Integrating ICTs in Rural Support Programmes


Zubair Faisal Abbasi


"Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) are not only a significant factor in the performance and growth of economies - the importance of which is continuously growing -,but they also represent a novel and effective tool to help advance sustainable human development (SHD)."


ICTs and Development

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) offer a wide and intrinsically open area for development related work in developing countries like Pakistan; the amplitude of the impact of these technologies ranges from their very incident as an indicator of development in itself to act as a "permissive factor" for development.

The [rapid] spread of ICTs and Internet has been heralded as a new tool to help low-income countries achieve faster growth and development. Too often, however, a highly unlikely array of benefits is ascribed to its use. Their role as providing a low cost infrastructure for transmission of messages or reducing transaction costs for economic concerns to bringing institutional efficiency can’t be underestimated. Characteristics unique to ICTs may include their capability to promote the separation of information from its physical repository, their pervasive, economy-wide effects and the externalities (content and network) generated by their use.

The incidences of ICTs and networked computers have traveled along foreshadowing lines of divide in societies. The information age and emerging knowledge societies are no exception to the divides and inequities. The phenomena of information haves and have-nots or, for that matter, more specifically branded as "digital divide" has enormous implications for developing countries wishing to leapfrog and catch-up development opportunities. The reference to the digital divide in societies encompasses the accessibility, control, and capacity to use the physical infrastructure of ICTs and multimedia, and the availability of digital content of knowledge and information jostling through the electronic networks. Therefore, the concept of "rich and poor" in terms of income inequality amongst societies also embraces "information rich" and "information poor". The divide would play significant role in determining the competitiveness of the survival kit of an individual, group or society. It seems that hitherto conceptual emergence of knowledge banks and information gateways have interesting phenomena in store to contribute in the development scene. Amongst other things, The World Bank’s initiatives on Global Development Gateways is very relevant in this regard.

Relevance of ICTs to The Rural Communities

The inventive march of human efforts in Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) in the "post-modern" and "post-colonial" era have shown new dimensions to the development work, knowledge and information exchange and many others networking facilities. Today, ICTs are no longer regarded as merely a "technical appendix" for internal computational needs of organization. Being intrinsically divorced from the geographical constraints, today, the power of the Internet is being used, from electronic commerce and assistance to small and medium-sized entrepreneurs to the empowerment of communities, women and youth; from the promotion of good governance and decentralization to the awareness campaigns for human rights and democracy; from long-distance education to telemedicine to environmental management, to foster and facilitate sustainable human development; to assist in the fight against poverty and strengthen informed and participatory decision-making at the policy and planning levels, to give voice to the people marginalized in the process of development etc. The multifarious projections of ICTs in human life plead a winning case for institutional integration of ICTs related components in RSPs.

As Rural Support Programmes are essentially concerned with providing enabling environment and capacity building for sustainable growth and development, ICTs are setting the stage for such interventions in the following contexts:



From Literacy to Computer-based Literacy – New Paradigm of Learning :


ICTs have a potential to challenge the linear-traditional arguments of literacy that ‘formal literacy must precede computer literacy’. With the help of multimedia and graphic-based programmes, the so-called illiterate can learn the use of these technologies and leapfrog onto the web. One of the success stories is from Delhi slum-children acquiring basic computer skills without any instruction and knowing English. The case of developing Simputers for illiterate people is also a case in point. "The Simputer, or SIMple ComPUTER, will enable India's illiterate population (some 48% of the country of one billion) to surf the Web. The device was designed by professors and students at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) at Bangalore, and engineers from Bangalore-based design company Encore Software. A prototype of the appliance will be available in August [2000]." "The intellectual property for the device has been transferred free to a non-profit trust, called the Simputer Trust, and both the software and the hardware for the appliance have been offered as open source technology."

It feels, computers have asked educational experts to re-visit the map of cognitive abilities of human beings and make a shift in pedagogical approaches.


