Provision of information, knowledge and electronic based services are increasingly being recognised as essential elements to promote economic growth and reduce poverty. Recent advances in information and communication technologies, (ICT’s) especially computers, electronic networks and Internet based applications have raised increasing expectations in many developing countries as a means to empower poor people, enhance skills, increase productivity, improve participatory decision-making processes (from grass-roots to international level), bring about institutional changes, coordinate development efforts, improve governance at all levels and provide timely delivery of government services and promote understanding and tolerance among diverse population within and between countries. These demands have led to the emergence of a variety of rural information, knowledge and e-services operated and managed by individuals, groups, communities, public and private enterprises and public-private partnerships.
However, the progress in ICT based applications especially for the rural sector has been uneven and slow in many developing countries – due to the following constraining factors:
- Low levels or no computer literacy
- Lack of locally relevant content in local languages
- Unreliable, intermittent or no power
- Limited or no connectivity
- Low affordability, and
- Low or not yet the priority for investments in ICT aimed at poverty reduction as there are more pressing needs to be met
Moreover, integrating ICTs in country development strategies and poverty reduction strategy papers of many developing countries has been uneven and has not been given adequate importance. Competing demands on scarce resources and lack of adequate evidence based models have further slowed the progress in bringing the fruits of modern ICTs’ to a large majority of the world’s rural poor.
Emerging trends in rural information, knowledge and services:
There are three basic trends emerging in the area of rural information, knowledge and services. These are
First trend: Increasing demand for more holistic information, knowledge and services
The information, knowledge and service needs are changing from simple, single discipline to complex multisectoral and multidisciplines. Information or knowledge or services is being desired, demanded and needed in almost any of the disciplines and subjects.
Second trend: Changing ICTs – from single to multiple integrated systems
A convergence of ICTs is rapidly occurring – in which the traditional “stand alone” means of communication and devices– such as telephone, radio, television, are being integrated into complex multi-media systems through the integration of data, voice and video – and becoming faster, cheaper and increasingly complex. However, in most of the rural areas, traditional forms of communication continue to be the main sources of communication and affordable. This necessitates broadening the commonly accepted definition of ICT to imply “computers, internet and world wide web” – but to view them as tools that help build human network, increase public awareness and provide access to information, knowledge and services for the use of people and consisting of a range of communication media and devices, such as print, telephone, radio, television, video, audio, computer, internet, remote sensing, GIS, RFID, and technologies on the drawing boards. There is a need in the rural sector therefore, to utilise and build upon existing traditional communication technologies – which are presently available and affordable by most of the rural population, while different models of sustainable integrated systems are being tried out which offer the promise of being scaled up.
This integration has made possible the development and establishment of “one-stop centers” where citizens could access a variety of information on government regulations, laws, functions, etc.; obtain services such as payment of utility bills, taxes, get or renew licenses, permits, registration etc.; and conduct on-line business and transactions. The degree and the level of sophistication of these centers varies with how well the Information Technology Infrastructure has been integrated with appropriate back-end support systems, functioning legal and regulatory institutions for enforcement of contracts and obligations between trading parties, promoting fair competition between telecommunication carriers and service providers and level of skills and leadership at all layers. It is encouraging to notice the development of a large variety of rural information, knowledge and service centers, in various stages of development in many rural parts of the developing world, providing telephone services, E-mail, fax services, etc. to on-line transactions and video conferencing.
Third trend: Changing nature of Investments in ICT’s
There is a growing trend towards the provision of professional information technology services – such as outsourcing, network management, custom programming, adaptation and localisation of software, call center operations, systems integration, web development, etc. In addition, many governments are replacing paper-based processes and manual systems by web-based and automated systems (for example land records and titles, vehicle registration, business licenses, etc) in an effort to increase transparency, improve efficiency and to be “citizen centric”. This requires a well coordinated interoperable IT infrastructure across different ministries and layers of Government – from national to the local level – and changes in institutional behavior and attitudes to develop new forms of Government to citizen service (G to C) relationships.
The common theme which is emerging, therefore is that Information, knowledge and services – especially for the rural population are becoming complex, basic needs, global and increasing in demand.
Given these trends in the evolution of integrated IT systems and supporting institutions, it is possible to realise the vision of Inter-connected rural information, knowledge and service centers within and between countries tailored to meet the multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary information needs of the rural population.
What we hope to see in the years ahead are:
- Integrating ICT strategies in Country Assistance Strategies and Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers of developing countries
- Information and knowledge considered as basic needs and factors of production
- Inter-operability, common technology infrastructure and standards which are well coordinated across and within ministries from national to local levels
- Increased role of universities, academies, research institutes, local population,etc to develop and share local content in local languages
- Increased role of public sector to provide ICT connectivity to central nodes in rural areas to stimulate private sector involvement, investments and to provide value added demand driven services •
- Universal adoption of freedom of information laws
- Protection of Intellectual Property Rights of the poor – and indigenous knowledge as a marketable asset
- Development of information and knowledge markets at the local level
- More robust evaluation methodologies to evaluate impacts of investments in ICT aimed at poverty reduction
And use of a variety of simple to complex ICTs aimed at the evolution from a present situation, where there is plenty of relatively less expensive and abundant data and information, scarce and expensive knowledge and wisdom to a future situation, where there is plenty of less expensive, readily available wisdom and knowledge; relevant information and useful data – essential for decision making and improving the lives of the poorest sections of the society. .
Disclaimer: The findings, interpretations and conclusions of this paper are author’s own and should not be attributed to the World Bank, its management, its Board of Directors or the countries they represent.