Unlocking the potential of ICTs for the poor

Development Policy07 Oct 2008Ellen Lammers

It is often assumed that information and communication technologies (ICTs) can contribute to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but the evidence for that conclusion is weak. No one would dispute that knowledge equals power. But the extent to which radio, mobile phones and internet empower poor people by providing better access to current knowledge and opportunities for exchanging information is still a subject of debate. The Building Communication Opportunities (BCO) Alliance has conducted an impact study to assess the effects that radio, mobile phones and internet ICTs have on development. It published the results in a 200-page report last June.

The BCO Alliance is an international partnership of eleven agencies working in information, communications and development (ICD). It includes donors like the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), specialized NGOs like the International Institute for Communications and Development (IICD) and networks such as the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), which started in Africa. Since 2004, the BCO Alliance has supported projects that are meant to, as they put it, ‘unlock the potential’ that media and ICTs have for improving the lives of the poor.

The central question of the impact study was how do communications for development contribute to poverty reduction through strengthening the voices, capacities, communications and networking of the poor and the marginalized, and enable them to influence decisions that affect their lives?

For this assessment, an international team of experts conducted three case studies. The first examined the impact of radio on political change. Broadcast radio is not only used to disseminate information about malaria, HIV/AIDS, crops and market prices, but also to inform people of their rights. In Nepal, radio stations played a significant part in nudging public opinion toward favouring a new political order. After 240 years of autocratic rule, the monarchy was this year replaced by more democratic political structures. But radio broadcasts also played a pivotal role in fomenting ethnic violence in Rwanda in 1994. According to the impact study, radio has most influence where it is widely accessible, trusted by listeners and open to inclusive participation. The quality of journalism and the integration with other sources of information are also crucial factors.

A second case study confirmed that mobile telephony has the most significant impact on making markets work for the poor. Mobile phones are widely used by farmers, craft workers and fishermen to participate in markets that command higher prices. They allow consumers to shop around and retailers to order a wider range of goods at better prices. This impact may increase once mobile phones become a vehicle for mobile banking and money transfer. Still, while small- and medium-sized enterprises benefit from ICTs, the potential impact of better information resources on micro-businesses is often constrained by shortage of capital and lack of skills.

The final case study looked at the effectiveness of BCO’s networking strategies. Networking for advocacy and policy change is a central occupation of many of these agencies, who strongly believe in the political power of access to information. They have worked together to achieve liberalization of broadcasting ownership (required for community radio) and reforms in telecommunications policy such as open access and internet rights. The impact study shows that the most effective networks for building communities of activists are those that enable the pooling of resources and expertise. Assessing the impact of advocacy is notoriously difficult. This issue was addressed in a separate investigation into impact assessment in the area of ICD. It offers ideas that other development sectors besieged by the need for evaluation and assessment can also profit from.

What is the overall conclusion of the study? The lasting impact of the remarkable changes over the last decade – most households in developing countries now have access to broadcast radio, mobile phones have suddenly made telephony available to millions and internet use is spreading – heavily depends on contextual factors. Local social, economic, political and cultural norms play a major part in deciding how radio and other media will exert their influence. An isolated focus on technology is therefore not enough. To be effective, the introduction of ICTs should be integrated into broader development policies. Go to BCO website for more information.


Unfortunately, due to the age of this contribution and several migrations to online content management systems, the footnotes in the text may have been lost. The footnotes below are listed in its original order of appearance in text.
    1. See BCO website for a list of the eleven BCO partners.