport cost between them) are based on the assumption that economic agents have the necessary information (Jensen 2007). Moreover, access to information is essential for the emergence of global information and knowledge based economy and has the ability to empower poor communities, enhance skills, and link various institutions involved in poverty reduction. Despite this being widely recognized, access to information has been limited in reality and very few empirical studies exist which assess the impact of investments aimed at providing access to information.
Information and communication activities are a fundamental element of any rural development activity. Rural areas are often characterised as information-poor and information provision has always been a central component of rural development initiatives. The rural poor typically lack access to information vital to their lives and livelihoods. Building upon the concept of knowledge gaps and information problems, a typology is proposed in figure 1 of information used by the rural poor to prioritise their livelihood activities and investment decisions more effectively.
Figure 1: Livelihood information wheel (adapted from Chapman et al. 2002)
These categories are not intended to represent two completely distinct types of information but rather the dual role that information can play in support of livelihoods over time. Type A represents information for long-term capacity building involving education, training and technical support appropriate for the livelihood development of individuals or groups. The provision of such information has been a key focus of agricultural extension, health and education initiatives over the years and essentially contributes to the enhancement of knowledge. It also improves understanding of systems and processes, which might affect the way assets are used in the longer term, and assists in the planning of livelihood strategies that effectively insure against stresses and shocks (management of risk, diversification). For example, without information about their rights and the structure and responsibilities of public institutions designed to support them, the poor would find it impossible to hold these institutions to account. Type B represents information for short-term decision-making that is used to maximise the potential of a particular asset at any one time, reduce vulnerability to shocks and respond to immediate needs. The poor typically lack information about markets for their produce, let alone information about alternative income-generating opportunities. Type B information would also include news relating to the weather and rural services etc (Chapman et al. 2002).
ICT in Rural Development and Poverty Alleviation
Rural development and poverty reduction, over time, also of course relies on economic development and growth stemming from sources other than technological advance. So the ways in which ICTs create or contribute to private sector growth, globally and locally, and to public sector effectiveness, are a big part of the essential background for understanding ICT-poverty connections and possibilities (Spence 2003). Some of the possible applications of ICT in Rural Areas are:
A telecentre is a public place where people can access computers, the Internet, and other digital technologies that enable them to gather information, create, learn, and communicate with others while they develop essential digital skills.
The deployment of telecentres in rural villages can bring about new technologies for accessing information and services relevant for households to either intensify agricultural production, assist the adoption of diversified livelihoods, facilitate migration, or to enable the combination of all these. This access to information and knowledge can also lead to the creation of capabilities to gain more livelihood resources/assets and help reduce the poor’s vulnerabilities. These livelihood assets include natural capital, which covers land, water, and biological resources utilized by people to generate means of survival, social capital or the social resources upon which people draw in pursuit of livelihoods, such as networks, membership in groups, relationships of trust, access to wider institutions of society; human capital, or the skills, knowledge, ability to labour and good health important to the ability to pursue different livelihood strategies; physical capital or basic infrastructures such as transport, shelter, water, energy and communications and the production equipment and means, which enable people to pursue their livelihoods; and financial capital, or the resources which are available to people and which provide them with different livelihood options (Ellis 2000).
e-Learning is the use of technology to enable people to learn anytime and anywhere. e-Learning can include training, the delivery of just-in-time information and guidance from experts. IT can facilitate rural activities and provide more comfortable and safe rural life with equivalent services to those in the urban areas in the provision of distance education; along with the increased retention, reduced learning time, and other aforementioned benefits to students, a distinguishing advantage of e-learning to the rural people is on demand availability, that is, it enables students to complete training conveniently at off-hours after their farm routine which enables them to benefit from both their farm routine that they might not wish to leave and also benefit from western education.
e – Agriculture
Information technology (IT) doubtlessly can contributes much to agriculture in rural areas in developing countries by initiating new agricultural and rural business such as e-commerce, real estate business for satellite offices, rural tourism, and virtual corporation of small-scale farms within the rural areas.
e-Agriculture is an emerging field focusing on the enhancement of agricultural and rural development through improved information and communication processes. More specifically, e-Agriculture involves the conceptualization, design, development, evaluation and application of innovative ways to use information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the rural domain, with a primary focus on agriculture.
