With the rapid growth of private sector investment in mobile communication, large numbers of poor rural communities now have mobile phones, smart phones, and internet access. The emergence of cloud services has begun to provide powerful and extendable computing platforms at little or no cost. Through this programme, the UNU International Institute for Software Technology (UNU-IIST) will address the question of how such recent advances in information communication technology (ICT) infrastructure can be harnessed to help alleviate poverty in rural communities. It will primarily focus on the issue of how to build local capacity, which has been widely identified as one of the most pressing issues in poverty reduction globally. It will take an action research approach, with extensive fieldwork. Research projects will explore peer-to-peer learning in rural communities, local language support, collection of local level information and translation into a form that is policy relevant, poverty reduction strategy monitoring and participatory software design. Outputs will include software tools, publications, and concrete impacts on poverty.
Through an exchange of letters between the UNU-IIST Director and the Minister of Agriculture and Forestry of Lao PDR, a long-term strategic partnership has been established to apply ICT to accelerate the Ministry’s efforts to reduce poverty in Laos through capacity building at the grass roots level. The collaboration is formally situated in the Office of the Permanent Secretary in order to be able to coordinate with all line departments. This collaboration provides UNU-IIST with valuable support to pursue its research in one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. The project being pursued involves poverty reduction, e-governance and education and so encompasses three of the institute’s four programmes. While it may not be possible to formally establish a twin with the ministry, it may very well serve the purposes of the twin concept.
An academic staff member will be recruited to lead this programme. In the interim it will be lead by Prof. Peter Haddawy, Director.
The programme will address research issues central to using ICT to reduce rural poverty. Examples include:
This programme will primarily involve action-oriented research. We illustrate with the programmes’s inaugural project: ICT-Enabled Education for Poverty Reduction in Lao PDR.
There is increasing recognition that local ownership is critical to the success and sustainability of poverty reduction initiatives. This requires creation of capacity at the local level. While many countries have large numbers of agricultural extension workers with valuable intimate knowledge of local society and conditions, these workers often lack the needed breadth of knowledge and skills that would enable them to become effective creative problem solvers in their local communities and enable them to draw upon available funding. A highly innovative new professional bachelor’s degree programme in Poverty Reduction and Agriculture Management (PRAM), developed under the Wetlands Alliance and piloted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry of Lao PDR, has shown the tremendous value of providing such training at the grass roots level. A particularly unique feature of this degree programme is the use of poverty reduction outcomes to evaluate student projects and to measure the overall effectiveness of the program.
The challenge is now to find a mechanism to scale up this programme in Laos and other countries. ICT holds the promise of enabling this scaling and at the same time linking local and global agendas. Private sector development in Laos, like many other developing countries, has begun to provide a viable ICT infrastructure in rural areas, including 3G Internet connectivity, inexpensive computing devices, and access to power through solar technology. Recognizing an opportunity where ICT can augment an existing approach and leverage existing infrastructure, UNU-IIST has entered into a strategic partnership to support the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in designing and building software for capacity building at the grass roots level in the country. The system is being designed with full participation of staff from the national, provincial, and district levels, as well as PRAM students and teachers. Such participatory design is crucial to local ownership of the initiative. Many subtle issues come to play here, such as holding meetings in settings where the participants can feel comfortable, which can sometimes be someone’s home in a remote village. In response to the needs expressed by the extension officers, the system will provide a platform to record and communicate valuable local-level knowledge concerning successful poverty reduction projects being carried out under the PRAM program. The system will permit documenting of projects using rich content including text, photos, and video clips. Since PRAM student projects are assessed, there is a natural quality assurance mechanism on the content. This content will be used as teaching cases so that rather than needing to localize content, relevant content is locally created. In addition, the platform will enable extension officers to share this knowledge and professionally network with one another in order to create a broad peer-to-peer learning community.
More sophisticated future functionality will enable the information gathered at the local level to be aggregated so as to inform policy and enable provincial and central offices to monitor the effectiveness of poverty reduction programs. Building this system presents novel challenges that go far beyond local language support and include issues in computing, cognition and participatory design. A particularly interesting challenge is to find ways to aggregate the primarily qualitative information from the success stories in a way that can be meaningful for government policy making. A team of researchers from the Spatial Cognition Research Center at the Universities of Bremen and Freiburg is looking at ways to apply techniques for qualitative reasoning from Artificial Intelligence to this problem.
