Financing for ICTD

With the development of technologies in the past few decades, the role of information and communication technology (ICT) in improving economic efficiencies and enabling social development has fast become a topic of debate. Governments, the private sector and civil society alike note that “vast numbers of people are excluded from the benefits of these technologies, in particular people who lack the necessary infrastructure, skills, literacy and knowledge of the dominant internet language – English. Women, poor and rural people are more likely to be among this group” [1] . They also recognise the opportunities for ICT to bring about change, not only to address existing obstacles to the social and economic development of these groups, but also to transform the very systems that create these inequalities in the first place. ICT must be deployed to build an information society where everyone – especially disadvantaged women, poor and rural people – can fully participate as citizens and reap the benefits of the information revolution. Thus, the work of the ICT for development (ICTD) sector is crucial.

For many groups working outside the umbrella of mainstream development, a supportive policy ecosystem and adequate funding are crucial catalysts of the success of development initiatives. However, they find themselves faced with the difficult task of having to compete against each other for 'scarce' financial and human resources [2]. At the same time, financing development is not simply a matter of competing with other organisations or asking for more donor aid, but of using existing resources to their maximum impact. This can only be achieved when governments “create a supportive environment for the mobilization of resources by non-governmental organizations” (Beijing Platform for Action 1995, 350).

Assessments of the development funding situation, including the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness in 2005, have recognised this instrumental role of States to build a development ecosystem in which local projects can flourish. The World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) Task Force for Financial Mechanisms similarly identified the critical need for increased participation by governments, whose agenda for ICTD often involves stepping back so as to not crowd out the markets and private sector investment that have financed the vast majority of ICT services and infrastructure in developing countries.

The role of the private sector and government in India

In India, a booming software sector and the rise of business process outsourcing (BPO) have driven rapid economic growth and social change. The Indian information technology (IT) industry grew by nearly 28% in 2007 alone to become a billion dollar industry employing over 1.6 million people . However, this economic growth has not been accompanied by achievement of development goals such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Chetan Sharma, founder of Datamation Foundation Charitable Trust, points out, “ICT-based occupations/professions are not at the scope to reduce poverty and underdevelopment” [3] .


Collaborations between governments, private sector and civil society must therefore specifically target social development if the full transformative potential of ICT is to be realised. Notably, India is already home to a large number of ICTD initiatives that vary greatly in scope and approach. The initiatives are funded by a range of stakeholders, from the Government of India's partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to undertake ICTD projects under the National Institute of Smart Governance, to privately financed projects like iShakti , launched by Hindustan Unilever Limited.

As these projects mature, it becomes important to evaluate the current state of ICTD initiatives in India and examine the emerging literature exploring their failures and successes. A review of research on rural PC telecentres and kiosks [4], which are perhaps the most discussed form of ICTD initiative, finds a number of common challenges: economic, social and educational barriers; confused branding; lack of infrastructure in a familiar form; and mistrust or overabundance of infrastructure. The review also presents a typology of kiosks that appear to be consistently sustainable: regular internet cafes; photo shops; computer-education centres; government service centres.  Both the challenges and typology present particular implications for the success of ICTD projects, as well as for the participation of disadvantaged groups such as women, elderly, scheduled castes, and poor and rural people.

The research findings illustrate the tensions faced by ICTD projects in reconciling the development goals of “increasing economic opportunities and overall well-being” that are tied to the funding of these projects. Kiosks often target wealthier clients, who have more education and expect state-of-the-art facility and more advanced offerings in order to recover costs and remain financially viable. Yet a focus on financial sustainability and developing higher-end ICT goods and services may alienate other sections of society that need development services, usually the lower-income and scheduled caste families, and within the families, the women, children and elderly relatives [5].

As funding for such projects is invariably entangled with financial viability constraints, States should pay particular attention to both social and economic development issues to develop well-thought policies and funding initiatives like gender budgeting. These are budgetary allocations that aim to extend the benefits of government spending to all different groups of men and women through an analysis and understanding of how public spending impacts these groups. Such State interventions can help define the parameters and sharpen the objectives of ICTD initiatives so that their success and sustainability extend beyond e-literacy for the educated and recovery of access costs from users of Internet cafes.

The importance of inclusion, participation & State intervention for sustainability: Akshaya & SEWA

Despite the existing 'digital divide' and the challenges faced by telecentres and kiosks, some ICTD projects have so far managed to survive the test of time. Projects like the Akshaya telecentres in Kerala and the Self-Employed Women's Association in Gujurat have established themselves with the help of prudent design and implementation, learning from past experiences, and State interventions that encourage the most effective use of project resources.

National policy regarding both ICT and social inclusion can play a major role in the design and implementation of ICTD projects, as is the case with Akshaya. Akshaya telecentres were piloted in 2002 by the Government of Kerala's State IT Mission, in response to the IT Policy of 1998 and 2001 that called for improving living standards by using ICT in all walks of life, including in the government itself . The initiative aims to bring about e-literacy and provide widespread access to ICT and e-governance services with local content, with objectives to bridge the 'digital divide' and use ICT for local development.

