Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Ringing the Changes: Some Impacts of the Telecommunications Revolution in Pacific Villages

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Ringing the Changes: Some Impacts of the Telecommunications Revolution in Pacific Villages

Article excerpt


Developments in ICT1 are at once requirements of, and vehicles for, globalisation. This is not new: advances in postal systems and, later, wireless telegraphy underpinned earlier phases of globalisation. What is new is the pace of technological developments and the speeds at which these are becoming available to large parts of the planet's population at steadily falling prices. This is particularly true of the so-called 'third world' where, until relatively recently, telephones were available only to urban elites. Now multinational corporations compete with one another to secure footholds in these huge largely untapped markets for new services. This has led to the extension of services to rural populations, falling access prices and broad and rapid uptake among large new customer bases.

The growing importance of this revolution has been recognised by social scientists and is increasingly reflected in the growing body of research on the impacts of telecommunication on the economies, politics, and cultures of the societies of the 'third world'. Developments in telecommunications are transforming the island Pacific in ways which could not have been contemplated even 15 years ago. The first part of this article summarises some strengths and weaknesses in the literature. The second part addresses some of these gaps. The final and most important section sets out to forecast some of the longer term impacts on the societies and cultures of Oceania.

The Literature

Much of the research literature on the impact of telecommunications on social and economic development has been generated by, or for, the World Bank which has both funded the development of telecommunication systems and evaluated their impacts throughout the world since the early 1970s. The World Bank's interest can be traced to the early 1970s when it began to consider the role of telecommunications in economic growth and development (World Bank, 1971). The literature throughout the period since reflects the agency's primary interest in economic impacts, but also reflects an evolving understanding of the role and impact of telecommunications in social development and political transformation.

In 1971, the World Bank was considering the role of telephone systems alongside personal meetings and postal services as vehicles for communication and growth and reflected a very limited, and primarily economic, role of communication. The 1971 report concluded that:

Telephones provide amenities which some would regard as of questionable priority in poor countries; these amenities, however, are a by-product of the important economic service provided by a good telecommunication system. Telephone facilities in developing countries are useful mainly for government, business and professional purpose (1971: 6).

By 1995, while the World Bank's policy on development-oriented infrastructure remained firmly focused on the economic benefits of privatisation and deregulation of telecommunications, its interests now included increasing the availability and reducing the cost of ICT in the third world (World Bank, 1995) and reflected its growing appreciation of the social development possibilities and its new emphasis on improved governance. The Report reflected its view of the rapidly expanding role and constituency for ICT and concluded that, 'Governments, enterprises, civil society, workers, and poor populations in the developing countries need more affordable access ' (1995: 1).

While the Bank's emphasis on the connection between telecommunications and economic growth remained central (Kenny et al., 2003) its interests in social and political impacts also continued to evolve and reflected its emerging interests in social inclusion and poverty reduction (Dymond et al., 2002). In a major appraisal of it's, by now, considerable experience (World Bank, 2006), the Bank's ICT policy reflected its new interest in poverty reduction where it noted:

It has become a powerful tool for participating in the global economy and for offering new opportunities for development efforts. …

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