Telecentres are not “Sustainable”: Get Over It!

Posted on May 18, 2011


(These are notes for a talk to be given to an ITU sponsored workshop on Telecentre sustainability in Bangkok, May 23-25, 2011.

Almost since the very beginning of Telecentres/public access centres  the nagging from funders – mostly governments but major NGO’s as well – has been directed towards making sure that these would somehow/sometime become financially self-sustaining i.e. “sustainable”. The idea was that once the initial investment had been made – mostly in providing hardware/software and some period of supported connectivity – that Telecentres would somehow magically be able to transform themselves into “social enterprises” which could get enough revenue from their local communities to:

•Pay salaries (and benefits) to staff

• Pay rent on buildings

• Cover access charges

• Cover charges for maintenance and replacement

Given that the Telecentres were established in the first place and located where they were precisely because the local population was for the most part poor, isolated, and other wise marginalized i.e. not in a position to pay for their own computers, Internet access etc. seems to have escaped the attention of those leading the demands for “sustainability”. That this sustainability was a more or less complete pipedream which any realistic assessment of the circumstances of Telecentres would have determined seems to have been overlooked as both funders and Telecentres themselves chose to hope somehow that the future reckoning in terms of funder expectations/Telecentre commitments would never arrive.

And so Telecentres have limped along without realistic plans for the future or sufficient funding to achieve even their modest goals and funders have turned to consultant study after consultant study to find the magic formula that would take off their hands/budgets this unwelcome dependency of providing internet and computer access to those on the other side of the “Digital Divide” i.e. those who for whatever reason were unable or unwilling to provide it for themselves.

To be very clear: certainly there are publicly accessible Internet centres in very many communities in all parts of the world. The most common name for them is Cybercafes. Cybercafes provide computer/Internet access primarily to young males to fulfill various fantasies via more or less violent games and other such pursuits. That it is widely headlined that these private enterprises have little or no redeeming social value (I won’t argue this at the moment) and certainly no value from a social or economic development perspective let alone resolving issues of a Digital or a Service Divide is almost unarguable.

The broader purpose of Telecentres was and remains to add value as social initiatives by governments or others by providing free or very low cost Internet access to low income populations, in remote regions, or for those with other forms of social disability that prevent broad participation in an increasingly digital society. If governments (or others) choose to de-fund existing Telecentres on the basis that they are saving them from the evil of “dependency” (or whatever) they should know that they are choosing to penalize precisely those whom they have otherwise identified as requiring support because of their social and economic circumstances.

Governments are not only unrealistic but they are deeply hypocritical in requiring communities in which they previously made these investments because of their overall lack of resources, to somehow now come up with the resources to support these facilities. One additional observation, Telecentre funders repeatedly confuse the issue of Telecentre utilization rates with the issue of funding and sustainability.

Cybercafes have high utilization rates (or they don’t survive) precisely because they are market driven and thus provide the kinds of services on which those without significant financial responsibilities are prepared to spend their money—i.e. entertainment. Telecentres have or at least should have the mission of providing Internet enabled services and opportunities for access and use to those otherwise unable to obtain such access, make such use and thus achieve a degree of digital inclusion.

These services (which of course, will vary from locations to location) are responsibilities and goals for which government funds have been budgeted. Attempting to download responsibility and cost for the delivery of these services onto the poor and marginalized themselves – which the continuing chants for “sustainability” in fact are, is both the height of irresponsibility and the height of cynicism.

The challenge is to design and develop Telecentres which are embedded (“owned”) by local communities and which provide those communities with among other capabilities the variety of services and supports (as for example e-government, e-health, small business development and support) which they require and which otherwise, in the absence of the Telecentre, would be much less accessible and much more costly and difficult to obtain (and to deliver).