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WSIS: More Internet, Less Poverty?

Marty Logan

TUNIS, Nov 17 2005 (IPS) - Building a bridge across the digital divide might not be the smooth path to poverty reduction that many people believe.

As many as 17,000 people from around the world are attending this United Nations conference targeted at closing the now famous divide, the gap in access to the Internet and other information age tools (and skills) between rich and poor countries, and even within nations.

But will providing Internet access or mobile phones to more people help end the poverty that disables millions in so many nations? And if spanning the information age gulf can help end poverty, what is the best way to approach the challenge? Do you spend resources on individuals? Businesses?

Halving world poverty by 2015 is the central target of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told this meeting, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Wednesday that information and communications technologies (ICTs) could spearhead that campaign.

ICTs can “bring new benefits to all social classes,” he declared. This meeting, added Annan, “must generate new momentum towards developing the economies and societies of poor countries, and transforming the lives of poor people.”

But one researcher at a workshop here suggested Thursday that more research needs to be done before concluding that boosting ICTs inevitably leads to fewer poor people.

“The number one thing that people use ICTs for is to communicate with one another. Is that having an effect on poverty? Yeah, it probably is but it’s very difficult to measure,” said Laurent Elder from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) based in Canada.

While a project to provide Senegalese farmers with up-to-date prices being offered in local markets for their products found that 150 growers saw their income increase by 100 dollars a month, other research has found disquieting results, added the Canada-based expert.

For example, some poor communities in Sri Lanka equipped with ICTs are spending up to 15 percent of their income on communications. “That’s huge,” said Elder. “Is that a good thing? Are we making people poorer?”

India is betting no. One hundred volunteer agencies, 22 government departments, 34 private sector players and 18 academic institutions announced here Wednesday that they plan to network 1.2 million Indians – one man and one woman in every village – and then use them to introduce their neighbours to the information age.

On Thursday V Balaji of the India-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) said the Mission 2007 project will have to cross many barriers to be successful, such as training the rural youth expected to lead the village-based information and communication technologies (ICT) revolution.

In Madagascar, farmers and artisans travel for hours to get to information centres where they can use the Internet to learn about harvesting bigger and better crops or to discover possible markets for their wares. A director of that country’s Technical Information Centre answers unequivocally when asked if they are empowering individuals or businesses. “Businesses,” says Andramihaja Helene Marie.

Aside from Internet access for ‘micro enterprises’, the centre uses ICTs to support 800 more developed small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the island nation off the east coast of Africa. “The aim is for each business to gain expertise, expand, earn more revenue and, in that way, help reduce poverty,” adds Helene Marie in an interview after a United Nations-sponsored workshop here on using ICTs to support SMEs.

The event was part of a project called Sharing the Future, developed after the first phase of WSIS in 2003. “The Dutch and Tunisian governments approached us to say, the private sector is the engine of growth, particularly in the developing world. We should do something about supporting them with ICTs,” recalls Hans Pruim of the UN Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO).

In response, UNIDO and the UN Development Programme invited participants from 60 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and SMEs to this conference.

UNIDO focuses on helping governments develop policies and institutions to encourage SMEs and ‘micro enterprises’ to use ICTs. It has a special interest in the agricultural sector in sub-Saharan Africa, Pruim told IPS. “If we can help with ICT programmes that create concrete jobs, then we create wealth, which leads to poverty reduction.”

British researcher Richard Duncombe told the workshop that he has concluded that a priority should be investing in the smaller number of “growth enterprises” in the developing world, those with the greatest potential to expand, although he admitted that the greatest need was felt by the majority of the poor, who operate “livelihood enterprises”.

The investment would trickle down through the supply chain to the smaller businesses, he added.

“ICTs are essentially tools that can be used to increase the competitiveness of an economy and the productivity of enterprises,” added the professor from the University of Manchester. “The problem with addressing the digital divide is there’s this sort of obsession with trying to create a level playing field, trying to be inclusive and really attacking a problem that is too big for ICTs to solve.”

“The problems of poverty, the problems of rural deprivation are really nothing to do with ICTs; they’re to do with a whole range of other issues, such as water, sanitation and health,” added Duncombe.

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