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Information and Communication Technologies for Development and Poverty Reduction: The Potential of Communications

There is no doubt that information and communication technologies can transform the lives of those who own and use them effectively. They can also enable development.

But while the world is set on the path to adopting wider use of information and communication technology (ICT), recent discourse has questioned exactly how it contributes to development and poverty reduction, with many researchers seeking empirical evidence of this link.

This book endeavours to provide the link between ICTs and development, drawing on studies from various parts of the world where ICTs have contributed to delivering development, or reducing poverty.

It is a great read for anyone working in telecom liberalisation, universal access, last mile accessibility or the use of ICTs by small enterprises as well as in poor and rural settings.

The authors do not claim to have all the answers to how ICTs should be made to work.

Instead, they give pragmatic examples from their own studies to illustrate how ICTs can improve efficiency, save costs and ultimately contribute to the productivity of enterprises, and improve people's lives.

In India for instance, ICT is helping small enterprises increase their market reach, productivity and profitability.

In China, the number of intermediaries for agricultural transactions in rural areas has decreased with improved communications and availability of information.

And in Peru, better telephone access has enabled faster communication and allowed people to avoid travel and save time and money.

By exploring scientifically grounded research, coating it in economic analysis, and putting their findings in simple language, the authors manage to effectively communicate an insightful and technical message.

The book begins by detailing the promise of ICT for the world's poor — instant access to far-flung markets, political empowerment, greater growth and even the possibility of leapfrogging entire stages of development.

But the initial excitement soon gave way to concern that rather than closing the wealth gap, ICTs were exacerbating it.

"[For] all the international debate, little systematic empirical research has been done to confirm claims and counterclaims and to guide policymakers on how information technology actually affects the development of low-income countries," say the editors.

The book seeks to address this omission with a collection of case studies exploring the relationship between ICTs and development in Bangladesh, China, East Africa, Ghana, India, Laos and Peru.

The immediacy and reach of ICTs are shown to promote all-round faster and more efficient decision-making.

ICTs are also shown to have potential for accelerating growth, creating jobs and reducing migration pressure from rural to urban areas. They can also boost agricultural and industrial productivity, enhance communications services, increase the diffusion of innovations, improve efficiency in public administration and make economic reforms more effective.

The book highlights a study of 74 garment manufacturing firms in Okhla, India, that shows ICTs have had a significant impact on production processes through, for example, integrated management systems and computer-aided design.

But it also notes that access to ICTs largely depends on education, income and wealth — and that the 'digital divide' is part of a much broader development divide. If ICTs are to be used effectively, then connectivity, capability to use new tools, and access to relevant and useful content are equally important.

This book is a valuable addition to the body of knowledge on the links between ICTs and development, although broader analyses of developing country case studies would have enriched it. It could also have benefited from an investigation of supporting infrastructure — for example, electricity for rural areas — which is an important enabler of ICT uptake.

Vincent Bagiire is the director of the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa in Kampala, Uganda.