The internet and social capital: experiences of openness

Full title: The internet and social capital: experiences of openness in remote and rural areas in least developed economies

There is considerable variation in the ways ICT is becoming embedded in national systems for development (Warschauer, 2003 and Wilson, 2004). A key question is whether ICT offers enabling opportunities for development among remote and rural communities or whether it is leading to their further marginalisation. The problem of marginalisation is compounded in countries where there are weak links between local communities, policy makers, and agencies responsible for transferring information, knowledge and skills.

For some analysts, applying ICT for development is fundamentally a social process whereby electronic technologies are differentially institutionalised and applied in particular social settings, with very diverse effects. Structures, institutions, politics and policies provide the focus for analysis and key individuals are the drivers of structural change (see for example Wilson, 2004). For others, avoiding marginalisation and benefitting from ICT developments is a matter of mobilising ICT resources to make social structures more democratic, equitable, and socially inclusive in a way that enhances social capital (Warschauer, 2003).

An interesting and so far promising perspective on the development of inclusive structures has been developed by Smith et al. (2008). The crux of their argument is that the benefits of ICT for development can best be realised when the technology is introduced, adapted, utilised or disseminated through ‘open processes’ (Smith et al., 11). Openness, they argue, can spur development but there is a need to build this capacity in a way that overcomes information and knowledge disadvantages for people in remote communities while at the same time delivering capacity to access and use new information (Heeks, 2008)..

In this paper, drawing on our work in Sub Saharan Africa and Nepal, we investigate two aspects of openness: open feed-back and open spill-over. In Mozambique regional Reflection Groups connected via ICT networks were established to generate a flow of ideas from rural areas for directing policy investments in science and innovation. They were also set up to generate a flow of knowledge and information on key development topics (such as biotechnology for agricultural development) from policy makers for discussion in local areas (Turpin and Martinez, 206). This ICT4D model, in principle, allowed for what we call ‘open feed-back’. A limiting factor, however, was the minimal capacity at both central and regional locations to generate what we are calling ‘open spill-over’. There was only limited capacity for central agencies to learn from and act on the information and knowledge generated at the local level. Similarly, there was only limited capacity at the local level to utilise and more importantly disseminate innovative ideas or practices. In short, there were inherent openness limitations, both centrally and locally.

Following these insights we are investigating these conceptual ideas further through the implementation and uptake of telecenters in Nepal. There have been contradictory outcomes regarding the impact of telecenters in rural economies (Rajalekshmi, 2008, Soriano, 2007,). Our hypothesis is that the capacity of telecenters to bridge the gap between centralised/institutionalised knowledge and information and rural communities and economic development depends on two key factors. Firstly, whether there is open feed-back at the institutional level; and secondly, whether there is the potential for broader information spill-over at both local and central levels.

Our paper will focuses on revealing the dynamics of these factors and identifying appropriate analytical measures. The first part will describe the process of implementing and managing telecenters in rural Nepal. This section will identify robust indicators of ‘open feed-back’ and ‘open spill-over’ at the centralised agency level. The second part will elaborate on the potential for this capacity in different local contexts. Our overall objective is to provide empirical evidence for steering ICT4D in ways that best suit differing socio-economic contexts.

Authors: Tim Turpin and Atma Ghimire

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