Heralding ICT enabled Knowledge Societies

way forward for the Developing countries
Vikas Nath
Inlaks Scholar 
London School of Economics (2000-1)
April 2000


The info-technological revolution, led by advances in information and communication technology, is re-structuring the global social economic equations - shifting from income divide to knowledge divide. The revolution on one hand is spearheading the growth of knowledge societies in developed countries and has aroused much interest among civil society, markets and the agents of change. On the other hand, more than 850 million people in developing countries are excluded from a wide range of information and knowledge. The poor in developing countries remain much isolated - economically, socially and culturally from the burgeoning information and progress in the arts, science and technology. Little is known about the barriers to evolution and growth of knowledge societies in developing countries inspite of advancements in the use of information and communication technologies and the issue needs to better understood to enable developing countries to leapfrog ahead.

We stand at the dawn of the new millennium. The millennium ushers with it a world of greater inter-connectivity, accelerating flow of data, and shrinking time and national boundaries. The force fueling this rapid transformation of isolated islands to inter-connected superhighways is Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Over 300 million people are now wired in around the globe and around one billion will be online by 2005. Rapidly falling costs of communications and computing and the extraordinary penetration and accessibility of World Wide Web is turning the world into a global village.

The quantum leaps in the technological revolution can make it possible to amalgamate local knowledge with information held in remote databases and information repositories, transcending hierarchies, classes and cultures- to bring about a greater understanding of the conditions leading to poverty and the factors propagating it. The opportunities arising out of the info-tech revolution are immense and in convergence with a visionary approach and political-stimulant we have a powerful tool to transform the existing societal framework into a more just and equitable one. Nevertheless, the greatest humanitarian challenge ahead of us has remained unchanged over the years- to narrow the gap and ultimately eliminate poverty and provide equal opportunities of growth to everyone. And, billions of people still live in poverty as the tools of catalyzing social and economic change lie unused and little understood.

Knowledge sharing for Development
Knowledge is empowering. Lack of knowledge is debilitating. Knowledge enables an individual to think, to analyze and to understand the existing situation, and the inter-linkages and externalities of each action. Knowledge empowers an individual to form his or her own opinion, to act and transform conditions to lead to a better quality of life.

..... the capacity to acquire and generate knowledge in all its forms, including the recovery and upgrading of traditional knowledge, is perhaps the most important factor in the improvement of human condition (Bezanson and Sagasti 1995:5-6)

The World Bank organised forum called "Voices of Poor" which got feedback from 60,000 people in 60 countries concluded that people wanted access to knowledge and opportunities instead of charity to fight conditions leading to poverty. And knowledge is not a scarce resource - it is infinitely expansible and proliferates with its use. Knowledge and information is therefore quintessence to initiate the development change process.

Knowledge sharing is the interactive process of making the right information available to people at the right time in a comprehensible manner to enable them to act judiciously- enriching the knowledge base in the entire mechanism. Knowledge-sharing can occur at all levels- between countries, within a country, between communities and among individuals. It can occur from local to global, from poor to rich and vice-versa. At the village level, where land is the main resource of the rural communities, knowledge about legal ownership of land is often confined to a handful few that encourages its use in an exploitative manner. If the same information is put into the public domain then it potential to be used in a willful manner diminishes as the same information transforms itself into a social good. With the transfer of information from private domain to public domain, the societal forces re-arrange themselves which lays the basis for equitable sharing of power and responsibilities.

Similarly, knowledge-sharing about farm gate prices, remunerative national and international agricultural markets and ecological impacts of growing a particular crop can help third world farmers to transform their agro-systems - over which they have greater control and which ensures their food security and livelihood. Knowledge-sharing between communities can make them realize that lack of education and skills is one of the reasons why they are deprived of opportunities for growth and root of poverty is not just lack of resources but also bad governance and lack of political-will. In a democratic set-up, knowledge-sharing can singularly create an effective watchguard community to lead to better governance and forcing creation of opportunities to improve their qualities of life.

