Information is critical to the social and economic activities that comprise the development process. Communication technology as a means of sharing information is not simply a connection between people, but a link in the chain of the development process itself. In general, the ability to access and share information can contribute to the development process by improving:
- efficiency, or the ratio of output to cost (for example, through use of just-in-time manufacturing and inventory systems; through use of information on weather and soil content to improve agricultural yields);
- effectiveness, or the quality of products and services (such as improving health-care through telemedicine);
- equity, or the distribution of development benefits throughout the society (such as to rural and remote areas, or to minorities and disabled populations);
- reach, or the ability to contact new customers or clients (for example, craftspeople reaching global markets on the Internet, or educators reaching students at work or at home).
Communication technologies may improve efficiency and productivity in several specific ways. First, communication technologies offer price information. Producers such as farmers and fishermen can compare prices in various markets, allowing them to get the highest prices for their produce, to eliminate dependency on local middlemen, and/or to modify their products (types of crops raised or fish caught, etc.) to respond to market demand. Communication technologies may also reduce downtime, when timely ordering of spare parts and immediate contact with technicians can reduce time lost due to broken machinery such as pumps, tractors, and generators. In addition, communication technologies foster efficiency and productivity through reducing inventory, improving timely delivery of products to the market, reducing travel costs, and saving energy through coordinating shipping and transportation logistics. In addition, communication technologies facilitate the decentralization of information networks and can help to attract industries to rural areas, and allow decentralization of economic activities away from major urban areas (Hudson 2006).
Technological Trends and Implications
Key technological trends that are driving the proliferation of new information and telecommunications services include attention to capacity, digitization, ubiquity, and convergence. New technologies such as optical fiber have enormous capacity to carry information, and can be used for services ranging from entertainment and distance education to transmission of highly detailed images for remote medical diagnosis. Satellites and some terrestrial wireless technologies such as WiFi and WiMax also offer a tremendous increase in available bandwidth. Telecommunications networks are becoming totally digital, so that any type of information, including voice and video, may be sent as a stream of bits. Digital compression allows more efficient use of bandwidth so that customers may have more choices (such as compressed satellite television channels) and/or lower costs, such as use of compressed video for distance education and compressed voice for Internet telephony. Advances in wireless technology such as mobile cellular networks and fixed wireless systems offer affordable means of reaching rural customers and urban areas without infrastructure in developing countries. The convergence of telecommunications, data processing, and imaging technologies is ushering in the era of multimedia, in which voice, data, and images may be combined according to the needs of users, and distinctions between the traditional sectors of telecommunications, information processing, and broadcasting are increasingly arbitrary and perhaps irrelevant.
There are several significant implications of these technological trends, particularly for rural and developing regions. Distance is no longer a barrier to accessing information. Technologies are available that can provide interactive voice, data, and multimedia services virtually anywhere. Costs of providing services are declining. Satellite transmission costs are independent of distance; transmission costs using other technologies have also declined dramatically. Thus, communications services can be priced not according to distance, which penalizes rural and remote users, but per unit of information (message, bit) or unit of time. The potential for competition is increasing. Lower costs make rural/remote areas more attractive. New competitors can offer multiple technological solutions, including wireless, satellite, optical fiber, copper, and cable. In addition, the sector is being restructured through privatization of formerly government-owned networks and liberalization to allow competition among services and across technologies. The communications industry itself is also being transformed, with new entrants as well as mergers and acquisitions creating vertically and horizontally integrated providers of content and conduit, hardware and software. All of these changes are taking place within a context of globalization, as international trade in goods and services expands and national economies become increasingly interdependent.
The Digital Divide
Of course, these new technologies and services are not available everywhere, and in developing regions where they do exist, many people cannot afford to use them. Telecommunications is a “missing link” in much of the developing world, as the International Telecommunication Union’s Maitland Commission (1984) noted two decades ago. A decade later, policymakers were calling for a “global information infrastructure” that would link everyone into a worldwide network, or more likely, network of networks. By the turn of the century, world leaders were committing themselves to bridge “digital divides” between the industrialized and developing worlds.
