Iran, located in western Asia and commonly referred to as the Islamic Republic of Iran, is primarily at a developing stage; although the national economy is considerably supported by the industrial sector, its rural developmental policies need more precision. The country has a rich repository of natural resources, which make it mandatory to devise nuanced schemes in support of sustainable prosperity for its agricultural sector (Aref &C Aref, 2011). The Iranian government has formulated various public policies to boost national agricultural production. The sector has received significant attention because of the following credentials:
- • Agriculture provides food, which is of utmost importance to Iran’s growing economy.
- • Agricultural exports generate foreign exchange, which significantly contributes to the national revenue.
- • Agriculture generates savings that the non-agricultural sector requires for capital accumulation, therefore ensuring balanced growth of the rural economy.
- • The growing agricultural sector creates a local market for non-agricultural goods.
Several public schemes have targeted sustainable agricultural development by integrating the efforts of rural agricultural organizations, rural communities and farmers in rural areas. However, their institutional reliance has to a great extent distanced these schemes from the rural target group, where the schemes have remained largely incapacitated in organizing farmers into structured developmental paradigm (Aref & Aref, 2011). Aref and Aref rightly identify rural empowerment as an enabling quotient, facilitating self-induced development of individual/collective capacities as contributing members of society. Rural empowerment should cultivate the abilities of individuals, organizations, businesses and government and facilitate interconnections among these entities; it must enable creation of a collaborative working environment (Aref & Aref, 2011). It is the ability of rural communities to mobilize resources from within by virtue of an enhanced inter- and intra-communitarian linkage, coupled with their negotiating power, that paves the path for developing the skills and community structures necessary for development.
The Iranian government has taken several measures to boost its rural sector by entering into alliance with various private and non-governmental organizations to successfully execute the undertaken measures. The measures include increased public investment in rural infrastructure and agriculture, reorientation of safety nets to create better job prospects in rural areas and the strengthening of the human resource base through education, nutrition, empowerment of women and building physical infrastructure. Although the measures taken are multi-faceted and may seem theoretically effective, the initiatives have fallen well short in addressing the pressing problem Iran’s rural economy faces in the context of efficient production and marketing of high- value livestock, fruit, vegetables and fishery output (Aref &C Aref, 2011). The alienation of policy-makers from the specific nature of rural needs contributes to formulation of policies ineffective in addressing the issues at stake. In order to develop a more community-centric rural developmental perspective by optimally utilizing the natural resource repository, the Iranian government must liberalize its stringent marketing and trade policies (Aref & Araf, 2011). Resultant relaxation will encourage effective vertical co-ordination between its farm and non-farm sectors, between policy formulators and the target group. Enhanced communication across different groups is expected to facilitate increased flow of rural credit through non-banking financial intermediaries.
Apart from taking measures along physical lines, the Iranian government has also deployed technology for deeper penetration of its rural developmental efforts. Rapid development of information and communications technology (ICT), followed by easy and affordable availability of telecommunication infrastructures, have offered promising prospects to developing nations, giving them the provision to establish purposive connections across the world (Lekoko &C Semali, 2011). The Iranian government has utilized the inclusive potential of contemporary digital technologies to bring positive outcomes in the following domains:
- • Agriculture and health.
- • Infrastructure, communication and community informatics/knowledge.
- • Economic empowerment and small-scale entrepreneurship.
- • Policies, strategies and e-governance.
There are public attempts to boost the rural sector through provision for digital inclusion and the building of an informational ecosystem, where each social actor is considered to be a potential contributor to the collective knowledge pool. Much of the “ICT promise” for rural transformation has been expressed in terms of the power of information and knowledge. However, information and knowledge transactions, especially with disempowered people and groups, are a complex process (Basak et al., 2016) and not generally amenable to across- the-counter productization and monetization. Only some kinds of information — such as agriculture price information, health-related information, etc. — can be delivered usefully through a rural kiosk-based model. Most other information and knowledge transactions are much more human interaction intensive and need to be done in an altruistic and community-minded spirit. The Iranian government’s attempt to deploy technology in pursuit of social development deserves appreciation, but the initiatives often fail to make considerable impact in the absence of an empowering ecosystem to guide the marginalized target group on optimal usage of digital platforms.
