Connecting the bottom billion: Introduction to the toolkit on strategies and policies to promote and implement community access
2. Why is pro-poor ICT access important?
3. Information technologies and tools for
4. Understanding the barriers to pro-poor
Global experience of poor people using basic communication tools such
as mobile phones suggests that information and communication
technologies (ICTs) have vast empowering and development potential with
huge impact on their quality of life. Use of mobile phones by the poor
has increased their security, created more jobs, provided access to
information and enhanced the flow of financial resources, thereby
advancing social wellbeing and economic development.
knowledge and networking capabilities of interactive and convergent
technologies such as the internet present further opportunities for
economic growth and social development by increasing access to
education and health services and enhancing decision-making powers of
However, the poor in developing countries are still excluded from many
ICT opportunities. Recent International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
data show that about 94% of the African population does not have access
to fixed telephones, computers and the internet.
Gaps also exist in terms of relevant content and ICT applications for
social and economic development.
This introduction discusses the importance of pro-poor ICT access, the
different tools and technologies available, and the major barriers the
poor in developing countries face to bridge the access gap. The modules
in this toolkit will look at experiences and lessons in pro-poor ICT
access provision in terms of:
What is pro-poor
access to ICTs?
- Policy and regulatory issues
- The implementation of projects at the community level
- Advocacy strategies and approaches.
Pro-poor ICT access refers to access to and use of ICTs to
resolve concrete problems of everyday life
by the poor and the groups working for them. Pro-poor ICT access
- ICT tools and services should be affordable and accessible to the
poor and to those working with or for them at reasonable prices.
- ICTs should be used meaningfully to address the challenges of
poverty and secure broader development benefits.
- Relevant content that addresses the needs of the poor should be
available to facilitate their use to resolve day-to-day challenges.
Pro-poor ICT access recognises that the availability and affordability
of ICT tools alone cannot close the access gaps. It is essential to
tailor ICT tools and services to the needs of the poor and build their
capacities so that more people can use them, regardless of their
economic status, sex, social class, language, ethnic group or other
factors. Experience in Africa shows that the availability of cheaper
mobile handsets such as Nokia 1100 coupled with short message service
(SMS) and mobile banking were the major drivers of cellular network
usage by the low-income population.
The use of the internet requires that people not only get access to it
but also know how and when to use tools such as email, search engines
and web portals for different purposes.
A careful examination of the terms “poor”, “ICT” and “access” provides
a better understanding of the significance of pro-poor ICT access.
Looking beyond income poverty
Poverty refers to the deprivation of economic, social and political
wellbeing by a large majority of the world population. Amartya Sen, the
Nobel laureate, argues that in individual freedom lies the capacity for
political participation, economic development and social progress.
Thus poverty is not only lack
of adequate income (income poverty) but also the absence of the freedom
and the ability to function at one’s full potential as a human being
(“capability” poverty). Poverty could also be seen as the absence of
wellbeing and happiness (wellbeing poverty), which to a great extent
depends upon limited income and political freedom.
The notion of income below USD 1 per day as a measure of poverty was
also popularised by international financial institutions (IFIs) such as
the World Bank. But assessing poverty levels involves complex
calculations that measure access to health and education, and factors
such as the rate of employment, child and maternal mortality rates and
life expectancy are also often used to define the incidence of poverty.
For example, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) provides a
striking list of over 200 indicators for building its annual Human
Development Index that ranks countries according to levels of poverty.
The index illustrates the
complexity and the multidimensional nature of poverty. It also
highlights the importance of putting the cause, extent and alleviation
of poverty at the centre of the access debate, not the ICTs themselves.
ICTs in the pro-poor context
: The term ICT refers to a wide
range of tools, applications and services that help to produce, store,
process, distribute and exchange information. It refers to both the
“old” ICTs like radio, television and telephone, and the “new” ICTs
such as networked computers, satellite and wireless technologies and
the internet. Pro-poor ICT access is concerned with the ability of the
poor to get access to a wide spectrum of ICT tools, applications and
The main objective of universal access is to reduce the
divides that arise from geography (rural/urban), gender, physical
disability, socioeconomic issues (income, race, caste and class) and
skills (education). The notion of access covers the ability of, for
instance, the urban poor, women, children and those with physical
disabilities to enjoy similar benefits to those less marginalised.
