Friday, February 20, 2004

Open Letter to the World Bank e-forum on ICT for Rural Development

[My, my. It has been a whole month since I posted here. My apologies.]

Let me first say that nobody should believe my version of ICT for sustainable development just because I say so. You need to learn about what is really going on, and what is really possible. We need to discuss results of real projects, not just theorize.

I will apply this to the very real questions that Dennis and Amitabh raise. You can inform yourself further on any of these matters through organizations working on various aspects of sustainable development. I write about such organizations here on my Weblog, (except in periods when I can't get to it, as has been the case recently).

On Monday 09 February 2004 10:17, Dennis Reinhardt wrote:
> Team,
> Amitabh Sharma provides a wake up call to those of us who
> romantically overstate the opportunities available through ITC

Speaking for yourself, I presume? Certainly not for me.

> in the third world, where chronic illiteracy abounds and where

There are two extremely important initiatives on literacy in India. One is software in Indian languages from Tata Consulting, which has helped more than 80,000 users in areas where computers are available.

The more important initiative is captioning of Bollywood movies in the language of the movie. This allows illiterate people in the audience who sing along to follow the text and gradually pick up basic literacy. This practice is helping several hundred million people in India, and will help many more as it is more widely practiced. Closed-captioning of TV would help even more.

So note that I do not believe computers to be the answer to everything. I maintain that computers and communications are required for many purposes, but I encourage people to find other solutions where appropriate.

> the vast majority of the rural villagers have no exposure to
> computers, let alone telephones, television, and radios.

It was my understanding that India had placed satellite dishes in most villages many years ago. Is this not correct?

> He also points out that development of technology access must
> be initiated from the inside and not from a top down
> perspective.

See the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka for an example of how this can be done. They have accomplished a great deal without computers, building community, schools, clinics, and village banks in 15,000 villages. Last summer they decided to bring Simputers into their village banking system, and to develop training programs to introduce computers into health, education, government, and so on, so that all of their villagers would be able to use computers effectively in the information economy, and to use Voice over IP to make telephone calls on the Internet wherever there is no regular phone system. This in turn will enable the creation of agricultural cooperatives and other programs for economic advancement, and this in turn well enable them to expand further in all directions.

> This post is worth reading, if for no other reason than to
> take us back to reality and practical expectations, and
> further to provide us with some lessons in communication.
> Dennis

I don't agree that this brings us back to reality, because I don't agree that we ever left reality. But the questions raised certainly deserve answers.

> ----- Forwarded Message -----
> From: "Amitabh K. Sharma"
> To: "An Electronic Discussion on The Role Of Communication in
> Rural Development Projects"
> Date: Mon, 09 Feb 2004 19:49:52 +0530
> Subject: [rural-comm] THEY don't need the voice, just the
> medium! (From India)
> Good Morning from New Delhi, India!
> I am a Lawyer (Attorney) by profession, and apart from
> attending the regular courtroom brawls, I have close to a
> decade long multi-disciplinary experience of working in the
> development sector, both in the rural and urban context.
> I must admit, every posting on this e-discussion gives me
> further stimuli to REACH OUT to 750 million inhabitants of
> rural India; most of whom are poor and impoverished, and for
> most of whom the words "development" and "communication" are
> as alien as UFOs from Moon and Mars! So, I am trying to learn
> how best we can make the "Communication in the Rural
> Development Projects" work.

Thank you, and welcome.

> So, when I read Rachna
> Vardararajan talk about communication being a two-way process,
> and ICT not being necessarily related to access to computers
> and internet alone, I SIT-UP and notice. Because, otherwise
> communication will have no meaning for almost 2/3rd people of
> the world people who haven't ever made a phone call, forget
> about using computer and internet!

The key word there is ALONE.

Yes, access alone is not the answer to anything. ICT is not a solution, but an enabler of solutions. People who cannot talk to each other cannot cooperate together. Voices that are not heard have no political or economic effect. People who cannot access information cannot act on it. The biggest consequence of ICT for the poor is adding several billion voices to the conversation about our future.

Of course it has to be two-way. We must ask the villagers what they need, and not presume to create solutions for them on our own. We must ask the villagers what obstacles they face, and not build fairy-tale castles with no foundation.

Of course we need to create training programs, and programs to make many kinds of information available in many languages, and allow the poor to create their own Web sites, and so on and on.

