Harnessing Technology to End Poverty A Critical Analysis Essay

Harnessing Technology to End Poverty A Critical Analysis Essay

Abstract – ICTs are seen by many as a panacea for all ills of the world including the plethora of poverty. This paper provides a critical analysis of the claims made by those in favour of and against this point of view. The intention is to paint a more objective and realistic picture of the potential of ICTs to combat poverty. The analysis reveals that ICTs play a positive role in achieving economic growth, reforming government including essential sectors like health and education and helping NGOs serve their purpose. They still are far from being declared a panacea to end poverty and should be used as a tool to achieve development objectives with overriding focus on addressing the underlying causes of poverty. In other words ICTs are a means to reach a particular end and not the end themselves.


Many pundits, academics, development gurus and politicians fueled by the rapidly developing Information Technology Industry contribute to create a hype that presents ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) as a panacea for all problems faced by mankind, including that of poverty. In this paper, therefore, I have critically analysed some of the major claims made by various academics both in favour of and against the role of ICTs in poverty reduction. In order to do so, we need to understand the terms poverty and ICTs in appropriate depth.

Defining poverty is a complex and difficult task. It is a multidimensional issue and comes in no single or simple shape. According to the World Bank and United Nations Millennium Development Goals, the extreme poverty line is US $1 per day (The World Bank, 2005; UN, 2005). It can be defined as the situation of people whose resources (material, social and cultural) are so limited as to exclude them from the minimum acceptable way of life in the countries in which they live. (Anglicare, 2003:1)

ICTs on the other hand can be defined as: electronic means of capturing, processing, storing, and communicating information. (Heeks, 1999) These can be categorised as new ICTs, e.g. computers, satellites, wireless mobile phones, internet, e-mail, multimedia, etc.; old ICTs such as radio, television, land-line telephones and telegraph; and really old ICTs including newspapers, books, libraries, etc (Greenberg, 2005). For the purpose of this assignment, however, I shall include all electronic means of communicating information as ICTs. Having introduced the concept of poverty and ICTs, I shall now analyse various arguments in favour of and against the effectiveness of ICTs in dealing with poverty. The discussion is organised on three levels (as shown in table 1). The first section discuses the role of ICTs in reducing poverty at the macro level. This includes the contribution of ICTs to the economic growth and government reforms. The second section analyses ICTs at meso level. This includes the NGOs and other sectors such as health and education where ICTs are perceived to be useful, and in the third section I have discussed the role of ICTs in reducing poverty at the micro level, i.e. do these make any difference directly to the life of an individual or a family? The last section concludes the discussion.

Level Topic of Discussion
Macro Economic Growth and Public Sector Reforms
Meso NGOs, Education and Health sector
Micro Individuals and Family


In this section I shall discuss the role of ICTs in enhancing economic growth that is perceived to have a positive impact on reducing poverty.

ICTs, Economic Growth and Poverty

ICTs have come a long way from Robert Solows famous saying You can see the computer age everywhere these days, except in the productivity statistics in 1987 to the 21st century where the positive impacts of ICTs on economies are mostly recognised although still argued by some (NOIE, 2002). In the context of developed countries, ICTs can enhance growth by helping businesses reduce costs, increase efficiency and effectiveness, and thus increasing productivity. There is clear evidence of productivity benefits brought by ICTs in the developed countries (Souter, 2004). The developing world, however, is still struggling from many problems including lack of infrastructure (telecommunication and electricity), skills and cost of technology (Hanna, 2003; Souter, 2004).

Heeks (2005) points out that the developing countries can benefit more from ICTs production, rather than ICTs consumption. This includes software development, creating and assembling hardware and other components of ICTs infrastructure, as well as many associated/supporting industries as compared to the use of technology in applications such as e-commerce and e-government. The Indian software industry, for example, grew from US $1.73 billion (0.59% of GDP) in 1994-95, to an impressive US $ 13.5 billion (2.87% of GDP) in 2001-02 at a growth rate of over 50% helping overall GDP growth to touch 7-8% (Web Resource, 2005). Other notable examples are China, Singapore and Malaysia. (Hanna, 2003). This discussion thus suggests that ICTs have the potential to catalyse the economic growth one way or another even in developing countries.

