Role of communication technologies in development

I am sure all of us have heard of great examples of how communication technologies have spurred rural development, as what this report shows too. People finds all sorts of innovative ways on how to put technology to good use, and if they are convinced that the technologies can indeed benefit them, they will come up with the coolest of ideas to gain access to the technology. But then again, is communication really as important as proper health-care, or education, or providing employment? A lot of my own work is related to the use of ICT for rural development, and I have been asked this question many many times. This Economist article takes a very realistic, though one-sided, view: What use is communication to a poor person who doesn't even have food to eat? Or, a sick person who can't go to a doctor? People like me argue back that communication provides crucial information flows that these poor or sick people can use. The poor person can probably gain access to microfinance through organizations like Kiva. The sick person can probably get some medical advice through telemedicine. The critics argue back that the poor don't have money to pay for such communication services, or that they are illiterate and cannot use them. Diverting public funds to rural communication is hence a waste of money, and the governments should instead invest in other infrastructural services. We again argue back that communication is also needed because it can improve the efficiencies of various other development activities -- lower corruption, provide information, etc. And the debate goes back and forth each time... I am any how strongly convinced that communication is important and it provides a strong positive feedback to improve various local developmental and professional activities. The sad part though is that implementation is always harder than philosophizing and leaves so much ground uncovered. For example, telecentres or rural Internet kiosks are being set up extensively in rural areas to provide Internet services to the people, but the most common purpose to which they are put is for electricity bill collection (personal experience) because it saves the people bus-fare and a day's travel to the city! And this is not surprising, because the kiosk operators are hardly knowledgeable themselves to be able to help educate the local people about various other possibilities. There are of course many other problems as well, but this always throws back the same questions in our faces of what are good ways to intervene in a system so that the interventions actually live up to their potential? Where does technology stop and where does execution begin? I think these are important questions to answer for any interventionist activity or government policy, because their success or failure depends on so many contextual factors. On the other hand, the market-driven cellphone revolution probably reinforces Adam Smith's invisible-hand theory to leave everything to the free-market and reduce the government's role merely to that of a facilitator. But this has its own set of challenges and biases which makes it equally hard to understand...

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aaditeshwar's picture

aaditeshwar

ICTD researcher and founder of Gram Vaani.....read more

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aaditeshwar's picture

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hkhatri's picture

I agree with Adi. No doubt, there are some poor people who demand very basic necessities before communication. But, there's a big population of not so poor people, in most of the developing countries, who can afford cheap communication and will be greatly benefited by it. New technologies like WiMAX for broadband communication through mobiles can bring a revolution and it's worth investing into.

aaditeshwar's picture

On a related note, Reuters has launched a mobile info service for farmers:
http://www.igovernment.in/site/reuters-launches-mobile-info-service-for-farmers/

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