People in the least developed countries, many of whom are in Africa, still have very limited access to basic voice telecommunications. However, wireless technologies are beginning to bridge that gap. There are now more mobile phones than landlines throughout the developing world, as prices fall and users can buy services in small, prepaid increments. For most subscribers in the developing world, their mobile phone is their first and only phone.
Gaps also exist within the developing world. Not only do wealthier people have greater access to communication technologies, but the gaps are even greater between urban and rural areas. Typically, a high percentage of developing country residents live in rural areas (as much as 80 percent of the population in the least developed countries), where access to communication networks is extremely limited.
Research On the Impact of Interactive Technologies
During the 1970s, studies of telemedicine, teleconferencing, and interactive telecommunications (Hudson & Parker 1973) showed that telecommunications can facilitate many development activities. Several studies found a high correlation between economic growth and telecommunications investment, typically measured in GDP per capita and telephone sets or lines per 100 population. However, does telecommunications investment contribute to economic growth, and/or does economic growth result in increased telecommunications investment?
The first major study to address the causality issue was by Hardy (1980), who found that the causal relationship ran in both directions. Of course, telecommunications investment did increase as economies grew, but there was also a small but significant contribution of telecommunications to economic development. The implication was that early investment in telecommunications could contribute to economic growth. Cronin et al. (1991) used a similar methodology to show not only that increases in output or GNP level lead to increases in investment in telecommunications, but that the converse is also true: increases in telecommunications investment stimulate overall economic growth. Aside from the few macro-level reports, case studies provide much of the evidence on the benefits of telecommunications in rural development.
Many researchers note that there are social benefits of telecommunications, particularly in rural and isolated areas where other forms of interaction with distant family members, friends, and colleagues may be infrequent and time consuming. Field research from developing countries cites examples of rural residents keeping in touch with family members who have gone to the city or overseas to seek work (such as Egyptians and Indians to the Arab Peninsula, or South Pacific islanders to New Zealand); families contacting relatives scattered in many rural communities; and field staff such as nurses and teachers in rural posts using two-way radios or satellite links to keep in touch with colleagues and family members. Researchers have hypothesized that reducing isolation can help to reduce personnel turnover.
Communication technologies can contribute significantly to socio-economic development, but investments in them alone are not sufficient for development to occur. In addition to availability of communication technologies, other factors are necessary if they are to contribute to socio-economic development. First, context is important to understand the cultural, economic, and political context. For example, if women are “invisible” in public or in commerce, they are not likely to learn to use communication technologies without specific outreach activities. If there is no reliable transportation, producers may be forced to sell to a local middleman, even if they learn that prices are higher in the city. If there is no source of credit available, farmers may not be able to buy better seeds or pesticides, even if they learn from the Internet that these inputs would improve their crop yield.
Next, content matters. Telephones do not require literacy or knowledge of a major language. “Infomediaries” can help to find and interpret useful content, but communication technologies’ true potential will be realized only if content becomes available in more languages, and more content relevant for developing regions is produced. Finally, capacity must be taken into account. Use of communication technologies requires the skills to use the equipment and the ability to find useful information. Thus users require some training if they are to take advantage of access to communication technologies. Alternatively, access sites must be staffed by “infomediaries” who can not only use the equipment but find relevant information. Thus, communication technologies may be seen as a complement to other infrastructure required for development, such as transportation, electrification, and a clean water supply.
Communication Technology in Development Projects
Communication technologies play an important role in health services in many developing countries. Generically, these applications are referred to as “telemedicine,” although some use that term for consultative uses, and the term “telehealth” to refer to applications for medical education and administration. Initiatives using communication technologies to support health services include emergency care, consultation, remote diagnosis, patient monitoring, training and continuing education, public health education, administration, data collection, and research and information sharing.
