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Digital Dividends for the Poor
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by Stuart Mathison, Foundation for Development Coop. 17 the future of Developing Countries

ICT for Poverty Reduction in Asia - A GKP Knowledge for Development Publication Series

Executive Summary

Poverty in Asia is pervasive, massive, resilient and complex. Approximately 24 per cent of the population of developing countries in Asia, or about 760 million people, live in poverty. South Asia accounts for 61 per cent of Asia’s poor. Even if poverty is reduced by 25 per cent in India over the next decade, there will still be more than 300 million people living in poverty in that country. A major threat to poverty reduction in Asia is a looming HIV/AIDS crisis. Poverty reduction efforts are therefore urgent and we need to do much better than we are at present.

In order to give focus to the task of poverty reduction, the UN has defined eight Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by 2015. The goals cover areas such as income, education, gender equality, health, environmental sustainability and partnerships for development. The WSIS Asia-Pacific Regional Conference (January, 2003) endorsed the important role that ICTs can play in achieving these goals. Accordingly, the case studies presented in this paper are organised into categories corresponding to these goals.

ICTs are defined as ‘technologies that facilitate communication and the processing and transmission of information by electronic means’ (DFID). An ICT is a tool for poverty reduction when it is applied to meet the information and communication needs of the poor. However, the specific technology that is applied is less relevant than questions about freedom of expression, social and economic impact, inclusiveness, outreach and sustainability.

In statistical terms, the poorest people in Asia presently have no meaningful access to the Internet and limited prospect of gaining access in the short term. Therefore, using the Internet to target directly the information and communication needs of the poorest people is unlikely to be a successful strategy for poverty reduction. However, strategies that target community intermediaries can have significant impact.

Long before ‘ICT for Development / Poverty Reduction’ became fashionable, ‘old’ technologies like radio and television have been used to disseminate information among the poor. As a medium for delivering information directly to the poor, these technologies can achieve far wider outreach at much lower cost than Internet-based approaches. However, comparison of different ICTs should not be restricted to outreach and cost considerations. An important area of innovation in ICT for Poverty Reduction is to exploit the particular strengths of different ICTs by combining them to deliver a more complete communication package.

Since poverty is complex and multi-facetted, a cooperative approach from stakeholders in all sectors of society is needed to combat it. Government (enabling policy and regulation), civil society (connection to grass-roots), private sector (technical expertise, business acumen, product and market development), academia (research and dissemination) and networks (knowledge sharing, partnership building) all have important roles to play.

Impact analysis is crucial. Unless an initiative can demonstrate positive impact there is little point in allocating resources to expand or replicate it. However, impact evaluation of ICT for Poverty Reduction initiatives is problematic because most initiatives utilise ICTs as tools in a broader strategy rather than as ‘solutions’ in themselves. A key issue is the extent to which the application of ICT brings competitive advantage in comparison to projects with similar goals that do not use ICT in the same way. Pilot projects also need to demonstrate absence of negative social impacts.

Best Practices in ICT for Poverty Reduction include targeting the poor, expandability/replicability, sustainability, multi-sector partnerships, community engagement, gender sensitivity, cultural/social sensitivity, innovative combination of ICTs, and human capacity building.

Copyright: Global Knowledge Partnership (March 2003)

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