India, one of the largest developing nations, has 640,000 villages, with 68.84% of the total population residing in the rural fringes (Pangannavar, 2015). The national government has taken various rural developmental measures to boost the country’s rural sector, with the comprehensive range of activities including agricultural growth, development of social and economic infrastructure, fair wages, housing, public health, education, village planning, nutrition and communication. The public means to implement the measures are primarily premised on having an integrated view of resources available and optimally utilizing the same in pursuit of concrete benefits.
A self-reliant village community has been the mission of the nation since the time of the British Raj. Even the foreign government could identify how the rural sector serves as the backbone of the economy and implemented measures — such as the Marthandam Project, the Gurgaon Experiment, the Baroda Rural Reconstruction Movement, the Firka Development Project, etc. — to enable the sector to attain workable levels of self-sufficiency through introducing community development schemes (Pangannavar, 2015). However, the distance of the governing apparatus from the rural target group significantly contributed to making the measures ineffective in attaining a self-sustaining rural economy.
The main challenge for empowering rural India post-independence was in managing transition of 80% of the rural population from a village-centric agricultural based economy to an industry-based rural economy. The structural transformation contributed to negligence towards indigenous practices, where significant numbers of indigenous practitioners left their traditional practices to earn better wages. This negligence towards indigenous practices at the cost of increasing national revenue through industry-based production was a serious threat to the emerging nation. In order to preserve its cultural supremacy, the post-independence Indian government took measures to increase efficiency in rural production. The measures undertaken included:
- • Maximization of agricultural production and growth of rural industries (both village and cottage industries).
- • Generating employment opportunities, thereby creating job prospects in the rural economy to attract younger generations to engage in rural production.
- • Providing basic infrastructural amenities to rural sectors, such as drinking water, electricity, subsidized credit facilities.
- • Enhancing local communities’ control over the rural economy and participation in decision-making process.
Although the measures taken by the Indian government for rural empowerment are multi-faceted, they have largely been committed to fighting poverty. The Self-Help Group (SHG) scheme undertaken by the government with the purpose of providing micro-credit facilities to rural Indian women primarily had a poverty eradication mindset. The measure attempted to develop the entrepreneurial capacities of rural women, thereby enabling them to become independent “bread-winners” (Kamaraj, 2009). However, although the measure had a transformatory potential, it fell short in fully utilizing the potential of the scheme for the betterment of rural community. While vocational training given to the rural women as a part of this scheme successfully imparted skills of market value to rural community, it seldom helped the community to utilize the schemes to enhance individual and collective socio-economic prospects. Moreover, non-availability of training modules in local languages often barred the target group, the majority of whom are illiterate, to fully grasp the knowledge imparted. Although the SHG scheme had a well-articulated anti-poverty mission, its non-contextual application prevented it from being an effective instrument for rural rejuvenation for poor rural households.
Apart from undertaking measures along physical lines, the Indian government also introduced rural developmental initiatives along digital lines, to have a deeper penetration. The Common Service Centre (CSC) scheme has been undertaken to align with the Indian government’s mandate of a socially, financially and digitally inclusive society (Dass Sc Bhattacherjee, 2011). Undertaken as a part of the Digital India Programme, the CSC scheme attempted to construct 100,000 service centres in remote rural areas to serve as the access points for delivery of essential public utility services, social welfare schemes, health care and financial, education and agriculture services, apart from hosting C2C (Government to Citizen) services for citizens in rural and remote areas of the country. The scheme to set up digitally enabled service centres across rural India was planned with the intention to provide rural communities access to digital infrastructure, to be used by the community for the benefit of the community. However, entrusting rolling out responsibilities to private entities led to non-involvement of local administrations and failure to attain concrete benefits. The private players, external to the setting, remained largely ineffective in mobilizing local community to utilize the digital infrastructure implanted for community benefit.
