Rural Telecenters- What Works, And What Doesn’t?

In Richard Heek’s ICT4D Manifesto, he describes how rural telecenters became “the archetype” of the ICT4D 1.0 movement of the 1990’s and 2000’s. Tried and proven successful in North America and Europe in the 80’s, they were attractive to the West for multiple reasons: they were simple to install, they directly delivered services to the poor, and they were tangible projects in poverty-stricken communities. Yet Heeks is quick to point out that they were inherently flawed from their inception. They were unsustainable over the long term, as they fell into disrepair and qualified maintenance professionals were hard to find. They had limited reach, as they were only accessible to those in walking distance and could not be used by many in the community. Finally, monitoring and evaluation were overlooked, and those stories that were successful were over emphasized to the detriment of those telecenters that did not find the same outcome. Given these systematic failures Heek’s description of ICT4D 2.0 leaves rural telecenters out entirely as he strives to detail projects that are less inherently flawed.

During a search of Heek’s manifesto bibliography, I was led to an publication that offered an alternative to a localized rural telecenters. The newsletter, published by a id21.org, described a project known as “Mobile Ladies” that is active in rural Bangladesh. In 2004 in Dhaka, the Development Research Network established a Rural Information Helpline that linked rural villagers to internet- connected responders to which they could give “common livelihood” queries. However, as 20% of the country still did not have mobile telephone coverage, millions of people could not access the Helpline. Thus ‘Mobile Ladies’ was formed, an initiative that employs village women by giving them a special cell phone so that they can listen to their neighbor’s issues and advise them on possible solutions within several days. According to id21, over 1/2 of the cases are health- related, and other inquires are related to agriculture, human rights issues (including legal advice in cases of rape, physical assault, or dowries), and education. Statistics reveal that 80% of those served are satisfied with the information they receive, 36% of the beneficiaries are housewives, and 89,000 women could potentially be employed by the project. Mobile Ladies also upholds a ‘no exclusion’ policy so that every villager can access the telecenter regardless of their caste, literacy, gender, or physical status, a vital approach in communities where many are marginalized on the basis of these characteristics.

Case studies from Bangladesh offer personal accounts of how Mobile Ladies has provided villagers with vital information that they otherwise would have been unable to obtain. The project has its flaws, however. It is expensive, and it is difficult to monitor the Mobile ladies themselves. Information can be lost in translation, and it is hard for the poor to turn it into action when they lack even the most basic of resources. However, with research I found that Mobile Ladies has adapted to changing trends in technology by offering social media and skype connections to their clients, revealing how the project is making strides towards sustainability as the first world innovations widen the digital gap. Mobile Ladies does not improve infrastructure or establish the backwards linkages and processes Heeks calls for in his manifesto, but its ability to acquaint rural villagers with modern technology and to provide hundreds of women with pay checks makes it an intriguing developmental tactic. Mobile Ladies provides a buffer against the widening gap as Bangladesh tries to catch up and ensures that some of their poorest citizens are able to benefit from ICT.

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2 responses to “Rural Telecenters- What Works, And What Doesn’t?

  • areed2014

    I enjoyed reading your blog post on the subject of telecenters because you were able to capture the complexity of the problems that stem from modelling technological development initiatives after Western-based successes accrued during past generations. That being said, I am glad that you were also able to find a morphed model with the example of Mobile Ladies. What I find most intriguing about this organization is that they were able to take a systemically flawed concept of a telecenter, adapt and reshape it, and create a working telecommunication model that fits their lives, culture, geography, and community. More so, the fact that they are able to make their communication more equitable through the use of a no exclusion policy provides a wonderful example for how ICT4D has the potential to shift power dynamics and open up a space that lessens inequality.

  • briannasteinmetz

    Mobile Ladies is definitely an innovative twist on telecenters that uses existing technology to increase the spread of knowledge. I think this is probably one of the best examples illustrating the concepts of a people-centered, demand driven project. This project not only improves the lives of people in Bangladesh, but also slightly minimizes the digital divide as its target population are people who lack the technology. The one major concern I have stems from the issue of privacy. Privacy is a growing issue in ICT4D and with this program the person has to ask a question to the people with the cell phones and then wait for the answer. Besides the obvious issue of miscommunication, individuals may be less likely to ask certain questions due to embarrassment or stigmas surrounding certain issues. Since it is not anonymous, the workers of Mobile Ladies must keep the information confidential.

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