Thursday, July 22, 2010

Tools for Progress

The development of new and innovative forms of media over the years has served its purpose not only as a means of communication for social networking but also as a vital tool for development purposes.

Social interaction and communication are integral to human development. It is no surprise then that we depend to such a large extent on the growth of information and communication technologies (ICTs) for efficient management and running of organizations and for development of our communities.

The various ICTs we employ include print, electronic and, increasingly, the more advanced new-age media of internet. Print media has a long history among the media sources, and includes newspapers, magazines, books and brochures etc. Among the electronic media, radio and television remain the more popular forms while CDs and DVDs for entertainment and educational purposes have dominated the public sphere in the past couple of decades. However, the internet outshines every other media form due to speed, ease of access and the scope of its range. It provides unlimited opportunities for mass communication through modes such as email, blogs now exceeding 60 million, social networking sites like Facebook with almost 500 million users and 70 language translations, educational research websites like Questia with over 70,000 books and 2million articles, informational search engines like Google etc.

The South Asian countries, although still more reliant on traditional sources of information due to economic limitations, have nonetheless benefitted from introduction of the new-age mass communication technology in various fields. In the field of education, for example, print media was traditionally the dominant medium of educational instruction, while radio and television have played an important role in disseminating distant learning courses. However, by incorporating online tools to enhance learning capacity of recipients, providers are offering them a whole new realm of opportunity. In Pakistan, Allama Iqbal Open University (AIOU) established in 1974, and the more recently set up Virtual University (VU) now provide distant learning opportunities incorporating online education to supplement their existing communication technologies. Access to latest material online in comparison to the outdated and limited resources available in local libraries has enhanced the capacity of these universities.

The merits of online learning were acknowledged in a 2009 US Department of Education study which revealed that on the average, online students in the US outperformed those receiving face-to-face instruction. Manufacturers are thus offering attractive packages and products in PCs and green laptops. The reasons may be based on numerous factors. The flexibility offered by online courses in terms of time and space constraints, in addition to full-time access to diverse perspectives and experiences offered by teachers, experts, researchers and professionals present in different geographical locations enhances global awareness which is especially important in a world increasingly in need of mutual cooperation.

Another ICT tool, the mobile phone, which ushered in a whole new the era of possibilities of instant communication in the sixties, has also proven to be a useful mass literacy agent in developing countries, while simultaneously offering quick economic rewards in the form of new job markets. Due to its simple usage and instant connectivity, and unlike the need for training in computer literacy, its advantage lies in its fairly easy functionality; as are mobile phone towers easier to install and cost effective than landlines. Pakistan leads South Asia with a mobile phone penetration of 59.60 % (PTA, 2010), Bangladesh at 34% (BTRC 2010) Nepal has15% penetration and India 49.60% (TRAI, 2010). A Group Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) 2007 study estimated that the mobile industry created 220,000 jobs in Pakistan. In 2006, 54% of the total direct foreign investment in the country was also done by mobile operators (PTA).

Mobile phones are helping countries work towards achieving MDGs for education. Significant sections of South Asian countries are illiterate. According to the CIA’s The World Factbook, 2/3rds of the world’s illiterates are concentrated in just eight countries including India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and 2/3rds of all illiterate adults are women. Sms-based literacy programs in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are being implemented to empower the marginalized, especially women. The Mobilink CEO Rashid Khan recognizing the potential of this tool had rightly observed at the inception of one successful project conducted in collaboration with UNESCO, ‘"The cell phone holds the key to social development by its very nature and we want to make sure that women are part of this revolution".

In addition to education, use of mobile phones has helped improve incomes of financially marginalized small-scale service providers in diverse fields. For agricultural economies like Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, the mobile phones have brought about a revolution in the lives of farmers as updated and timely access to market information through mobile phones is helping them make informed choices and hence, sound investments.

Mobile phones are also playing an increasingly important role in addressing healthcare needs of rural populations of developing countries. As observed by the World health Organization: “Information and communication technologies enable people in remote areas to have access to services and expertise otherwise unavailable to them, especially in countries with uneven distribution or chronic shortages of physicians, nurses and health technicians or where access to facilities and expert advice requires travel over long distances,”. Unfortunately, while almost 80% of physicians in these countries live and work in urban areas, the majority population lives in rural areas. A 2009 Senza Fili Consulting White paper details among other projects, the use of latest communication technologies to carry out training for healthcare workers; a trial project, called The Cisco Project, in Pakistan which combines satellite and WiMAX connectivity to provide cancer screening to rural patients; a trial in India in which Cisco and Intel used wireless connectivity to send e‐learning classes to students’ laptops, and Healthline service like the Bangladeshi telemedicine service set up by TRLA Ltd. and GrameenPhone which provides basic medical advice to patients in remote areas at negligible cost. Another estimated 10 million people have made use of GSMA’s Healthline Hotline in SouthAsia.

As a means for social change, the use of ICTs has revolutionized communication. The media is supporting people in South Asian countries plagued with massive corruption and inept governance to reinforce responsibility and transparency. In Pakistan the Lawyers Movement in 2008 was run with the help of the ICTs offering 24-hour live coverage and helped citizens mobilize support. The recent Iran election is another such example. In conflict struck regions, ordinary people have taken upon themselves to report violations of international law and to create awareness about their human rights concerns.

Social media has also brought a fundamental shift in the way we communicate in our everyday lives. Social networking sites have brought people closer by encouraging them to share perspectives on global issues. They have however, also caused rifts with clashing concepts of freedom of speech, yet opening up of dialogue between diverse nations and cultures is certainly a welcome move. However, the overexposure or intrusiveness of these social networking sites is also an element of concern for many, increasingly associated with growing crime and stress, especially among the younger, more impressionable age group.

All said, however, embracing technology is the key to development. As with any experience, responsible application is the key. The positive effect of technology on the lives of rural and urban populations in developing countries is enormous, especially where social inequality issues have been addressed. Technology alone is no guarantee of change, but can be an important part of the solution.

SouthAsia , July 2010.

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