• What can ICTs do? Perpsectives from the developing world

      Arunachalam, Subbiah; Kerner, Max; Muller, Thomas (Bohlau-Verlag, Koln, 2006)
      This chapter is from an invited presentation (15 pages long) given at the Aachen Colloquium on Click - A Split World, November 2004. It has appeared in the book [Gespaltene Welt? Technikzugange in der Wissensgesellschaft, edited by Max Kerner and Thomas Muller, and published by Bohlau Verlag, Koln, 2006] and is the author's final version. Introduction: I am asked to reflect on social and cultural consequences of technical development and try to answer a few questions: â ¢ In what different kind of ways access to knowledge is modified in an information technology-based society that is dominated by technical resources? â ¢ Does global exchange of information enable ubiquitous access to knowledge? â ¢ By which means do information technologies contribute to the solution or intensify global and local problems? â ¢ Which requirements arise from this problem for an IT-based society? I shall try to answer these questions from the point of view of a Third Worlder. Most other speakers at this colloquium are thinkers and experts known for their scholarship and academic achievements. I do not belong to the same league. I am not saying this out of humility; I am making a statement of fact. Then why am I here? Because I have felt the impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on the developing world and I have been working for many years to overcome the 1 deleterious consequences of ICTs in the context of the poor and the marginalized. I wish to share with you what I have learnt through working in the field. I am coming from India where we had a major election a few months ago. We are happy about the election for two reasons. One, contrary to what is happening in many parts of the developing world, democracy in India is vibrant and we have been holding free and fair elections consistently for more than 50 years. Two, despite outstanding achievements in the areas of high technology in general and information and communication technologies (ICTs) in particular, the ruling governments in the states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh belonging to two different parties have failed to return to power, largely because the rural poor voted against them. Thanks to rapid developments in indigenous capabilities combined with favorable policies by the governments in these two southern states of India, a number of IT industries and research laboratories â both Indian and multinational â sprung up, mainly in the capital cities Bangalore (referred to as the Silicon Valley of the East) and Hyderabad (half jocularly called Cyberabad). But these developments did not have a perceptible impact on the rural poor, who felt that they were neglected. What can information and communication technologies (ICTs) do to help the poor? Can they do anything at all? That is a question that dominates the development discourse. If poverty has been so persistent that we could not eliminate it with all our efforts till now, how can the use of ICTs make a difference? Poverty is much more than absence of money. Often generations in poverty lead people to a sense of utter hopelessness and deprive them of their sense of self-respect and dignity. They are deprived of access to essential assets and opportunities such as education, healthcare, employment, land and other natural resources, services, infrastructure and credit. They have little say in their polity and society. They are not empowered to participate in making the decisions that shape their lives. They become increasingly marginalized, excluded and vulnerable to exploitation. This exploitation manifests in several forms such as bonded labour, child labour, inadequate compensation for work if and when they get work, ill treatment and deprivation of basic rights. It will be naïve to believe that we can solve the problem of poverty by providing access to computers and telecommunication to the poor of the world.1 We have always lived in an unequal world, but now the gap between information â havesâ and â have-notsâ is widening fast. As Kofi Annan2 has noted, â there is a real danger that the worldâ s poor will be excluded from the emerging knowledge-based 2 global economy.â Virtually every new technology tends to exacerbate the inequalities that separate the rich from the poor. The last few years have seen many initiatives that deploy ICTs in rural communities in many developing countries. Many world leaders have spoken in glorious terms about the tremendous potential of these new technologies in transforming the lives of the poor. â Technology doesnâ t come after you deal with poverty, but is a tool you use to alleviate poverty,â says James D Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank. Says Mark Malloch Brown, Head of UNDP, â ICTs can help us reach the Millennium Development Goals including the goal of halving poverty by 2015.â It is mastery over technology that enabled the early adopters of industrial revolution technologies to colonize and exploit the rest of the world. If the developing countries fail to take advantage of the new ICTs, the consequences could be far more serious. If we want technology to work for the poor we must make special efforts. In this talk I will describe from my own personal experience two widely different programmes where we are attempting to bridge the gulf that divides the rich from the poor through innovative use of information and communication technologies. In the first part of my talk we will look at how we at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) are trying to harness ICTs as part of a holistic strategy for alleviating poverty in rural India. I will show why the emphasis should be on people and the public commons approach rather than on technology. In the second part, we will look at how the advent of new technologies has opened up the possibility for making knowledge distribution in science and scholarship a level-playing field. Here again the public commons approach is the key to success.