TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Behind the Digital Divide

Behind the Digital Divide

Marcus Didius Falco (
Sun, 13 Mar 2005 03:54:13 -0500



Development: Much is made of the digital divide between rich and poor. What
do people on the ground think about it?

IN THE village of Embalam in southern India, about 15 miles outside
the town of Pondicherry, Arumugam and his wife, Thillan, sit on the
red earth in front of their thatch hut. She is 50 years old; he is not
sure, but thinks he is around 75. Arumugam is unemployed. He used to
work as a drum-beater at funerals, but then he was injured, and now he
has trouble walking. Thillan makes a little money as a part-time
agricultural labourer about 30 rupees ($0.70) a day, ten days a
month. Other than that, they get by on meagre (and sporadic)
government disability payments.

In the new India of cybercafes and software tycoons, Arumugam and
Thillan, and the millions of other villagers around the country like
them, seem like anachronisms. But just a few steps outside their
section of the village a section known as the colony , where the
untouchables traditionally live the sheen of India's technology boom
is more evident in a green room equipped with five computers,
state-of-the-art solar cells and a wireless connection to the
internet. This is the village's Knowledge Centre, one of 12 in the
region set up by a local non-profit organisation, the
M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF). The centres,
established with the aid of international donor agencies and local
government support, offer villagers a range of information, including
market prices for crops, job listings, details of government welfare
schemes, and health advice.

A conservative estimate of the cost of the equipment in the Embalam
centre is 200,000 rupees ($4,500), or around 55 years' earnings for
Thillan. Annual running costs are extra. When asked about the centre,
Thillan laughs. I don't know anything about that, she says. It has no
connection to my life. We're just sitting here in our house trying to

Scenes like these, played out around the developing world, have led to
something of a backlash against rural deployments of new information
and communications technologies, or ICTs, as they are known in the
jargon of development experts. In the 1990s, at the height of the
technology boom, rural ICTs were heralded as catalysts for leapfrog
development , information societies and a host of other digital-age
panaceas for poverty.

Now they have largely fallen out of favour: none other than Bill Gates, the
chairman of Microsoft, derides them as distractions from the real problems
of development. Do people have a clear view of what it means to live on $1
a day? he asked at a conference on the digital divide in 2000. About 99% of
the benefits of having a PC come when you've provided reasonable health and
literacy to the person who's going to sit down and use it. That is why,
even though Mr Gates made his fortune from computers, the Bill & Melinda
Gates Foundation, now the richest charity in the world, concentrates on
improving health in poor countries.

The backlash against ICTs is understandable. Set alongside the
medieval living conditions in much of the developing world, it seems
foolhardy to throw money at fancy computers and internet links. Far
better, it would appear, to spend scarce resources on combating AIDS,
say, or on better sanitation facilities. Indeed, this was the
conclusion reached by the recently concluded Copenhagen Consensus
project, which brought together a group of leading economists to
prioritise how the world's development resources should be spent (see
articles). The panel came up with 17 priorities: spending more on ICTs
was not even on the list.

Still, it may be somewhat hasty to write off rural technology
altogether. Charles Kenny, a senior economist at the World Bank who
has studied the role of ICTs in development, says that traditional
cost-benefit calculations are in the best of cases an art, not a
science . With ICTs, he adds, the picture is further muddied by the
newness of the technologies; economists simply do not know how to
quantify the benefits of the internet.

The view from the ground

Given the paucity of data, then, and even of sound methodologies for
collecting the data, an alternative way to evaluate the role of ICTs
in development is simply to ask rural residents what they
think. Applied in rural India, in the villages served by the MSSRF,
this approach reveals a more nuanced picture than that suggested by
the sceptics, though not an entirely contradictory one.

Villagers like Arumugam and Thillan older, illiterate and lower caste
appear to have little enthusiasm for technology. Indeed, Thillan, who
lives barely a five-minute walk from the village's Knowledge Centre,
says she did not even know about its existence until two months ago
(even though the centre has been open for several years). When Thillan
and a group of eight neighbours are asked for their development
priorities a common man's version of the Copenhagen Consensus they
list sanitation, land, health, education, transport, jobs the list
goes on and on, but it does not include computers, or even
telephones. They are not so much sceptical of ICTs as oblivious; ICTs
are irrelevant to their lives. This attitude is echoed by many
villagers at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. In the
fishing community of Veerapatinam, the site of another MSSRF centre,
Thuradi, aged 45, sits on the beach sorting through his catch. I'm
illiterate, he says, when asked about the centre. I don't know how to
use a computer, and I have to fish all day.

But surely technology can provide information for the likes of
Thuradi, even if he does not sit down in front of the computers
himself? Among other things, the centre in this village offers
information on wave heights and weather patterns (information that
Thuradi says is already available on television). Some years ago, the
centre also used satellites to map the movements of large schools of
fish in the ocean. But according to another fisherman, this only
benefited the rich: poor fishermen, lacking motorboats and navigation
equipment, could not travel far enough, or determine their location
precisely enough, to use the maps.