Systematic, efficient and an open system for sharing of knowledge, in parallel with capacity building corrects the skew between the knowledge haves and the have-nots for bringing about a better understanding of the causal loop of poverty and ensure inclusion of poorest individuals and marginalised communities in the change process. Unrestricted and continuous sharing of global and local knowledge between policy-makers, public and private sectors, and the civil society heralds the way forward to an empowered knowledge society which can efficiently manage the development change process. Thus, in a knowledge society, there is not only an efficient transfer of knowledge but also a greater likelihood that such knowledge will be used effectively for empowerment and reducing inequality and poverty. There is no choice, as the growth of knowledge societies is becoming pivotal for the creation of resilient economies. The pertinent question is not whether, but how soon, will the developing countries be able to remove all the barriers to knowledge sharing and harness the potential of all available tools and technologies to transform themselves into knowledge societies for their own growth.

Growth of Knowledge Societies: the role of ICT
In the developed countries, Information and Communication Technologies have been the drivers of the knowledge society. They are providing new and faster ways of delivering and accessing information, innovative ways for real-time communication, and new ways to do business and create livelihood opportunities. The technology is putting more and more information into the public domain leading to re-arrangement of societal forces and governance structures towards greater efficiency, transparency and accountability in functioning.

The transformation potential of ICT is not circumscribed to the developed countries. The potential is immense for developing countries but depends on what the perspective is. We may view the digital divide as- one half of the world not having access to the phone or as millions of small businesses in such places which could immediately benefit from access to email and internet. A greater penetration of ICT in urban and rural areas is therefore imperative for developing nations to forge their way ahead towards knowledge societies. Countries with access to ICT innovations and having a capacity to absorb them and use them will have a capacity to reap social and economic advantages. Those without access and the appropriate capacities risk being marginalised in the "knowledge societies" of the future.

Crossing Barriers
Knowledge sharing is not a new concept and it would be imprudent to say that ICT has heralded the way to knowledge-sharing. Since ages, knowledge has been passed on from one generation to the other through written texts, folk lore, word-of-mouth, religions and customs. The knowledge however remained preserved geographically and hierarchically. On the other hand, ICT breaks all the natural, social, cultural and hierarchical barriers to knowledge-sharing in an unprecedented manner.

The ICT network is based on the principal of inclusion and participation rather than on the principle of exclusion. Information hosted on the internet is automatically meant to be in public domain. A small shop-owner in Africa has as much right over information over the net as a big conglomerate in Europe. There is a free-flow of information from different channels as information once hosted on the net can rarely be fully obliterated. Information about new vaccines and health cures developed in any part of world can be transmitted across continents in an instant. Emails, mailing groups, newsgroups, discussion groups and interactive websites hold boundless potential to reach everyone who is connected to the internet to target specific information or get views of the people. The technology allows individuals to bring together knowledge by harvesting data from other sites and adding value to it by prioritizing, translating and updating. Knowledge therefore no longer remains confined but perpetuates and there is a continuous value-addition and customisation.

Empowering Communities
Empowering each individual is yet another unprecedented potential offered by the ICT. Everybody is a potential recipient and generator of knowledge in a truly ICT networked world. This inter-network equality aspect opens up immense opportunities for people to absorb knowledge, triangulate the knowledge from different sources and form an informed opinion. It further provides them with a powerful medium to voice their concerns about issues affecting them and develop linkages with communities and individual with similar concerns across geographical barriers. A group of protesters against a big dam project in a developing country may find support from an activist group in a first world country sharing similar concerns. ICT is playing a lead role in formation of common cause coalitions, electronic networks of solidarity and support among pro-peace, indigenous, workers and human rights groups and is bringing people together like never before.

Virtual communities is the upcoming powerful force of these concerned, empowered individuals and networks which can act at all levels. The juggernaut of this virtual community was witnessed in the recently concluded WTO meet in Seattle in 1999 and the World Water Forum in Hague in March 2000. Intensive discussions and exchange of views taking place years before the start of the meet over the internet by individuals and communities spanning nations converged into a powerful voice to resist some of the decisions being taken. Virtual communities may not have a geographical, hierarchical orientation but they are emerging as global watchguards and advocators, and no longer decisions affecting the masses can be taken in isolation and without a larger public debate.