Economic growth can be defined as An increase in the value of the aggregate resources available to a society (Priest, 2005: 3). Many authors, e.g. Rodrik (2000), Vasquez (2001) and Priest (2005) believe that economic growth leads to significant reduction in poverty. For them, the real cause of poverty is disintegration of the poor from the market economy and the market-based systems. Economic growth helps increase life expectancy, provide better nutrition, medical care and cleaner air as well as increased income (Priest, 2005). The most important reason in the transformation of western countries from relatively poor agricultural economies in 1800 to the modern developed countries today is the dramatic economic expansion that saw the living standards tripled in Europe and almost quadrupled in the US within the first 100 years and improved at an even faster rate since (Vasquez, 2001). Recent examples of reduced poverty levels by virtue of high growth are China, Mexico and Brazil (Rodrik, 2000).

The overall argument of this neo-liberal approach is that economic growth increases the opportunities available to the poor by increasing employment wage levels and thus benefiting the poor (Baer et al., 2002). However, there is also a fair amount of scepticism in the literature about the real benefit to the very poor from the higher growth rate. The above discussed optimism about the role of economic growth in poverty reduction relies on the belief that these benefits would, over time, trickle-down to the poor. In the view of some authors this is exactly what does not always happen especially when the growth is concentrated in just a few urban geographic areas (Greenberg, 2005). This view is also supported by the argument that the majority of the poor, because of their inability to take advantage of opportunities provided through market-mechanisms, need more than just this. This is reflected in the recommendations of the Chronic Poverty Research Centre that emphasise the need for targeted support and protection along with the political action to confront poverty and exclusion (CPRC, 2004). This is further evident from the study by Torm (2003) of six transitional countries that revealed significant differences in the relationship between growth rate and poverty reduction. In three out of six countries, indices show no reduction in poverty rather it increased in one country despite almost similar economic growth.

Keeping this in mind, the overwhelming evidence is that poverty is much harder to address in countries with stagnant or shrinking economies, thus overall growth is still necessary to help reduce poverty. The focus should be to adapt the policies that ensure that the benefits of this growth are not limited to just a few elites or concentrated geographic areas, but spread down to the poor as well (Greenberg, 2005). This is why many authors such as Heeks (2005) and McNamara (2003) are critical of the Millennium Development Goals for not incorporating the economic growth as one of its objectives. In the words of McNamara (2003:35) it is difficult to imagine how any of the MDGs can be achieved without sustained growth.

This, however, makes it the responsibility of the government to come up with policies that ensure the trickle down of benefits of economic growth to the poor and this leads us to the second topic to be discussed in this section which is how ICTs can support governments to achieve development related targets.

Tackling Political Factors: Role of Government

Governments around the world are the key players in the war against poverty. Micro-level projects and initiatives launched by developing agencies are dependent on the external environment for guidance and creating an environment where they can work freely. The most important elements to create such an environment are macro-level policy and regulatory framework for ICTs, state of ICT infrastructure and level of awareness and promotion of ICTs. The use and application of ICTs can be promoted through legislation and other regulations but requires a proactive government and an e-leadership as emphasized by the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO, 2000). For example, lower prices and more efficient service in the telecommunications sector can be achieved through liberalisation that ultimately depends on enabling policy and regulations. Favourable results in this regard were obtained in many countries, notably Peru and Uganda (ibid). Along with providing an enabling regulatory policy, governments investment in improving electricity and transport infrastructure (e.g. roads), increasing mobile coverage especially in rural areas and upgrading existing systems (e.g. telecom from analogue to digital) and internet connections (increasing bandwidth and speed using fibre-optics link) is also crucial (Wilkinson, 2003).

Governments in developing countries face enormous challenges such as increasing economic growth and curtailing poverty, and they have to achieve this with generally weak institutions and mechanisms for public participation, lack of accountability that leads to corruption, inefficiency, and certain individuals or groups working for personal gains (McNamara, 2003). These and various other problems of a similar nature have given rise to the notions of good governance and e-government.

