July 2004

Opinion:What can ICTs do for the rural poor?

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First wrong assumption: development is a matter of technology.

Second wrong assumption: development is a matter of information.

Third wrong assumption: information technologies are equal to development.

I'm afraid these assumptions are leading the camp of the official representation at the World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS). The long PrepComs have shown that some governments and agencies try to focus on wider distribution of ICTs in developing countries rather than dealing with societal perspectives of information. Though the civil society and various sectors of the society have raised issues of social, e-conomic and cultural development, the results of the PrepComs are rather poor. However, the PapComs show little concern for a social and human rights based approach. In the minds of the profitable organisation 'bureaucrats without borders', technology supersedes content.

Haven't I mentioned a 'technological divide'? It is on purpose, because I believe this is the least important issue if the others are not taken into consideration. If we are looking at ICTs supporting sustainable development, access to computers and Internet is far from being the answer. Over fifty years of failed attempts to promote development in Third World countries, particularly Africa and Latin America, have demonstrated that the paradigms of development could not be dictated by the North and that the development agendas of bilateral and multilateral organisations had not taken into consideration social, political and cultural factors that determine social change and development. People are poor because of social inequality which embraces much more than just access to information. Development paradigms have gone through various phases to realise this.

The first phase, in the fifties and sixties, bet on the introduction of new technologies and techniques to improve agriculture, at a time where the rural population in most developing countries was still a majority. Little consideration was given to how the international market operates, who fixes the prices, and who, in the end, benefits from the work of those poor peasants that are now living in worst conditions than 40 years ago. Today, there is less productive land for the poor and more for the wealthy. The land was more productive forty years ago but was exhausted by intensive harvesting of commodity crops.

The second paradigm, during the seventies and eighties, recognised that technology alone is not the silver bullet, and that information and knowledge are also important to help the rural population to improve their living conditions. The assumption, however, had a dangerous arrogant slant: “we have the knowledge, we know what the poor need, we will gracefully share our knowledge with people in developing countries”, without consideration to the local knowledge cumulated over hundreds of years, by cultures that were alive and well while pests ravaged Europe.

In recent years, the role of communication in development and social change has been acknowledged. A number of development organisations began to understand that information and communication is not the same thing. Information alone does not generate changes, whereas communication

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