> And then on the extreme
> swing,

I think, rather, that both Rachna Vardararajan and I are making different parts of the same point, like describing different parts of the same elephant (as in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain parable) to people who have never seen one. Sustainable development based on ICT has not been seen in the world, and is quite difficult to imagine without assistance.

> I hear Edward Cherlin refer to someone's suggestion of
> "making certain bandwidth a fundamental right?!" I slump in my
> chair and simply get confused because here in this country,
> India, basic amenities like housing/shelter and food does not
> even figure in the list of "Fundamental Rights" as enumerated
> in the Constitution of India, and we are talking about
> Computers, internet and bandwidth!

My point is that the rights of the poor will not get into the Constitution of india unless the poor can be heard, and they cannot be heard without ICT enabling every one of them to get on the phone system and the Internet.

Mritak Sangh (the Association of Dead People) in India is an excellent example of the problem and the potential. In the more backward regions of India, people have discovered that corrupt officials can be bribed to declare a relative legally dead, so that they can seize the "dead" person's property. The members of Mritak Sangh, all victims of this practice, have been unable to maintain regular contact with each other and with the news media, because they live in areas with quite bad communications, where such shenanigans by officials can continue nearly unchecked. I would like to see whether money can be raised to get the members computer systems and bring the problem completely into the light of day.

I assume that due process guarantees that should prevent such things are in the Indian Constitution. In US law, where we certainly have such a guarantee, the Supreme Court has declared in a number of cases that denying people the means to exercise a particular right is a violation of that right.

> There is a great need for
> reality check here, context and location specific. For the
> information of people on this list: For every Apple Orchard in
> Himachal Pradesh, (INDIA) having phone lines from as early as
> early 90's, there are thousand of villages across the country
> which still have don't have telephone connections!

You may not have heard about new technology, developed in 2003, that brings the cost of broadband wireless connections down under US$1,000 per village, with links of up to 8 km. US$1,000 is well within the means of microcredit institutions and village banks in many countries.

This connection includes a WiFi (IEEE 802.11b) hotspot in the village, with a range of several hundred feet, and 11 megabits per second bandwidth. Within this range multiple access points can be set up with one or more computers each--say at a school, a clinic, a government office, a religious site of one kind or another--each serving different needs. Those computers can include Voice over IP (VoIP) telephone connections, providing telephone service far outside the range of conventional land line or cell phone systems.

New technology coming out in 2004 (IEEE 802.16 WiMax) and recent advances in hotspot technology (IEEE 802.11g) will provide a service radius of 30 km, and bandwidth of 54 megabits per second. The system cost will be greater, but the cost per user will be less very quickly.

These links can be daisy-chained out into the countryside from any location that has either a reliable digital telephone switch or a high-capacity satellite Internet dish. Such satellite systems cost about US$20,000, a fraction of the cost of a telephone switch or a cell-phone tower (both requiring fiber optic connections to the rest of the phone system). The cost of a satellite systemt can be shared among a significant number of villages. An alternative is a smaller-capacity dish, with a cost of US$2,000, that can serve one very isolated village.

Of course, this depends also on getting lower-cost satellite Internet services. We know of several ways to accomplish that. The most obvious is that India has in the past paid to have its own TV satellite put into geosynchronous orbit, and it could buy or rent capacity on digital satellites, or have its own put up in much the same way. Building and launching a completely new satellite would cost something like US$200,000,000, which is thus the upper limit on the setup cost of such a program.

Encore is cooperating with the Grameen Foundation USA in its Village Computing Project. We have proposed to Grameen the systems described above, as an addition to their very successful cell phone systems. They and other microcredit organizations have placed many phones in villages in many countries. With wireless and VoIP this can be extended to any location where we can get legal permission to operate. This means almost everywhere outside Burma and North Korea, whose governments are scared to death of the impact of telephones and the Internet.

> Without
> sounding like a critic of modern technologies and without
> undermining the great reach and impact of computers and
> internet - as a matter of abundant caution, there are certain
> pre-requisites which should be noted before attempting the
> introduction of the more advanced ICT tools, in places such as
> rural India where almost 60 percent of population are not
> familiar with the joys of letters and numerals!

Computers can make a significant dent in the problem, and as I noted above, there are other even cheaper programs having significant effects.

> I remember a
> former Minister of Communication in India a few years back,
> rhetorically thundered at a public rally in Rural India that
> he will ensure that Internet reaches every village of India!
> In all probability, he had no clue that to make his dream come
> true, he needs to have the provision of electricity and some
> sort of "telephony" in place, and not to forget, making the
> masses in rural India literate!!!

