What price telecolonialism?

 

EACH year around this time it is normal for a range of statistics to be published on the old year just gone. This January is no exception, and as the economy surged ahead during 1996 many of the revelations belong to the "good news" bracket we are becoming so accustomed to hearing.

But of all recent statistics, those in a Combat Poverty study, Poverty in Rural Ireland, released just before Christmas, should perhaps leave the strongest mark. Its sobering findings confirm that 20 to 30 per cent of the population are in some sense economically poor and the majority of these - almost two thirds - live in rural areas. Despite most people associating poverty with "the mean streets and tenement blocks" in Dublin and other cities, the proportion of households below the poverty line is largest in small towns and villages and is smallest in the capital.

Little wonder, then, that those working to improve the lot of poorer rural communities do not rejoice wholeheartedly in the so called economic boom and are sceptical about claims that salvation might lie in information technology.

The rise and rise of information technology (IT) has been championed by some as a broad panacea for rural areas. IT, so the faithful would have it, allows for rural participation - through teleworking - in service industries which were previously confined to those in larger population centres.

But Trinity College sociologist James Wickham says that despite new capabilities of digital data transfer across the globe, a "fallacious conclusion is that therefore the remote areas of the country will soon be filled with happy - teleworkers." Communication technologies, he warns, can open up distant areas, but they can also empty them through centralisation of operations. "Most of our knowledge of information technology is how it impacts on society," he says. What we need to know more about is how it can be, and is, shaped by society."

My own study of a telecentre (or telecottage) within an isolated community in Donegal indicates that broad social community development is at least as important as technological progress in overall rural development.

Telecentres are generally small sites with information and communications technologies, where individuals, groups and businesses can have access to computer hire and training, photocopiers, laser printers, fax and other associated business services, which in turn makes access to information services and work possible. Telecentres, too, can be important community links in helping to increase networking, particularly among small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in rural areas, and can become nodes for more complex information distribution systems on the particular resources of local areas.

Ireland has 14, mostly rural telecentres including three in Northern Ireland (this does not include larger businesses processing, for example, insurance claims for foreign multinationals). Most telecentres are of the small, community type, employing two or fewer people and with modest, mostly local income although there are a minority with foreign or urban based clients. Because telecentres allow small, local businesses a low cost alternative to more expensive investment in some office technology, they could be expected to spread almost as fast as an Australian bushfire.

But the reality is that a far more complex set of social factors seems to determine how well they operate in a community and how much they can contribute to broad rural development. These factors include how functional the community is as a social grouping, the degree of trust and economic interdependence within it, demographics such as local population density and level of economic activity, the degree of natural competition and the social and professional abilities of telecentre employees.

Telecentres having strong links with local community and voluntary organisations and local businesses seem to have been the most successful in consolidating their positions. But in many instances the community telecentre in a low population area will require some support from central or local government and local community development groups to remain financially viable.

The question of support for telecentres is complex and controversial. Issues at the heart of this debate include:

. the telecentre's efficiency;

. job displacement;

. unfair commercial advantage over "pure" commercial ventures;

. fostering the emergence of local businesses;

. fostering rural development;

and

. devolution of power from the centre to the periphery.

There is a strong case for such support, but mostly in contracted project work form, and less as direct financial assistance, with its attendant inefficiency and "abuse" problems.

Many of the difficulties associated with starting any small business - factors concerning markets, sufficient capital and revenue, good financial control, client relationships - also beset telecentres.

Indications are that the more financially successful are those with a firm grasp of the basics of running a business. However, such telecentres are less likely to be influenced by a wider rural development remit and the "community good", and more likely to be influenced by narrower commercial reasons.

Successful "commercial" telecentre or teleworking ventures can bring gains to an area. But it would be a serious mistake to expect these and other developments made possible through the rapid evolution of IT to turn the ailing political and social economies around.

Without good political, economic and social research, strong community development initiatives and soundly thought out policies to accompany advances in IT, these areas will continue to harbour - as Combat Poverty puts it - "the invisible rural poor". In the absence of broader social and political initiatives the net effect of IT will be "telecolonialism", where it is made easier for outside interests to exploit the resources of the periphery, either by sucking out its market potential or by exploiting its skills through teleworking.