In sum, while providing access to ICTs is critical, physical access
alone cannot bridge the pro-poor ICT access gaps. ICTs will be
insufficient if the technologies are not used effectively because they
not affordable; if poor people do not understand how to put them to use
or if they are discouraged from using them due to policy and regulatory
constraints; or if the local economy cannot sustain their use.
2.Why is pro-poor
ICT access important?
Access to ICTs by the poor has become a key focus of policy makers and
leaders of development institutions in recent years. This recognition
is due to the significant potential impact of new technologies on
economic growth and social development.
The main social and economic benefits of ICTs arise from their impact
on governance. Enhanced government efficiency in service provision is
directly relevant to the poor. ICT use in business, government and
entertainment as well as by non-governmental organisations already has
an influence on almost everyone’s lives. ICTs could play a key role in:
- Increasing access to government information and entitlements
- Enabling the engagement and interaction of the public with
- Increasing the transparency of the government’s operations to
make it more accountable and reduce corruption.
ICTs are also becoming crucial in terms of improving knowledge of human
and constitutional rights – such as freedom of expression, political
participation, ownership of land and accountability – which underpin
sustainable poverty reduction. Mobile phones have become the major
tools for organisation of voting in many developing countries. Progress
has also been made in harnessing ICTs for community empowerment through
the development of community databases, use of the internet for greater
access to data and improved information flows between local communities
and the government, and the dissemination of appropriate information to
members of the
Labour time, land and energy are often the only “productive” assets of
the poor. Thus tools that save their time have a significant economic
potential. Mobile phones and the internet have shown that they can
reduce valuable travel time for poor people. ICTs have also shown
potential to reduce traditional dependence on intermediaries and
exploitative market structures. For instance, rural farmers can check
for prices of the grain they produce on global markets; women artisans
can sell handicrafts directly to the consumers through the internet.
Pro-poor ICT access can promote opportunities for livelihoods by
increasing agricultural productivity and improving market access. The
value of ICTs for poverty reduction comes also from their potential for
generating income. E-commerce initiatives that link small and medium
enterprises directly to global markets through the internet have the
potential for increasing income and economic development.
The other impact of ICT has been in the flow of financial resources
from the “wealthy” to the “poor”. Access to ICTs has cut the
transaction cost and time of the flow of remittances; mobile banking
has made the easy and low-cost transfer of credit and finances
possible. A study by the International Fund for Agricultural
Development (IFAD) in 2006 indicates that worldwide remittances now
exceed development aid. Over 150 million migrant workers sent more than
USD 300 billion home in 2006 compared with USD 104 billion in aid from
donor nations and direct foreign investment of USD 167 billion.
IFAD says: “New technologies,
such as prepaid cards and the use of mobile phones, provide cheaper
alternatives for transferring money, as well as lower
account-to-account transaction costs.”
Globally, there has also been recognition for tapping into ICTs to
achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs aim to
eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary
education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child
mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other
diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and develop a global
partnership for development.
ICTs are regarded as key instruments for enabling these goals. Target 5
of MDG 8 emphasises the need for public and private partnerships for
expanding access to ICTs.
ICTs play a major role in teaching and learning, especially in delivery
of course materials, facilitating research communications, and
improving management and administration of schools and universities.
Innovations in online learning and virtual laboratories have already
empowered individuals and institutions to continue education without
the barriers of distance and time. Opportunities in the health sector
include health education and information dissemination. ICTs can bring
communities and health facilities closer to each other through regular
and systematic information exchange, and offer simple solutions for
collecting and analysing information about disease to help make health
interventions effective and relevant. ICTs have also been applied to
promote better access to AIDS advice, counselling and test results
without fear of being stigmatised.