Disaster Mitigation and Early Warning Systems

The other context of ICTs’ diffusion and spread, most importantly in mountain and reverine areas which are replete with vulnerable communities, lie in the realm of disaster mitigation and the early warning systems. Peter D. O’Neill, a doctoral candidate at the University of Bradford media communications, proposes to deliver multimedia facilities to "the most humble dwelling" through powerline communications (powercoms) where only a single bulb is dangling from the ceiling. Authorities in Bangladesh are toying with this idea. In the context of "disaster mitigation and early warning" the need of vertical networking of communities with experts and horizontally amongst themselves is one of the most important feature which can be harnessed through ICTs.

Local Knowledge: The Challenge of Sharing

"Knowledge is everywhere - not just in the North, but also, …….. in the South as well. Take a down-to-earth example of practical knowledge - how standard electric pumps can be run backwards to act as simple generators of electricity. This work is being done at the Centre for Appropriate Rural Technology in Mysore in India. It's knowledge that is clearly relevant to communities all over the developing world. How can it be shared? Obviously information technology is offering new possibilities",

Peter Armstrong Co-Director of The OneWorld in one of the seminars on World Bank Report.

In this context, the politics of knowledge like "define or to be defined" and the relevance of ICTs to local concerns would be a point under discussion. Seeing the experience of development at the local levels and its incident in generating or mitigating social and political conflict is one of the core areas in which ICTs can help giving voice to local concerns and sectoral issues; particularly, the issues which are skipped in routine development journalism.

I feel, ICTs carry required potential to bridge development information failures-gaps and help increasing the capacity of local communities to produce, share and absorb knowledge by optimal use of information technology and perhaps it also extends a platform upon which local communities can ask for their development rights and concerns through electronic data communication. Humanity Development Library Project would be an interesting example on digitization and sharing of local and applied knowledge.

Empowerment: Social, Political and Economic

Social, political and economic empowerment is interlinked. "Power" is essentially embedded and situated in the perceived and actual relationships amongst different sections of society and individuals. ICTs [which are often stated as revolution from above] offer a wide rage of choices for empowerment cycles to be set in motion for the hitherto excluded segments of society. In a casual sense, these technologies help create virtual communities organize employment opportunities; help external economies to get started and expanding the services sector. In relation to software development there is a potential for high market capitalization (e.g., In India this market has created millionaires in not-so-distant past and robustly doing it). ICTs have potential to help building social and human resource through horizontal and vertical networks of learning amongst different sections of civil society. These potentials in ICTs point towards reducing the number of marginalized and development of inclusionary social and economic approaches which in turn would work as vehicle for political, economic and social empowerment of communities ----------- ICTs potentially set stage for innovations and powershifts.

In this context, the likely "net social benefit-return" of ICT incidence draws one’s attention to use this technology for the promotion of intermediate and appropriate technology for poverty alleviation and sustainable livelihood. To be more ambitious, it may promote participatory and consultative "good governance" while harnessing the democratic potential of these technologies at the local levels.

A Formula

A formula which summarizes the needs and potentials of ICTs is given by Dr. Hans d’Orville, Director, IT for Development Programme, UNDP and is very relevant to think through:


A= Awareness and advocacy

C= Content, Connectivity; Capacity, Creativity, Communication and Networking, Cash etc


Strategic Niches of ICTs in RSPs

Coming to the question of finding strategic niches for integrating ICTs component in RSPs, its very important to have a look at the method and mandate of different Rural Support Programmes operating in Pakistan which are essentially a replica of Agha Khan Rural Support Programme.

It appears that all RSPs have, at least, the following shared vision for rural development:


In view of the above earmarked areas which Rural Support Programmes seek to address, ICTs have a strategic niche both for the conservation of financial and natural resources and also building efficient infrastructure for institutional development. (as discussed in the start of the paper).

