Community Networks in Developing Countries
The development and use of Information and Communication Technologies have brought about tremendous benefits (social and economic) to the people living in nations that are actively participating in them. Sadly, however, most people, especially, those living in developing countries are being excluded from participating not because they do not want to, but because they do not have what it takes (skills, knowledge, and resources) to participate. This, in my humble opinion, calls for urgent attention and action, similar to how the HIV/ AIDS issue is being addressed.
Huge sums of money are being spent yearly by world bodies like the United Nations, IMF, World Bank, etc., and nation states to combat poverty, hunger and disease. There seem to be very little impact made on the lives of the ordinary people who are being affected by these events. This, in my opinion, is because the fundamental issues are not being addressed. In most cases these people lack opportunities in terms of education, jobs, etc. Therefore these attempts to help only succeed to feed them, for the moment, but not to help them to learn to feed themselves (be self-reliant) without relying on their benefactors. These communities therefore need something that will help them to engage, develop and tap the potential of everybody to build a sustainable future whereby there will be no need to totally rely on others for basic sustenance.
According to Schuler (1996), "Community networks are an attempt to use computer network technology to address the needs of a community. A major part of that effort is spent making computing facilities available to everybody in the community, especially, those without ready access to the technology."
Many agree that "there is no such thing as a poor community. Even neighbourhoods without much money have substantial human resources. Often, however, the human resources are not appreciated or utilized, partly because people do not have information about each other and about what their neighbourhood have to offer". - Resnick and King (1990).
In most developing countries physically challenged people (cripples, blind men/ women, amputees, for example, are only good for begging, at least that is what their circumstances force them to be. This is a very sad state of affair in that these under-privileged brothers and sisters could otherwise have become Doctors, Lawyers, Researchers, Lecturers, Architects, Designers, Computer Scientists, Social Scientists, etc. How can we harness computer technology to the advantage of all? We can address this by taking pragmatic steps to ensure that no one (male or female, strong or weak, rich or poor, young or old, etc.) is left out of the game. Disabled people will no longer be cut off from opportunities when computers and Internet are accessible to them. They can access educational opportunities and resources online. It would also be possible for them to connect to people in similar circumstances within and outside their communities and share experiences.
One of the most nagging problems facing developing countries is rural-urban migration and brain drain. The rural communities are not attractive to the youth owing largely to lack of opportunities (good schools, good jobs, health care, recreation, etc.). Workers (doctors, nurses, teachers, etc.) are reluctant to take up appointments when posted to such communities. Those who brave the odds and go get frustrated by the system and eventually leave. At the national level, developing countries are again faced with the problem of brain drain. The trained and skilled work force find it conducive "fleeing" to developed countries largely in search of better opportunities. Community networks if carefully planned and implemented, have the potential of curbing this worrying trend.
The United Nations and other organisations have embarked on several projects aimed at bringing ICT to citizens of developing countries. The government of Ghana, for instance, (as well as governments in developing countries) recognises the importance of ICT to national development. However, years after Ghana's ICT policy implementation we are yet to realise concrete gains at the grassroots.
Students, even at the tertiary level, do not have access to computers and therefore we cannot talk about Internet access to any significant degree. The "Computer room" is still part of our vocabulary and these "rooms" are treated like "shrines" which have to be visited at scheduled times during the academic semester or year, depending on which course you are on. Computer contact for students is treated more or less as part of a module of an academic course. Students still access both computers and the Internet through privately owned Internet cafes on campuses for a fee. The fees are such that they cannot spend quality time on the Internet (sometimes so irritatingly slow). Students even get charged to use Microsoft applications like Word. Sometimes the cafes charge students for "value-added" services like typing out documents in Word and Excel and also doing graphs in Excel where the student does not know how to use the particular application.
Setting up Community Networks as a tool to facilitating national development should be critically regarded by governments of developing countries as well as international funding agencies/ institutions concerned about economic and social development in developing countries. Citizens of developing countries would have the option to remain in their own countries and still pursue foreign degrees through distant learning. The current situation is that because there are limited higher education opportunities in developing countries, most people are forced to travel to developing countries for further studies where they are made to pay exorbitant fees. Most students from developing countries studying abroad have to endure harsh economic conditions despite their restricted circumstances as international students.
Community Networks hold the key to national development because they can be used to:
- facilitate the transfer of knowledge;
- foster exchange of information and ideas;
- empower civil society and engender good and democratic governance;
- foster and deepen formal and informal learning;
- create awareness of community opportunities and potentials;
- enhance the interaction of the community with the outside world;
- market the community and its potentials to the outside world;
- foster the convergence of community efforts, etc.
Also, community networks, in my opinion, is one of the most pragmatic approaches to bridging the digital divide.
Integrating Community Networks into the Given Communities
The objective of setting up any community network cannot be said to have been realized unless it is truly accessible to all within the community, regardless of race, color, age, level of education, social status, physical ability, income level, etc.
Community networks cannot work in isolation of other activities going on within the communities they are found. They need to be linked to, for instance, the economic, social, cultural, political, and religious activities to sustain the interest and patronage of the community participants.
Governments in developing countries
should, as a matter of urgency, embark on an exercise to make
computers and Internet freely and publicly accessible at
certain key centres within any given community.
Governments should also ensure that
certain basic community services and information are available
and accessible publicly via the Internet.
These two broad objectives can be achieved by the following:
i. Each identifiable sub-community (e.g., electoral zone) should have a public library equipped with computers with Internet access;
ii. Equipping all public libraries with computers and making sure that these computers are connected to the Internet;
iii. Equipping all school libraries (primary to tertiary) with computers with Internet connections;
iv. Ensuring that all teachers and lecturers are accessible via e-mail (at least Staff Common Rooms should be provide with computers that are connected to Internet;
v. Ensuring all course related material or information is available on the Internet;
vi. There should be computer pools with Internet access open 24 hours on university campuses;
vii. Public institutions like hospitals and clinics should be accessible via the Internet and patients should be able to alternatively consult their Doctors via the Internet and book appointments
Operational Policies for Community Access Centres
- Advanced booking policy - people can walk in to use the systems however priority should be given to those who have booked in advance where they are fewer computers than users at any given time.
- Members of that given community must be registered before they can use the system however a guest account should be created for non-community members.
Maximum usage time allocation - to
ensure fair use when there are more people than computers at
any given time.
Every effort must also be made to sustain community networks after they have been successfully implemented.
- Schuler, D. (1996) New Community Networks: Wired for Change. Addison-Wesley
- Resnick, P and King M. (1990) The Rainbow Pages - Building Communities with Voice Technology.