Information is said to be the key to democratic participation. And, the advent of the Information revolution has made information available, through the Internet. This has changed the way people live, learn, work and relate to one another.
An explosion in the free flow of information and ideas has brought knowledge and its myriad applications to many millions of people, creating new choices and opportunities in some of the most vital realms of human endeavour.
In spite of this development, a sizable percentage of the world’s population remains untouched by the information revolution.
Fact is, ‘information poverty’ — the lack of access to information and knowledge that could improve earnings potential-is said to be the primary cause of poverty, especially in the developing world..
Many of the world’s rural populations live in poverty and have limited access to basic infrastructure essential for economic growth and development.
And, many of the world’s rural communities and small towns lack affordable and reliable access to ICTs, including telephones, internet, fax, and computers. Without these basic infrastructure, development in these areas will lag behind.
Research in rural communities around the world document the potential of ICT in changing the lives of poor people living in rural communities.
Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in creating economic and social development from below, notes that ICT can change the fate of poor people dramatically by:
l Integrating the poor into the mainstream economy by expanding their market;
l Bringing information, educational programmes, skills training and healthcare services to the most remote villages; and
l Empowering the poor, particularly poor women, with a stronger voice that can be heard behind the borders of their village.
And Roller and Waverman have demonstrated the positive effect of ICTs on income growth in developing and developed countries.
Current research from individual farmers and fishers in India supports the conclusion that ICTs improve incomes and quality of life among the rural poor.
And, this underlies widespread policy initiatives to ensure equitable access to ICTs in all areas. In support of this position, a number of countries have launched ICTs for development ((ICT4D) initiatives, and the focus of some of these initiatives have been aimed at poor people (ICT4P), to create awareness, provide access, and use ICT in several creative ways to reduce poverty.
This is based on the conviction that exposing poor people to information and knowledge will provide them with a powerful weapon to deal with their situation.
A number of governments in the developing world have recognised the equity implications of access to ICTs, and have adopted regulatory policies to enable the rollout of ICT infrastructure and the supply of services in rural areas.
The phenomenal growth of small teleshops, telekiosks or telecentres affirm the important role that ICTs can play to alleviate the plight of poor people living in rural communities.
These are centers providing a range of community-based activities and services that include access to information and communications technology for individual, social, and economic development.
South Africa has made significant progress in providing its poor population living in rural areas ICT services through universal service access initiatives. The telecentre approach has emerged as the most promising model for supporting universal access in poor communities.
Senegal has adapted a similar model to enable the country reach the majority of its poor who have limited access to telecommunications services.
Under the current model, the major provider of telecommunications services, Sonatel, has franchised phone service to telecentre owners, who are allowed to charge a higher tariff up to 140 per cent above the Sonatel price per call unit.
Such initiatives have brought the poor into the orbit of the ICT web.
In designing ICT systems for rural communities, it is critical to implement measures that will address the power problem confronting most rural communities.
As has been well documented, national electrical grid in most developing countries covers a percentage of the population, mostly urban populations.
Even in the urban areas where there is national grid, the quality of the service is an issue due to, incessant power outage and at times no power for a considerable length of time.
It is difficult to provide Internet access and other communication services to areas not connected to the electrical grid. This is a major limitation to development and the spread of ICT in rural communities.
One solution to this problem is to develop an Off-Grid, Digital, Electronic Network (OGDEN) as an initial communication and computing network for off-grid users in rural communities. This network could be based on solar energy solutions to the power problem.
Solar energy uses and array of photovoltaic cells and its use is becoming widespread in several countries, including the developed world. They are not unduly expensive if no more than a few kilowatts of power is required.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has recognised the need for off-grid power solutions for ICT facilities and has developed an Energy Solutions Toolkit to address this problem.
The toolkit provides information about using locally appropriate ICT and energy choices. This is to ensure that off-grid communities are not excluded from the benefits of the information society.
ICT is a powerful enabler and its judicious application to the plight of the poor could help move poverty to the dustbin of history. The current digital disconnect isolates a sizable proportion of rural communities.
Dr.Osei k. Darkwa