The Information Lives of the Poor

Why should we care about how the poor access and communicate information? Intuitively, feeling safe and secure, obtaining clean water and food, and preventing sickness and disease appear to be much more important objectives for the poor.

Yet, all of these things are enabled or facilitated by information and communication. Families need to be connected when emergencies, disasters, or conflicts occur. Farmers must know where they can get the best prices for their produce. Health workers need to know, quickly and accurately, where a disease outbreak is occurring.

What’s more, the process of exchanging information has gone through a revolution in the past decade. Mobile phones have gone from being a luxury item to one commonly used by most people around the world. According to the International Telecommunication Union, last year there were 91 mobile subscriptions for every 100 people on earth.

Mobile phones are now crucial to collecting and communicating information, so much so that economist Jeffrey Sachs described them as “the single most transformative technology for development.”

Recognizing the importance of information, communication, and the technologies that enable them, Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) was an early champion of research in this field.

Two decades ago, IDRC began supporting developing-country researchers who realized that being on the wrong side of the so-called digital divide would have a dramatic impact on informed policymaking, research for development, and development itself. It should be a source of national pride that research supported by Canada helped frame policy environments and decisions that spurred the mobile revolution in the developing world.

Forward-looking policymakers saw the urgency of ensuring that their countries benefited from the opportunities offered by information and communication technologies (ICTs). As Jay Naidoo, a minister in South Africa’s first post-apartheid government, told Canadian Press: “When I became the minister of communications under Mandela in 1996, IDRC was a key partner in driving my strategy of closing the digital divide.”

Regional research networks emerged to confront the challenge of eliminating that divide: Research ICT Africa, based in South Africa; LIRNEasia in Sri Lanka; and DIRSI in Peru. With IDRC support, these groups investigated the regulatory and policy environment in their regions, and catalyzed reforms that improved access to ICTs by all levels of society.

They also conducted groundbreaking research that has helped to fill knowledge gaps about how access to ICTs affects lives and livelihoods among the developing-country poor. The three research networks, active in 38 developing countries, took survey questions into the homes and workplaces of ICT users to explore the economic and social impacts of modern communication tools.
They found that the biggest obstacle to ICT access is cost – and yet cost has not stopped the poor from purchasing mobile-phone time. The lowest-earning 75% of mobile phone users in Africa were spending large proportions of their household income on communications, as high as 27% for Kenyans.

The ability to buy small amounts of prepaid calling time had enabled the very poor in many countries to gain access to mobile phones. In Latin America, however, high taxes on communication services impedes some of that access, with a typical broadband plan costing 66% more than in the average developed country. In Asia, meanwhile, a low-cost business model has driven high mobile use.

Across the developing world, potential emergencies consistently rank high on surveys as the main reason for buying a phone. Many developing countries lack the standard emergency services found in developed countries. In the absence of such a service, people call a family member or a friend for help in a crisis.

For businesses, saving time and money on transportation has emerged as the greatest economic benefit of mobile phone ownership. Meanwhile, “mobile money” has gained in popularity, suiting the needs of the poor better than conventional banking.

The researchers identified links between ICT access and reduced poverty among the very poor. One recent three-year study, for example, followed a large cohort of Peruvians who became Internet users and compared them with non-users in the same period. The household incomes of Internet users were 19% higher, on average, than those who remained non-users.

A new book details the findings of this fascinating global inquiry. Information Lives of the Poor: Fighting poverty with technology  compiles the evidence and the lessons across regions, bringing together regional perspectives for the first time on this vital topic.

The researchers know that their work is not done. Despite the near ubiquity of mobile phones in the developing world, they found that certain groups still have less access, particularly women, the rural poor, and the elderly. IDRC also continues to engage in this area, exploring important ICT policy issues such as digital openness, privacy, censorship, and intellectual property.

Some of the findings presented in the book may be relevant for Canadians as well. Recent discussions at the CRTC on fostering a fair and competitive market for wireless consumers have thrown a spotlight on issues that underlie cost and affordability. Other countries’ experiences could inform these debates.

In Peru and elsewhere, the IDRC-funded researchers found that access to the Internet has a direct link to job creation and economic growth. Canada’s economic progress, and the future livelihoods of its citizens, may well depend on having a vibrant, affordable and inclusive digital environment.

Laurent Elder leads the Information and Networks program at IDRC. He co-authored Information Lives of the Poor with LIRNEasia’s Rohan Samarajiva, Research ICT Africa’s Alison Gillwald, and DIRSI’s Hernán Galperin.  Download the e-book.