Telecommunications have been shown to have a range of direct, indirect and intangible benefits on development and poverty reduction goals (Bhavnani et al, 2008). Where the literature allows, the report includes examples of how telecommunications reform has enabled better service outcomes in fragile and conflict-affected states, and some of the challenges of implementation in these types of environments.
The literature on telecommunications reform in developing countries is limited in several ways:
- Although a strict definition of telecommunications would encompass a variety of ways of transmitting information via a wired or wireless network (including mobile and land line telephones, internet and radio), the vast majority of recent policy literature has been primarily concerned with the mobile phone sector.
- The literature is unevenly focused on the health and agriculture sectors, and there is relatively little evidence of the effects of telecommunications on education, or water and sanitation.
- While there are a growing number of illustrative case studies indicating the potential impact of telecommunications on service delivery, there are very few examples from so-called fragile states.
- While illustrative case study examples of impact are available, telecommunications for service delivery is a relatively new area, and many interventions to date have taken the form of pilot initiatives. Evidence of their impact often tends to be anecdotal (Aker and Mbiti, 2010).
Notwithstanding the need for more rigorous evidence of impact, there is consensus in the literature that the potential benefits of telecommunications reform for service delivery are wide-reaching.
Much of the literature emphasises that the key contribution of telecommunications to service delivery is to enhance the exchange of information and data, thereby reducing transaction costs for poor people, and addressing information asymmetries that can occur in any sector and hinder service outcomes for users (Aker and Mbiti, 2010; Rashid and Elder, 2009). Telecommunications are also seen to offer cross-sectoral opportunities to promote inclusive development. There is also a growing literature on how telecommunications, and social media in particular, can contribute to less tangible outcomes such as building social capital and enhancing social development.
Several challenges in applying telecommunications to service delivery have been identified, both at the level of infrastructure and institutions. Poor quality or lack of infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, coupled with low investment and state monopolies, has been a barrier to universal coverage (Williams, Mayer and Minges, 2011). Political and regulatory instability can add to these problems (ITU, 2011). Many pilot schemes have been difficult to scale up in practice (ITU, 2011; Zhenwei Qiang, 2012; Kaplan, 2006).
The exponential growth in the telecommunications sector over the past two decades (particularly the mobile phone sector) in both developing and developed countries is now widely documented (Aker and Mbiti, 2010). Quantitative studies have found correlations between living standards and the availability and use of telecommunications services (see Bhavnani et al, 2008 for a comprehensive overview). However, the growth in telecommunications has not reached all segments of the population and the majority of the rural poor have been left out of the ICT revolution (Bhavnani et al, 2008).