In a way, ICT also provides a perfect bridge for matching demand and supply of information. It helps a recipient in locating strategic information and at the same time, creates potential users for a particular information. The stained history of a corporate body indulging in environmental unfriendly practices put on the internet has potential users in countries where the corporate body is yet to start its operation. It can empower communities in a pro-active manner to not just mitigate the damage but also prevent it in the first place. The United Nations recently launched Unglobal.compact.org website to enable NGOs to be able to keep tab on whether big companies are keeping to their word, as well as communicating to each other is a step towards this direction.

Leap Frogging and Force Multiplier
The greatest advantage of ICT is the reach and the low-cost of technology and data transmission. Technically, every individual can have a private or public access to a data terminal which connects him to each and every individual in the world. The present connectivity status though is far below this utopic networked society. The costs of building national level ICT infrastructures may be high but there are no equally effective alternatives and the cost of not investing in such infrastructures may be even higher. Further, once the infrastructure has been laid, the low-cost of propagation technology will help countries to leapfrog ahead through distance education, distance health facilities, better access to market information, and better governance.

In well inter-connected economies, ICT acts as a force multiplier in enrichment of knowledge base of the society through quick dissemination of knowledge products and best practices to more number of people. Use of force multiplier attribute of ICT in education, training and business development field can result in creation of new societal capabilities.

Barriers to Knowledge Societies
The knowledge revolution brings with it new opportunities but has also infused new challenges. Developing countries are however at very different starting positions in using the existent ICT infrastructure in the task of building innovative and distinctive knowledge societies. Often the forces in the wider sphere of influence and the existent policy frameworks are not in consonance with the overall development objectives to catalyze the transformation process.

Developing countries therefore need to establish effective incentives and management schemes to accelerate the transformation to knowledge societies Futuristic vision, strong political will, and marshaling and allocation of substantial resources forms the skeletal framework of building up the knowledge society.

The Barriers Exist: in the mind
Knowledge exists in the minds of the people- a fact which has been realized by many of the developed countries during their transformation to stronger economies. The human brain is a valued resource in such countries as is evident by the trends of brain-drain from developing to developed countries. Knowledge flows and emerges where it gets recognized, enriched and valued. Harnessing the potential of knowledge rather than material production is becoming that differentiating factor which separates the developing from the developed.

The problem with many developing countries so far has been their inability to recognize the knowledge they possess, put a value to it and use the power of knowledge to their growth. Ironically, the value of the vernacular knowledge gets noticed in developing countries only after its value is recognized and put to use in the developed nations. The self-imposed barriers need to be removed if these countries are to be a part of the growth of the knowledge societies. India is an example of a country which witnessed a boom in the internet technology sector because the government stayed out of it and there were little hindrances to its growth. But moving towards a growth enabling policy framework would see even more successful Indian technology entrepreneurs returning from the Silicon valley to raise venture capital for Indian net companies.

Comparative Advantage for Developing Countries
Knowledge knows no boundaries. All humans are born with an innate and unique capacity: the capacity to think, learn and relate - the basic ingredient to the creation of knowledge. The comparative advantage for developing countries, especially those in the South Asia region, is its richness and diversity of the human resource capital. Creation of knowledge societies starts with the incubation of knowledge in human minds - a process dependent both on the individual and the external environment. Knowledge when combined with capital, labour, existing knowledge and other inputs produce goods and services and is thus a factor of productivity. Thus an individual with the capacity to think, learn and relate, in a conducive environment which recognizes the knowledge product and facilitates its value-addition, lays the pivot for the emergence of knowledge society.

Developing countries can no longer expect to base their development on their comparative labour advantage. The competitive advantage that now counts is the application of knowledge (Drucker 1994 :62, 64).

Developing countries need to recognize and value its human resources capital and capitalize on it to the task of amassing wealth of knowledge which works for the poor and promotes social equality. The wealth of knowledge, in turn will create opportunities for developing countries to emerge from dependence of low-cost labour as a source of comparative advantage, increasing productivity and incomes. Avenues therefore need to be created for knowledge incubation to be supplemented by capacity-building support and enabling policy frameworks which provide opportunities to people to use the power of knowledge for propelling their growth.

