Local action will heal digital divide

An emerging consensus?

Analysis Recognising that development must be "of the people, by the people and for the people" is the best way to help poorer nations, Bangladeshi entrepreneur Iqbal Quadir told delegates at the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford today.

Rather than giving aid, he says local technological development is what is needed, arguing that communications technologies in particular are needed because they connect people. He sees closing the digital divide as being more about empowering local people than getting the latest gizmo or gadget.

Quadir told the BBC: "If everyone can talk, it is more egalitarian. But we should not jump ahead too much and say just because the First World has internet, then the Third World should too. There is a fundamental beauty in just a phone."

His company, Grameen Phone, began 12 years ago, and worked to drive mobile phones take-up in rural Bangladesh. Now the company has more than 3.5 million subscribers, and more than 115,000 phones in villages.

This local approach to tech development is certainly something that the bigger IT players are starting to pick up on. In April, Intel announced its intention to open regional development centres that would focus on developing totally new platforms for the emerging markets.

In India, the company is already part way through the early phases of research into technology that might have a good fit with the middle to bottom tier of Indian society. Intel is working in partnership with a "number of companies", according to Willy Agatstein, vice president of Intel's Desktop Platforms Group, including Human Factors International (HFI).

Agatstein explains that the new centres are designed to understand what the need of people in rural India are, and to work out whether there are technology solutions to those problems.

HFI told The Register in late June that it had been commissioned by Intel to conduct six weeks of ethnographic research to come up with some preliminary concepts.

"It is a very tight schedule," said Apala Lahiri Charan, vice-president of Asia at HFI. "Intel has defined the segment of the population it is interested in, but everything else is very open. We could be talking about a device, part of an appliance or multiple integrated devices."

There is a huge aspiration for education in rural India, she explained, but there are security issues to consider - having expensive devices in the home could attract the wrong kind of attention. And the environment itself must also be taken into account - a large amount of dust means technology that functions just fine in the west could quickly get into trouble.

Agatstein points out that the intense heat and an intermittent power supply are other challenges than need to be overcome.

"People want to do two main things," he says. "That is communicate with the government - there are lots of forms to fill in, between three and 20 per year per person. At the moment, each form takes around a day to complete and process. Anything that could improve the efficiency of this process would be helpful. Secondly, people want to educate their children."

He says Intel is running pilot projects installing communication kiosks in villages, which provide phone and net access for the villagers. He says that the local people will use the technology when it solves a problem they have.

A spokeswoman for Christian Aid said that while it may seem strange to consider technology as a priority for some people who are struggling to get clean water and food, technological resources can be invaluable as a provider of information.

"Internet access, for example, can allow villages to find out about potentially devastating weather conditions and thus protect their homes and crops," she explained. "In countries where schooling is often a luxury, the worldwide web can provide relatively easy access to education networks, helping to break the poverty cycle."

But she cautioned that technology alone will not bridge the poverty gap. Instead, she argued, it needs to be combined with debt relief, more and better aid that doesn't have conditions attached, and trade justice to make international trade fairer so that it benefits poor nations. ®

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