How CMCs use the information and communication technology
Implicit in the concept of the community multimedia centre is the notion that connectivity for development is far from being only a question of infrastructure and technology, of hardware and software. The human dimension of plans for the introduction of ICTs is especially crucial for their success in the poorest rural and urban areas of developing countries. Also implicit in the concept is the notion that ICTs need not remain the preserve of the educated and the literate: by reaching out also to the uneducated and the illiterate, the community multimedia centre becomes an inclusive, “info-rich” force for development that not only meets identified learning and information needs, but also creates a new demand for learning, information and knowledge.
The introduction of ICTs in the private sector, universities, research centres and public administrations of the developing countries can be seen as part of the effort to close the great gap in the global knowledge society that is now exacerbated by the digital divide. Their introduction in the most marginalised communities of the developing countries serves a more basic function: to bring these communities into the learning - and connected - world from which they are otherwise totally excluded. In the latter case, the aims of ICT introduction will be directly linked to local development goals such as education and health. In both cases, it is imperative to avoid the trap of seeking a technological fix that overlooks the need for well-adapted implementation. Initiatives to help the poorest countries leapfrog into ICTs must not become “dot.com white elephants”, a 21st-century echo of the many large-scale infrastructure projects that failed in the 1960s and ‘70s.
In order to avoid this trap, it is essential to consider ICTs neither as an end in themselves, nor as a solution to a problem. In the consumerist model of the industrialised countries, ICTs are predominantly consumer items, possession of which is often seen as an end in itself and, indeed, they are aggressively marketed as solutions to problems. For development, a fundamentally different model has to be established. It is a model where the remarkable new possibilities opened up by ICTs are used to meet the pre-existing needs of people as citizens rather than to meet new consumer demands triggered by the technology itself. Baseline studies, consultation and awareness-raising within the community are an essential first step to determine which services and applications will meet development needs most effectively. Even then, the potential benefits for users will depend on continued investment in training and upgrading of the skills base within the community. Community radio can be an invaluable relay for ongoing efforts to familiarise people with ICT use and ensure that ICT provision is responsive to local needs.
This approach implies that there can be no single formula for the multimedia centre, which can certainly never be defined by the technology. Rather, the community’s own needs and specific social, economic and environmental circumstances will determine the profile of the centre. In many cases, national broadcasting legislation will determine whether or not radio broadcasting is in fact possible, and Internet radio and cassette-based diffusion may be launched in countries where laws have not yet been introduced to free the airwaves. In remote, low population-density rural areas with no local suppliers or maintenance services, the technology will have to be as simple and robust as possible, while in urban communities the use of more sophisticated and sensitive equipment will be possible.
Since the people who form the local community and their needs constitute the starting point for establishing a community multimedia centre, inclusion of the most marginalised or voiceless within that community must be a key measure of the programme’s success. As ICTs increasingly impact on core social and economic activities, the fact that the poorest and most marginalised are excluded from contributing to and benefiting from them becomes an ever greater deprivation. This means that practical and pragmatic initiatives are needed to make ICTs relevant for the most marginalised. Here are two such strategies used in CMCs:
Radio Browsing of the Internet is a type of programme in which the radio presenters gather information in response to listeners’ needs and queries from reliable sites on the Internet, on CD-ROMs or other digital resources. During the programme, the presenter “visits” these pages of information on the computer screen together with a local expert (for example, a doctor for a health question) and together, they describe, explain and discuss the information directly in the languages used by the community. Radio browsing is already used in Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Nepal. It has demonstrated radio’s potential for overcoming language barriers to access, discuss, select and assimilate information available in a limited number of languages on the Internet. Moreover, being a participatory radio programme, Radio Browsing of the Internet, has taken into account the desires of rural communities to assimilate knowledge collectively as against the prevailing modality of individual access to the Internet.
Community databases for development utilise the capacity of the community collectively to produce knowledge and to package and disseminate it in an appropriate manner to meet the immediate needs and priorities of the community. Through the radio browsing programmes, the community becomes aware of the importance of online information and understand that it remains available for them to consult in the CMC. By developing a computer database, the CMC ensures that the whole community can access a pool of easily-assimilated knowledge in a language which is understandable to the community.