TR: What exactly do you need to find out?
KENISTON: There should be two aspects to such a study: impact and sustainability. To study the impact, one should not just ask questions but live in the villages, and talk to everyone from the outcasts to the Brahmins. We also need to take a very hard look at sustainability and understand what are the expenses in building, maintaining, and sustaining the infrastructure. What are the possible sources of revenue? We know that if you pour enough money, you will be successful. But NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] get tired of pouring money, and they eventually pull out.TR: How might these kiosks generate revenue?
KENISTON: One positive example is that of using the kiosks to teach children computers. This has made some money for the kiosk operators.
TR: What do you think are among the best implementations of ICT4 development?
KENISTON: In India, everyone talks of computerizing land records. The lives of 700 million people are connected in some way or other to land. In this, the Bhoomi project in the state of Karnataka really stands out-it has comprehensively computerized land records. Rajiv Chawla, who headed the project, has been articulate and creative in the way he has gone about it. He deserves every prize he can get. Chawla enlisted an army of people to check and recheck the records-some of them illegible, some of them in ancient Kannada, some on bad paper that’s falling apart, and some of them contested.
TR: In your travels around India studying ICT4D projects, what one memory stands out?
KENISTON: I visited one place where there was supposed to be an information kiosk, but wasn’t. This was a place where 70 percent of the population lived below the poverty line and the literacy levels for men were around 30 percent. The area had suffered three successive years of drought, and there was just one brick building with two rooms and no windows. One room was full of children from the second to the fourth standard. In the other room were groups of 8 to ten people. Seven groups were women, and two groups were men. This was a place where the government had work-for-food programs running and the parents had to decide who gets to eat the next day. The children were thin and undernourished. First the men started talking, and then the women spoke, and they were critical of the men. The women were very articulate. What stood out was their determination to ensure that the next generation could read and write.
TR: What lessons could one take from the ICT4D projects in India?
KENISTON: My fear is that ICT4D could become one of the development fads that follow the boom and bust cycle. One fad was modernization (now called development) that gave us big dams like the Three Gorges and the Narmada dams. These are probably the last of the big dams we will ever see. Another was that of sending tractors to Africa. Five years later we saw pictures of them rusting because there was no infrastructure to support them. Billions of dollars are being spent on ICT4D-but if it crashes, people may feel that the money is better spent on something else. To prevent that we need to know what works and what doesn’t work, how costly it is, and who can pay for it.