Information and communications technology (ICT) holds the promise of making the world a fairer place. Indeed, in many countries, increased information access and social networking are giving citizens a larger voice in local, national, and regional affairs. While the individual and social transformational capacity of information and communications technology is immense, it is often those who already have a voice in national agendas that benefit from the amplifying effect of the technology. The many millions of desperately poor people in remote rural areas who have traditionally had the least voice in government affairs and whose needs are perhaps least understood are also those who have, thus far, benefited the least from the technology.
While researchers and development workers have explored the use of ICT to serve the needs of the rural poor for almost two decades, it is only recently that the potential has emerged for ICT to have a widespread transformational effect on the livelihoods of the bottom billion. Early attempts at using ICT to serve the needs of rural populations focused on the establishment of telecentres, centralized facilities that provided communication and access to information through the Internet. While there were notable success stories, the impact of this work was limited due to the cost involved in establishing the needed connectivity, the limited population that could be reached, and the inability for this mode of information access to become an integral part of people's lives. Imagine how different the impact of information technology would be in developed countries if people had to go to the local library to access the Internet! However, with the rapid growth of private sector investment in mobile communication, large numbers of poor and remote communities now have mobile phones and even Internet access, although they may not be using all of the available possibilities. Rapid diffusion of technology means that designs of advanced devices like smartphones are being inexpensively replicated in some developing countries. At the same time, the emergence of cloud services has begun to provide powerful and extensible computing platforms at little or no cost to those with Internet access. These developments have now opened the door for ICT to have the same or even a larger transformative effect on poor communities than it has had on the more affluent mainstream. But how can we realize the potential of ICT to empower poor rural communities in order to alleviate poverty? Past solutions offered by developed countries often focused on the technology, placing far too little emphasis on the cultural and institutional context. Since ICT is an enabling and amplifying technology and not a solution in and of itself, we must first understand the nature of the problem of local level empowerment independent of the technology. A key concept is the need to embed mechanisms for empowerment of local communities into existing cultural and institutional structures. We illustrate with an example from our ongoing work in Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR).
Lao PDR is one of the poorest countries in Asia. It ranks 122 on the human development index, with 27 per cent of the population living on less than one dollar per day. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry of Lao PDR is currently working to develop and refine its strategies for rural agricultural development. The main objectives of these strategies include: achieve food security for the country, assist communities to develop agricultural production for cash, stabilize shifting cultivation to alleviate poverty, and sustainably develop forests. As in many developing countries, weak capacity of staff at the local level is the main constraint to effectively realizing the Government's poverty reduction strategy. This is a well recognized problem and, consequently, most rural development initiatives in Laos include capacity building for local staff as a central component of their implementation, but the resulting primarily technical training is mainly driven by the immediate needs of a particular project or programme. Thus, there is usually little consideration of the long-term needs of the local development agency staff and the strategic fit of training activities into a broader human resources development plan or professional development scheme. The result is that these local-level staff, who are working closely with local communities and are ultimately responsible for driving the various development project agendas, often lack the needed breadth of knowledge and skills that would enable them to become effective, creative problem solvers. In 2007, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry embarked on a programme to address this weakness. In collaboration with the Wetlands Alliance (a Swedish funded capacity-building programme for poverty reduction in the Mekong region), the Ministry aimed to develop a more strategic approach to the professional development of their staff for poverty reduction. They began piloting a highly innovative professional Bachelor's degree programme in Poverty Reduction and Agriculture Management (PRAM) to provide broad skills at the grassroots level. The PRAM programme is designed to provide practical hands-on training to district extension officers. In contrast to the piecemeal short-term training in mainly technical areas that many development projects provide, the PRAM programme provides students with a more complete spectrum of skills to form a broader base of competencies for poverty reduction. The curriculum was developed as a collaborative process by drawing in development professionals, government officers, and extension workers. Recognizing the value of the practical knowledge and experience that the extension workers have, courses are designed to facilitate sharing of this among students. The curriculum emphasizes problem- and project-based learning, with elective courses consisting of projects proposed by the students and carried out in the field. These student projects are assessed not only using traditional measures but, more importantly, based on their impact upon poverty using established poverty indicators for Laos. Course learning outcomes are also articulated and the overall effectiveness of the programme is assessed based on the impact on poverty. The programme is being taught by a consortium of universities and agricultural colleges in Laos and northeastern Thailand. The success of the initial pilot phase of this project led the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry to ask how it could be scaled up so as to serve a large proportion of the 5,000 extension workers throughout the country. However, the lack of sufficient numbers of qualified teachers and the fact that the poorest districts are also the most remote pose great challenges.
Fortunately, private sector development in Laos has begun to provide a viable ICT infrastructure in rural areas, including 3G Internet connectivity. In addition, we are seeing inexpensive computing devices and solar technology coming in from China and Thailand. Indeed, most current students in the PRAM programme have purchased their own laptop computers, largely through the used market in Thailand. What is yet lacking in order to unlock the latent capacity of this rich infrastructure is appropriate software and content designed so that it fits into local contexts, as well as capacity building in ICT itself so that local communities can take ownership of the technology. Recognizing an opportunity where ICT can augment an existing approach and leverage existing infrastructure, the United Nations University International Institute for Software Technology (UNU-IIST) has entered into a strategic partnership to support the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in designing and building software for capacity building at the grassroots level in the country. The system is being designed with full participation of staff from the national, provincial, and district levels, as well as PRAM students and teachers. Such participatory design is crucial to local ownership of the initiative. Many subtle issues come into play here, such as holding meetings in settings where the participants can feel comfortable, which can sometimes be someone's home in a remote village. In response to the needs expressed by the extension officers, the system being built will provide a platform to record and communicate valuable local-level knowledge concerning successful poverty reduction projects being carried out under the PRAM programme. The system prototype permits the documenting of projects using rich content including text, photos, and video clips. Since PRAM student projects are assessed, there is a natural quality assurance mechanism on the content. This content will be used as teaching cases so that rather than needing to localize content, relevant content is locally created. In addition, the platform will enable extension officers to share this knowledge and professionally network with one another in order to create a broad peer-to-peer learning community. Future functionality will enable the information gathered at the local level to be aggregated so as to inform policy and enable provincial and central offices to monitor the effectiveness of poverty reduction programmes. Building this system presents novel challenges that go far beyond local language support and include issues in computing, cognition, and participatory design. A particularly interesting challenge is to find ways to aggregate the primarily qualitative information from the success stories in a way that can be meaningful for government policy making. A team of researchers from the Spatial Cognition Research Center at the Universities of Bremen and Freiburg is looking at ways to apply techniques for qualitative reasoning from Artificial Intelligence to this problem.
Since many developing countries have conditions and challenges similar to those in Laos, it is hoped and expected that the methodology and some of the solutions being developed here will have widespread applicability to help empower those who have been too long neglected.