LOCAL CONTENT ON THE INTERNET: THE CHALLENGE FOR THE SOUTHParis - On the Internet, you can listen to a poem in Quechua with a translation and take a course to learn the language of these Indians of South America (http://www.andes.org). Or get an update on the fight by the Ogiek people to keep their homes in theMau Forest of Kenya where they have lived for centuries (http://www.ogiek.org).
Or look at a web page that lists more than 4,000 sites on the indigenous peoples of the Americas (http://www.nativeweb.org). By offering material that meets the needs of these communities, such sites help to overcome one of the biggest current obstacles to using the Internet as a development tool in the countries of the South - the lack of local content.
In many countries of the South, the Internet has only grown in response to business needs, which means non-profit and public service utilization is not encouraged. In rich countries, however, the Internet began as a tool created by and for scientists and was developed in early years mainly for public service purposes with substantial public support. But public service institutions in developing countries, those able to innovate and lay the foundation for the information society -- universities, research centres, libraries, museums, NGOs, local communities and government agencies - are now facing financial and regulatory obstacles.
These questions are discussed in a report produced by UNESCO for the International Telecommunication Union entitled "Public Service Applications of the Internet in Developing Countries, Promotion of Infrastructure and Use of the Internet in Developing Countries."
Content must be relevant and comprehensible to local users, the report says. This is all the more important in view of the current language barrier on the Internet, where about half the total 400 million users last year were English-speakers. But the situation is changing. It has been estimated that in 2003 two-thirds of users will be speakers of languages other than English.
In this context efforts are being made to generate local content and close the gap between rich and poor in the worldwide information society. UNESCO, for example, has produced a set of CD-ROMs with funding from the Danish aid agency Danida. Two of these, Sahel.doc and the East African Development Library, each hold more than 55,000 pages and about 600 documents with practical development information ranging from animal care, water management and AIDS prevention (firstname.lastname@example.org). All of it is free of charge and available in libraries and Internet points in a dozen African countries.
The need to encourage individuals and organizations to produce such material, or adapt material originating from elsewhere, was discussed at a meeting of NGOs invited to UNESCO Headquarters in Paris from April 22 to 23. The gathering was the second in a new series of consultations held to prepare for the Information Society summit in Geneva in 2003.
Participating NGOs called for support for local content production, better adapted to local culture and more appropiate for local use. The flow of information in the knowledge society should not only go from North to South, but also from South to North and within the South, they emphasized.
Internationalization may present a danger for cultural diversity but may help to promote local content, because it can apply to groups sharing a cultural, linguistic or geographical context, such as French-speakers (http://www.francophonie.org), who have come up with a wide range of help programmes for developing countries to encourage and ensure the presence on the Internet of French and of cultures that express themselves in French.
Instead of importing content from rich countries, it is also possible to use material produced by other developing countries willing to put it on line more cheaply for their neighbours. For example, the Indira Gandhi Open University (http://www.ignou.ac.in) offers courses to several Middle Eastern countries.
"Producing local content is essential to convince a large number of people that the Internet has an important role to play in development as an integral part of a society's public service infrastructure;" concludes the UNESCO report.
For a copy of the report, contact Grace Mensah