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Making poverty history: ICT4D's enormous potential unfulfilled?

Poverty: For the first time in history, humankind has the opportunity and the means to end the grinding poverty that entraps hundreds of millions of people across the face of the planet, the majority in Asia.

The Australia-based Foundation for Development Co-operation's Executive Director, Beris Gwynne said that the existence of poverty on such a scale that is evident today is an affront to human civilisation.

"By accident of birth, it sentences hundreds of millions of people to borderline existence, without adequate food, water, clothing or shelter or basic services in health and education, vulnerable to the predations of richer and more powerful neighbours and with few opportunities to break the cycle of poverty, conflict and environmental degradation," she said.

Gwynne said that the digital divide persists and opportunities for digital dividends are wasted despite early recognition of the potential of the information age to leapfrog barriers to development and fast-track social and economic inclusion and poverty reduction.

She said this in her article "Making poverty history: ICT4D's enormous potential unfulfilled?", published as a lead-up to the two-day Global Knowledge Partnership International Forum in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from 8-9 May, 2006.

She said that popular understanding of ICT4D still tends to focus on "technology" and neglects the "information" and "communication" components. Inefficient barriers remain in policy and regulatory environments to frustrate the roll-out of proven ICT4D "pilot projects".

"Why is it that technologies which are proven cost effective are still denied to large populations who reside outside major metropolitan areas?", she added.

"If the international community is serious about sustainable development and poverty reduction - whether motivated by altruism or self-interest or a combination of the two - these questions require answers".

"The Global Knowledge Partnership's forthcoming International Forum on Cross-sector Partnerships in Colombo, Sri Lanka (8-9 May, 2006) will provide a significant and very timely opportunity for the enthusiasm and commitment of the assembled ICT4D practitioners from Government, Business and Civil Society to be translated into advocacy and action on behalf of the poor," she said.

Under the theme, "Creating Prosperity through Innovation: ICT at Work in Development", participants in the Forum will share experiences and learning, showcasing successful ICT4D interventions from around the world.

She warned that unless reasons for the relatively slow take-up of ICT4D applications and pathways that will bring the desired extension are identified and addressed, chances of stimulating more concerted effort and better resourced programmes around the world will be undermined.

The main reason for the slow-take up of ICT4D is the short-fall in resources committed to support development co-operation.

She said that aid is important as a catalyst for change and recent commitments to increased funding still fall short of the required amounts. Efforts to increase aid volume must be accompanied by greater transparency in assessments of aid quality and effectiveness.

What is needed, she said, is a new paradigm of development funding that supports the mobilisation of national resources (financial and otherwise) and the reform of policy and regulatory environments.

It also requires the involvement of private sector stakeholders as true partners in the development process and the meaningful engagement of civil society including institutions of learning and research and community organisations.

Gywnne said "While resource constraints are a major factor, as much or more damage is done to ICT4D prospects by inadequate understanding of their potential and by poor governance."

"For too long, private sector engagement has been framed by the language of 'corporate social responsibility' and measured in terms of philanthropic endeavour rather than on the basis of well argued business imperatives and returns to shareholders. For this to change, informed and impartial mediation is required to clarify objectives and increase commitment to development goals," she adds.

Gwynne said definitional difficulties regarding the notion of civil society result in poor understanding of the complex set of agendas represented by non-government and non-business stakeholders, which include academics, professional associations, trade unions, religious and community organisations.

As for businesses, she added, mediation is required to communicate civil society interests and negotiate space for community inputs and for the voices of the less powerful also to be heard.

She urged for a change in thinking that would be needed to mainstream and resource ICT4D partnerships, removing barriers, real and imagined, overcoming scepticism with regard to development impact and sustainability, embracing the information age and breaking down old paradigms of co-operation.

On generational issues, Gwynne said that information technology is an industry characterised by the youthfulness of its leading inventors and entrepreneurs.

"The young people of today will be called upon to deal with 21st century challenges - environmental degradation and the depletion of natural resources, the impending water and energy crises, climate change, with increasing tension manifest in ethnic and religious rivalries. They will need 21st century tools."

"The more rapid take-up of information technology among young people, even in illiterate communities, points to the need for re-thinking of traditional aid delivery modalities," she said. On gender, despite decades of effort and claims of gender mainstreaming, women continue to miss out on many of the opportunities enjoyed by men.

This is more than a human rights issue, she said, as it represents a forfeiture of effective access to half of the world's human capital and a failure to value and apply women's expertise and inputs.

"Now more than ever, we need to work across the generations, taking what is good and useful from past experience, but discarding ways of thinking and working that prevent us from achieving the necessary, exponential increase in resources for development co-operation."

"Only through public and private sector and community partnerships that capitalise on the energy and IT-affinity of youth can we hope to develop and resource a truly global enterprise that sees sustainable development and poverty reduction as core business rather than dreams of idealists," said Gwynne.

Beris Gwynne is Executive Director for the foundation for Develoment Co-operation, Australia, former Australian diplomat and aid official whose subsequent work with World Vision Australia, Australia's largest NGO and The Foundation for Development Co-operation has provided a platform for significant contributions to fresh thinking on aid and development co-operation issues.

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