Frank Elbers writes to me privately:
> Today Adrian Labor of IDRC/Unganisha project posted a message on
> ICT Help Desks in Africa (it was crossposted on AFRIK-IT)....
> I would like to invite you to respond to Adrian's message.
OK. One of Adrian's questions was this:
> Can ICT Helpdesks become an integral part of a Next Generation
> Internet Development Support for African development practitioners
> sponsored by International Organizations (IOs)?
That's a complex question with many terms requiring definitional
discussion. And it's somewhat of a a "big picture" question.
Perhaps it will suffice to say that my own motivation for supporting
help desks of the type we've developed is simply to address an
immediate, practical need, but in a manner that I hope will prove
more generally helpful.
USAID is, for example, supporting agricultural research. In some
cases it is paying people to undertake specific research. In others
it is providing equipment and other facilities to help researchers
do their jobs better. Internetworking is seen as one of those
facilities to help people do their research better. If these
scientists can test and then disseminate more disease-resistant
seeds, for example, perhaps farmer incomes will increase.
Scientists sharing information among themselves within a region,
using the Internet, might be a way to improve research.
This is a fairly new technology in many areas, and it has in many
cases yet to be integrated effectively into the operations of
regional scientific networks. For example, I've seen some
organizations using email just like a fax machine, parked behind a
secretary's desk, requiring approval from a director before a message
can be sent, using the secretary as typist rather than having
scientists type messages directly. This is probably a bad idea
generally, though internal funding problems sometimes makes it
necessary. I think I understand why organizations do it, but we're
trying to encourage the use of direct-access computer rooms, if not
desktop email where affordable.
There's general agreement among my African partners that some kind of
technical and programmatic facilitation is necessary, at least for
awhile until organizational structures catch up with the technology.
Help desks are one form of facilitation. We're also looking at
others, and in fact we'll be having a little meeting in Entebbe in a
couple of weeks to talk with African network leaders about just this
Help desks as we've construed them are really to facilitate
connectivity as opposed to networking, the former having more to do
with physical links, and the latter focusing more on how information
is generated and shared. Our twist (IDRC's Unganisha and USAID's
AfricaLink) on help desks is that we're convinced that technical
connectivity support should not come from consultants in Washington
or Ottawa, but should instead be sourced as locally as possible.
My first thought on this subject some years ago was that Internet
service providers themselves would provide help-desk support as part
of their subscription service. This is often the case, and
certainly it is the ISP that should provide front-line support for
connectivity. This is adequate in the vast majority of cases, and
we've been quite pleased with results.
[By way of background, one proposal when I was hired some years ago
was that I would run an ISP from Washington. I am pleased that
instead we've developed a program that relies heavily on African
Unfortunately, we run into a few cases where our partners in
Africa have connectivity problems despite the best efforts of ISPs.
Often these problems have little if anything to do with ISPs. We see
occasional problems with phone lines, problems with money, problems
with lack of interest on the part of our partners to use email,
problems with scientists who cannot type, and so on ad infinitum.
Unfortunately, all these types of problems tend to manifest
themselves the same way: no emails from the affected party. It is
often only when we travel to Africa that we discern the precise
nature of the problem. We'd like to limit that travel, but we'd
still like someone to help us figure out why certain scientists have
trouble with their Internet access.
Hence the idea to fund help desks, to provide a bit more technical
support whenever it is necessary for effective connectivity. We're
also hopeful that by funding help desks in this manner, we help
support an African customer-service industry, and we encourage other
donors to do the same.
Adrian asks lots of interesting questions. Perhaps the above
discussion answers some of them.
Jeff @ Maputo
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