Digital Governance Vision for Rural Areas

Press 1 for Agricultural Produce. Press 2 for IT Services.
A need to break the traditional perception of rural areas in developing countries

Rural population and development quotient
Any country whose rural population is still mired in poverty and unemployment, and faces high rural-urban economic equality cannot be termed as a developed country. In fact, the economic status of the rural population of any country provides a more realistic picture of the development quotient. Using this framework, countries such as India, China, South Africa, Vietnam, Brazil, Indonesia, Egypt are far from being developed, even though they may be witnessing a high GDP growth rate. Thus, development of rural economies is the real challenge for developing countries where large sections of people reside in villages and smaller towns. And this is the area where development interventions either fail to penetrate or bounce back without creating a significant impact, and there are more reasons than one for this.

Analysing the reality
The foremost reason is the ineffective public investment being made in rural areas which is not allowing rural areas to develop as rapidly as their urban counterparts. The disparity in rural-urban infrastructure, in terms of roads, power, transport and telecommunications is a severe bottleneck. It hinders private investment in rural areas and fails to provide rural population with key ingredients required to modernise agriculture, and more importantly establish other economic enterprises (including non-farm based enterprises). Consequently rural areas continue to be characterised by agrarian economies, and large section of rural population continue to be employed in agriculture, with high levels of disguised employment. In most developing countries, far greater percentage of population is employed in agriculture than what is required to provide with the current levels of agricultural productivity. And this is because of factors including, lack of alternate job opportunities in rural areas, especially for younger population, and absence of technological revolution within agriculture which means that farmers continue to labour all day and yet fail to get adequately remunerated for their efforts.

When tomatoes get sold in neighbourhood markets in Delhi (the capital of India) for Rs. 10 (less than USD 0.20) per kg (December 2005 prices), it does not take much imagination to understand that the farmer who is actually growing tomatoes on his/her fields is probably not getting more than Rs 3 (USD 0.07) per kg for his/her efforts and this is a dismal situation and provides an insight of the rural realities and how development interventions have still a long way to go to change the economic picture of rural areas. But on the other side, it is also an open challenge for all of us to make a difference, including for the public sector, the entrepreneurs, the private sector, and the NGOs who consider themselves to be in the business of "doing good".  It is a challenge because rural development in developing countries requires pro-active action on a large scale, so that millions can be lifted out of poverty and be engaged in productive employment not restricted to agricultural sector.

Thinking from a different angle
It is not an area for the faint-hearted and one needs to think innovatively. It starts from thinking from a new angle: Rural areas need not be and should not be characterised solely as agricultural belts and agrarian population. Instead, they should be considered as a human resource: a resource of young people, of skilled artisans, of innovators, and of entrepreneurs, that is waiting to be tapped to accelerate local and national development. A rural youth may be a son or daughter of a farmer but need not be a farmer herself/himself. Instead s(he) can be a software developer, a call-centre employee, an e-entrepreneur, a lawyer preparing cases for foreign firms, or a potential employee for new forms of employment which have not yet emerged.

Once we start thinking from this angle, we will realise that we need to correct our development-oriented policies and actions. A case to point out is that of the ICT intervention. The impact of ICT in rural areas and particularly on rural poverty is very limited despite its penetration into urban areas. And even when ICT projects are taken up in rural areas, they are limited to agricultural sector.

The focus on agriculture is correct one, but restricting the focus of ICT to agriculture only is incorrect, when we adopt the new line of thinking mentioned above. Instead ICTs in rural areas have several important roles to play. The foremost is bringing developments in the outside world closer to villages and small towns. This new knowledge about new types of information sources, such as emails and Internet, and about new ways of doing businesses, such as e-Commerce via credit cards would allow rural entrepreneurs to scale up their businesses or think of new business opportunities. This in turn will attract more rural people and create more employment opportunities in rural areas.

Secondly, ICTs should be integrated within the education curriculum within government, government-aided and private schools, and public and private institutes in rural areas. This will ensure developing countries become a repository of not only the young but young and IT-trained population. Here it needs to be underlined that IT is not an end in itself but over the time, it would be a skill required, and even become a pre-requisite to undertake most jobs including government jobs, jobs in engineering, health, law, economics, management, accounting, journalism and tourism.

An IT-trained rural population (even a modest 10%) would be an immense resource, as this skilled labour along with other qualifications can quickly be integrated into newer types of job opportunities which are opening up, including call centres, backend accounting and legal services. It will also ensure that developing countries have enough in-house IT-trained human resources to carry out digitisation of their own governance processes and in setting up IT and knowledge-based enterprises. More importantly, these new skills will spur entrepreneurship and innovation, as this rural but trained labour force would be better positioned to transform rural areas and the larger rural population from predominantly agricultural labour force to that engaged in other employment opportunities.

Here too IT can be an advantage, as with an even spread and robut IT-infrastructure and availability of trained human resources, it should not matter whether companies are being set up in rural or urban areas. In fact rural-based call-centres can offer an even competitive option to the urban call-centres which are witnessing high-growth rates but are also finding it difficult to search and retain trained staff. Developing countries need to allocate even more resources to education and skill development in its rural backyard. However this solution is not being applied and this is due to the existing infrastructure bottlenecks which do not make this solution financially feasible, let alone attractive.

The third point about enabling IT policies, requires countries to further its reach of lit fibre and broadband network, and more so, in rural areas. All schools, colleges, institutions, and post offices in rural areas should be connected via broadband network. In the absence of other infrastructure goods, and employment opportunities in rural areas, broadband network and the right kind of education and training can become a lifeline for millions of our brothers and sisters who should not find agriculture as the only employment option to turn to for earning their livelihood. IT can truly be a leapfrogging tool for the young and the unemployed in rural areas, and once this generation merges with the growing IT economy, countries will get an even bigger boost in its GDP from rural areas, and it will not be attributed to just agriculture.

There is a need to transform schemes and subsidies being given to rural areas. New schemes and projects need to be created which promote rural e-Entrepreneurship. Bank loans and credit lines should be extended to provide funds for rural e-commerce and other e-Services. Developing countries could spur rural IT innovations by initiating district-wide, state-wide and national-wide incubation funds to promote rural enterprises, and start long-term projects on IT on the lines of its forestry conservation, watershed development, and literacy for all campaigns.

Finally, NGOs need to transform too, and move out from a sterile approach to rural development to a more pro-active one where their loyalty shifts towards the people they work for instead of the donors. They should adapt themselves to changing technologies and educate themselves on vast potential of IT in rural areas when applied innovatively for increasing employment opportunities and income.  Often NGOs working for rural development are less progressive than many of the Governments which are building up their capacities in making ICTs work for the rural poor. These non-progressive NGOs are doing more harm than good by not undertaking projects which could create new employment and entrepreneurship options to the rural population, and especially the youths. They end up reinforcing the thinking that rural areas in developing countries is only about agriculture and farmers, and this is what the next generation would be engaged with.

Breaking the traditional perception
There is a need to break the traditional perception and the picture we conceive in our mind when anyone talks about rural areas. We should start envisioning rural areas as potential IT farms where with the right infrastructure and policy support we can raise a new generation of IT-trained youths which will ensure that rural areas provide us with many new products and services, besides agricultural produce.