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Global Development Institute

ICTs and Poverty Eradication: Comparing Economic, Livelihoods and Capabilities Models

Richard Heeks


From the MDGs to the post-2015 development agenda, poverty eradication is arguably the single most important development goal.  This paper asks how information and communication technologies can contribute to that goal.  ICTs – mobile phones especially – have diffused rapidly in developing countries in recent years, and now reach increasingly into the lives of the world's poor.

Research assessing the poverty impacts of that diffusion has been relatively limited; in part because this change has been so recent.  Research has also sometimes been constrained by its lack of conceptual foundation.  The purpose of this paper is therefore to assess research evidence within a framework that conceptualises both poverty eradication and ICT application.

It does this by identifying three categories of ICT application – other ICT uses, enterprise ICT use, and ICT sector use.  And by identifying three perspectives on poverty eradication – economic, livelihoods, and capabilities.  It suggests that moving across the categories of application may lead to deeper poverty impacts; but impacts which affect a smaller number of people.  And that moving across the perspectives may provide a fuller understanding of poverty; particularly in developing the capabilities approach to understand the ladder of “roles” through which poor people can engage with ICTs.

The paper ends by suggesting some implications for policy and practice.

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Educators’ guide

Synopsis questions

  1. How has the role of ICTs vis-à-vis poverty changed over time?  [Section A]
  2. How can we understand the overall relation between ICTs and poverty alleviation?  [Section B and Section D]
  3. What are the main impacts of ICTs on poverty as understood from an economic perspective?  [Section C1]
  4. What are the main impacts of ICTs on poverty as understood from a livelihoods perspective?  [Section C2]
  5. What are the main impacts of ICTs on poverty as understood from a capabilities perspective?  [Section C3]
  6. What are the practical implications of the finding presented in this paper?  [Section D]

Development questions

  1. Find some other recent research relevant to ICTs and poverty.  How does it relate to the findings summarised in the paper: support, extension, contradiction, etc?
  2. What other theories of poverty exist which could be used to understand the role of ICTs vis-à-vis poverty eradication?
  3. Would it make a difference if the paper talked about poverty reduction or poverty alleviation instead of poverty eradication?
  4. Imagine you are manager of an initiative delivering ICTs into base-of-the-pyramid communities.  Which of the three perspectives would you select in order to assess the impact on poverty; and why?
  5. An earlier version of the paper divided the findings not by type of ICT use (‘other ICT uses’, ‘enterprise ICT use’ and ‘ICT sector’), but according extent of impact: ‘incremental’, ‘accelerated’, ‘profound’.  Would you prefer that as a way to categorise poverty impacts?