3. Information technologies and tools for poverty
A wide range of ICT tools and technologies are available for the poor
in their fight against poverty. These include low-cost and low-power
computers, mobile and fixed wireless networks, fixed-line and fibre
connections, internet and web services, traditional media like radio
and television, and a host of content development tools and
applications. These technologies have been undergoing significant
changes that support their application by the poor.
The major trends in technologies and tools that favour poverty
- The convergence of broadcasting, computing and communications
that has led to the plummeting costs and greater availability of a wide
range of services
- New forms of wireless protocols (Wi-Fi, WiMAX, etc.) that have
overcome the challenges of terrain, infrastructure and high cost
- Low-cost handsets and pro-poor mobile applications
- The ubiquity of low-cost, low-power-consuming devices
- The proliferation of sustainable community networks
- The promises of development around Web 2.0.
The convergence of broadcasting, computing and communications has been
the key driver for the plummeting costs and greater availability of a
wide range of services to the poor. Convergence is driving traditional
telecommunication operators and broadcasters to move into each other’s
markets by offering a bundle of voice, data and image services. Cable
companies are buying into broadcast services; mobile companies are
acquiring internet service providers; equipment companies
such as Apple are venturing into content and mobile phones; and content
companies like Google are looking at satellite services for developing
countries. The net benefits are positive to the poor due to better
choice, higher quality and lower costs.
One of the main benefits of convergence has been the availability of
cheap telephony over the internet. Voice over internet protocol (VoIP)
telephony has driven the cost of communication down and disrupted the
traditional regulation and business models of the traditional
incumbents. The advent of digital television and radio is yet another
potential benefit of convergence that brings benefits such as clearer
sound and pictures, the possibility of receiving more channels, and
flexibility for interaction and storing the broadcast for later use.
The transition from analogue to digital is also expected to contribute
to the “digital dividend”, or the availability of spectrum that was
used in the analogue world for delivering digital services to the
Convergence is also pushing investment in broadband infrastructure. In
Africa, for example, a number of national backbone projects have been
proposed by countries such as Burkina Faso, Burundi, Democratic
Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, along with
submarine cable projects including the East African Submarine Cable
System (EASSy) and SEACOM. The availability of cheap broadband access
will contribute to meeting the communications needs of the poor.
The expansion of wireless technologies is another major trend that has
brought opportunities for connectivity in rural and underserved areas.
New broadband wireless standards like Wi-Fi
are overcoming challenges of terrain, infrastructure and cost and are
being deployed in underserved areas. Wi-Fi and WiMAX supply a large
share of growing markets and public service use of the internet in
communities, schools, health facilities, etc.
Low cost, mass production and ease of integration with computers have
made Wi-Fi one of the most-used wireless solutions for connection to
following suit and increasingly becoming the choice for backhaul
connection and interconnecting users in large cities across geographic
distances of up to 50 kilometres. Moreover, wireless technologies are:
- Adding online/offline functionality that allows users to work
anywhere, any time, and without disruption, even when network
connections are interrupted.
- Providing intelligent roaming capabilities when moving from
hotspot to hotspot, which means users do not waste time reconnecting or
lose critical data because of dropped connections.
- Enabling the flexibility to access data and applications on
various computing devices, whether they are laptops, desktops,
handhelds or servers.
- Provoking regulatory changes, especially in the management of
Significant progress has also been made in the mobile sector in recent
years in terms of network coverage, price of the handset, functionality
and applications for social and economic development. The number of
mobile subscribers has passed the 50% mark and was expected to reach
over 61% of the world’s population by the end of 2008.
The mobile phone is slowly
improving its storage capacity and battery life. It is facilitating
internet access and taking over its competitors as a prime media device
for downloading, storing and playing all kinds of media. The use of
mobile phones for payments and transfer of resources is fuelling social
and economic development, adding to the security of poor people.
