Re-thinking Telecentres: A Community Informatics Approach

Posted on May 15, 2011

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The interest in Telecentres has ebbed and flowed within the broad technology stream. In Developed countries the various programs which supported the development of telecentres (called by various names in different jurisdictions) have been in considerable retreat in recent years as the initial need for access to low cost Internet access and computers has been to a very considerable extent overtaken by commercial Internet service providers and the continuing reduction in the cost of computer hardware and the availability of low cost or free software.

In Less Developed Countries (LDC’s) the situation is rather more mixed.  An initial spate of high level programs in countries such as South Africa and Brazil have foundered for various reasons but often because the sponsors of the centres have adopted a rather naïve approach to engaging the local community as “partners” if not actual “owners” of the centres.  Even where Telecentres and Telecentre programs do survive they are often plagued by low utilization and an indifferent response from the communities into which they have been inserted.

Most recently various commentators have been arguing that there is little continuing need for Telecentres even in LDC’s given the very rapid and widespread distribution of mobiles and their seeming application in various areas where Telecentres had seen their future—health, banking, governance and so on (as in mhealth, mbanking, mgovernance). The low cost and widespread availability of highly mobile netbooks and electronic tablets.

And yet, there remains–in various stages of liveliness–clusters, networks and even national programs of Telecentres in virtually all parts of the Less Developed world as evidenced by the current activities of broad Telecentre oriented NGO’s, notably Telecentre.org

An explanation is in order for the continuing interest in Telecentres by national governments and development funders.  The explanation would probably be a simple one–Telecentres appear to offer a way for funders to resolve certain of the problems which they perceive as significant from a broader national social and economic perspective. Most countries, both Developed and Less Developed, see their national economic future as somehow enabled by ICT (or perhaps to put it another, they see their future as disabled in the absence of ICT).  Further most LDC’s are predominantly rural and they recognize that ICT utilization and access (especially individual in-home access) is primarily urban and, in addition, in urban areas Internet access is also widely available through commercial cybercafes for those without their own computers.

Thus there is a perceived need to ensure that Internet access and use is made available in rural areas.  There is a second reason as well, why investment in Telecentres and Telecentre programs persists even with relatively widespread use of mobile communications including in rural areas.  Telecentres provide those concerned with Internet use and electronic service delivery, a visible point of contact in rural communities, in many cases the only such point of contact from central governments into these communities.  The joke in Telecentre circles is that government interest in a local Telecentre begins (and ends) with the photograph in the local newspaper of the Minister and the local politicians being showed how to use the machines by the local children.

Whatever the realities behind these initiatives, certainly there is a continuing interest, involvement and investment in Telecentres in very many parts of the world and the challenge of making those investments pay off through beneficial development outcomes remains. But to achieve these outcomes it is necessary to begin by recognizing the quite evident failings of the current approach to Telecentres, and as well the changed environment (particularly the mobile-enabled communications environment) in which Telecentres persist.

Telecentres initially were concerned with providing low cost widely accessible Internet access to individuals and in areas where such access was not otherwise available.  Much of the attention on Telecentres has focused on how to technically, organizationally, socially and financially provide and maintain this access.  Often growing out of, or being funded through otherwise technical programs, and being driven “from the top” or from the outside, there was a lack of strategy and skills to see the Telecentre as a “social development” program and activity and thus funders made little provision, at least at their inception, for community engagement or to ensure community ownership of the individual Telecentres.

This lack of engagement had (and continues to have) a number of negative consequences:

a. it limits the capacity of the Telecentre to engage local people as volunteers to support the activity of the Telecentre (thus limiting the possibility of long-term sustainability)

b. it limits the willingness of the local community to intervene when elements within the community look to damage (as for example through theft or vandalism) the centre

c. and perhaps most important, it cuts the Telecentre off from the opportunity to directly engage with the community in such a way as to be reshaped and evolve in response to community demand and need.

Telecentres of the kind indicated above are frozen in time and place, responding to external funders and priorities and rising or falling with the interest and continued funding and support from those outside programs.  For example, while in the current environment, there is continuing questioning of the relevance and value of Telecentres there is little effort or interest at the local level in pressuring for the continuation of Telecentres which are solely focused on providing for the waning local requirement for simple Internet access.

However, this is not to say that there is no current role for Telecentres.  The most important role in fact is what has been widely ascribed to them but seldom developed, that is as centres within communities which are enabled by and provide access to the Internet and which have the skills locally to support the local use of the Internet for a wide variety of application areas.  When seen in this way, the Telecentre becomes a key element in broader social and economic development strategies, not simply Internet-based strategies, but rather for overall functional areas which of course now include virtually all areas of practical activity, which have an Internet or ICT component.

When seen in this way, the Telecentre can become the village or community local public health facility, the local government access point, the local support centre for small business development, the local hub for tutoring and after-hours educational support for school children and so on.

The key element in this rethinking is that the sponsor and the local community work together to identify those application and functionality areas which are of interest to and would benefit the local community. As well, engaging the local community in an actual organizational partnership (as for example through a local community association or local government) to provide resources for the Telecentre and as well develop a plan for linking the Telecentre more directly into the community through enabling and encouraging voluntary participation and contributions.

Necessary to this is to recognize that the Telecentre is fulfilling the objectives of both the local residents and supporting the broader goals of the Telecentre sponsor/funder.  In very many cases these mutually derived goals will link into existing government funding programs (for example in health, education, or small business development) and thus would possibly be eligible for on-going program funding which in turn would relieve the local community of the necessity for taking on sole responsibility for the Telecentre’s continuing financial and organizational sustainability.  By ensuring financial continuity of the Telecentre in this way longer term organizational, management, staffing and volunteering plans can also be made which in turn supports the social sustainability of the centre.

This is an adaptation of an address given to an event hosted by the ITU/UUM in Kedah, Malaysia 16.06.21 Additional thoughts on this subject can be found in my discussion of “Next Generation Telecentres”.

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