Society | DOI: 10.1145/1378704.1378710
Information and communication technologies are an important component
in the generation of wealth. How can they help reduce poverty?
AS THE DEBATE on whether
poverty is best challenged
by money or knowledge
continues, efforts to improve individual lives and
kick-start economies in developing
countries are escalating. As in wealthy
countries, where technology has transformed many lives, information and
communication technologies (ICT) are
part of development programs in poor
countries. However, their application is
very different and the implementation
constraints can be overwhelming.
The World Bank, which cites its mission as “working for a world free of poverty,” is a supporter of ICT for development (ICT4D). The bank has a global
ICT department with three organizational groups: one offers loans and assistance for ICT projects to developing
world governments; another promotes
sustainable private-sector investment
in developing countries; and the last
acts as an ICT think tank, bringing together and disseminating best practices.
This year, the World Bank will spend
approximately $7.3 billion on projects
with an ICT component. Typical examples include an $8 million grant to a
private sector program in Bhutan that is
establishing an IT park and a $40 million loan to the government of Ghana
for an e-Ghana project.
“We offer loans, grants, and technical assistance,” says Randeep Sudan,
lead ICT policy specialist in the World
Bank’s ICT department, “and we have
a formal mechanism for deciding assistance strategies and working with
governments to define projects and relationships. Inclusiveness and sustainability are key issues.”
PHO TOGRAPH BY DIPANKER DUT TA
The World Bank collaborates with
many organizations, bringing together
multidisciplinary teams including academics, consultants, anthropologists,
computer scientists, and economists.
Projects focusing on ICT consider how
technology can impact poverty through
its application in areas such as education, health, agriculture, e-government,
and public-sector reform.
With projects and people in place,
the challenge is to overcome local constraints including a lack of ICT infrastructure, inadequate and unreliable
power supplies, and a paucity of skilled,
and sometimes literate, local people.
Also, mind-sets need to be challenged
and visionary plans created, particularly in developing countries that are lim-
ited by their own political or economic
Despite the difficulties of implementing technology, the World Bank
sees ICT as an important element of
transformation. “ICT has an impact in
nearly every intervention we make to reduce poverty,” says Sudan. “It enhances
employment, pushes up incomes, increases the employment of women, creates efficiency in government services,
and reduces corruption.”
The European Commission also provides funds to sustain ITC4D initiatives
and works in partnership with developing countries to build infrastructure.
The Infrastructure Partnership with Africa, which the Commission supports,
is partially funding the EASSy submarine cable that will link the countries
of East Africa to the rest of the world
and is due to be in place before South
Africa hosts the World Cup in 2010. As
well as easing the lack of connectivity
in Africa, the EASSy cable will provide
lower communication costs than satellite systems.
Harry De Backer, a principal administrator working in the new technologies remit of the Commission’s European Development Fund, explains:
“The EASSy cable will give Africa an opportunity to become part of the world
economy through better communications, which will improve the export of
locally produced products. EASSy will
also provide backhauls into poorly connected areas of Africa, such as Kenya,
Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, and Rwanda. Ultimately, the backhaul will reach
With some 278 million mobile
phones in Africa—one in three people
has a mobile phone according to the
GSM Association (GSMA), a global trade
group of mobile phone operators—and
GSMA operators poised to invest $50
billion over the next five years, the prospect of creating a strong commercial
environment is promising.
De Backer believes those living on
just a few dollars a day will be included
in the mobile phone community, stemming migration to congested cities
and improving the lives of poor people
through communication. One example
of a mobile phone project is farmers
who receive an SMS service telling them
the consumer prices of vegetables.
Armed with this information, the farmers can better negotiate prices with the
middlemen who buy from the farmers
and sell to consumers.
While connecting Africa is a major
task, many smaller ICT projects are
challenging poverty. Some have the potential to scale regionally, others could
cross continents. Their proponents
are experts with a desire to use ICT