Monday, 26 March 2007

ICTs, knowledge and rural livelihoods

As I was preparing a meeting on ICTs, knowledge and rural livelihoods, I searched my memory lane to find a non-work related example of how ICTs can help knowledge dissemination and improve rural livelihoods.

In the 60s there was land reform in my country. As a result of land reform, the land was handed over to the farmers. However, the farmers and the village head maintained a cordial relationship with their ex 'landlord'. They would often call upon him, ask for his expert views and came to town to consult on important social and political issues. Most of them were illiterate and had little or no access to education, credit and health. But they all owned a radio and that was how they kept in touch with the outside world.

One of my vivid childhood memories is when the lead farmer, Moktar – who was also acting as the village head – and some others paid my dad a visit. I remember Moktar and others arrived with a share of the harvest. They had come down to the city (an 8 hour trip – through a mix itinerary of paved and unpaved roads) to confer about some additional reforms that they had heard about on the radio but had not quite understood its implications and what it really meant for them.

Daddy spent considerable amount of time explaining to them – in local dialect – what the reform meant and how they could benefit from it and at the same time what they had to watch out for. He suggested that they:

  • share this information with everyone in the village
  • form a village council to discuss these issues further and make decisions
  • ask the local authorities for additional information if needed
  • demand that the information be disseminated in a way that it can be easily understood by farmers

They stayed overnight and when they left the following day, they were full of optimism and felt empowered. The parting words of the Moktar were: "Sir, I hope one day my children will be able to think and reason like you"

2 years ago when I was back home, I went to my father's birth place. It was highly emotional trip for many reasons. One of reasons was because I met Moktar's children. They found out that we were in town and came over to pay their respects.

Unlike Moktar, his sons were educated. Both of them were successful 'rural' entrepreneurs and members of the village and city council. While visiting their cellphones kept ringing and each conversation – although in dialect – was of them providing guidance and assistance to someone else. Moktar's dream had come true.

While a lot had changed, there were certain things that had remained the same:

  • local context: my Dad had to explain the proposed reform in local dialect
    Moktar's son did the same
  • Use of ICTs: Moktar found out about the proposed reform via radio, which ultimately led to improving his livelihood, his sons disseminated knowledge via cellphone and their livelihoods also depended on the cellphone
  • Role of the guide and mentor : Daddy was considered by his constituents as guide and mentor, Moktar's sons were guides and mentors for their constituents with the difference that they were now considered as peers

What had changed?

  • Knowledge brokering was readily available (24x7). No need to travel fir an entire day, it is a phone call away
  • People are more informed about issues and their rights, they proactively participate in decision making

What had changed was the availability of new ICTs which are:

  • Interactive
  • Permanently available
  • Have global reach
  • Are becoming accessible because of falling costs
  • Offer multi-media functionalities

Initially I was sceptical about how ICTs could address the needs of poor rural people. Only recently I've become convinced of the prominent and crucial role that ICTs can and SHOULD play to improve the livelihoods of poor rural people.

This said; I believe the issue we need to tackle as development workers is POVERTY ERADICATION and not to BRIDGING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE, whilst bearing in mind Amartya Sen's mantra: "the availability and use of ICT is no longer optional". Ultimately what determines the successful use of ICT in development is not technology but the context, that is, cultural, political, economic, social and institutional processes determine which opportunities are accepted and how and to what extent they are utilized.

I hope through my personal tale I've managed to illustrate that:

  • ICTs are a tool for empowerment and for them to make the right dent they need to be owned by the people who will be using them
  • ICTs are tools for achieving social goals
  • ICTs provide access to knowledge which can lead to reducing costs of production, transaction and enhance communication
  • ICTs have the potential to empower and enhance opportunity and provide security
  • ICTs have been and are a vital part of economic, social and political fabric of all societies
  • ICTs have been and are crucial for reducing poverty especially when farmers and rural stakeholders participate in decision making processes, are kept informed, so that they can make informed decisions to improve their livelihoods

ICTs – old and new – need to be considered as enablers, because:

  • thanks to them, people and societies transmit and gather information [Moktar came to know about the additional reforms]
  • they facilitate delivery of services [Moktar's son delivered a service using their mobile phones]
  • they provide a space and opportunity to discuss issues and involve people and ultimately give voice to people

An important lesson is the fact that ICTs can only help improve rural livelihoods if they are:

  • Affordable
  • Scalable
  • Self-sustaining
  • Sensible
  • Participatory
  • Appropriate

I hope my personal tale also highlighted the central role of the farmer. As development workers, we need to acknowledge that farmers:

  • act both as extension client and extension provider
  • are and should be groomed to become learning and knowledge facilitators

This means what we need to do is to LINK social, economic and political empowerment to efforts to bridge the rural digital divide

This means we need to adopt a people-centred ICT4D approach, that is:

  • focus on people, not technology
  • listen to grass-root needs by understanding the local reality and context
    engage in a participatory communication process using old and new means of communication

Pay special attention to:

  • Ownership and appropriation – participation at inception level and ownership of the entire process. This entails strengthening the local capacity to understand the importance of knowledge and networking in social development
  • Development of local content – localizing. Provide relevant information and allow farmers to develop their own demand-driven content
  • Language and cultural pertinence – language is a vehicle that communities use to communicate but also the essence of their identity
  • Convergence and networking – make world smaller and communities bigger
    Appropriate technology – assess the real needs and provide the farmers with what they really need
  • Increase bargaining and purchasing power of rural poor by providing transparent, localized and relevant information
  • Ensure participation of rural communities in policy processes

In my 22 years of career, I have seen the importance of distinguishing between information and knowledge. This is because:

  • Information does not necessarily generate change
  • Knowledge on the other hand and the act of participating, sharing of knowledge in horizontal way, having respect for diversity and culture are key to bringing about social change
  • Having access to knowledge allows individuals and communities to expand their choice and provides them opportunities to explore new and innovative income generating activities

A joint SDC-Swaminathan Research Foundation study, published in 2005, provides a framework to assess the impact of ICT projects.

The report identifies the following as key lessons learnt in using ICTs for poverty reduction:

  • Participatory ICT approach – involving people at all stages – from needs assessment to monitoring
  • Advocacy at all levels by bringing together development and technology experts
  • Leadership and institutional ownership
  • Foster south-south exchange
  • Pro-poor effects are more likely to occur if ICTs are embedded in a larger, demand-driven development effort
  • Adopt a community-based approach to ICT, as ICTs expand social networks and create legitimate spaces to socialize and work
  • Deploy appropriate technology
  • Content should receive as much attention as access
  • Mainstreaming ICTs into productive sectors leads to becoming competitive

ICTs can only act as enablers to improve rural livelihoods if:

  • there is converge the interest of the developed world with those of the developing countries, converge interest of government, private sector, telecom incumbent and the rural poor people’s needs in order to create synergies and partnerships
  • ICTs are incluced in PRS processes
  • the disconnect between on-the-ground efforts to address local information needs and policy processes is bridges
  • there is a good understanding of local context
  • policies and processes are grounded in real life experience and meet the real user needs
  • transparent information is disseminated to empower people to make better decisions
  • we promote convergence of old and new technology, by creating a three-tier systems: public, commercial and community

I'll like to finish off by reiterating the fact that as development workers the issue we need to tackle is POVERTY ERADICATION and not BRIDGING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

We need to make sure that ICTs do not overshadow the basic needs of the rural poor to improve the livelihoods. We need to work collectively towards bridging the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” while respecting the cultural diversity provide connectivity, but also foster alternative means of communication, provide relevant content to everyone including the marginalized people and those living in remote areas.

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