Access to Technology
Who gets to access the information superhighway is the most pertinent question. Knowledge sharing will continue to be impeded by the digital barrier unless there is a universal access to ICT in all parts of the world. Currently, around 50% of the internet users are in the US; about 25% are in the Europe; and only 12-13% are in the Asia. One in every three Americans uses the internet, whereas only one in 10,000 people in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan do. Teledensity in India is mere 1.5% and narrow bandwidth in most places does not support the use of internet yet. Countries like Bangladesh still do not have an optical fibre link connected to world’s information superhighway and dial-up access price often becomes costlier than internet usage charge itself. Simple rule of thumb points out that the foremost necessity is for a high speed, broadband, digital information infrastructure based on optical fibre cables to have limitless bandwidth and provide people access to information superhighway at an affordable cost.

To bring the technology closer to the people, it is essential to provide either individual or community access to ICT. The government, the private sector, financial institutions and the aid agencies have an important role to play in improving ICT access by functioning as technology demonstrator, facilitator or propagator. Each country should establish a national ICT strategy that is responsive to sustainable development goals and separate funds need to be leveraged for achievement of these goals.

Intermediary organisations will have an important role in bridging the digital gap and in providing the "last mile" of connectivity by connecting academic and research institutions, UN bodies, government bodies and business establishments, primary health centres, village institutions and others institutions engaged in development with the information superhighway. Programmes such as the Sustainable Development Networking Programme (http://www.sdnp.undp.org) of the UNDP and Electronic Networking for Rural Asia Pacific (http://www.enrap.org) of IDRC/IFAD are providing valuable support in this area in many developing countries around the world. Further, there is a need to increase the penetration of computers among the developing nations by bringing down their costs and setting up community based computer centres in places where it would be impossible to provide individual access to computers. Mechanisms for donation of lower-version computers in places where they could still be put to use also needs to be explored.

Riding the Information Superhighway
Getting connected to the information superhighway is only half the race won. The nation which is able to ride it to its advantage wins the entire race. The significant barriers to winning the race are content, skills and language.

The information superhighway is not the case of a perfect information system as the information available on it is largely North-centric and what needs to be shared among the people in the Southern countries is simply not available on yet. Relevant and locally specific content constitutes the most critical element in growth of knowledge societies after connectivity. It would be futile to link communities on the information superhighway highway at an exorbitant cost when little relevant content is available on it for communication.

Efforts therefore need to be made to link isolated islands of information within a country to the information superhighway to enrich local content availability and in promoting its use. Such information would be of much use to local communities in gaining a better understanding of the external forces and in improving their quality of lives. Hosting of local farm gate prices, information about the local government officials, village level records including land ownership patterns and funds allocated for development works under various schemes; and knowledge of local health practices on the internet can instantly transform an isolated, information-starved village to one which has a greater control over its development through access to information which matters. For example in Dhar district in Madhya Pradesh, India, the farmers check rates at different agriculture market yards and choose the days when they get a better price. They have learned to access veterinarian advice on the email. In Tumkur district in Karnataka, India, the computerization of land ownership records has set farmers free from the entangles of the local revenue officials.

With a mind-boggling magnitude of information available on the net, it is imperative to develop internet tools such as search engines and web-robots, and interactive portal sites which singularly focus on information pertinent to the South and bring together knowledge from a large number of independent sources. These would enable information from the South to be more prominently highlighted during search functions- something which happens more as an exception than as a rule with the current commercial search engines.

Ultimately, the right to information and open information-sharing forms the crux of knowledge societies. There has to be a pro-active, concerted moves by the government departments, private sector and allied institutions to share information in an interactive manner. In many developing countries, the information available on government websites is limited, is of little value and is often redundant. The culture of information-sharing and consensus building through avenues provided by ICT need to be fostered, especially in countries where there is very little top-down flow of information and information is confined in the bureaucratic bottlenecks.

Handling ICT, hosting of information and retrieving useful information from the net does require a fair amount of technical skills and net-literacy. In developing countries, the level of skills about computer use and internet navigation is extremely low which impedes their transformation to knowledge societies even when other factors are favourable. For example, if each of the over seven lakhs village in India have a person trained in the handling of Information and Communication technologies, then each of these villages could start to assimilate in knowledge network the moment they get connected to the telecommunication backbone. Skills on ICT management therefore need to be inculcated across the population among all groups- children, youths, women and older generation at an individual or the community level. For guaranteeing the future generation to be competent with the use of ICT, imparting training on internet technologies should become a part of the curriculum in both formal and non-formal systems of education.