Good governance in this context can be defined as a development process which is participatory, transparent and accountable in characteristic [and where] the voices of the poorest and the most vulnerable are heard in the decision-making processes regarding the allocation of resources (Sharma, 2004:7), whereas e-government is the use of information and communication technologies to improve the activities of public sector organisations (Heeks, 2004:n.p). E-government is thus believed to have the potential to deliver good governance. Despite the fact that the majority of such initiatives have been a failure mostly due to poor implementation, management and design-reality gaps (Heeks, 2006), the increasing trend is towards the use of ICTs in government administration, services and citizens participation.

Poverty Reducing Strategy Papers (PRSPs), prepared by the IMF and World Bank member countries, describe the countrys macro-economic, structural and social policies to promote broad-based growth and reduce poverty (IMF, 2005). A recent study of PRSPs submitted by eight developing countries reveals the consensus among all the countries that ICTs can effectively help alleviate poverty; however, the emphasis was to promote ICTs as a sector rather than an enabler. Only three countries incorporated ICTs as an enabling tool as well by employing Management Information Systems, information dissemination and increasing market access, and only one country used ICTs in its poverty alleviation strategy in the most concrete way by going beyond the backend management systems to actually using ICTs in the field. The need is therefore for the worldwide governments to mainstream ICTs in their poverty alleviation strategies in order to reap the full benefits (UNDP, 2005).


I shall now assess how ICTs can affect the poverty at the meso level by supporting stakeholders that directly interact with the poor, and manage and implement development projects. These include NGOs, donor organisations, health workers, teachers, etc (McNamara, 2003). Here we shall discuss the applications of ICTs in NGOs, health and the education sector which are vital for the efforts of poverty reduction.


Non-governmental organisations or NGOs are the non-state, non-business, not-for-profit organisations with a regional or global outreach. In the last few decades of 20th century, these organisations have developed at an exceptional rate and are at the forefront of the war against poverty today. NGOs can use ICTs in the following ways:

Use of ICTs for Information Dissemination: NGOs are doing a reasonable job of disseminating high-quality information to their constituents particularly in the fields of agriculture, housing, clean water, health care, education and family planning. ICTs, especially radio broadcasts, videos, television and telephone, along with the use of pamphlets and face-to-face communication and provision of training are the only hope for millions of people to get such information particularly in rural and remote areas (Gorman and Fong, 2004). The emergence of new technologies, e.g. internet, has increased the potential of ICTs to add value to this process. For example, a panel of resource staff in Kothmale, Sri Lanka, in a live radio programme, browse the internet at the request of the listener and deliver information in the local language and context, adding value by combining two types of technologies. (Hanna, 2003)

Information sharing among themselves (NGOs): Although there have been some initiatives in this regard, e.g. Sustainable Development Networking Programme (SDNP) in India to disseminate solutions, promote good practices and strengthen democratic practices through a mechanism of information exchange between NGOs and other stakeholders (Nath, 2000), most NGOs have a dismal record in sharing information among themselves beyond the most superficial level especially those working in the same field and countries at all levels. A recent study highlighted this as one of the major downsides of the competitive spirit found in some of the largest agencies working in child-care programmes in Vietnam. One of the great potentials of ICTs is their ability to facilitate information and knowledge sharing. NGOs should collaborate in sharing the best practices and the knowledge about the field and area in which they have worked in order to reduce repetition of mistakes and time spent gathering the same information again (Gorman and Fong, 2004).

Use of ICTs for internal efficiency and effectiveness: Evident from the examples of private and government sectors, ICTs have the potential to be used in automating the back office processes in NGO sectors as well. This can lead to significant gains in efficiency and effectiveness, and cost reduction. ICTs can also facilitate better monitoring and evaluation, and increase transparency. Another area is the learning and knowledge sharing within the organisation. In a survey of 53 NGOs based in the UK, most agencies and donor organisations accepted the value and practical importance of learning to development work but revealed a lack of clear policy framework to identify and integrate ICTs-enabled knowledge sharing and learning into organisational strategy and also the lack of financial and other resources to enable this. The majority of donors are also constrained by their funding criteria from providing specific support for learning work (Bond, 2003).