The lack of information makes farmers vulnerable to exploitation by others and makes them unable to realize the full potential value of their produce (i.e. selling produce immediately after harvest at low prices and buying inputs at high prices). When rural farmers have more access to up to date information, they can communicate better, enabling them to organize themselves, exchange information, and develop strategies to achieve better and more stable prices.
IT can provide systems and tools to secure food traceability and reliability that has been an emerging issue concerning farm products since serious contamination such as bird flu was detected. Finally, IT can take an important and key role for industrialization of farming or farm business enterprises, combining the above roles.
Decision Support Systems (DSS)
Decision Support Systems (DSS) are a specific class of computerized information system that supports business and organizational decision-making activities. A properly designed DSS is an interactive software-based system intended to help decision makers compile useful information from raw data, documents, personal knowledge, and/or business models to identify and solve problems and make decisions.
It can improve farm management and farming technologies by efficient farm management, risk management, effective information or knowledge transfer etc., realizing competitive and sustainable farming with safe products. For example, farmers must make critical decisions such as what to and when to plant, and how to manage pests, while considering off-farm factors such as environmental impacts, market access, and industry standards. IT-based decision support system (DSS) can surely help their decisions.
Geographic Information System (GIS)
Information technology (IT) doubtlessly support policy-making and evaluation on optimal farm production, disaster management, agro-environmental resource management etc., using tools such as geographic information systems (GIS).A geographic information system (GIS) is any system that captures, stores, analyzes, manages, and presents data that are linked to location.
GIS can be used for crop production and to soil resources sustainably. It makes soil management less tedious and costly, by collecting a wider spectrum of data in a much shorter span of time. Using GIS the rural farmers will actually know the type of crops they would cultivate in a particular type of soil for great productivity. Recent advances in the computer, aerospace, and communications industries allow farmers to monitor and manage soils and crops on small areas of individual fields. Precision agriculture or site-specific crop management are the terms often applied to the suite of information technologies used for sensing subfield spatial and temporal variability and customizing applications across the field. Such technologies include: yield monitors; the Global Positioning System (GPS); Geographic Information Systems (GIS); guidance systems; satellite, aerial, and on-the-go sensors; and variable-rate applicators. A number of spatially oriented information technologies are commercially available for most crops to help with fertilizer, pesticide, seed, irrigation, and tillage decisions. Rather than treat fields uniformly, producers can use these technologies to manage soil, pest, landscape, or microclimate variability by adjusting input use within a field to enhance returns and potential to reduce environmental risks.
With the global spread and falling costs of the mobile telephone it has now become affordable even for poorer people in rural areas of developing countries. Its diverse uses contribute to economic and social integration. Rural dwellers and farmers don’t have to spend a lot of money involve travelling from the rural area to the urban in search for agricultural facilities but rather order them with the aid of your mobile phone.
New possibilities for medical care and disaster risk management are also emerging through telecommunication. With the use of mobile phone, the rural dwellers can seek for Medical advice or emergency calls via mobile phone which will provide quick and efficient assistance, and in the case of disasters or periodic isolation in the rural areas.
One benefit is substitution for transport. Although the rural poor are not a homogenous group – consisting of artisans, farmers, fishermen, herders, migrant workers, and indigenous people – one common element is their lack of affordable access to relevant information and knowledge services. This lack of access can lead to other contributors to poverty (e.g., ignorance of income-earning or market opportunities and inability to make their voices heard).
Another important aspect of its usefulness is the improvement in the social integration of the rural population. Apart from better communication with business partners, friends and above all family members in other villages and regions, in many countries this also applies to communication with relatives who have migrated to industrial countries and are now sending money home to their families. In some regions these remittances constitute an important source of income for the local population. Communication with relatives forms an important basis for effective money transfer.
No less important is the political involvement of the rural population. It is especially the poor people in rural areas who often lack information about their rights and entitlements, and yet their interests are seldom considered at government level, since they lack effective lobbying power.
The barriers to implementing ICT in Rural Areas
Up-front investment required of an ICT solution is larger due to development costs. Budgets and cash flows will need to be negotiated.
Technology issues that play a factor include whether the existing technology infrastructure can accomplish the training goals, whether additional tech expenditures can be justified, and whether compatibility of all software and hardware can be achieved. Also some people most especially in the rural areas are technophobia
Cultural acceptance is an issue in organizations where student demographics and psychographics may predispose them against using computers at all.
Portability of training has become a strength of e-learning with the proliferation of network linking points, notebook computers, PDAs, and mobile phones, but still does not rival that of printed workbooks or reference material.