You point to three lacks: electricity, telephony, and literacy.

We have dealt with literacy in part above. The long-term solution is of course basic education, which I understand India is doing reasonably well on. (If someone has statistics on village school availability and enrollment, I would be glad to see them.) The UN reports that about 110 million children are not in school worldwide, so there is certainly more to be done. At any rate, we are no longer in the situation of a century ago, when there was reportedly a flourishing trade for professional village letter-writers in India, who might be the only literate people in their villages. Wherever there are schools, there are literate children, and wherever there are literate children, we can introduce them to the Internet and to ICT training (since part of our program is to create ICT jobs in the villages--hardware technicians, system administrators, Web designers, programmers)--in support of the equipment we propose to install, and the multitude of programs we propose to run over that equipment.

But note that we are talking about using computers as cell phone replacements. Thus the illiterate can immediately benefit, even if they have to get somebody else to punch in the phone numbers. We can provide a complete telephony solution to rural India and anywhere else, including voice phone calls, voice mail, directory services, and much more, at no additional cost beyond the equipment and the monthly Internet service fee.

Electricity is one of the places where the Simputer stands out. The handheld model runs on two rechargeable AA batteries. Solar power systems with chargers for a few pairs of batteries are available off the shelf in developing countries, even in the rural areas. Systems using automobile batteries are also readily available. A monochrome Simputer can run for about 5 hours on a pair of batteries, or longer if the backlight is not needed. Color Simputers last about a third as long. Future Simputer models will give various options for screen and battery size, but they will all be well within the capabilities of solar rechargers.

This is the point of the Simputer, its original design goal: to be viable in areas without power, without phones, and without money (using microcredit), providing Free Software in local languages.

> So my humble request in all
> right earnest: Let us point out and exhaust all
> modes/sources/interventions of communications for rural
> development, without harping too much and over-emphasizing on
> one single type of interventional mode!

I agree wholeheartedly. Whatever technology meets the constraints of a particular application should be considered carefully for use. I heartily recommend ThizLinux desktop computers and similar products where there is adequate power, and flat-screen monitors (which save their initial cost in electricity over several years) where there is enough money. I have nothing against cell phones except the cost of setting up service.

> The problem with ICT in development field is that (I know
> little about the "Use of Communication technologies in rural
> development" process) is that it is top-driven, supply driven
> and never based on a "democratic" needs assessment/market
> study.

That is a major problem, indeed, and that is why I recommend a close look at the Sarvodaya model, which is driven by the villagers, and is only implemented in a village if the village asks for it.

> One of the local government controlled FM radio
> channels here in New Delhi, gives much relevant and
> thought-provoking insights on agriculture and other
> development issues, however, it is a different thing that the
> same time slot competes with the popular film music programmes
> on 3 other privately owned channels!! No wonder I have never
> come across anyone, in the peripheral villages of New Delhi
> who is aware of such a programme!!!

Another timely issue that must be addressed in the training programs for ICT, and in the content made available to villagers in their own languages. I would be happy to discuss with the operators of that station how to get their Web site in front of the villagers.

> Let us strive to be the "facilitator" rather than the
> provider/impose(r) of ICT tools; one of the basic tenets of
> Participatory Rapid Appraisal /Participatory Learning and
> Action technique for development process, suggests: It is
> THEIR problem, so only THEY know the solutions. It is for the
> rural communities to decide and practice the communication
> channels, so let us facilitate in their empowerment by
> providing them the choices. The NEED should emanate from them.


> Otherwise, there is a potential risk of any attempt of
> introducing/strengthening communication in rural development
> project going down as another wasteful IMPOSED exercise.

Again, exactly.

> A very important issue which I think needs much attention: is
> the need to focus the discussion not only on a micro-level but
> also on the macro-level. (Fabio Santucci succinctly raised
> this issue in his EXCELLENT write-up. Kudos to him!)

Is there a link available for that?

Encore has partners, including oneVillage Foundation, working on that issue.

We are considering the requirements for national ICT systems to tie the village computers together for various purposes, including health, education, economic opportunity, access to government, and so on. Encore is working with the Indian postal service on a SmartCard replacement for paper money orders, to save time and money for the service and for customers, and to reduce error, theft, and fraud. We are working with the Agriculture Ministry on a comprehensive land survey (the first since independence, I am told) using GPS-equipped Simputers to acquire mapping data (in trials in Karnataka State). We are talking to major computer companies and software companies about the design and implementation of other such systems.