Use of ICTs to create awareness and fund raising: Half of Germans and 20% of Britons under the age of 40 preferred to give donations online in a survey carried out at the 23rd International Fund Raising Conference held in The Netherlands. Despite the increase in using the internet in fund raising, there are still big problems. The digital divide, insufficient marketing skills and experience, and gaining donor confidence are some of the challenges faced by NGOs. However, the use of ICTs to collect donations by online transactions or over the telephone by using credit/debit cards etc has proved to be efficient and cost effective. (Senne, 2004)

ICTs, especially electronic media, have been at the forefront of creating awareness among the masses about the grave situation in many parts of the world due to poverty and other reasons. This was recently evident when ICTs played a vital role in making the Make Poverty History campaign such a success. The radio, television and internet, along with print media, spread the message to end the crisis of poverty to billions of people across the globe. The Live 8 concert is estimated to be watched by 3 billion people. One million e-mails were sent to the UK Secretary of State for Finance, Mr Gordon Brown, demanding full debt cancellation of least-income countries. In Edinburgh, UK on 2 July 2005, 225,000 people gathered for a global call to action against poverty (Make Poverty History, 2005). Due to the success in creating awareness, the membership of the campaign has reached 150 million people worldwide and has already made an impact on world leaders. In the words of UK Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair:

Millions across the world are now campaigning to Make Poverty History. They are demanding that we act for Africa. Success is in our hands (CAFOD, 2005; n.p)

The Make Poverty History campaign helped achieve the cancellation of 18 low-income countries debt, provision of AIDS drugs to all those who need them and care for all AIDS orphans. These decisions can save up to 4 million lives a year. (CAFOD, 2005)

ICTs in Health Care

Reducing illness has a very direct impact on livelihoods as less days spent being ill or taking care of a sick child means more productivity. ICTs have a great potential for improving health care although they may not be able to provide direct health benefits that, for example, medicine or access to a health care professional can but they still have the potential to help monitor and respond quickly to disease outbreaks, provide improved means for keeping track of community and patients records, help manage health care processes, help provide health and hygiene education, and support health care professionals in their general tasks (McNamara, 2003). A good example is the use of hand-held computers (Personal Digital Assistants PDAs) in the Uganda Health Information Network (UHIN) project in Uganda. The primary aim of using the PDAs was to collect data and assist health care workers. They contained medical reference texts and drug dosage guides that were generally not available in the field and proved to be useful, also the provision of a search facility and the ease of updating information, as compared with printed books, added further value. The real use, however, was the data collection facility using the electronic survey forms that provided a tenfold increase in productivity as compared with the manual paper-based system with an added but critical benefit of availability of data at the central health care department within days rather than months. The overall process proved to be four times more effective compared with manual data entry and 25% more cost-effective despite the various costs involved. The project is still in progress (Kenny, 2001;Harris, 2004).

ICTs in Education

It is generally accepted that improving education leads to alleviation of various aspects of poverty. Education can be both formal and non-formal. In the formal education sector ICTs can be used to facilitate teacher training; primary, secondary and university education; technical training; student networking; and for administrative functions. However, the benefits may be indirect to the poor and minimum in primary education which is the focus of MDGs. Still they are valuable in secondary and higher education and help provide knowledgeable and skilled manpower to ICT and other industry sectors, boosting the economic growth of a country. (Greenberg, 2005)

It is, however, the non-formal education where ICTs can be used to their full potential of reaching out to the poor and educating them. In my personal experience in Pakistan, Allama Iqbal Open University (a distance-learning educational institution) uses radio broadcasts for its educational programmes designed specially to meet certain information and educational needs of the rural population. Radio is able to reach two-thirds of rural households in Pakistan and thus the majority of the poor. The Institute of Educational Technology, a sub-department within the university, works closely with academic departments, participates in the development of syllabi and helps identify issues/topics that need reinforcement through radio in the light of user feedback. It then converts these lessons into actual production scripts. The University and IET were established in 1974 and are still operational today. (AIOU, 2003; Abbas, 2005)


