[Telecentres] >>: Economist: skeptical take on telecenters & ICT4D

Mikhail Doroshevich mikhail at e-belarus.org
Tue Mar 15 18:24:29 GMT 2005

Behind the digital divide
Mar 10th 2005
The Economist

Development: Much is made of the “digital divide” between rich and poor.

What do people on the ground think about it?

IN THE village of Embalam in southern India, about 15 miles outside the 
town of Pondicherry, Arumugam and his wife, Thillan, sit on the red
in front of their thatch hut. She is 50 years old; he is not sure, but 
thinks he is around 75. Arumugam is unemployed. He used to work as a 
drum-beater at funerals, but then he was injured, and now he has trouble

walking. Thillan makes a little money as a part-time agricultural 
labourer—about 30 rupees ($0.70) a day, ten days a month. Other than
they get by on meagre (and sporadic) government disability payments.

In the new India of cybercafés and software tycoons, Arumugam and
and the millions of other villagers around the country like them, seem
anachronisms. But just a few steps outside their section of the
section known as the “colony”, where the untouchables traditionally 
live—the sheen of India's technology boom is more evident in a green
equipped with five computers, state-of-the-art solar cells and a
connection to the internet. This is the village's Knowledge Centre, one
12 in the region set up by a local non-profit organisation, the M. S. 
Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF). The centres, established with
aid of international donor agencies and local government support, offer 
villagers a range of information, including market prices for crops, job

listings, details of government welfare schemes, and health advice.

A conservative estimate of the cost of the equipment in the Embalam
is 200,000 rupees ($4,500), or around 55 years' earnings for Thillan. 
Annual running costs are extra. When asked about the centre, Thillan 
laughs. “I don't know anything about that,” she says. “It has no
to my life. We're just sitting here in our house trying to survive.”

Scenes like these, played out around the developing world, have led to 
something of a backlash against rural deployments of new information and

communications technologies, or ICTs, as they are known in the jargon of

development experts. In the 1990s, at the height of the technology boom,

rural ICTs were heralded as catalysts for “leapfrog development”, 
“information societies” and a host of other digital-age panaceas for 
poverty. Now they have largely fallen out of favour: none other than
Gates, the chairman of Microsoft, derides them as distractions from the 
real problems of development. “Do people have a clear view of what it
to live on $1 a day?” he asked at a conference on the digital divide in 
2000. “About 99% of the benefits of having a PC come when you've
reasonable health and literacy to the person who's going to sit down and

use it.” That is why, even though Mr Gates made his fortune from
the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, now the richest charity in the
concentrates on improving health in poor countries.

The backlash against ICTs is understandable. Set alongside the medieval 
living conditions in much of the developing world, it seems foolhardy to

throw money at fancy computers and internet links. Far better, it would 
appear, to spend scarce resources on combating AIDS, say, or on better 
sanitation facilities. Indeed, this was the conclusion reached by the 
recently concluded Copenhagen Consensus project, which brought together
group of leading economists to prioritise how the world's development 
resources should be spent (see articles). The panel came up with 17 
priorities: spending more on ICTs was not even on the list.

Still, it may be somewhat hasty to write off rural technology
Charles Kenny, a senior economist at the World Bank who has studied the 
role of ICTs in development, says that traditional cost-benefit 
calculations are in the best of cases “an art, not a science”. With
he adds, the picture is further muddied by the newness of the
economists simply do not know how to quantify the benefits of the

The view from the ground

Given the paucity of data, then, and even of sound methodologies for 
collecting the data, an alternative way to evaluate the role of ICTs in 
development is simply to ask rural residents what they think. Applied in

rural India, in the villages served by the MSSRF, this approach reveals
more nuanced picture than that suggested by the sceptics, though not an 
entirely contradictory one.

Villagers like Arumugam and Thillan—older, illiterate and lower 
caste—appear to have little enthusiasm for technology. Indeed, Thillan,
lives barely a five-minute walk from the village's Knowledge Centre,
she did not even know about its existence until two months ago (even
the centre has been open for several years). When Thillan and a group of

eight neighbours are asked for their development priorities—a common
version of the Copenhagen Consensus—they list sanitation, land, health, 
education, transport, jobs—the list goes on and on, but it does not
computers, or even telephones. They are not so much sceptical of ICTs as

oblivious; ICTs are irrelevant to their lives. This attitude is echoed
many villagers at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. In the 
fishing community of Veerapatinam, the site of another MSSRF centre, 
Thuradi, aged 45, sits on the beach sorting through his catch. “I'm 
illiterate,” he says, when asked about the centre. “I don't know how to
a computer, and I have to fish all day.”

