It is knowledge appropriate to a given context that can
empower people and facilitate greater inclusiveness.
Telecentres are a mere means of reaching knowledge to
2. Then why do people promote telecentres when other means of disseminating knowledge is already in place and serving the communities reasonably well? Yes, traditionally schools, colleges and universities have served as centres of learning. Public libraries are another form of a learning source. But these cannot reach the poor, the marginalized and the disempowered with the kind of information/knowledge that can lead them out of poverty. They are not designed to do that.
That is where community telecentres come in. Unlike educational institutions and public libraries, telecentres can handle a person’s context. The success of a community telecentre depends on how well they can deal with an individual’s need for information.
3. Why have telecentres not achieved as much as one would expect them to? Telecentres have been around for nearly two decades. But a number of them focus on the technology and providing access to technology. Such centres would at best be marginally better than Internet cafes. People and their information needs must be the focus. Technology is merely the means to deliver the information. We need it because it can help gather, process and deliver information quickly. [Actually, it can do much more]. Once the information needs of the community are assessed, and they can change over time, one needs to find the content that can satisfy those needs.
Telecentres need to work with strategic and boundary partners both to assess the information needs and to obtain the information. These partners will include experts from agricultural and veterinary universities, research laboratories, and government departments, doctors and public health officials, agricultural extension officers, banks, insurance companies, enterprise institutions, fisheries experts, and so on. A lot of building partnerships and sharing knowledge. Hard work indeed. No wonder there have been many stories of failed initiatives. The emphasis is on knowledge to be delivered. That is why we call MSSRF telecentres village knowledge centres.
4. What role does technology play? The emphasis on digital inclusion is probably a bit misinformed. The emphasis should be on knowledge inclusion and empowerment to facilitate livelihood opportunities. That is not to discount the importance of technology. When large parts of the world was going through famine and hunger it was knowledge of biology and crop science that brought about the Green Revolution and saved the lives of many. The same way, the information and communication technologies must be harnessed to the advantage of all and not just a selected few.
Different technologies – computers, Internet, cell phones, satellites, to name only a few - have been used in development initiatives. And technologies are converging, their capabilities are increasing and costs are coming down. And yet traditional technologies have not lost their rightful place. In one of the major success stories in India MSSRF Uses Internet and the public address system in tandem. Horses for courses, as they say. It is not the newness of a technology which matters. What matters is which technology is appropriate to a given situation or context.
5. What about different kinds of telecentres? Depending on who we want to reach, we can choose the model. If we want to reach the really poor, we can go in for the community telecentre model with some external financial support. If we want to reach a predominantly agricultural/ farming community, one can use pay-per-use arrangement. If the goal is to facilitate transactions with the government (e-governance), one can use again the pay-per-use model. Fee-based or free, the goal must be to provide maximum satisfaction to the user community.
6. What is the role of the government? Governments can formulate policies and legal framework that would facilitate the functioning of telecentres, as a public good initiative. In India, the government has provided free access to satellite transponders for telecentres. The only country to have done that. The government has also come forward in scaling up the existing initiatives; it is setting up more than 100,000 telecentres within the next few years. The Right to Information Act is another step taken by the Government of India that can help promote transparency and democracy.
Should telecentres be financially sustainable? Not necessarily. Every society – both individuals and governments – subsidizes health care, education, the arts, libraries and sports. Often the beneficiaries of these subsidies are people who belong to the middle class. And we should not shirk from our responsibility to support the rural poor and the disempowered. Besides, the social good that can result from well-run community telecentres far outweigh the financial costs.