The following are the most common goals of applications of communication technologies in education: improving the quality of instruction, for example by adding supplemental materials, research resources, opportunities to practice skills, interact with instructors, etc.; extending the reach of education to people who have been excluded because of distance from educational institutions or disadvantage, for example, to reach isolated students, illiterates, people in remote job sites or prisons, etc.; and providing instruction where no qualified teachers are available (for example, to teach foreign languages or advanced science or mathematics courses). Often these goals are combined with the need to save time and/ or money, e.g., to enable employees to study at their workplace instead of traveling to classes or taking leaves of absence to attend distant courses; or to enable a specialized instructor to teach students in several locations.
A major problem may be that teachers do not have sufficient training to teach certain components of the curriculum. One approach is to use communication technologies to teach students directly, with the local teacher serving as an aide or tutor. Radio has been used to teach basic mathematics to school children, incorporating exercises using locally available materials such as sticks and bottle caps. Alternatively, communication technologies could be part of a strategy to improve the teachers’ knowledge and skills by offering courses for teachers using correspondence materials, radio, television, and possibly the Internet, often coupled with incentives for completing credentials and earning pay raises. Another problem in developing regions is that there are not sufficient books for the students, or that the prescribed materials are dated. One solution is to provide access to up-to-date materials from online sources. For example, a teacher in Timbuktu (in central Mali) commented that the only African maps available in the school were from colonial times. That teacher could now use the telecenter’s facilities to download and print an up-to-date map of Africa. Worldspace, a satellite system that transmits radio programs directly to small receivers, plans to transmit educational radio programs via satellite for use in African classrooms.
Another educational goal in developing regions is to upgrade the skills of working adults, such as extension agents, health workers, and employees of other government agencies. In the past, the main means of instruction were short courses that required participants to travel to major cities or take time from work, or correspondence courses that workers were expected to complete in their own time. Today, such students may attend courses delivered to their workplaces or local training centers, or may supplement traditional correspondence courses with online materials and assignments, and email interaction with other students.
In many developing regions, women are using communication technologies to obtain and share information relevant to their work as teachers, community development workers, artisans, or entrepreneurs. Women entrepreneurs resell mobile phone services in countries such as Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Mozambique. Women entrepreneurs also manage phone shops in Ghana and teleboutiques in Senegal and Morocco, and many community telecenter staff in Africa and other developing regions are women (Hafkin & Taggert 2001). Women are indirect beneficiaries of communication technology use in a variety of contexts. Improvements in health-care can benefit women and their families; use of communication technologies in schools can improve education for girls; and availability of communication technologies in the community can provide opportunities for training as well as tools that can be used by community organizations that benefit women.
Several important conclusions can be derived from research on the benefits of information and communication technologies. Communication technologies may contribute to investment in telecommunications and thus to economic growth; improve the quality and accessibility of education, health-care and other social services; benefit rural and remote areas where distances are greater and telephone penetration is lower; and foster a sense of community and strengthening of cultural identity. Telecommunications can be considered a complement in the development process; i.e., other conditions must exist for maximum developmental benefits of telecommunications to be achieved.
All of these benefits are derived from the role of information in the development process. New technologies such as wireless and satellite communications and the Internet will provide more opportunities for people in developing regions to access and share information that can foster development, because, as a woman using a telecenter in Timbuktu noted, “Information is the key to all doors” (Hudson 2006).
- Cronin, F. J., Parker, E. B., Colleran, E. K., & Gold, M. A. (1991). Telecommunications infrastructure and economic growth: An analysis of causality. Telecommunications Policy, 15(6), 529.
- Hafkin, N., & Taggert, N. (2001). Gender, information technology and developing countries: An analytic study. Washington, DC: Academy for Educational Development.
- Hardy, A. P. (1980). The role of the telephone in economic development. Telecommunications Policy, 4(4), 278 –286.
- Hudson, H. E. (1984). When telephones reach the village: The role of telecommunications in rural development. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
- Hudson, H. E. (2006). From rural village to global village: Telecommunications for development in the information age. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Hudson, H. E., & Parker, E. B. (1973). Medical communication in Alaska by satellite. New England Journal of Medicine, 289, 1351–1356.
- Okinawa Charter on the Global Information Society (2000). G8 Summit, July 24. At https://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/economy/summit/2000/charter.html.
Back to Development Communication.