But surely technology can provide information for the likes of Thuradi, 
even if he does not sit down in front of the computers himself? Among
things, the centre in this village offers information on wave heights
weather patterns (information that Thuradi says is already available on 
television). Some years ago, the centre also used satellites to map the 
movements of large schools of fish in the ocean. But according to
fisherman, this only benefited the rich: poor fishermen, lacking
and navigation equipment, could not travel far enough, or determine
location precisely enough, to use the maps.

Such stories bring to mind the uneven results of earlier technology-led 
development efforts. Development experts are familiar with the notion of

“rusting tractors”—a semi-apocryphal reference to imported agricultural 
technologies that littered poor countries in the 1960s and 1970s. Mr
says he similarly anticipates “a fair number of dusty rooms with old 
computers piled up in them around the countryside.”

That may well be true, but it does not mean that the money being
to rural technology is going entirely unappreciated. Rural ICTs appear 
particularly useful to the literate, to the wealthier and to the 
younger—those, in other words, who sit at the top of the socio-economic 
hierarchy. In the 12 villages surrounding Pondicherry, students are
the most frequent users of the Knowledge Centres; they look up exam 
results, learn computer skills and look for jobs. Farmers who own land
cattle, and who are therefore relatively well-off, get veterinary 
information and data on crop prices.

“I'm illiterate,” says one fisherman. “I don't know how to use a
and I have to fish all day.”

Outside the Embalam colony, at a village teashop up the road from the 
temple, Kumar, the 35-year-old shop owner, speaks glowingly about the 
centre's role in disseminating crop prices and information on government

welfare schemes, and says the Knowledge Centre has made his village 
“famous”. He cites the dignitaries from development organisations and 
governments who have visited; he also points to the fact that people
25 surrounding villages come to use the centre, transforming Embalam
something of a local information hub.

At the centre itself, Kasthuri, a female volunteer who helps run the
says that the status of women in Embalam has improved as a result of
the computers. “Before, we were just sitting at home,” she says. “Now we

feel empowered and more in control.” Some economists might dismiss such 
sentiments as woolly headed. But they are indicators of a sense of civic

pride and social inclusiveness that less conventional economists might
human development or well-being.

A question of priorities

Given the mixed opinions on the ground, then, the real issue is not
investing in ICTs can help development (it can, in some cases, and for
people), but whether the overall benefits of doing so outweigh those of 
investing in, say, education or health. Leonard Waverman of the London 
Business School has compared the impact on GDP of increases in
(the number of telephones per 100 people) and the primary-school
rate. He found that an increase of 100 basis points in teledensity
GDP by about twice as much as the same increase in primary-school 
completion. As Dr Waverman acknowledges, however, his calculations do
take into account the respective investment costs—and it is the cost of 
ICTs that makes people such as Mr Gates so sceptical of their
to the developing world.

Indeed, Ashok Jhunjhunwala, a professor at the Indian Institute of 
Technology in Chennai (formerly Madras), argues that cost is the
factor” in determining whether the digital divide will ever be bridged.
that end, Dr Jhunjhunwala and his colleagues are working on a number of 
low-cost devices, including a remote banking machine and a fixed
system that cuts the cost of access by more than half. But such
takes time and is itself expensive.

Perhaps a more immediate way of addressing the cost of technology is to 
rely on older, more proven means of delivering information. Radios, for 
example, are already being used by many development organisations; their

cost (under $10) is a fraction of the investment (at least $800)
for a telephone line. In Embalam and Veerapatinam, few people actually
sit at a computer; they receive much of their information from
on top of the Knowledge Centre, or from a newsletter printed at the
and delivered around the village. Such old-fashioned methods of 
communication can be connected to an internet hub located further
these hybrid networks may well represent the future of technology in the

developing world.

But for now, it seems that the most cost-effective way of providing 
information over the proverbial “last mile” is often decidedly low-tech.
December 26th 2004, villagers in Veerapatinam had occasion to marvel at
reliability of a truly old-fashioned source of information. As the Asian

tsunami swept towards the south Indian shoreline, over a thousand
were gathered safely inland around the temple well. About an hour and a 
half before the tsunami, the waters in the well had started bubbling and

rising to the surface; by the time the wave hit, a whirlpool had formed
the villagers had left the beach to watch this strange phenomenon.

Nearby villages suffered heavy casualties, but in Veerapatinam only one 
person died out of a total population of 6,200. The villagers attribute 
their fortuitous escape to divine intervention, not technology. Ravi, a 
well-dressed man standing outside the Knowledge Centre, says the
received no warning over the speakers. “We owe everything to Her,” he
referring to the temple deity. “I'm telling you honestly,” he says. “The

information came from Her.”

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