Progress in the rolling out of third generation (3G)
mobile networks has also
been impressive in recent years. The total number of 3G subscribers
using WCDMA and CDMA2000 grew by 45% in 2007 over the previous year to
cross the 600–million mark,
according to the ITU. While the use of 3G may not have a direct impact
on the poor due to the high costs involved, innovations around
broadband mobile access will likely have a significant impact for those
working with poor people.
Low-cost, low-power computing
: Innovations around low-cost and
low-power computing have been progressing over the last five years, in
particular in schools and in connecting “the next billion”. The One
Laptop per Child
and Intel classmate PC
among recent initiatives that have fuelled interest and innovation
around low-cost and low-power solutions.
Handheld computers ranging from small pocket computers to notebooks are
now being offered for prices lower than USD 400. The ASUS Eee is one
the most ultra-portable popular handheld computers in this price range.
Many applications are being deployed to improve the lives of people
living in remote areas by allowing them access to global information.
For example, farmers may use handheld computers to access information
on food prices and new agricultural techniques. Another example is the
use of portable computers by healthcare workers to organise information
on individuals in poor areas and transmit symptoms of diseases to a
Sustainable community development networks
: Great hope has been
invested in community centres that provide communications (telephone,
fax), internet and other auxiliary secretarial-related services as a
way of enabling the poor to benefit from ICTs. Commonly known as
“telecentres”, they have often failed to achieve this goal. This is
frequently because attention was paid only to the hardware, and not to
content or to the social context – a typical mistake in development
Recent adoption of wireless technologies, lessons from failures of
community centres and experience of micro-financing have shown that
community-based entrepreneurship models can sustain communication
networks in underserved areas. Community-run networks that provide
voice telephony, community radio, data networking and internet using
wireless technologies have proved to be catalytic for employment,
self-reliance and improved access to low cost communication. These
networks not only enhance entrepreneurship and foster access to
information and communication, but also help to retain the income and
profit within communities.
: Web 2.0 is a transition from an information resource
web (Web 1.0) to a participatory web that allows users to control the
web to get things done and form social networks. Web 2.0 websites allow
users to do more than put information on the web or just retrieve
information. Users can build on the interactive pages, run software
applications entirely through a browser, or own the data and exercise
control over that data.
The proliferation of user-generated content over the internet such as
blogs, video sharing, social networking and podcasting has created a
more socially connected web in which people can contribute as much as
they can consume. Although the tools of Web 2.0 are developed and used
by active users, there are significant opportunities for adapting Web
2.0 tools to collect, organise and share indigenous knowledge. This is
important for sustainable development and economic growth.
These examples make it evident that new ICTs provide a multitude of
choices for the poor if they are used effectively. However, many of the
opportunities have not been tapped into due to a host of barriers, such
as lack of awareness of the potential by policy makers, absence of the
necessary regulatory frameworks, low levels of infrastructure and
skills, and financial constraints.
Understanding the barriers to pro-poor ICT access
Pro-poor ICT access in developing countries faces a number of
constraints. The absence and high cost of basic infrastructure such as
roads, electricity and communication as well as illiteracy and social
factors such as gender and ethnic disparity still remain the key
Access to basic communications
networks is still a challenge to the majority of the poor, especially
in countries with large rural communities. The combination of
geographic distance, difficult terrain, lower population densities and
economic hardships leaves little commercial incentive for undertaking
the huge investments that are required to extend telecommunications
infrastructure in rural areas. Progress in achieving universal access
to ICTs has been slow in almost all developing countries either due to
absence of strategies or inefficiency in disbursement of universal
: To implement ICT solutions in disadvantaged
rural communities it is essential that the electric power to operate
equipment is made available. Lack of electric power and its
unreliability, when available, are major challenges to developing
nations. Lack of cheap electricity in rural areas is one of the major
contributors to the high cost of communication. Solutions including
solar photo-voltaics (PV), small wind-electric turbines, micro-hydro
systems and clockwork induction motors were proposed to address the
rural power generation and usage gaps, but these were unable to scale
up and integrate into rural development plans.
Cost of hardware and software
: The high cost of hardware,
software and connectivity is another barrier to pro-poor ICT access.
