2.1 The overall policy environment

The development of ICTs, and the benefits that may accrue to women from using them, are conditional upon the ability of countries and regions to support effective, pro-active and deliberate policies that push for the social inclusion of women in all spheres of economic and social activity and decision-making.

In the absence of deliberate policies, the diffusion and use of ICTs and their intended benefits can actually exacerbate existing income and economic divides, with the poorer sections of the population being further marginalized, exploited and impoverished, as a result.

The success of a community ICT center requires more than telecommunication infrastructure, it requires targeted support programmes by governments, the private sector and NGOs to train users, operators and service providers.9 To fully realize their potential, community ICT centers need a policy environment that supports systems and appropriate policies for sustainability. For example, policies should ensure gender equity in the implementation process, promote pricing policies that favour community center services, and develop investment incentives for universal access. If policy-makers want to prioritize universal access, they need to focus on the demands of their rural and peri-urban populations.

The well-developed community center is also an invaluable tool for the role that governments play in today’s economies. As citizens become more familiar with frequenting these centers and using Web-based services and information, they will positively value any public services provided by government via ICTs.

Although international and national policies may exist for gender equality and universal access to ICTs, few of them specifically consider ICT and gender together in an integrated way. The absence of gender-oriented projects and programs in ICT increases the risk of a growing “gender digital divide.” Policy-makers, along with gender and ICT advocates, must be aware of the profound impact (positive or negative) of how gender is managed. A gender perspective on ICT matters is essential if the gender digital divide is to be bridged. Since ICT is becoming increasingly central to all economic, political and social life, it is also central to advancing gender equality.

A political commitment to policy and regulation has a critical role to play in determining whether or when ICTs become available to all parts of civil societies, especially poor, rural, dispersed or marginalized communities. A progressive framework of access to ICTs that addresses women's empowerment should regard access to ICTs as a ”capability right,” These sections of population can, through the appropriation of ICTs, gain legitimacy for their concerns, demand accountability from public institutions, and explore new platforms for building solidarity and for learning and knowledge sharing. Guidelines in Chapter 5 provide policy- and decision-makers with a further set of criteria to use in policy making.

A public goods approach is vital for women and women's groups to access ICTs, to leverage the propensities of the evolving information and communication ecology for furthering their struggles, whether they revolve around the right to information, the right to livelihoods, the need for educational content in local languages, current community radio initiatives or accessing local services. Public financing instruments and institutional arrangements that tackle these needs head on are critical to realizing the capability rights of women through ICT access.

Economic and social development depends on the capacity to generate, absorb and diffuse knowledge and technology. Knowledge and technology have the potential to provide benefits to large numbers of users, and the benefit received by any one user does not reduce the benefits received by others. Knowledge is often considered a public good, but it is more complex than it first appears. Several important qualifications must be considered. These qualifications are crucial to the design of appropriate policies to increase the rate of innovation and to guide its direction, at both the national and the international levels.10

Fact of interest: defining sustainability and public good

The fundamental issue in reaching poor women is not one of profitability, but rather the creation of a set of technology-mediated services and products that will enable women to engage in emerging opportunities. Focusing on financial viability, to the detriment of a committed focus on the transformatory and development capabilities of ICTs, could work against the objective of universal access.

Governments and NGOs alike need to view the economics of communication centers within frameworks of justice and equity. Public information delivery has to be guided by the cornerstone of accountability rather than of profit. Initial investments required to set up a telecenter will start paying off when information begins to have positive influences on the community – in terms of social and economic well-being, as well as transformation in social relations at community and household levels – as women and the poor start leveraging information and communication resources.

Researchers distinguish between economic sustainability (achieved when a given level of expenditure can be maintained over time), social sustainability (achieved when social exclusion is minimized and social equity maximized) and institutional sustainability (achieved when prevailing structures and processes have the capacity to perform their functions over the long term). Economic sustainability is a key indicator of the success of a project because it is seen to reflect a genuine demand for that service. At the same time, in many development projects, donors are funding information dissemination as a public good. “The nature of telecenter sustainability is complicated by the point that it may initially be a public good, especially in disadvantaged areas, yet must be ultimately self-supporting.”11

A great deal of research has been published on economic sustainability, in particular with regard to access initiatives such as telecenters or information kiosks, which have high set-up and maintenance costs and customers with little spare cash. The complicated objectives of providing information services as a public goodk,and making them self-supporting, have proved extremely difficult to reconcile. Few initiatives have succeeded in covering their costs, even if they have developed viable charging mechanisms.

Functional coordination between various government ministries and local officials is central to developing a supportive policy environment. The establishment of an ICT policy task force may also help to bring together stakeholders from all of the relevant ministries, such as education, telecommunications, gender and youth affairs, industry and commerce, etc.

9“(…) most universal access programmes that focus on providing Internet access in rural areas concentrate exclusively on the roll-out of infrastructure. Studies show, however, that the most successful community Internet center programmes are those that are linked from their inception to a wide variety of capacity-building and support programmes that are implemented jointly between government entities, local communities, businesses and NGOs. Successful universal access programmes depend not only on the availability and affordability of infrastructure, but also on the availability and quality of suitable content and applications, as well as the level of training of its users, operators, and service providers”, ITU Trends in Telecommunication Reform 2007 The road to next-generation networks (NGN), Geneva, International Telecommunication Union, 2007.

10See UNIDO’s 2008 report “Public Goods for Economic Development” http://www.unido.org/fileadmin/user_media/Publications/documents/Public%20goods%20for%20economic%20development_sale.pdf

11See Connecting the first mile: a framework for best practice in ICT projects for knowledge sharing in development for further discussion Surmaya Talyarkhan Best practice framework http://practicalaction.org/docs/icts/ict_best_practice_framework.pdf.