Information and Communication Technology for Poverty Reduction in Asia

Information and communication technology (ICT) is increasingly seen as a tool for supporting development operations. Susheela Venkataraman, Principal Director of ADB’s Office of Information Systems and Technology, explains how ICT can help bridge socioeconomic divides in Asia and the Pacific.

Why is ICT the missing link in development operations?

ICT could be one of the critical elements needed to get the most out of development projects. There are parts of our world where nothing reaches people: there may not be physical connectivity to communities due to the absence of roads, for example. In other cases, the distances could be cultural, gender-related, or due to a lack of access to services. ICT can help bridge those gaps and close distances. At another level, it can help make development projects more effective and efficient.

Susheela Venkataraman is Principal Director of ADB’s Office of Information Systems and Technology. Photo: Eric Sales/ADB

Can you give an example of how ICT has changed people's lives, particularly at the so-called "bottom of the pyramid"?

Over the years, we have seen several examples of how people's lives have been changed by the advent of the telephone, radio, television, mobile telephony and the Internet.

Many of ADB's projects have an ICT focus or component. In Samoa, for example, an ADB project helped provide access to quality education through computer training and the Internet. In the Greater Mekong Subregion, ADB used a combination of ICT-based learning materials, radio, and GIS mapping technology to reach remote ethnic communities where the incidence of HIV infection was high. In another project, ADB helped Asian farmers get access to rice knowledge banks.

A project in which I was personally involved in prior to joining ADB brought e-government to rural populations in India. Rapidly, other services such as health and education were added, some provided by government and some by private. As a result, people in the village now do not need to travel out to the nearest town to get a deed for their farmland or a birth certificate. Children can get specialized education, the same way children in urban areas do, while the youth can prepare for the same entrance exams or job interviews as their counterparts living in the city. The women in the village can now reach a doctor in a large urban hospital and get medical advice, without any disruption to their flow of life. All this has led to a complete transformation of the village and the inhabitants' lives. Needless to say, this was a transformation for the better.

In your opinion, how can ADB harness the power of ICT for development?

Over the past years, ADB has supported more than 300 ICT-related projects, for a total of more than $13 billion. ADB has the opportunity to use ICT in two ways. One is to improve the way our projects are delivered and managed. Another is to directly provide services to beneficiaries.

“ICT can help us reach the people we support faster and more intimately. This is the so-called ICT for development, also known as ICT4D. Bringing ICT to the center of ADB projects is crucial.”

Perhaps, in the past, ICT was seen as another development sector, just like, say, transport or health. We might provide computers to a school or assist states putting broadband infrastructure. This view is changing as the role of ICT in development now cuts across sectors. ICT is becoming an enabler, a critical component in any development project. It can really help get more out of the investments being made in traditional development projects. ICT can help us reach the people we support faster and more intimately. This is the so-called ICT for development, also known as ICT4D. Bringing ICT to the center of ADB projects is crucial.

What is the future of ICT4D?

The big issue for ICT4D is how to scale up pilot projects. There are many innovative pilot projects in the countries where we operate. When something has proven to be successful on a small scale, how can we make sure it makes a difference to the lives of a larger number of people? Financial viability and return on investment are challenges for many of these projects. One of the best things ADB can do for the world is to take these pilots and find a way to scale them up nationally, across the region and perhaps someday, across the world.

But of course, ICT solutions cannot be viewed as the panacea to all the problems that plague us and certainly not in isolation. The right policies must be put in place. Environmental impact assessments and other safeguards must be implemented and processes changed to take advantage of ICT fully. With our broad knowledge and skills, this is where ADB can be the leader of this new integrated world, going beyond Finance to Finance++.