Although India has shown the way in many respects to its neighbours and other developing countries on using information and communication technologies (ICT) to empower rural people, a Sri Lankan example provides a role model for a flagship programme of the department of information technology (DIT).
Two years ago, India began implementing a common service centres project, which aims to set up 100,000 village e-kiosks by 2010.
About half of these are now on the ground but we seem to be largely failing to make them sustainable and well-capacitated.
The achievements of ITShed, based in Sri Lanka and winner of the Manthan Award last year, indicate that DIT and its national implementation partner Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Ltd (IL&FS) may need to understand last-mile issues better.
As in India, remote Sri Lankan villages suffer from a lack of access to information because of poor road and communications infrastructure hindering development and business opportunities.
Villagers don’t have access to dynamic markets, allowing middlemen to control prices. They are also not aware of good business practices and aren’t organized enough to be able to use the benefits of commerce to develop their communities.
As in India, villagers aren’t exposed to knowledge related to agricultural practices, irrigation, health, education, job markets and entertainment.
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Information and statistics about rural Sri Lanka is poor and outdated, hindering development of functional public policy and ground-based academic research. This creates difficulties in bringing in businesses as firms lack information on demographics and consumption trends.
Through ITShed, villagers get direct access to local, relevant and reliable information on markets, education and health.
Each village has a portal where information on services and products is regularly updated. This facilitates and enhances transactions, offering more choices for buyers, widening the market for sellers and documenting the village’s economic activities.
ITShed is part of the Gemidiriya Community and Livelihood Improvement Project, a 12-year development programme supported by the World Bank, designed to assist the implementation of Sri Lanka’s poverty alleviation strategy initiated in 2007. In March 2008, 15 village portals were created as a pilot.
It was decided that community information centres (CICs), equipped with computers and Internet connectivity, would be set up in each village and people from the locality would be trained to run them, upload the data and be technology mediators. Many workshops were organized to train villagers, especially the youth, in data collection, preparation of resource maps, content upload and CIC management.
Each centre was designed to work as a single and autonomous entity owned and run by the villagers.
Community-building activity and training were also designed to build awareness on issues such as entrepreneurship, cooperatives, market links, long-term development and women empowerment. Business groups were created to give farmers bargaining power.
There are about 500 CICs now, serving a couple of thousand villages, and new services are being explored such as community radio development.
A portal for each CIC to aggregate content from the villages is a part of the project. ITShed allows the use of local languages, Sinhala and Tamil, to communicate and publish information.
As the majority of the content on the Internet is in English, ITShed has also designed a translation service.
Each ITShed’s work involves at least 50% activity by women, which has been another reason for its success.
According to an internal report, it was observed that village organizations are capable of generating at least 50% of the allocated funds by way of savings, interest income, community contribution for infrastructure projects (30%), loan insurance fund and income earned by teaching Gemidiriya community-driven development to other visiting villagers. Since the earnings generated are reinvested in the village economy, the project proves its worth as a successful pro-poor rural growth strategy.
What are the lessons from ITShed? ICT tools can provide economic benefits to villagers by giving them access to the most dynamic markets.
Community building, especially cooperatives and savings groups, and training in entrepreneurship are key.
Some of these lessons can hopefully be taken on board by DIT and IL&FS.
For more details on awards and case studies, go to www.manthanaward.org
Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chairman of Manthan Award.
Mint is a partner of the Manthan Award 2009.
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