High cost can result in a significant proportion of poor people’s
overall incomes being extracted and diverted from meeting basic needs
such as paying for school fees. The popularity of Nokia 1200 (an
mobile handset) and less than USD 1 of air time shows that connecting
the next billion requires a considerable cost-cutting in ICT tools and
Social and cultural challenges:
ICTs can service specific
development goals, but this requires both knowledge of appropriate
technologies and appreciation of how these technologies can be deployed
to address concrete development problems. The problem of illiteracy in
developing countries is a main concern, especially as ICTs are very
much text-based in nature. Illiteracy also goes hand in hand with
poverty, and limited education can be a key barrier that prevents
disadvantaged segments of the population from accessing ICTs,
ultimately exacerbating information and poverty gaps. Innovations that
use intermediaries and provide technological solutions such as
text-to-speech and touch screens are important to promote access to the
illiterate. Other related social factors include unfamiliarity with the
dominant languages of the internet, absence of training in computer
skills, and the fact that the information delivered by ICTs is not that
valuable to them.
Gender and other barriers
: Although the gap is narrowing, there
is also a significant polarisation of access to ICTs along the contours
of gender and physical disability. This was exacerbated by a lack of
initiatives to correct the imbalances between men and women and those
with and without physical disabilities at policy and programme
Policy and regulatory frameworks
: Policy and regulatory
provisions in many countries are still far behind the potential of ICTs
discussed above. Government regulations often fail to recognise the
possibilities offered by ICTs. A substantial number of developing
countries still control access and protect incumbent operators. In
other countries there is a tendency for a few operators to collude on
prices and services, thus creating barriers to competition.
While sector reform in some countries has increased access to basic
communication, especially mobile phones, the underlying policy goals of
delivering affordable access to the population have not been realised
in most countries. The rush towards privatisation of inefficient
incumbents has not yielded the expected results due to a lack of other
reform elements, such as competition and effective regulation.
Similarly, the enthusiasm for development of national ICT policies and
e-strategies aimed at overcoming the digital divide did not produce the
expected digital opportunities, due to an overemphasis on blueprints
with less attention to institutional capabilities, resources, markets
and governance and policy coordination issues at national levels. The
focus of e-strategies on lists of activities at the national level has
also been one of the major obstacles for investment in core aspects
such as capacity building, infrastructure and innovations at the
There has also been a significant divergence between sector reform
agendas and efforts to develop national ICT policies in recent years.
Sector reform efforts failed to recognise the implication of integrated
ICT policies, while national ICT strategies fell short of capitalising
on ICT sector reform efforts for creating competitive environments for
affordable access. The deviation between the two routes and failure to
integrate policy objectives for affordable access with that of
application and content was one of the major shortcomings of policy
processes over the last decade.
Policy and managerial capacity
: There is a significant lack of
policy and managerial capabilities in developing countries that has
often resulted in inadequately planned and executed ICT projects. On
one hand, there is a lack of demonstrated benefits from ICTs in
addressing ground-level development challenges. On the other hand,
there has been a significant focus on pilot projects that were unable
to scale up and make a significant long-lasting impact. This has been
exacerbated by the lack of participation by poor and pro-poor groups in
public policy and decision-making processes. A focus on ICT-based
solutions by technology experts means that information and knowledge
that arise in poor communities are often ignored.
The absence of adequate financing is another challenge to pro-poor ICT
access. Donor funding has been the main source of financing for ICT
initiatives in most countries, but a few donor-funded projects have
proven to be self-sustaining once external assistance (financial and
material) has run out.
5. The road ahead
The ICT opportunities and trends discussed above and the challenges of
poverty necessitate creative approaches to pro-poor ICT access that are
grounded in community participation, appropriate choice of
technological tools and relevant content. A number of barriers still
stand against widening the potential of ICTs for poverty alleviation,
including unfavourable policy and regulatory environments, absence of
adequate applications and tools, and lack of financial resources.