Because many developing countries have conditions and challenges similar to those in Laos, it is hoped and expected that the methodology and some of the solutions being developed here will have widespread applicability to help empower those who have been too long neglected.
The current project in Laos involves participation of the head of the Office for Promotion of Gender Equality. Many of the PRAM students deliberately chose to work with women members of the community during their project assignments. The Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) will soon be carrying out a formal gender audit of the PRAM program.
Direct benefactors will be those directly involved in the action research: rural communities, agricultural extension workers, government agencies. Indirect benefactors include academics in ICT4D, NGOs that can make use of research results in their practice and government agencies.
Impact: Contribution to the work of a specific UN agency
Target: Create a community of stakeholders who will contribute toward developing ways to use ICT to help realize the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Local Capacity Strategy for poverty reduction.
How: There is increasing recognition that local ownership is critical to the success and sustainability of poverty reduction initiatives. This requires creation of capacity at the local level. The Local Capacity Strategy put forth by the UNDP Environment & Energy Group outlines a vision for this. The components of the strategy include local learning and knowledge sharing; community voices in policy processes; and rights, access, and finance mechanisms. While elements of this strategy have been realized in various development projects across the globe, key challenges to increasing impact are to integrate the components of this strategy and to implement the strategy on a wide scale. The use of ICT holds great promise to enable this in a cost effective manner. UNU-IIST and the University of Bremen have entered into discussions with UNDP to organize a Grand Challenge Symposium on the topic of ICT-Enabled Local Capacity Strategy for Poverty Reduction. Participants could be drawn from academia, think tanks, development agencies, UN agencies, government agencies, NGOs, and industry. Such a symposium would increase awareness of the Local Capacity Strategy and, more importantly, assist in realizing the strategy by collecting ideas and by creating a community of researchers working towards addressing the key issues. In order to build and retain such a community, this symposium or other similar events would be held on a regular basis.
Impact: Influencing policymaking at the national level
Target: Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry of Lao PDR
How: An information system is being designed that will aggregate data from the local level to provide evidence to support poverty reduction policy in the country and will enable monitoring of outcomes of poverty reduction programs.
Impact: Furthering knowledge in an academic field
Target: Academics in ICT4D
How: The programme will provide opportunities for academics to participate in field work in ICT for poverty reduction in developing countries. Because of the unique status of UNU-IIST as part of the academic arm of the UN, the Institute is in a position to gain access to government agencies in countries that can be very difficult for more traditional universities. For example, this has enabled UNU-IIST to attract the University of Bremen to join its project in Laos, along with the allocation of significant resources.
Impact: Capacity development in developed/developing countries
Target: Rural communities, government district officers
How: Develop and deploy information systems that support capacity building at the grass roots level. Provide training in basic IT skills.
Expected research findings include frameworks for use of ICT in supporting poor rural communities, methodologies for participatory design, algorithms, and software.
Policy support will be an integral part of the action research in this programme. In addition, lessons learned will be distilled and disseminated through publications and presentations to support policy more broadly.
The value added by the programme includes, for the UN system, helping to create a bridge between the academic community and relevant UN agencies such as UNDP and the Office of the Special Adviser on Africa. For UNU added value is offered by increasing the contributions of UNU to some of the most pressing needs of developing countries. For governments and policymakers, additional value comes from the direct support offered by the programme in formulating and monitoring poverty reduction strategies.
Results will be disseminated through publications in academic conferences and journals. In addition, there are ongoing discussions with UNDP to organize a Grand Challenge Symposium as a way to engage a broad array of stakeholders. The symposium would focus on how ICT can be used to support the UNDP’s Local Capacity Strategy for poverty reduction.
Work in this programme will proceed primarily through a series of field projects. It is expected that once a project is completed, lessons learned will be distilled and applied in the next project.
Measures to evaluate the success of the programme include publications, citations, measurable impact on poverty, satisfaction of stakeholders, and uptake of the techniques and software.
Challenges include mobilization of sufficient resources to achieve programme objectives and the difficulties involved in fieldwork in least developed countries.
The programme is expected to run for a duration of 48 months, from 1 January 2012 through 31 December 2015.
Activities within the programme will involve cooperation between the UNU International Institute for Software Technology and the United Nations Development Programme.
Prof. Peter F. Haddawy, Director
United Nations University
International Institute for Software Technology
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