Information and Communication Technologies, Poverty and Development

Richard Heeks


Can information and communication technologies (ICTs) help to alleviate poverty in low-income countries?

The paper investigates this question, focusing particularly on the role of ICTs in assisting the development of small and micro-enterprises. The investigation is based on a systemic understanding of both technology and enterprise. This suggests that ICTs will play a role mainly as a communication technology rather than as an information processing or production technology. Serious inequalities exist that constrain the use of ICT-based information by poor entrepreneurs. Information and communication technologies may therefore have a greater role to play in giving 'voice' to the poor; that is, in making the poor information providers more than information recipients.

However, effective application must first overcome the 'ICT fetish' that dominates much development thinking at present, and which creates a series of identified opportunity costs. The paper concludes with a set of development priorities for information and for ICT use in poverty alleviation.

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Educator's guide

Synopsis questions

  1. What contribution, if any, can ICTs make to poverty alleviation and enterprise development in low-income countries? [all parts]
  2. What insights can a systemic view of technology and of enterprise give us? [part A]
  3. What information do poor entrepreneurs need? What constrains them from obtaining and using such information? [part B]
  4. What differing viewpoints are found in the 'technology and development' domain? Why do they arise? What are the costs of the differing viewpoints? [part D]
  5. What priorities does this paper set for information, ICTs and development? How do these differ from the priorities set by those occupying position B in figure 4? [parts D & E]

Development questions

  1. Do the issues identified in part B represent serious or only minor constraints?
  2. Divide into two groups. Each group has US$10,000 to spend on a village development project. One side should prepare, present and debate a case for spending the money on ICTs. The other side should prepare, present and debate a case for spending the money on an alternative priority (e.g. irrigation, shelter, production technology, etc).
  3. Locate and argue for your position in the figure 4 diagram.
  4. Which is better: an over-optimistic vision of a better world or a realistic understanding of the problems in achieving such a vision?
  5. Review the definition of 'organic information systems'. Does your knowledge of organic food or organic farming systems offer any further insights into sustainable development of information systems?
  6. What practical actions could be used to implement the priorities laid out in part E?