Such stories bring to mind the uneven results of earlier
technology-led development efforts. Development experts are familiar
with the notion of rusting tractors a semi-apocryphal reference to
imported agricultural technologies that littered poor countries in the
1960s and 1970s. Mr Kenny says he similarly anticipates a fair number
of dusty rooms with old computers piled up in them around the

That may well be true, but it does not mean that the money being
channelled to rural technology is going entirely unappreciated. Rural
ICTs appear particularly useful to the literate, to the wealthier and
to the younger those, in other words, who sit at the top of the
socio-economic hierarchy In the 12 villages surrounding Pondicherry,
students are among the most frequent users of the Knowledge Centres;
they look up exam results, learn computer skills and look for
jobs. Farmers who own land or cattle, and who are therefore relatively
well-off, get veterinary information and data on crop prices.

I'm illiterate, says one fisherman. I don't know how to use a
computer, and I have to fish all day.

Outside the Embalam colony, at a village teashop up the road from the
temple, Kumar, the 35-year-old shop owner, speaks glowingly about the
centre's role in disseminating crop prices and information on
government welfare schemes, and says the Knowledge Centre has made his
village famous . He cites the dignitaries from development
organisations and governments who have visited; he also points to the
fact that people from 25 surrounding villages come to use the centre,
transforming Embalam into something of a local information hub.

At the centre itself, Kasthuri, a female volunteer who helps run the
place, says that the status of women in Embalam has improved as a
result of using the computers. Before, we were just sitting at home,
she says. Now we feel empowered and more in control. Some economists
might dismiss such sentiments as woolly headed. But they are
indicators of a sense of civic pride and social inclusiveness that
less conventional economists might term human development or

A question of priorities

Given the mixed opinions on the ground, then, the real issue is not
whether investing in ICTs can help development (it can, in some cases,
and for some people), but whether the overall benefits of doing so
outweigh those of investing in, say, education or health. Leonard
Waverman of the London Business School has compared the impact on GDP
of increases in teledensity (the number of telephones per 100 people)
and the primary-school completion rate. He found that an increase of
100 basis points in teledensity raised GDP by about twice as much as
the same increase in primary-school completion. As Dr Waverman
acknowledges, however, his calculations do not take into account the
respective investment costs and it is the cost of ICTs that makes
people such as Mr Gates so sceptical of their applicability to the
developing world.


Now that's what I call antivirus technology

Indeed, Ashok Jhunjhunwala, a professor at the Indian Institute of
Technology in Chennai (formerly Madras), argues that cost is the
deciding factor in determining whether the digital divide will ever be
bridged. To that end, Dr Jhunjhunwala and his colleagues are working
on a number of low-cost devices, including a remote banking machine
and a fixed wireless system that cuts the cost of access by more than
half. But such innovation takes time and is itself expensive.

Perhaps a more immediate way of addressing the cost of technology is
to rely on older, more proven means of delivering information. Radios,
for example, are already being used by many development organisations;
their cost (under $10) is a fraction of the investment (at least $800)
required for a telephone line. In Embalam and Veerapatinam, few people
actually ever sit at a computer; they receive much of their
information from loudspeakers on top of the Knowledge Centre, or from
a newsletter printed at the centre and delivered around the
village. Such old-fashioned methods of communication can be connected
to an internet hub located further upstream; these hybrid networks may
well represent the future of technology in the developing world.

But for now, it seems that the most cost-effective way of providing
information over the proverbial last mile is often decidedly
low-tech. On December 26th 2004, villagers in Veerapatinam had
occasion to marvel at the reliability of a truly old-fashioned source
of information. As the Asian=20 tsunami swept towards the south Indian
shoreline, over a thousand villagers were gathered safely inland
around the temple well. About an hour and a half before the tsunami,
the waters in the well had started bubbling and rising to the surface;
by the time the wave hit, a whirlpool had formed and the villagers had
left the beach to watch this strange phenomenon.

Nearby villages suffered heavy casualties, but in Veerapatinam only
one person died out of a total population of 6,200. The villagers
attribute their fortuitous escape to divine intervention, not
technology. Ravi, a well-dressed man standing outside the Knowledge
Centre, says the villagers received no warning over the speakers. We
owe everything to Her, he says, referring to the temple deity. I'm
telling you honestly, he says. The information came from Her.

Copyright 2005 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group.

NOTE: For more telecom/internet/networking/computer news from the daily
media, check out our feature 'Telecom Digest Extra' each day at . Hundreds of new articles daily.

*** FAIR USE NOTICE. This message contains copyrighted material the
use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright
owner. This Internet discussion group is making it available without
profit to group members who have expressed a prior interest in
receiving the included information in their efforts to advance the
understanding of literary, educational, political, and economic
issues, for non-profit research and educational purposes only. I
believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material
as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish
to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go
beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright
owner, in this instance, the Economist Group.

For more information go to:

Post Followup Article Use your browser's quoting feature to quote article into reply
Go to Next message: "Re: FCC Wants Comments Re: Should VoIP co's Get Numbers Direct?"
Go to Previous message: Marcus Didius Falco: "A Spiritual Connection from"
TELECOM Digest: Home Page