In order to have a deeper penetration, the revised version of the CSC scheme was formulated, keeping in mind community concerns (IT for Change, 2009). Although the scheme’s reformulation witnessed the incorporation of some local agencies, it could not completely distance itself from the bureaucratic nepotism intrinsic to organizational dissemination. Sporadic digital literacy training, although bringing basic technical knowledge to certain segments of the target group, was not enough to sustain the motivation of rural non-users. Lack of knowledge on how to conduct purposive activities through the digital forum prevented the rural community from reaping the fruits of digitization. Although the CSC scheme has enormous potential in ushering in rural development by digitally empowering the local community, the standardized developmental paradigm it follows restricts the scope of the scheme. Primary reliance on agency-based execution, coupled with non-contextual formulation of training modules and lack of application guidelines on how to use the digital medium to produce concrete benefits, blocked the CSC scheme from achieving holistic success.
In Pakistan, the rural economy also serves as the primary revenue generator. Pakistan has also adopted an institutional developmental model to boost its rural sector, a formal commitment taken as a part of the Social Welfare Act in 1961 (REPID, 2018). The nation saw the successive emergence of various nonprofit and private institutions committed to achieving rural empowerment. To have a grassroot impact, the public schemes encouraged collaboration between these agencies and various community-based organizations (CBOs), which employ local, rural members to bring community-driven transformation. In this context, the emergence and proliferation of a non-profit organization, Rural Empowerment and Institutional Development (REPID), since 2007 serves as a perfect example to reflect the practical operationalization of rural development in the nation. In its attempt to promote sustainable development, REPID has made alliances with several CBOs to secure deeper penetration and impact.
This alliance with more than 40 CBOs across Pakistan enabled the creation of an Economic Development Network (EDN), which targeted rural development along multi-faceted axes. The intervention genres include fostering dialogue among rural—urban communities, both inter- and intra-communitarian conflict resolution, enhancing livelihoods and human rights in local community, and promoting relief, rehabilitation, democracy and reforms. Measures have given considerable attention to the rejuvenation of primary and secondary education, protection of child and gender rights, and provisions for shelters, safe drinking water and environmental sanitation. The initiatives, while identified rural transformation as the end result, recognize national resource management and sustained human and institutional development as potential means to achieve the end. While the Pakistani scenario reflects adoption of formal attempts to initiate community-driven development by deploying several CBOs in the process of rural development, we need to remember that even such CBOs are not completely devoid of the bureaucracy organizations come with. The bureaucratic structure intrinsic to organizations fails to realize the merits of informal crowd-sourced transactions. The resultant hierarchy largely bars the crowd from being true stakeholders, thereby restricting local community participation in the process of determining the course of rural socio-economic empowerment.
Since 2011 the Internews Center for Innovation and Learning has made considerable efforts in developing nations such as Pakistan and Myanmar to improve socio-economic prospects of marginalized segments of the population by deploying technology. The initiative has attempted to build a virtual ecosystem framework, which will facilitate deeper appreciation for the dynamics, flows, networks, and communication behaviours that characterize information ecosystems in environments of change and disruption (Frohardt & Jones, 2018). The effort to create an informational ecosystem in pursuit of social development acknowledges the importance of multi-dimensional information need; its creation, distribution and ability to adapt and regenerate according to the specific context of a given situation and community.
Although the effort to achieve social development by utilizing technology in appropriate ways to develop an informational ecosystem happens to be theoretically sound, undertaking such initiatives without disseminating prior digital literacy training to the under-privileged and illiterate target group restricts the scope of such measures. Moreover, it needs to be remembered in this context that technological interventions for social transformation are more than just making people “literate” in ICT and making it accessible. Bjorn-Soren (2011) shows that there is a gap between information and communications technologies and socio-economic development. He argues that, if information is critical to development, then ICT, as a means of sharing information, is not simply a connection between people but a link in the chain of the development process itself. ICTs can enhance the functioning of markets because they can properly integrate and bind the floating market components into static contents in order to provide a sustainable model. Bjorn-Soren’s conceptualization therefore advocates in favour of the empowering credentials that the technology- induced information ecosystems should have, which is not simply derivative of providing the non-users with “access” to technology. Any technology- mediated initiative, apart from providing access to the digital medium, must also target building evaluative capacities among the target group to enable them to use the information acquired through the digital medium in pursuit of self-betterment.