Poverty and communication

Development Policy15 Oct 2010The Broker

Author: Rindert de Groot

There they were: the new centre-right ministers of Her Majesty’s government with Herself in the middle. It’s buzzing in the Netherlands: what are they going to do? And for the internationally minded: what are they going to do away with?

Yesterday, I presented a press presentation and round-table on ICTs for development. In a meeting organized by IICD, UNCTAD presented its 2010 information economy report, after which representatives from the Dutch governmental, corporate, civil society and academic sectors debated it.

The report shows a rapid rise in the use of ICTs in the least developed countries, notably mobile phones. Isn’t that crazy?

Picture a Fokke and Sukke cartoon, with the two protagonists, both skinny and black for the occasion, on two sides of an acacia tree, calling one another on their cell. ‘Are you hungry too?’ asks Fokke.

It’s telling that in the Gambia, more than half of the population lives below the absolute poverty line of US$1.25, but that there are more than 80 sim cards per 100 inhabitants. It’s apparently a lot easier to disperse communication than it is to disperse food. (Tomorrow, on World Poverty Day, several films on hunger will be screened in the Ketelhuis in Amsterdam – not a pretty sight, but an urgent call for action.)

The panel discussed how to support ICTs for development, which is good: although I am a bit cynical, it’s obvious to me that the mobile revolution represents a gateway to development. But how to help? Rolf Daalder, from the entrepreneurial development bank FMO, stipulated his bank only invests in businesses aimed at growth. The poorest of the poor generally only do business on a subsistence level. In other words: FMO doesn’t do anything directly to reach the Millennium Goals. That task lies primarily with donor agencies and NGOs, paid for by national governments.

In other words, for most of the discussion, ‘doing good’ and ‘supporting business’ seem to remain two different things. Just like in the newest Regeerakkoord of Rutte-Verhagen. Development assistance should focus on both the MDGs and on providing economic stimulus. What percentage will actually benefit the most needy directly is a point of concern, as Hans Eenhoorn pointed out. Moreover, how to integrate poverty alleviation and economic support is entirely unclear. It’s as fuzzy as the UNCTAD report on the matter. It stipulates the need for partnerships between all sectors, but concludes with a set of recommendations almost exclusively for national governments.

The funny thing is it’s ICTs that can work magic in bringing about new partnerships. The infrastructure is already there, and still grows by virtue of profit alone. It is crucial therefore, as was pointed out yesterday, to realize that ICT is a social project. Everyone will have to adapt her or his mindset to make it happen. Let’s start with people working for governments and the UN system.

Who could be guiding a shift in mindsets?

In The Netherlands, we are good with ICTs, having a great creative sector and sporting a strong civil society. So when the Regeerakkoord points out that we should concentrate internationally on what we are good at, I think we have a busy couple of years ahead.

Rindert de Groot is a Worldconnector, and director of Empowerplant.