Rethinking The Digital Divide
Source: Shom Teoh from The Star Intech
The Salaam Wanita experience illustrates one way of employing information and communication technology (ICT) to reduce poverty but it should not be emulated blindly, says Chong Sheau Ching who heads the support group.
Instead, she hopes that it would motivate others to review the models that have been used to bridge the digital divide locally.
“Such projects are successful when the people involved are able to utilise their newfound ICT skills and resources to improve themselves,” says Chong.
“But to achieve that, you need committed people and funding to continuously maintain the project to fruition,” says Chong,
Her call for reflection is part of an emerging consciousness among experts and practitioners in other parts of the world who are beginning to realise that using ICT for development, particularly poverty alleviation, is not a case of implanting cookie-cutter infrastructure models in impoverished areas and expecting residents to flourish economically as a consequence.
Typically launched with much fanfare, the survival of these projects often becomes an issue when funds run out and staff move on before objectives are achieved.
“There are two main issues to consider when it comes to such projects’ access and sustainability,” says Tan Jo Haan, director of the Community Communication Centre (Komas), an alternative media organisation that has trained several orang asli youth and adult community leaders in the use of the Internet and IT equipment.
So far, the two-year-old programme has been successful, and has catalysed a string of independent activities even after its completion, he said.
However, we are worried how long this can be sustained.
Once the equipment become obsolete, they will have to be replaced, but who will fund them?
Another point that is often neglected is that the activities of these projects have to be adjusted in such a way that they are meaningful and relevant to the people’s lives, thus can be easily adopted.
You cannot just import technology into a sector and expect a natural pick up. Follow up and training is vital.
“There is a thing called cultural lag which accompanies the implementation of technology,” says Dr Patricia Goon, a lecturer and researcher of communications and cultural studies from Monash University Malaysia.
Case in point in 2000, an outdoor five-station computer kiosk was set up in one of the poorest slums of New Delhi by the Indian government to provide computer access to street children.
The children were allowed to use the computers without any teachers or facilitators, based on a “minimally invasive education” concept.
Initially, the project was hailed as a major success because the children managed to teach themselves how to perform basic commands, use simple applications and browse the Internet.
However, a follow up study conducted later on by another researcher, Mark Warschauer, reported that the Internet connection at the kiosks seldom worked without proper maintenance.
Warschauer also reported that while the children did learn how to use the computers and the Internet, they could not understand English webpages and did not have proper training material in Hindi, the only language they understood.
Furthermore, the kiosks evoked animosity among some parents in the neighbourhood who felt that their children were wasting time playing with the computers instead of studying.
In Malaysia, efforts to reduce the digital inequity have had some misses amidst the hits. One of it was the computer ownership scheme implemented by the Employees Provident Funds (EPF), Bank Negara and Pos Malaysia in 2001.
Within a few months, many had abused the system by withdrawing the money for personal use and not to buy computers.
This led to the abolishment of the scheme less than a year later.
“This indicates that efforts to initiate IT literacy should come from the people,” pointed out Dr Sharifah Mariam Syed Mohammed Alhabshi of Universiti Malaya in her research paper Bridging Digital Divide in Marginalised Areas: A Focus on IT Policy, Planning and Implementation Issues in Malaysia.
Government assistance and guidance is nevertheless necessary but it cannot be regulated.
“It will be more cost effective to leave the choice of learning with the people,” wrote Sharifah, suggesting that grassroots projects that involve bottoms-up decision-making could fare better then grandiose top-down projects.
Another problematic local project was the E-Bario project started by Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS), which brought communication technologies to the Kelabit people, an ethnic tribe living in the highlands of Bario.
The availability of public telephones and Internet facilities at the “telecentre” set up under the project was extremely well received by the Kelabit community who previously had no link to the outside world.
Unfortunately, the Internet service was intermittent due to power shortage, a problem that persists till today.
This has led certain residents and observers to comment that the project should have focused on providing more phone lines, which were generally more useful for normal residents compared to Internet access.
The comments were made in view that most parts of Sarawak, including Bario, still have no access to electricity or running water.
But despite these cases, it should be noted that there have also been a number of successful projects, particularly in India and Bangladesh.
To avoid reprisals of costly mistakes, two lessons are apparent firstly, the digital divide manifests not entirely due to lack of access to technology, but is also defined by social, cultural and linguistic barriers.
And secondly, effective application of technology in any project requires careful consideration of the target group’s way of life and needs in order to facilitate adoption.