Any help in providing the food and shelter to ones family is a serious step forward towards achieving the MDG on poverty. To have a direct impact on individuals and communities in extreme poverty, priority must be given to the provision of information that increases income earning opportunities and creates awareness and empowerment while reducing vulnerability. ICTs can play a vital role in this regard by:

Creating New Opportunities: There are many examples of ICTs creating new opportunities for the poor especially in terms of encouraging micro enterprise development. A good example is 106 ICTs-based units in the Kudumbashree scheme in Kerala, India. Each unit consists of at least 10 women from families below the poverty line who are facilitated to run their own enterprise. Of these, 56 provide data entry and digitisation services to local industry, 45 provide IT training and five build personal computers by assembling parts and then selling them (Morgan et al., 2005). Grameen Telecom Village Phone Program in Bangladesh is also worth noting where over 170,000 women, initially supported by Grameen Bank, run their own public call offices with monthly average revenue of BDTk. 5,200/- (US$ 87) (ITU, 2005) Although these two initiatives were launched in villages, the poor in urban areas are more likely to benefit from ICTs-enabled job creation where the other prerequisites like finance, infrastructure, government services and skilled workers or access to training are more closely located (Harris, 2004).

Another important point which I want to highlight at this stage is that buying technology is never easy for the poor, therefore the international bodies need to take the initiative such as technology for poor, a revelatory idea presented by MITs Nicholas Negroponte aiming to close the gap between rich and poor. The recent initiative has been taken by the UN, by introducing $100 laptops for the children of developing countries (Twist, 2005).

Increasing Productivity: The majority of the world poor (75% approx.) live in rural areas and depend mostly on agriculture for their livelihood. The major problems they face include poor access to markets, weak physical infrastructure, poor health and education, and weak access to capital and government services. This almost isolates them from the mainstream of the population. They also lack the knowledge about crop varieties, pests, strategies to increase yield, more efficient harvesting and processing technologies, weather and climate, and prices and markets which can be highly valuable. ICTs can help provide this information. In the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh for example, Agritech Centres are operated by Samaikya Agritech P. Ltd. These centres cater for the information needs of poor farmers at a nominal fee of Rs.150/- (US$ 3) per season (UNDP, 2004). The use of ICTs to help sell local crafts from poor communities through e-commerce has produced mixed results. They have provided wider market access to the poor through NGOs and other intermediaries, however, problems still exist in logistics and transfer, receipt of payments, etc., however, there are some success stories as well, e.g. India shop, that sells handicrafts has a network of about 100 craft units, each earning between Rs.2000 Rs.10, 000 (US$ 40 US$ 100) per month (Kenny, 2001;Harris, 2004; Greenberg, 2005).

Creating Empowerment and Reducing Vulnerability: Despite being in the majority in most developing countries, the poor lack a say in the decisions affecting their futures. This stems from their lack of information and awareness about their rights and isolation from the mainstream political activities (McNamara, 2003). This is where the notion of Information is power is most appropriate. ICTs can help empower the poor by providing the information required and facilitating communication, collaboration and information sharing between groups with similar interests. This helps keep a check on the government and gives the poor a voice to raise their demands for pro-poor policies and other changes (Skuse, 2000). Successful use of ICTs such as the internet in Yugoslavia, for example, helped to create awareness among the people that led to the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic (Brown, 2001). Poverty, as well as lack of information, makes the poor highly vulnerable to diseases (e.g. HIV, malaria, etc.), natural disasters and economic and political shocks. Some of these are avoidable if timely guidance and information is provided. Various ICTs, especially radio and television, along with the telephone are vital for the provision of such information (UNDP, 2004).

So, the ICTs can increase the income-earning opportunities, increase productivity, create awareness and empowerment and reduce vulnerability; this makes ICTs the panacea for poverty reduction.