However, it is useful to note that conventionally in RSPs the needs of rural population for "Physical Infrastructure and Technology Development" and "Human Resource Management" are evaluated as "rural" in a stereotypical sense. Though the development vision is fast changing from "messianic" to "prophetic" there is a need for using ICTs (i.e., the new media technologies) proactively to give an accelerative and meaningful push to Participatory Rural Appraisal techniques while making use of ICTs in development.

For effective, meaningful, and developmental use of ICTs, the minimum requirement would be a vision transcending the top-down and center-outward transfer of information and knowledge. ICTs need to be taken as facilitating tools and logical extensions for participatory approaches for development planning, appraisal, action, evaluation while breaking the magnetized "north-south" "center-outward" "upper-lower" flow of knowledge and information. ICTs in a way offer space and opportunities by which development planning in lcddu (local, complex, diverse, dynamic and unpredictable) realities of human existence is shared at faster speed and more interactively than before.

The required participatory vision is beautifully depicted in a verse of Shah Hussain, Sufi poet from Punjab (17th Century):

The Faqirs have their being in the togetherness of the community

For their consciousness is in full bloom



Linkages Between the Potentials of ICTs and Mandate of RSPs

The following linkages between the potentials of ICTs and mandate of RSPs are important to be taken cognizance of. These linkages can accelerate the dive of ICTs in the Rural Support Programmes bringing the rural communities into the empowering fold of knowledge societies by helping them be linked with knowledge flowing in global village of cyberspace.

Poverty Alleviation etc.: Computer literacy enhances the potential of getting jobs and acquaints the user with innovative means of wealth creation; ICTs can help people know of and exploit such opportunities; knowledge and practice of traditional skills along with the information about salable commodities that can be put on the World Wide Web for effective advertising and learning for others (it has a potential to be a separate project in Pakistan); Sales of handicrafts get boosted etc; web-publishing in itself is a profession; ICTs offer affordable means of communication etc. In this context, a special provision of funds for establishing Community Information and Resource Centers (may be owned by the community) must be made mandatory (at least in some areas in the beginning) in the Rural Support Programmes.

Education including Computer Literacy etc: There is a lot of potential for educating people on keyboard complementing the traditional blackboard. This strategy in a way marks the evolution of computer-based literacy a step ahead of bifurcating literacy into normal literacy and computer literacy. There is a room for it in RSPs. For instance, in the mandate of Ghazi Barota Traqiati Idara a PNGO (Project NGO) for rehabilitation of project affected persons of Ghazi Barota Hydropower Project, there is a provision for computer literacy at its computer centers. In this programme, ICTs’ wider potential for multimedia usage and electronic messaging can be harnessed without extra burden on the exchequer. Just broaden the perspective. In this context, distance learning is also potentially available in this sort of arrangement along with a visionary outlook for social change.

Social Organization etc: At the present moment, the social organizers travel across the areas where social organization work is being done and they have to move around the geographically dispersed areas for follow-ups. It adds burden on financial resource allocated for the transfer of information and knowledge about family planning, basic health and capacity building etc. These expenditures can be minimized by establishing interlinked (using the Intranet) Information Resource Centers equipped with ICTs at the community level. Another potential area of ICTs related interventions is in the field of internet-community-radio which needs to be explored a bit further.

Human Resource Development etc: In Human Resource Management and Natural Resource Management ICTs can generate a new wave of effective human and natural resource management. Why not use ICTs for information dissemination and gathering amongst resource centers established in the cluster offices and branch offices of RSPs. The most important challenge would be the language of the information content. To make this relevant to communities the digitized knowledge repository should preferably be in local languages. While The World Wide Web keeps English as a sort of lingua franca for web based communications RSPs can use CD ROM techniques to support their work even in those areas where tele-communication and Internet is not accessible.

When it comes to Physical Infrastructure and Technology Development in RSPs, there is a room for ICTs’ spread and diffusion in societies. This offers as an opportunity to liberate the rural populace from geographical constraints of distance between center and periphery of economic and technological growth. However, this also depends upon the structures and playing-field created for Information Communication Technologies within and outside RSPs operational units. Incontroversially, the technologies have immense potential to help build a sustained human and natural resource management mechanisms and sharing of information and knowledge across the globe.