The role of intermediary organisations and remote volunteering becomes very significant in skill development. Self-learning modules on computer operations, website designing, and web -surfing could be designed in local languages and administrated remotely to train more and more people in handling technologies to their benefits. The NetAid programme of UNDP, managed by United Nations Volunteer is a pioneering step in this direction. It has among one of its goals- developing ICT capacity in developing countries through the concept of remote volunteering. Volunteers in any part of the world can now use their expertise to train people in developing countries in the handling of ICT. Intermediary organisations such as Sustainable Development Networking Programme of the UNDP is also playing an important role in spreading information about the use of ICT and developing capacities of people in the use of ICT through country based nodes.

Language Barriers
Language is be one of the major barriers to the formation of formation of perfect knowledge societies in developing countries. Each day over two million pages are added on the internet but there is very small content representation on the net in the vernacular languages of the Southern countries. Statistics point out that over 85% of the content on the net is in English, yet, fewer than one in 10 people worldwide speaks that language. Further, with high rates of illiteracy in the developing countries, people who are unable to read the content, even in local languages, would be excluded from the knowledge sharing network. Thus, the literary well connected have an overpowering advantage over the illiterate poor, whose voices and concern would be left out of the global conversation.

To eliminate the linguistic barriers, the focus of research and development in web-based technologies should be on making the content comprehensible to the end-users. This would lead to a virtuous cycle as availability of relevant content would push forward the demand for access and access by itself would also lead to creation of content. Even though there is a range of software tools powering the ICT- only a few of them overcome the linguistic barriers and are too expensive to be procured by developing countries. Private sector has an important role to play in making available open source software for developing content in local languages and for translation purposes. Further, the internet should not just be restricted to written-text format for information but should be widened to encompass voice-data, greater visual representation through use of locally relevant icons and use of hybrid voice-text technologies.

Policy Implications for the State and the Private Sector
Comparative advantages of nations is today expressed as the ability of countries to efficiently acquire, organize, retrieve and disseminate information to support policy making and development process. While ICT allows countries to leapfrog its way to becoming a knowledge society, the danger is that countries that fail to use the technology to their advantage will fall further behind countries that do. Realistically, the developing nations are not fully equipped to benefit from Information and Communication Technologies. What is needed is greater guidance, enabling policy frameworks, and an open-ended learning approach on harnessing the potential offered by the new technologies and lead to their better diffusion, adaptation and effective use in development process. The government regulatory frameworks should be "de-bottlenecked" and instead let market forces develop and provide impetus to growth of the sector, for example, by allowing the private sector to have direct international connectivity to make riding on the information superhighway more affordable.

Significantly, the ICT situation for a developing nations not only revolves around questions of how to apply information technology to their concerns, but also around the mere existence of ICT infrastructure in these countries at all. Developing countries, especially the Least Developing Countries are unable to reap equal benefits in the information revolution, as they lack:

To foster the evolution of a knowledge based society, developing countries need to both anticipate and accommodate rapidly changing advances in telecommunications, computing power and multi-media and at the same time invest in infrastructure essential to their propagation. Government’s intervention to harness ICT for development is imperative as it is both a policy maker which can catalyze the transformation to knowledge societies and is also the single largest user of knowledge products. In its role as a policy maker, the government needs to set up an information technology vision for the country to spearhead the knowledge revolution. The vision should encompass the current and changing needs of the state related to better governance, greater livelihood opportunities for people, and better quality of life. Policy makers, administrators and bureaucrats should then be sensitised and educated to the realities of the knowledge based societies. Earnest attempts should be made to set fair rules for the marketplace by creating enabling mechanisms and policy frameworks to achieve the vision it set for itself. Last, but not the least, govenments must act as a catalyst in public and private infrastructure projects to overcome the physical barriers and meet the information needs of the knowledge societies.

