Aligning ICTs With President Weah’s Pro-poor Agenda: A Focus on Universal Access, Technologies and Barriers

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By Dr. Darren Wilkins (Phone: 0886703789/0777129092)

Last week I wrote about empowering the Chief Information Office(r) or the CIO, for the achievement of a robust e-Government program that can improve service delivery to citizens and bring efficiency, transparency and cost-savings in Government. In today’s article, I provide insight into ICTs as they relate to President Weah’s Pro-Poor agenda.  I make reference to the Universal Access Program, a few technologies that are available, and provide a realistic perspective of the traditional barriers to ICTs integration facing developing countries like Liberia, thus strangulating sustainable economic development.

In 2014 when Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s government won the elections in India, he proffered a “pro-poor welfare agenda” to the people of India. A little over two years later, Modi’s government was able to initiate 80 of its “Pro-poor and Good Governance” new schemes for the people’s welfare. Prominent amongst those “schemes” were Mudra Yojana, Make in India, Stand up India and Start up India. Modi’s government also ushered in an era of “politics of performance”, urging states to be an effective instrument for execution of the Government’s “pro-poor” and “good governance” agenda. According to the Indian Government, India is the world’s fastest growing economy at 7.4 per cent growth rate. ICTs are partly responsible for India’s growing economy.

Similarly, in early 2018 when President George Weah took over, he proffered a pro-poor agenda; an agenda that addresses the plight of the “poor”,
vulnerable” and “marginalized”. Before going further, permit me to share with you my “basic” understanding of a “pro-poor” agenda.  A pro-poor agenda is about having an effective social safety net for the poor and the vulnerable to enable them to realize their potential. It is also about ensuring equal access to quality healthcare and education and equitable access to economic opportunities. “Equal access” to socio-economic opportunities can be facilitated by integrating ICTs in an innovative way, thus, bringing improvement to the lives of all people, especially the poor, vulnerable and marginalized.

The term Information, Communications and Technology or ICT refers to a wide range of tools, applications and services that help to produce, store, process, distribute and exchange information. It refers to both the “old” ICTs like radio, television and telephone, and the “new” ICTs such as networked computers, satellite and wireless technologies, cloud computing, big data and the internet. In the “pro-poor” context, ICTs involve the ability of the poor to garner access to a wide spectrum of ICT tools, applications and services for the betterment of their lives. Despite this, the poor in developing countries are still excluded from many ICT opportunities. This brings me to the topic of Universal Access Programs or UAPs.

Universal Access: A pro-poor agenda cannot ignore universal access which is the provision of affordable telephony and the internet to the un-served and under-served, in order to reduce the ICT divides that arise from geography (rural/urban), gender, physical disability, socioeconomic issues (income, race, caste and class) and skills (education). Achieving universal access is an objective of virtually all telecommunication regimes. This is because telephony and the internet are regarded as basic services to which everyone is entitled. The “standard” approach to Universal Access Policy, as recommended by the European Union and World Bank, includes the establishment of a Universal Access Fund (UAF), to be administered by an independent regulator and financed by the main operators in the sector. In our case, the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA) administers the UAF.

When discussing ICT as it relates to a pro-poor agenda, the issue of access emerges. Pro-poor ICT access involves access to and the use of ICTs by the “poor” to resolve concrete problems of everyday life. Pro-poor ICT access is guided by the assumption that ICT tools and services should be affordable and accessible to the poor at reasonable prices. It also assumes that ICTs should be used meaningfully to address the challenges of poverty and secure broader development benefits, and that relevant content that addresses the needs of the poor, should be available to facilitate their use to resolve day-to-day challenges.

While providing access to ICTs is critical, physical access alone cannot bridge the pro-poor ICT access gaps. ICTs will be insufficient if they are not used effectively because they not affordable; if poor people do not understand how to put them to use or if they are discouraged from using them due to policy and regulatory constraints; and if the local economy cannot sustain their use.

Technologies: A wide range of ICTs are available in the fight against poverty. These include low-cost and low-power computers, mobile and fixed wireless networks, fixed-line and fiber connections, internet and web services, traditional media like radio and television, and a host of content development tools and applications. These technologies have been undergoing significant changes that support their application by the poor.

There are also several trends in technology that favor poverty alleviation. Some of these trends include: the convergence of broadcasting, computing and communications that has led to the plummeting costs and greater availability of a wide range of services; new forms of wireless protocols (Wi-Fi, WiMAX, etc.) that have overcome the challenges of terrain, infrastructure and high cost; low-cost handsets and pro-poor mobile applications; the ubiquity of low-cost, low-power-consuming devices; the proliferation of sustainable community networks; the Web 2.0 and now Web 3,0; and the availability of  optical fiber cable backbones. Moreover, Open standards, open hardware, open source (Free and Open Source or FOSS) and open spectrum are also “instruments” that facilitate the achievement a pro-poor ICT access.

Barriers: In improving the lives of the poor through ICTs, a lot of barriers must be surmounted. The absence and high cost of basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity and communication; the high rate of illiteracy and other social factors such as gender and ethnic disparity still remain the key barriers.  Also, the lack of financial resources (Donor funding has been the main source of financing for several ICT initiatives in Liberia,), and other challenges have been barriers to providing ICT access to the poor, marginalized and vulnerable.

Finally, the issues discussed above necessitate creative approaches in using ICTs to achieve a “pro-poor” agenda. These approaches must be grounded in community participation and involve the appropriate choice of technological tools and relevant content. We may need to take on several pioneering ICT initiatives to enable the Government stimulate national resurgence and economic rejuvenation. Someone once told me that a promising future requires a strong beginning. Hence, the time has come for us to articulate and embark on a comprehensive strategy for unleashing the full potential of our country and its precious resources. By channelizing the patriotic energies and creative genius of every citizen, we can all work collectively towards building a strong and modern Liberia.

Until next week, Carpe diem!

Authors

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