Unfortunately reality is far more complex and different to the picture painted above. Although there is no denial of the importance of information, Heeks (1999) points to the staged process of this information to be useful to the poor shown in figure 1. This includes:

Figure1: Information Chain ( Heeks,1999:7)

Access: Accessing information through ICTs requires an electrical and telecommunication infrastructure, skills to implement and use the system, and money to pay for it. Where 80% of the poor have no access to telecommunications and one third to electricity, and even lack basic literacy skills and money to feed their families, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to access technology on their own in the foreseeable future.

Assess and Apply: There are even greater problems in assessment and application of this information that can lead to a decision and action. For example, the context in which data is created contains the creators culture, political and economic beliefs and knowledge, and does not include what the creator does not know. This can create a potential mismatch between the sender and receiver of data if they belong to different contexts. The poor as recipient must also trust the source and channel of the data and must be confident and motivated enough to use the system. They also need some prerequisite knowledge to make sense of the data and adapt it to their particular needs and circumstances.

Act: Even if accessed, assessed and applied, information is useless unless it leads to certain decisions and/or actions, e.g. information about a new market opportunity is of no vale to a person that has no capacity to produce for that market. Thus the actions depend on certain resources, e.g. finance and knowledge that the poor are least likely to have (Heeks, 1999).

It is also vital to note that the poor, in general, and in rural areas, in particular, possess local and highly contextual knowledge, for example which crops work best in which fields, long-term trends in local agriculture, local microclimates, etc. They also possess a network of sharing knowledge which is mostly informal, oral and depends on trusted intermediaries (McNamara, 2003). However, information through such means is mostly inaccurate and incomplete. Since the formal, more accurate and complete mechanisms are more difficult to access (as shown in the information chain above), the need is to have organisations such as the United Nations and NGOs to help the poor access the formal information through understandable human intermediaries. There may still be problems, e.g. adapting a source-driven approach rather than recipient-driven and there may still be a lack of proximity unless the source is a community-based institution (Heeks, 1999).

The poor can also be useful as a source of information rather than merely recipients. The local knowledge these communities produce must therefore be disseminated more widely. ICTs may help in such knowledge sharing between communities and also between communities and government and donor agencies (ibid). The information needs of the poor may be different or there may be some other resources that are more urgently required, and more critical, such as water, fertilisers and power in rural areas and housing, financing and security in urban areas, to name but a few. (McNamara, 2003)

Due to the poor understanding of these issues and many others outlined in the paper at various points, most ICTs-enabled development projects fail. Some are total failures (never implemented), some are scrapped after some initial success (due to sustainability and replication failure) and some bring considerable undesirable outcomes such as loss of jobs etc (Heeks, 1999). Although investigating the detailed causes of their failure is beyond the scope of this paper, some understanding of this is critical to analyse the usefulness of ICTs in achieving MDG1. The main underlying cause of failure seems to be the emphasis on the use of latest technology rather than the development goals in such projects.


From the above discussion, it can be concluded that ICTs contribute to the economic growth of a country, however, it will only have a positive impact on poverty indices if suitable policies are adopted by the government to allow its benifits to trickle down to the poor. ICT industries in developing countries also have the potential to create employment, however, for the very poor to benefit from these, special schemes are required with specific development focus on the poor following the examples such as the Nobel Prize winning Grameen bank and Kudambashri projects. ICTs can also assist government in improving the efficiency and effectivenes of the public sector, however, the benefits to the poor from this are indirect and in the long term. NGOs can also make use of the ICTs to not only enhance their work practices but also create awareness among the masses and obtain much needed public support especially in the developed countries. Similarly ICTs can enable much needed reforms in the health and education sector as well. On a personal level though much help is required, preferably through concerned intermediaries to enable the poor to assess, apply and act on the information and benefit from it.

ICTs cannot certainly be the panacea for eliminating poverty from the world, however, they are a highly useful tool to achieve various objectives that can help reduce poverty. The key seems to be the proper use of ICTs in any given situation. The focus must be to address the underlying causes of the poverty and then to decide the most effective tools to be used to achieve this, considering ICTs as one of the tools to be used if applicable.

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