As a part of the change process, and to lead to a greater spread-effect, the government should itself start to function as an ICT-based model. Efforts should be made towards rapid digitization of information to be made available in the public domain and to be hosted on the information superhighway for wider reach and value-addition. This however calls for a change in the governance mindset from restrictive flow of information to open flow of information which is rooted in the charter of Right to Information. Several functions of governance can be efficiently carried out through greater participation of the people on switching over to ICT based model. This approach will enable a greater transparency in functioning, faster decision-making and greater accountability of the government towards the society. A step has been taken in this direction by the state of Andhra Pradesh in India. The path breaking initiatives of the state Government especially the Andhra Pradesh State Wide Area Network (APSWAN) which presently connects each district node to the state capital over an optical fibre and would shortly link to 1170 smaller towns and offices. The government now intends to open information kiosks off the APSWAN so that citizens can transact business with the government paving the way ahead for the creation of knowledge societies.

The state and the private sector have a crucial role to play in creating a skilled, educated intellectual force with a strong penetration till the village and household level which can revolutionize the current approaches to development. It will not be far-sighted to say that the comprehensive approach to development would be the merger of both technology and human capital. The human force created with the merger would be more aware of their collective strength, more enlightened in differentiating symptoms of poverty from its roots, and would be more empowered to use the power of knowledge in their favour- catalyzing the creation of a knowledge society.

The government and the private sector also need to extend incubator facilities to creating new models for solving problems relating to development sector. There is a pressing need to foster formation of dot.orgs along with dot.coms so that the infotech revolution does not side-steps the development sector with the assurance of trickle-down effects from the mainstream developments. Last but not the least, the government should be brave enough to explore new pathways and new destinations because there is no one way to go and no one way is the right way.

Other Partners in Development
In the last decade, a number of new interesting partnerships have emerged and many of the existing global institutions have re-designed their development mandate with the changing times to acknowledge the potential offered by ICT in spearheading towards knowledge societies. The World Bank has long recognized the critical role that knowledge plays in promoting economic growth and social progress. The World Development Report 1998, subtitled Knowledge and Information for Development recognized the existence of knowledge gap and the fact that successful development entails closing the gap in knowledge. The Global Development Network (http://www.gdnet.org) initiated by the World Bank is a step forward in the direction of development of products to serve the needs of researchers and institutions in creating high quality and policy relevant research to close gaps in the market research for development knowledge.

The Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP) (http://www.globalknowledge.org) is another major step forward in the direction of global knowledge societies. GKP is an evolving, informal partnership of public, private, and not-for-profit organisations from across the globe whose member organisations range from multilateral institutions such as World Bank and UNDP to bilateral aid agencies, foundations, corporations, civil society organisations, and training institutions. The recently concluded Global Knowledge Conference II in Malaysia, which brought together 1800 participants from all over the world, reinforced the conviction that access to, and effective use of, and knowledge and information are increasingly important factors in sustaining economic and social development. Further, initiatives such as NetAid of UNDP are pioneering new forms of volunteering to end extreme forms of poverty through the use of ICT. NetAid will help people in North to offer their expertise to people in the South, by becoming virtual volunteers.

End Note
The potential of ICT in spearheading transformation to knowledge societies is two-way. It act as a window for showcasing one’s products, services and culture and also as a door which allows entry to the external world’s attributes. As a result, the concurrent trend with the breaking of the knowledge barriers would be the globalisation of the economy and civilisations. There will be a greater movement of ideas across national borders and cross-cultural interactions would increase. People and governments would no longer be able to function in isolation but would have to work in partnership with each other. The borders between domestic and international issues would shrink and there would be an increasing realization of the commonalties between the development problems faced by the North and the South. Knowledge sharing would foster the growing convergence between balanced economic policies, ethical environmental practices and poverty reduction, as is already evident in the current international approaches to address issues such as unemployment, degradation of natural resources and climate change.

Nevertheless, it needs to be realized that the formation of global knowledge society is under no single control as information available in the public domain is free to flow everywhere and all people have equal rights to it. The value therefore accrued to an individual user through the availability of information is different and this has the potential to further widen the economic and knowledge gap, especially in cases where people are not conscious of what they know or the potential value of absorbing the available information. The challenging issues which remain are: valuing of existing knowledge, building capacity for absorption and use of knowledge, creating an enabling policy framework and vision statement supported by political will and stimulant; and scaling up and design of public-private partnerships in this field.


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