The below mentioned article provides notes on ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies).
Without doubt the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as faxes, video, digital radio, mobile phones, and satellite technologies, have helped people gain access to, process, respond to, and distribute information in a faster and more far-reaching way than ever before.
This on-going shift toward a more information-intensive society gives both added weight and new meaning to the old maxim, “information is power.” ICTs at a minimum can enhance the livelihoods of the poor and improve market efficiency.
As development tools in their own right, ICTs can also help lead to higher literacy rates through distance learning; gender equality through the empowerment of women who gain greater access to economic opportunities and civil society; sustainable development through easier dissemination of appropriate information; more balanced social relations through the greater accountability imposed on the powerful by the marginalized; and other global goods.
The importance of ICTs is precisely why concern has escalated over the “digital divide” the gap in information and communication technologies that exists between technologically advanced and developing countries, poor and rich, men and women, and urban and rural areas. Africa claimed only 2.8 million Internet subscribers, Asia/ Pacific 75.5 mil-lion, Middle East 1.9 million, and South America 13.2 million.
In 1998, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), low- income countries had 6.2 personal computers and 45 fixed- line and mobile phones per 1,000 people, whereas high- income countries had 311 and 832, respectively.
The digital divide is not only enormous-dwarfing even the per capita income gap ratio between high- and low-income countries- but it is increasing, according to a recent World Bank study. The authors of the study, Francisco Rodrigues and Ernest Wilson III, estimate that even East Asia, which is adopting ICTs at a rapid pace, will take another 40 years to catch up with the developed world.
Inevitably, access varies widely among and within developing countries as well. Only 11 of 53 African countries for which there are data have 10,000 or more Internet users; 17 have fewer than 1,000. Gender, income, age, and other disparities also abound. In Ethiopia, for example, 98 per cent of Internet users in 1998 were university graduates and 86 per cent were male.
As the Internet becomes the norm for commerce and information exchange in the developed world, the poorer countries will have little choice but to try to bridge the digital divide in all its forms. They will go online to become competitive in the new economy or forgo significant growth.
The stakes involve not only social development and productivity growth, but also the burgeoning e-commerce sector, which is expected to reach between US$2 and 3 trillion in transactions in the next three years.
Rural Poor and Access to Information:
The last few years have witnessed a flurry of activity as the development community has put forward position papers and proposals and launched pilot projects to include the poor in the information revolution.
Projects have ranged from providing price information to farmers to boosting microcredit-based sales via the web. The hallmarks of this activity have been diversity and innovation in organisation, technology, and funding. Results are trickling in, and no formula has emerged, though some ingredients appear to be critical.
According to Roger Noll, professor of economics and director of the Public Policy Program at Stanford University, “Technological change has greatly affected the optimal strategy for starting ICT service. In many cases, fixed wireless is better for new networks because of its lower cost and quicker availability. And because economies of scale are not very important in wireless, competition is often feasible right from the start. Another common ingredient is that western-style universal service is not a practical reality in developing countries, where much of the population is too poor to afford individual access. The focus instead should be on convenient access through sharing, such as with tele centres and pay phones.”
This need to minimise cost but maximise rural access drives most ICT projects in developing countries. Not surprisingly, the Internet still often plays a lesser role than other technologies in the distribution of information in rural areas.
Most farmers, for example, are years away from getting price information through the Internet because of cost and lack of human resources and adequate phone infrastructure in rural areas.
But because a farmer’s decisions about where, when, and how much to sell depend on the signals sent by national and international market prices, ICT proponents see the delivery of timely price information as one of the key benefits farmers can receive from the new information technologies.
Consequently a number of ICT projects focus on making it easier for agricultural producers to access prices. “Price information helps connect farmers to markets,” says Mike Weber, professor and co-director of a food security program run by the Department of Agricultural Economics at Michigan State University (MSU), “and the more up- to-date the price information, the better for the farmer and the market.”
Weber’s own group uses both low- and high-tech means to distribute prices. For the past ten years, the food security project has delivered weekly agricultural prices by newspaper and fax to government offices, the private sector, and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) in Mozambique. MediaFax, a fax-based newspaper, provides the same information each week to a wider audience.
NGOs make copies of the weekly price lists and distribute the information to farmers. Some projects are devised to pay for themselves while providing developing country poor with access to ICTs for socioeconomic development.
Such is the case with the projects facilitated by the International Institute for Communication and Development (IICD), which was established by the Dutch Ministry for Development Cooperation in 1997.
In Jamaica, IICD arid its partners are helping to put in place a comprehensive agribusiness information system that will enable small farmers, who are losing ground in the global marketplace, to get both punt and web-based information about markets, products, registration requirements, and technical assistance.
This demand-driven system makes information available through a continually updated database on domestic agricultural production and marketing and through the Internet. Extension agents collect the information from producers and traders using palm-top computers.
The information is then downloaded to PCs located in primary extension offices. These PCs are linked to the central database at the headquarters of the Rural Agricultural Development Authority.
The system is currently being tested with 80 small farmers and traders in two regions in Jamaica. The method for delivering information is still evolving. Currently large farmers and traders with access to the Internet get the information easily.
Smaller farmers and traders generally visit the extension offices, where they can obtain standardised and customized reports in hard copy. If literacy is a problem, extension officers help interpret documents.
A small subscription fee makes the project sustainable, and small farmers can pool their resources and subscribe as a group. The belief that ICTs have a role to play in the lives of small farmers has led to their introduction in many rural areas.
