Colleagues: I have great hopes for this discussion as the topic is as relevant today as ever and perhaps more so, given the recent backsliding in rural infrastructure as a direct result of truncated privatization processes.
Here in Panama we have an interesting situation. I undertook a mission on behalf of the UNDP country office to the remote Darién region to learn why the public telephones (usually only one per village of 2000 or more inhabitants) don´t work. To my surprise, I found that the basic infrastructure is not only in pretty good shape but relatively sophisticated as well (would support up to 9.6 kbps data). The problem is in the last 100 meters between the rural radio tower/antenna and the telephone booth where situations with relatively simple solutions cause 80-90% of the problems (like people getting their coins and other objects jammed in the coin slots, short circuits in the interconnecting cable because of attempts to rob service, infrequent visits by supervisory personnel to remove full coinboxes). We are now working with the multinational corporation that operates the system and various development programs in the region to come up with a win-win project design that would include community education in system care, basic technical training, and local management. Meanwhile, the government has levied a stiff fine on this multinational for similar problems throughout the country. The company maintains that rural telephones are unprofitable and cannot be easily maintained, even though they constitute a lifeline for thousands of people. This is, of course, only a specific example of a more generic situation, but it was the inspiration behind the attached draft policy position. I would invite comments on it as well as ideas from the community on which organizations/donors might be interested in developing a regional or even a global program to comprehensively address rural connectivity and access issues. (More information on PFNet mentioned in the position note is available at http://www.peoplefirst.net.sb/General/PFnet.htm). Gary Garriott ICT for Development Advisor Panama SURF - UNDP PO Box 6314, Zone 5 Panama City, Panama Tel. 507 265 8168/8153 Fax 507 265 8445 +++++++++++++++++++++++++ Rural ICT Infrastructure is the Forgotten Frontier The Position In the rush to jump on the ICT bandwagon, the attention of all donors and implementing agencies tends toward increasingly sophisticated and networked health, education and governance applications in urban areas where the latest hardware, reliable connectivity and available bandwidth are taken for granted. Forgotten are the hundreds of millions of people living in poverty and extreme poverty in rural and isolated regions where fundamental physical infrastructure including the provision of electrical energy is nonexistent. Except for one-off pilot projects that tend to be special cases of donor interest and resources (and recognized for their obvious public relations value), rural-based infrastructure is seen as passé and uninteresting. UNDP and other agencies that invest in poverty-reduction strategies should look more closely at implementing strategic rural access and connectivity programmes. The Context Most bilateral and multilateral aid agencies have limited their activities on behalf of rural ICT infrastructure to assisting host governments in writing universal service and access policies to be implemented by the private sector winners of telecommunications privatization processes. And yet the common experience worldwide is that once a private franchise or concession has been awarded, the promises made to extend service to rural areas are gradually forgotten as the difficulties of installing and maintaining unprofitable rural infrastructure mount. A significant back-sliding in rural ICT infrastructure is thus occurring as privatization proceeds. The Need Reliable access to information may be just as critical in isolated rural areas as in urban centers. The basic need to communicate with family, friends and associates is fundamental, but so is the acquisition of crucial health, agricultural and market information, not to mention ready access to education and training resources. However, rural needs are more easily satisfied with basic infrastructure supporting email and file transfer rather than more sophisticated web-based technology and applications. Very few policy-makers are aware that a range of relatively inexpensive intermediate or appropriate technology solutions exist to support lower end uses, such as email. Legitimate information needs can be immediately met with simpler technologies while demand and an information culture are built up to justify the same infrastructure being enjoyed by urban areas with greater population density and disposable income. The Evidence The proliferation of UNDP-supported PFNet email stations using packet radio technology in the Solomon Islands as a way to enhance the effective decentralization of government services and to support the de-militarization and re-integration of former combatants into community service and entrepreneurial activity is producing impressive results. PFNet is becoming the basis for all subsequent efforts in good governance and implementation of poverty-reduction schemes in the rural Solomons. The early 2003 study Meeting the Millenium Poverty Reduction Targets in Latin America by the Instituto de Pesquisa Economica Aplicada (IPEA) and partners UNDP and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) as well as individual country studies strongly suggests that reducing inequality by a little can have a greater impact on combating extreme poverty than economic growth alone. Providing a strategic rural ICT infrastructure can thus promote a positive butterfly effect in which relatively inexpensive and simple technological interventions can have much greater impacts on social cohesion, integration and sustainable development. ------------ This DOT-COM Discussion is funded by the dot-ORG USAID Cooperative Agreement, and hosted by GKD. http://www.dot-com-alliance.org provides more information. To post a message, send it to: <[EMAIL PROTECTED]> To subscribe or unsubscribe, send a message to: <[EMAIL PROTECTED]>. 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