The ‘Rural Romance’ lives on in the ICT Age: Urban poor need not apply

Poor rice farmers running up laptops in paddy fields.

Fishermen navigating their ramshackle vessels using satellite-guided global positioning systems (GPS).

A wide-eyed girl child seated in front of a computer screen, looking completely awe-struck.

A saffron-robed Buddhist monk gleefully chatting away on a mobile phone.

Do these images sound a bit familiar to you? That’s because you keep seeing them on magazine covers, posters and various other items produced and distributed to show how modern-day communication gadgets are making a difference in the majority world.

The majority world is where a majority of people live in poverty or hover close to it.

Some influential members of the development community – which includes aid giving nations, UN agencies, researchers and assorted charities working on humanitarian and development issues – now try to fix poverty with gadgets. Or, to use the proper term, unleash information and communication technologies (ICTs) to help combat poverty.

Photo courtesy SciAm Image courtesy Panos Image courtesy Panos

ICT is a basket term that includes the well established services like radio, television and fixed phones as well as newer technologies such as computers, Internet and mobile phones.

Can ICTs help developing countries overcome the current income, social and other disparities? In an editorial written for the Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP) three years ago, I answered this question as a conditional ‘yes’ — with the caution that ICTs are not a panacea that can fix deep-rooted ills.

Read my full essay in GKP Partners Newsletter (My essay is the last one, so keep scrolling down, down, down.)

I said:
ICTs cannot turn bad development into good development; they can only make good development, better. However, when used strategically and as part of a wider development process, ICTs can offer substantial value addition.

But that presumes there is a rigorous assessment of the needs and rational investment of the limited resources. What happens when experts and activists act on their perceptions and prejudices, and not on evidence?

The development community’s obsession with everything rural is one key factor creating such distortions. Sharad Shankardass, Spokesperson for the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), once described this as the development community’s ‘rural romance’.

In 2003 – 2004, Sharad joined us at TVE Asia Pacific in running two regional workshops for training Asian TV journalists in covering sustainability related issues. As the UN agency that chronicles humanity’s urbanization, his agency has all the facts and figures to draw evidence-based conclusions.

The amiable and articulate Sharad summed it up well: more than half the world’s population – including significant numbers of its poor – now live in cities or semi-urban areas. Yet, most members of the development community continue to think of poverty and under-development as an exclusively rural phenomenon.

In other words, they are hooked on a romanticised notion of the rural poor and cannot see (or choose to ignore) a more multi-faceted reality.

Image courtesy UN HABITAT Image courtesy TVE Asia Pacific

Here’s the blurb for State of the World’s Cities 2006/2007 report, published by UN-HABITAT:
“It is generally assumed that urban populations are healthier, more literate and more prosperous than rural populations. However, UN-HABITAT’s State of the World’s Cities Report 2006/7 has broken new ground by showing that the urban poor suffer from an urban penalty: Slum dwellers in developing countries are as badly off if not worse off than their rural relatives.”

Read State of the World’s Cities 2006/2007 online, as pdf chapters

This kind of evidence is being ignored by researchers, activists and UN officials who have fallen (or sleep-walked) into a ‘rural romance trap’. To them, the unmet needs of millions of urban poor are not a concern, or at least not a priority.

In their strange logic, it’s not just a low income level and deprivation of basic human amenities that qualify someone for support under various poverty reduction efforts. That person must also live in an idyllic village, away from major signs of civilization, and preferably in a mud hut surrounded by starving children and emaciated cattle.

That’s picture perfect poverty for you. Urban poor, living in the shadow of highrise buildings and skytrains, rather spoil this pristine image!

Last week while visiting Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for Asia Media Summit 2007, I had two separate encounters related to this rural romance.

First was a pre-summit workshop on Connecting Communities through Community Broadcasting and ICTs that brought together some 25 – 30 participants, mostly activists and researchers. In my remarks to the workshop (where I spoke and chaired a session), I urged everyone not to romanticize either communities or broadcasting.

“Communities in need are no longer rural and idyllic as some of you might imagine,” I cautioned. “And broadcasting isn’t what it used to be either. Things have moved on. So must we.”

During question time, a communications advisor from UNESCO New Delhi took me to task for saying this. “We are working with 45 years of solid experience behind us,” she reminded me and everyone else. “You can’t just dismiss this body of work.”

She seemed affected by my questioning the strong or exclusive focus that community radio promoters have on rural areas and rural poor in particular.

I didn’t want to split hairs on this when bigger issues were at stake. I just said that what had worked in the first century of radio will not work in that same form in the medium’s second century that we have now entered. New thinking based on a century’s experience was needed.

Why are organizations like UNESCO so resistant to change and new thinking? Why do they go around spreading development myths that actually do more harm than good?

Read my 2004 essay that exposes the UNESCO-sponsored myth of ‘community radio’ in my native Sri Lanka

And they are not alone. Other UN agencies and development practitioners still plan and deliver development aid and support based on a reality that prevailed in the 1980s or earlier.

My Malaysian friend Chong Sheau Ching, whom I met last week after two years, told me a recent experience that corroborates it.

Chong Sheau Ching, photo courtesy IDRC e-homemakers

Sheau Ching is a remarkable woman. She combines many roles – social entrepreneur, columnist and single mom among them. She is a leading voice in Southeast Asia for using modern ICTs to help women – especially single moms — to find work that they can do from home yet earn decent incomes.

She is founder and head of e-homemakers, a non-profit organisation that networks over 13,000 Malaysian women who are home workers, home-based entrepreneurs and home-makers. These women live and work in cities or towns, and now take advantage of Malaysia’s well-developed telecommunications infrastructure.

Sheau Ching was an invited speaker at Asia Telecentre Forum held in the Malaysian capital on 6 – 8 February 2007. In her presentation, she had spoken about the ICT needs and uses of urban women, including the poor women living in cities. She had questioned why the tele-centre movement was focusing almost entirely on rural areas.

Guess what? The organisers didn’t like such outspokenness at all – she had been reprimanded in public during the rest of the session as well as ‘scolded’ in private after it ended. So much for plurality of views!

Sheau Ching is full of such stories, even if some of them make us feel outraged at the stupidity of people or institutions involved.

Here’s another one, recounting an experience at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, Tunisia in November 2005:

At WSIS Tunis, I gave a short presentation to a small group of bankers from developing countries on using low cost ICT4D innovations for urban poor women to generate income. One politely said to me as he handed out dinner invitations, “We are interested in big projects for youth and the rural people.” I was the only woman in the group, the only one from the civil society, and needless to say, the only one who was not invited to the fancy dinner in a five-star hotel in North Tunis.
Read her full essay, Unsexy and voiceless!!

Next time when UN agencies and other bleeding-heart do-gooders turn on their rhetoric about busting poverty, ask a simple question: Are they fighting poverty no matter where it exists, or is it only poverty in rural, idyllic settings where they like to visit and take photographs?

Like those images I mentioned at the beginning.

Read IDRC profile on Chong Sheau Ching