Software and Hardware Choices for RSPs

Hardware Procurement: Typical of developing countries, Pakistan may also feel to be pushed to use secondhand computers in the first place, or seek support for funds from donor agencies to procure IT equipment and spread it through RSPs’ networks. However, possibilities and options can be explored further according to the financial position of RSPs and availability of funding.

Software Choice: When it comes to software, this world is fortunate of having LINUX, [a software with open source code (internal instructions that make up the software)] in a sort of "digital freedom" and not exclusively dependant on hitherto unaffordable branded Microsoft products for rural communities. It is important to note that current estimates of LINUX users worldwide put the number at 8 to 10 million. "the future of LINUX worldwide is brighter than a thousands suns", says Bhyrava Parasad, country manager for Insight Solutions. If that is true, shine on, LINUX.

Costs in Pakistan ------ An Informal Approximation:


To set up a small node for starting Information-Communication and Email Services one needs:




Two Computers (Pentium III with 64 M.B. Ram and 10 GB Hard Disk etc.

50,000 x 2

Modems (56 K) Motorola etc.


Two Ordinary Telephone Lines


Software LINUX – Waffle, Pegasus Mail


Windows 98/NT with MS Exchange

100,000 approx. (if required)


Human Resource

Programme Manager

Information-person from RSP offices etc.

Assistant Programme Manager

From social science/journalism and general development sector. 15000/= to 20000/=

System Administrator

8,000 to 15,000 per month

I T Intern

1000 to 2000 per month

Cost: in Pak Rupees

Internet Situation In Pakistan

In Pakistan, the situation of Internet facility is being made affordable and improved by Ministry of Science and Technology, and on 17th of August 2000 Pakistan Telecommunication Corporation Limited has launched Universal Internet Access Programme. (The daily DAWN Advertisement Supplements on August 17, 2000). This programme shows a gleam of hope. Through this programme PTCL will implement local call Internet access by using 131 code which has hitherto been only used to avoid multi-metering on Internet Access. This move is surely a quantum jump towards promotion of ICTs in the rural and remote areas where the basic communication infrastructure (PTCL exchange) is present but the infrastructure for Internet services is not available. So, now rural communities have got option to make long distance call to ISP and pay local call charges without multi-metering. This will add opportunities for rural public to use ICTs for development, education, and economy as well.

Though, there is no scientifically collected/examined data available in Pakistan about the exact number of the Internet facility users but a moderate assessment presented by Mr. Akhtar Ahmed Bajwa (Member operations, PTCL) shows the key figures are as below:


Total number of current Internet users in Pakistan


Total installed capacity of phone lines in Pakistan

4,000,000 (4 M)

No. of phone lines currently being used

3,100,000 (3.1 M)

Currently No. of lines which can be used to access the Internet

1,800.000 (1.8 M)

Domestic BW capacity of Pakistan (after the implementation of submarine cable infrastructure

5084 MB (5 Gig)

After the implementation of this programme, No. of access lines which could be used to access the Net

2,400,000 (2.4 M)

Current BW which is being used

50 MB

Length of Optic Fiber cable

5000 KM

Following is the number of locations where this 131-Code facility was available till yesterday (16 August 2000), then today and finally how many would be connected till October 2000.




Today (August,17 2000)

October 2000

















So today total 92 locations are connected with this programme while in October 2000, 260 locations would be connected through this facility. In addition to it in the year 2000 more than 50 Internet Service providers are available in major cities in Pakistan.


Having discussed the potentials and needs of ICTs’ integration in RSPs I would like to conclude with a verse of Shah Hussain (17th Century):

What you say has entered my consciousness,

So, now my being seeks its fulfillment.


Zubair Faisal Abbasi


House No: 12, Street No: 85, G-6/4, Islamabad, Pakistan.