Hello Jeff & other Afrik-ITers,
(cross-posted to Acacia-L - a mailing list open to the public)
I was delighted to see your recent posting to Afrik-IT discussing issues
surrounding the community use of ICTs. I'll make some comments below, but
let me begin by strongly agreeing with your point that a focus on people
and basic development needs is both refreshing and important in an industry
where it is far too enticing to be caught up in the _technological_
(warning: long message!)
>The digital display at the Gaborone airport read 40 upon departure,
>and the temperture inside the ComAir flight to Johannesburg was
>about the same. But as the door opened, we were blasted with
>perfect South African weather, a cool breeze in the mid 20's, and a
>cloudless sky, perfect for a conference on "development
>in Africa, hosted by SANGONeT, the Southern African NGO
Glad to hear things got off to a nice start. The way things are going in
Canada right now, I'm jealous of anyone with temperatures above zero!:-)
>One of the participants characterized the communities of greatest
>interest, typified by a rural group of women. In an industry where
>conversations are so oriented around technology, it is refreshing
>to sit in a room of people who start with people, working from
>there to the technological tools that can be applied to empower
Right on. Coming from the perspective of a development assistance agency,
we often try to bridge the discussions of technology with those of
development needs and try to figure out how developments in one will impact
the other. I feel that there is plenty of room to theorize separately in
each, but those who can figure out how technology will impact needs and how
basic needs will impact the choice of technology have got their fingers on
the pulse of the future in Africa.
>Empowering communities is the goal. I suspect this goal stems
>fundamental belief in equality of opportunities.
Yes, empowering communities is the goal. And a belief in equality of
opportunities does play a part in this. But another reason for this
empowerment is as follows (not implying you said otherwise, just taking the
liberty of expanding on your excellent point):
Empowering a community to use certain tools for development (in our case
information technologies) enables that community to solve its own problems.
Something no external actor can do for them in a way that is sustainable in
the long run.
>The Internet offers
>new opportunities, but access is certainly not equitable. How can
>access be made more equitable?
>Is there a role for a non-profit (sometimes called a non-commercial)
>service provider? How can these compete in a marketplace
>increasingly dominated by for-profits?
Hmm. Don't know for sure. I can however give you an example of one
community's experience. Here in Ottawa we have the world's second largest
free-net (this is a community funded, community run electronic cnferencing
system). It is free to use and includes e-mail, newsgroups, community
information spaces, www access, etc. It is both non-profit and
non-commercial. If you talk to the ISPs around here many say that the
free-net is making it hard on them by giving away what they are trying to
sell, if you talk to the free-net they say that they are encouraging demand
among the general population for internet services (note: the free-net's
on-line community helps its own members learn about the new technologies)
The way they survive (roughly) is on user donations, massive volunteerism
to perform administrsative tasks and sponsorship from the private & public
sectors. I wonder if there's a free-net volunteer on this list that would
like to clarify this further?
The usual caveats apply. I'm talking about a large northern city as opposed
to a small southern village, the circumstances assume pervasive telecom
infrastructure, etc. But the dynamic between the free-net and ISPs I feel
can be instructive to market conditions elsewhere.
>...These communities, through their information brokers and
> intermediaries, initially were among the most empowered in the
> information age.
>The Internet offers alternatives for basic communications, and the
>communities once united on the non-profit servers are now
>electronically dispersing. Can the non-profit service providers
>find some way to reunite communities for the pursuit of equitable
>information access and other common purposes?
I'm not sure that non-profit status will make a difference in creating the
virtual communities that will abound in cyberspace. In fact I can even see
how for-profit operations could be leaders in bringing together groups of
common interest and charge a premium over run of the mill ISPs (like: "hey
I'd pay for ISP X as my provider because they make a point of carrying &
cataloguing all the info resources pertaining to my favorite topic")
On the other hand, I can easily see how non-profit service providers would
be superior agents at ensuring equitable information access to a given
_geographical_ community. because unlike commercial ISPs they do not go
after the premium client (who has the bucks and the knowledge) they
sometimes make it a point to go after the non-educated potential users who
would not be paying much for the service even once they learned about it.
>Are there equity-enhancing solutions to be found in the >marketplace?
>Some argue that a lowering of prices will increase information
>access equity, and there are various ways to do that. Others
>about ways to remove what economists might call the lumpiness of
>prices -- allowing some minimal access at a very low price (e.g.
>through a "telecenter" or "kiosk", instead of requiring everyone to
>purchase an expensive account even to view one web page.
>Must we not first determine what information content and
>most useful for disempowered communities, before deciding on the
>technology to deliver it? How can communities be empowered to
>generate and package their own content, for their own uses?
Great questions! To the first I would say 'yes!' But ever the devil's
advocate I should point again to my free-net example above. In Ottawa, the
technology was largely imported by a few dedicated indviduals and only over
time did the growing on-line community fill the space with their ideas and
In a related observation, a study on Canadian community networks being
prepared for Acacia (the initiative I'm currently working on at IDRC) may
have some interesting things to say about this. Though results are very
preliminary, there seems to be an indication that the more successful
community networks were those that limited the amount of entirely new
technologies they developed for their network. I'll post more info on this
study to this group when it becomes available.
Of course technology developed in Cincinati may have fewer cultural
reprecussions on citizens of Ottawa than they would on citizens of Sesheke,
>Today is Monday, our second full day of meetings. The conference
>ends Tuesday. I'm sure we'll have it all worked out by then. 8*)
Don't forget to tell us all what the solution is! :-)
>Jeff @ Johannesburg
Information & Communication Technologies
International Development Research Centre
(613) 236-6163 x2056
[log in to unmask]
The Acacia Initiative: www.idrc.ca/acacia