Government policies and regulation are perhaps the most constraining
barrier of all. It is difficult to mobilise resources and forge public
and private partnership without enabling government policies, laws and
regulations. Policies also affect ICT infrastructure provision
(including in the last mile) and investment in applications, services
and content. One major area where policy and regulation have
considerable implication is spectrum management for the deployment of
broadband wireless networks in rural areas. Another area pertains to
the rules regulating micro-payments and mobile banking.
Pro-poor ICT access requires concerted efforts in addressing these
policy challenges through capacity building and advocacy at all levels.
A community-driven approach supported by an enabling policy environment
will have potential for mobilising resources, promoting public and
private partnerships, and utilising complementary tools and
technologies to bridge the access gaps of the poor.
Gómez, Ricardo and Juliana Martínez Internet... Why, and What For? San
José: IDRC/Acceso, 2001 www.acceso.or.cr
Howard, Ian Unbounded possibilities: Observations on sustaining rural
ICTs in Africa Montevideo: APC, 2008
International Telecommunication Union African Telecommunication/ICT
Indicators 2008: At a crossroads Geneva: ITU, 2008
Mukhopadhyay, Swapna “ICT and Poverty in East Africa: A Conceptual
Framework” Paper presented at the Workshop on ICT and Poverty
Reduction, Nairobi, Kenya, 17-19 January 2006
Sen, Amartya Development as Freedom Oxford: Oxford University Press,
Smyth, Gerard “Wireless Technologies Bridging the Digital Divide in
Education” International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning
1, 1 (2006) www.mlearn.org.za/CD/papers/Smyth.pdf
United Nations Development Programme Human Development Report 2007/2008
New York: UNDP, 2007 hdr.undp.org
World Bank The Role of Mobile Phones in Sustainable Poverty Reduction
Washington: World Bank, 2008
World Bank The Role of
Mobile Phones in Sustainable Poverty Reduction (Washington: World Bank,
 International Telecommunication Union
African Telecommunication/ICT Indicators 2008: At a crossroads (Geneva:
 Ricardo Gómez and Juliana Martínez
Internet... Why, and What For? (San José: IDRC/Acceso, 2001)
Ken Banks “Mobile Phones and the Digital
Divide” PC World 29
Amartya Sen Development as Freedom (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1999)
Swapna Mukhopadhyay “ICT and Poverty in East
Africa: A Conceptual
Framework” (paper presented at the Workshop on ICT and Poverty
Reduction, Nairobi, Kenya, 17-19 January 2006)
United Nations Development Programme Human
Development Report 2007/2008 (New York: UNDP, 2007) hdr.undp.org
BBC News “Remittance cash ‘tops world aid’”
BBC News 18 October 2007 news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/7047304.stm
United Nations Millennium Development
Wi-Fi is a two-way high-speed radio
communication network to connect to the internet without cables and
wires. Wi-Fi is a popular term for wireless local area network, also
known as IEEE 802.12, which is intended to link computers spanning a
distance of about 100 metres.
WiMAX is a wireless digital communications
system, also known as IEEE 802.16, which is intended for wireless
networks spanning relatively long distances. WiMAX can provide
broadband wireless access up to 50 kilometres for fixed stations, and
5-15 kilometres for mobile stations.
Several large-scale capacity-building
initiatives have been implemented in Africa, Latin America and other
regions, where proliferation of community wireless networks can improve
communities' access to ICT infrastructure, as well as control over a
wide range of services enabled by access to the internet (VoIP
communication, content production, etc.). Examples of such
multi-partner initiatives are the regional training projects Capacity
Building for Community Wireless Connectivity in Africa
) and the TRICALCAR project
Gerard Smyth “Wireless Technologies
Bridging the Digital Divide in Education” International Journal of
Emerging Technologies in Learning 1, 1 (2006)
ITU Statistics Newslog, 30 September 2008:
Third generation (3G) mobile technology
offers high-speed communication while on the move.
Ian Howard Unbounded possibilities:
Observations on sustaining rural ICTs in Africa (Montevideo: APC, 2008)
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