ICTs: Bridging the digital divide
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Waiswa, Vincent. 2006. ICTs: Bridging the digital divide. Spore 123. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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Information and communication technologies (ICTs) offer real hope for improving the lives of communities in ACP countries (...). But more research and groundwork are needed if the full potential of these new technologies is to be realised.
Information and communication technologies (ICTs) offer real hope for improving the lives of communities in ACP countries, producing practical solutions to a whole range of problems. But more research and groundwork are needed if the full potential of these new technologies is to be realised. Here at Bridges.org, we have developed a model that seeks to assure the success of ICTs in bearing upon the problems of inequity in the world. We believe ICTs can reward those who use them well, with increased income, a better quality of life, and a number of cultural and political advantages. Those who do not use them find themselves being left behind, and ICT disparities exacerbate existing inequities. Often, however, ICTs fail to deliver on this potential. That is because many initiatives lack any real grounding in ICT and fail to integrate and use it effectively. In Africa, basic communication services like telephone lines are lacking for the majority of rural folk. Yet all the indications are that access to basic technologies such as the radio and telephone, not to mention the internet, have the potential to transform the lives of rural dwellers in a wide range of areas agriculture, health, education, and many others. But development initiatives have often failed to provide sustainable, replicable models for community ICT use, and often blunder with top-down approaches that are not based on the needs, interests, and active direction or even participation of local residents. A realistic model is needed therefore, to overcome the key obstacles to delivering ICT-enabled development at ground level. What really works At Bridges.org, we have examined what works, and what does not work and why. We have built on our own experience and the thinking of a number of other organisations to design our Real Access/Real Impact (RA/RI) strategy. This framework sets out the determining factors in deciding whether or not there is real access to ICT access that goes beyond computers and connections so that use of technology makes a real impact on socio-economic development. It is important to use technology in the appropriate way. For instance, one of our projects, Collecting and Exchange of Local Agricultural Content (CELAC) has established community knowledge brokers who receive a short messaging service (SMS) every Monday on 'how to guides in their local languages. These guides range from how to plant maize and prepare fertilisation beds to breeding birds or animals. The system works because a good number of people in rural areas have mobile phones. But it would not work using email, because rural dwellers tend not to use the internet, due to various barriers such as training and maintenance costs. High-tech for farmers We have already used this framework in a number of contexts at various levels, from the grassroots to high-level policy deliberations. For example, we used it to evaluate a pilot project to test the use of personal digital assistants (PDAs) in healthcare environments in three African countries Ghana, Kenya and Uganda. The initiative put PDAs in the hands of physicians, medical officers and medical students in order to demonstrate their viability and usefulness in collection of health data and dissemination of medical information. In Uganda, the methodology has been used in a project, which collects and disseminates local information among farmers in rural areas. The farmers are able to take part in generating and sharing information using a mix of methods, including knowledge sharing forums and fairs, mobile phones, radio, DVDs and radio cassettes, newsletters, brochures and the internet. Ownership of the project has largely been placed in the hands of the beneficiaries, and the technologies and the information are tailored according to the realities in the rural areas. Weighing up the pros and cons We are also collaborating with the Broadband Applications Networking Group (BANG) a group of students pursuing Master's and PhD studies in computer science at the University of the Western Cape and the University of Cape Town (South Africa) to connect computer science research in Africa with real community needs and ICT policy-making processes. Our work is shaped by our 12 Habits of Highly Effective ICT-Enabled Development Initiatives. These are guidelines which help get ICT initiatives off to a good start by doing some homework, looking at what has worked and what has not worked, and then building on what has been learnt. For example, if an initiative seeks to implement short-range wireless Internet connection for healthcare in a rural community in South Africa and this has not been done before, then we suggest that the project leaders start by studying the implementation of wireless fidelity (WiFi) in another African country, or in any rural setting beyond Africa, as well as looking at projects that are using a different technology for healthcare in rural South Africa. That way, they can see what the options are, as well as some of the potential pitfalls, before plunging in with their own ICT venture. And the chances of it succeeding will therefore be far greater. Email:email@example.com
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