But most projects remain relatively small-scale and not widely replicated because of cost, the multitude of approaches and local needs, and lack of interest from the private sector. These factors, and the fact that ICT introduction is still at an early stage in developing countries, make the impact of projects hard to judge.
Some serious social science research is needed to understand the institutional context that can make these technologies really useful and sustainable in specific rural settings and it is not the Internet that is always most important. Older technologies too, such as community radio, are opening up societies and allowing people to talk to each other.
The telephone, of course, remains vital to people’s well-being. Perhaps the best-known example of bringing telephones to the poor is Grameen Phone, the Grameen Bank’s rapidly growing cellular phone business in Bangladesh. A little more than three years old, the venture has already put mobile phones in the hands of women in more than 1,200 Bangladeshi villages.
At the same time, Grameen Phone has secured more than 50 per cent of the national, primarily urban, mobile phone market in Bangladesh, thus helping to assure both its financial ability to serve rural areas and its technical ability to create a reliable urban network with which to link the rural population.
In the villages, Grameen-Phone works on the same principle as the Grameen Bank’s microloan program, giving rural women from landless house-holds access to credit.
A woman who has already established good credit with the Bank, whose house is located in a fairly central part of the village, and whose family has one member familiar with the English letters and numbers on a phone, can borrow the roughly $350 needed to purchase a solar- powered mobile phone.
After a day’s training, the woman is set to provide phone service to other villagers for a price. This access to technology not only generates substantial income for the “telephone woman,” who on average earns $450 a year after expenses, but also provides villagers with access to information and services that would otherwise remain far outside their reach.
The villagers, can contact medical help immediately; get prevailing market prices for the crops they grow, thus avoiding underpayment by opportunistic traders; engage in commercial activities that require quick or frequent access to timetables, regulations, or other market-related information; and easily keep in touch with family members living in the cities or abroad.
The arrival of the cell phone has also, for once, turned the social pecking order on its head as the relatively wealthy rely on the poor to keep in touch with the outside world. “Money, the old saying goes, speaks loudest, but it is user-friendly technology that begets money in the first place,” says Nuimuddin Chowdhury, an IFPRI consultant on ICTs.
“The Grameen-Phone project has shown once again that the rural poor are among the most eager to innovate, and they could significantly improve their income if given access to ICTs, which are, moreover, environmentally clean technologies.”
For developing countries, bridging the digital divide generally means bridging the gap between super- sophisticated technology on the one hand and local logistics and financial ability to pay on the other. Because satellites can bring ICTs to rural areas at a relatively low cost, some NGOs promote them to help fill the information and communication needs in developing countries.
Volunteers in Technical Assistance (VITA), a U.S.-based NGO, for example, links its satellite with ground terminals that enable users to send and receive stored emails four to six times a day as the satellite passes overhead. Kept in a community centre or some other central location, each terminal is estimated to serve an area of roughly 10,000 people via the email access it gives to schools, clinics, NGOs, business people, and individual users.
VITA’s planned services include continually updated web indexes designed to meet the information needs of remote communities and a research service to maximise the impact of the 50-page limit that can be downloaded each day by each terminal.
Costs for these services and for supporting the system will be defrayed by a relatively small annual fee per terminal and by proposed private-sector use of a portion of VITA’s satellite bandwidth in exchange for technological production and support. Currently at the experimental stage, the project serves 25 terminals.
VITA plans to deploy 2,500 terminals throughout the developing world. “Basically we’re trying to push the envelope to give the poor access to a culture of information,” says George Scharffenberger, president of VITA. “Instant access to the Internet is exciting, but for a third to a half of humanity affordable access is still several years away. In the meantime, satellites can provide low- cost communication and information services to poor and remote areas while building critical information skills among teachers, health workers, people in small businesses, women, and youth.”
VITA’s other partner in this venture, SATELLIFE, also runs a health information system, Health Net, which works through a satellite- terminal system similar to VITA’s and through modem- to-modem telephone links.
One of Africa’s first sources for email, Health Net also provides electronic publications, access to the web, and discussion groups, including one on AIDS, to about 10,000 health professionals worldwide. Locally owned and operated, Health Net has been helpful in dramatic cases, such as containment of an Ebola virus outbreak in Gabon, as well as in more routine health care.
It has succeeded in those countries where an adequate institutional structure exists or can be built to support ICTs, where training of technical staff matches investments in technology, and where a successful business model has been implemented to offset operating expenses.
As ICTs begin to play a greater role in development, concerns are growing that women will be left out of the picture. Available data show that women account for 25 per cent of ICT users in Brazil, 17 per cent in South Africa, 7 per cent in China, and 4 per cent in Arab states. All the gender fault-lines are present in ICT access, with poor, uneducated, and older women particularly affected.
To address these concerns, the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), ITU, and UNDP recently signed an agreement guaranteeing the inclusion of gender issues in their policy dialogue and decision-making about ICTs.
The success of some local-level projects says little yet about what should be the method and timetable for delivering universal access. Even the dilemma about whether to focus first on building a national infrastructure for instant access or on building ICTs around specific development problems remains unresolved.
Some developing countries, such as Malaysia, have made commitments to rapid and widespread ICT introduction.
Others may move forward, at least in the near future, on two tracks: partnering with the private sector to install ICTs in urban areas and looking to donors, lowest-cost methods, and innovative schemes for subsidizing subscription fees to connect rural areas, with the two tracks sometimes overlapping.