We are working on economic models for sustainable development, based on the idea that affordable ICT can put villages on a permanent growth track, and get whole countries off dependence on aid and charity. The plan includes the identification of obstacles that will arise, and ways to deal with them. If we are successful, it will change the macroeconomic environment for all of the developed countries. We know that successful growth throughout the developing world will be seen as a threat by some and a market opportunity by others.

> I don't
> think that the governments have any white paper on this
> important yet highly neglected component of any development
> projects, at least it is not here in my country.

The UN has quite a number. Look at the UN ICT Task Force site, starting with Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Challenge to Silicon Valley, and at the WSIS and ICT4D Platform Web sites. Much of it is available from the Task Force site, and you can Google for more.

> In India, we
> have the Right to Information, as legislated by various
> States, however, I do not recall whether any of those
> legislation make it mandatory for the government
> departments/officials to make the information available on
> their own. These vital information are there, somewhere locked
> in some files, but not available to communities which it
> affects the most!!!

Something like the U.S. Freedom of Information Act? U.S. citizens sometimes have to go to court to enforce it. Many government agencies find it to their advantage to put huge amounts of information out on the Internet, in order to save the cost of manual handling. It took more than a decade for that idea to take hold, so don't get too impatient.

> While I was part of team conducting
> "Community Appraisal of Integrated Water Resource Management
> Strategy" in Sindh Basin area of the State of MP, India, I
> learnt about the havocs which lack of communication channels
> can create for the "intended" beneficiaries. In the State of
> MP, despite making extensive investments in field of
> irrigation, (on loans/grants from World Bank and other
> development agencies) majority of the projects has failed to
> make impact as intended. The locals do not recognize the
> extensive canal systems projects as a revolutionary or at
> least condition enhancing efforts. One of the most crippling
> factor (which came out from the study) was the lack of
> communication between the beneficiaries and the
> decision-makers. The study area was studded with
> capital-intensive projects, which have failed in most of the
> aspects according to persons at the receiving end. Lack of
> communication channels (read No Communication!) between the
> government and villagers was clearly evident on many
> occasions. Feedback system for these projects were never
> established. Nor the government employees were initiated to
> interact with the people they were supposed to serve.


> On the
> contrary, less capital intensive programs like Rajiv Gandhi
> Watershed Mission was found more successful. The mission
> concentrated on public/ local participation (what is
> participation without communication?) at every stage. This
> again accentuates the need for dialogue between implementation
> agency and beneficiaries.

Or Sarvodaya, which begins in each member village with the creation of a village council, including seats for women and children.

> "THEY don't need a VOICE, just the

You mean they have their voices already, but are not heard? I think most people think of "voice" as meaning "voice at the table" or "voice in the conversation". That's what I mean. I like to talk about "giving each of billions of people a voice in the global conversation".

> There is a great need of advocacy and lobbying with the
> government/multi-bilateral agencies to make "creation,
> development and strengthening of multi-stakeholder multi-level
> two way communication channel at all stages of (rural)
> development projects" part and parcel of every development
> initiative.

I prefer to say it in English rather than government-speak. Talk to the people, listen to what they tell you, and make sure that what you hear gets passed on to all of the decision-makers, including people in government and the population at large.

> My country India will soon witness another great
> battle on the electoral front, after the GLORIOUS (pun
> intended!) rule of close to five years of the current
> government. As I write this, I hear another local radio FM
> channel belting out another capsule of "India Shines"
> advertisement blitzkrieg COMMUNICATING the high points of its
> "class" governance! So, you have the advertising gurus sleekly
> package all that the government had done for the farmers and
> rural India including the social security measures, Kisaan
> (Farmer) Credit Cards, blah-blah at the staggering cost of an
> estimated Rupees 276 Crores (61.3 Million US Dollars) not from
> their Political Party funds but from public exchequer!!! So,
> they are well aware of the reach and impact of communication,
> it is just that their focus is quite myopic and motivated by
> petty electoral gains and self-interest.

The established practice of Sarvodaya is to ignore the central government as much as possible, and take the whole program straight to the people. The point of our plan is that villages can afford to jumpstart their own development, with some assistance in understanding how they can go about it, including the creation of their own microcredit support.

> Sincerely,
> Amitabh Sharma

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