According to a forthcoming study by IT for Change, women operate only 15 of the 350 Akshaya centres in the pilot district of Malappuram, though they constitute the majority of users. Following the 93rd and 94th Amendments of the Indian constitution that mandate one-third of Panchayat (village-level government) members be women, Akshaya plans to employ women as operators for one-third of its new telecentres as it expands to other districts. Given already high telecentre usage by women, more female operators/entrepreneurs may seem unnecessary, especially since their efficacy and active participation may face other constraints because “most of them are illiterate and are dependent on the male members of the family to take decisions. Further, they need training to use their power at best to bring about positive developments” [6]. However, IT for Change's study finds that despite social and economic challenges, women who continue to work as operators develop skills and self-confidence through newfound community recognition and social capital in their roles as entrepreneurs. This inspires others to participate and contributes to processes of economic growth and social change that enable development of the entire community.

The Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) has also shown that inclusion of communities currently outside of the mainstream economy can achieve both social development and financial viability. SEWA began in 1972 as a trade union of female workers from the informal sector and has since grown to a membership of nearly a million members. The association aims to achieve full employment and self-reliance for its members, all living below the poverty line when they join, by promoting “collective strength and bargaining power for capital formation at the household level. Access to financial services to build capacity has been made possible so that members can compete in the market place and have access to market infrastructure, technology, information, education, and relevant skills, asset building, healthcare, and child care”.

Despite initial challenges – such as providing locally relevant and financially viable tools and content given the constraint of members' illiteracy, or perception of technology as a mainstream resource that prevents women working in the informal sector from adopting of ICT – SEWA has achieved sustainability through a community-based approach that enhances the economic and social power of its members, who can then contribute to the programme and its services and build their confidence and capabilities.

SEWA has facilitated the capacity building of its members by creating ICT-based service network integrated across all aspects of community life. Achieving full employment and self-reliance requires the provision of supportive services like savings and credit, health and child care, insurance, legal aid and capabilities building in a decentralised, accessible, and affordable manner. Such services are themselves a source of self-employment, and SEWA has supported women in taking initiatives to organise these services for themselves and others . SEWA members also participate in governance activities within the association by selecting members from amongst their trade groups to form Trade Councils that elect a President and Executive Committee every 3 years.

SEWA also employs ICT in SEWA's Trade Facilitation Centre (STFCs). Women artisans and traders use ICT to develop more efficient production systems and gain access to large markets. These experiences enable them to realise the value of their work and gain confidence and recognition as technology users and as entrepreneurs. In STFC's first 18 months, annual sales grew by 62% and exports by 311%, and in May 2003, SEWA registered STFC as an independent company with member artisans as shareholders . In India, where a majority of the female workforce is in the informal sector, providing these workers with resources and opportunities benefits not only the women, but also their communities.

At the village level, community members link to the services provided by STFC through  Community Learning Centres (CLCs) that also function as centres for job placements, e-governance and e-literacy training. CLCs are multi-purpose spaces serving the needs of the entire community: as grain banks and fodder banks; as training spaces for grassroots leaders, field workers and organisers; and, as satellite communication facilities to enable learning in the areas of telemedicine, natural resource management, education and e-governance.

The success of SEWA's members and ICT-based components has challenged perceptions that technology is outside of women's domain in the household, where they engage in decision-making only on the levels of health, childcare, and other 'domestic' activities. It demonstrates that women can participate not only as labourers, but also as entrepreneurs and active members of all aspects of public life. As SEWA members increasingly work with technology and participate in the market, they carve out spaces in the public sphere and actively contribute to social and economic development. Their efforts have brought the needs of India's informal sector workers to national attention. On August 15th, 2007, India's Prime Minister directly addressed the issue of providing social security, including old age pensions and health insurance, to the informal sector[7].


The experiences of SEWA and Akshaya demonstrate the important role that ICTD initiatives can play in economic and social development. However, the success and sustainability of these initiatives can only be achieved within the policy and financial parameters set by governments. The Government of India's ICT policy and quotas for political representation demonstrate how governments can create supportive environments for mobilising resources for development and facilitate integrated, inclusive, and participative ICTD projects. States, private sector and civil society must be inspired by this example to act further and also hold each other accountable to development objectives by monitoring and assessment to ensure that ICTD resources do in fact reach all members in society, especially the most disadvantaged. Such intervention can ensure adequate support for sustaining ICTD initiatives that enable all people to progress from being passive recipients and users of information goods and services to active creators and stakeholders of ICT and the new information society. 

[1] Bridge Cutting Edge PackGender and ICTs Supporting resources collection, 2004, p 7

[2] AWID, The Second Fundher Report, 2007, pp. 5, 9

[3] 2001, Using ICTs to create opportunities for marginalized women and men

[4] eds. Kuriyan and Toyama. Review of research on rural PC kiosks 2007

[5] ibid.

[6] A user-friendly methodology and tool developed by ssf to fortify women's role in economic governance, p. 97

[7] SEWA newsletter, August 2007


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