Saturday, June 7, 2008

Back to Future: Information and Communication Technology as socio-economic development multipliers


One of the basic tools to achieving the Millennium Development Goals is Information and Communication Technology. This terminology has commonly been used to refer to newer technologies of wireless phones, networked computer and internet other than the more traditional communication media such as radio and television. However, digital convergence has brought in devices to the market that increasingly blur the distinction between old and new ICT in what may be referred to as Communication revolution.

Communication revolution is profoundly democratic and liberating, leveling the imbalance between large and small, rich and poor, urban and rural, educated and uneducated, old and young, male and female among other exclusions. It is about opportunities and increasing human contact. It enhances a knowledge-based society and makes it easier to learn new things and acquire new skills. It amplifies brainpower and has the power to change social and physical space.

It has the potential to raise the productivity and quality of service provisions in the way that mass production raised the efficiency and quality of manufacturing. It helps the late starter to catch up with rest of the world in industry, healthcare, education, pattern of consumption, raising aspirations amongst others (Frances Caincross, 2001, The Death of Distance).

It was therefore not a surprise when the International Telecommunications Union, an agency of the UN met and drew up action lines and targets at the World Summit on the Information Science (WSIS) in Geneva, with a mandate to find ways to use Information and Communication Technologies to advance development goals, such as those contained in the Millennium Declaration (see.wsis.org). The following targets were set:

• To connect villages with ICTs and establish community access points to connect universities, colleges, secondary and primary schools
• To connect scientific and research centres with ICTs
• To connect public libraries, cultural centres, museums, post offices and archives with ICTs
• To connect health centres with ICTs
• To connect all local and central government departments and establish websites and email addresses
• To adapt all primary and secondary school curricula to meet the challenges of the Information Society, taking into account national circumstances
• To ensure that all of the world’s population have access to television and radio services
• To encourage the development of content and to put in place technical conditions in order to facilitate the presence and use of all world’s languages on the internet.

Given a regulated and liberalized government agency such as the Nigerian Communication Commission that seemingly allow foreign investors to roll out their plans, compete for services and subscribers which ultimately cut down tariffs, the multiplier effects of ICT deployment in the society as ours are immense.
Its positive impacts would be felt in the educational sector through the availability of learning materials, distance-learning capabilities through conferencing, health care delivery services including raising awareness on communicable and preventable diseases, open communication, dialogue and debate on issues such as HIV/AIDS, supply chain logistics, in business as in ecommerce, the monitoring of prices, products and extension services.

E-Government ushers in responsive administration and provision of efficient services to the citizenry. The use of smart cards technology such as credit cards and ATMs and financial services in the form of mobile banking and e-payments is the driving force behind the now popular branch network, online real time. It provides opportunities for the outsourcing of jobs and increase in the availability of home businesses. Apparently, more women, urban poor and rural folks hitherto excluded are empowered.

The bottom line are that there would be less in-migration from rural to urban areas, less traffic on the roads, infrastructure are adequate for the population in a given geographical space, reduction in avoidable trips, improved well being of the people and a healthy nation. In the opinion of Ndi Towo, arivia.kom’s Africa division executive in an interview with a business magazine (not My Companion) thinks that ‘while he would not suggest that ICT is more important than water, roads and electricity, he believes it is certainly among the top five’. I tend to agree with him. ICTs cannot solve poverty on their own but they can contribute to the processes that lead to achieving the MDGs.

The idea is not to paint a rosy picture of a utopian environment. Obviously, there are constraints but it is achievable in an enabling business and political environment. The private sector is instrumental in expanding ICT for development access so should be encouraged with enough incentives. Government and the civil society should take the lead in its applications (OECD, 2005)

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