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     Volume 4 Issue 58 | August 12 , 2005 |

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IT in the Hinterland

Kavita Charanji

The right to information, particularly in our villages, is the need of the hour--be it on issues such as the government, the private sector, education, health, agriculture, community, environment and even job opportunities and marketing. Until recently, such information was available only in cities and major districts. Today the concept of computer and Internet facilities in rural areas has made this an idea whose time has clearly come. Development practitioners firmly believe that Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can radically transform the lives of the rural poor and thereby enable them to combat poverty and hunger.

The window to information, it is believed, should be open to our villages as they constitute 80 percent of the population of Bangladesh. Nazneen Sultana, managing director of Grameen Communications, points out: "The company aims to meet the challenge of the new century and expand the computer technology at the grassroots level. Grameen Communications has undertaken the Village Computer and Internet Programme (VCIP). The programme operates at the Madhupur sub-district around 160km from Dhaka."

The VCIP provides ICT-based services to the rural population in the sub-district such as basic training, Internet browsing, e-mail, information services, local Internet Service Provider, word processing and printing as well as a digital photo lab.

Grameen Communications has another rural ICT project called Grameen Digital Centre (GDC) Mirzapur. The focus of the project is to provide Internet service through dial-up and broadband connectivity by telephone line and ADSL modem. The company has 16 dedicated subscribers and other people frequently come to the centre for browsing, e-mail, online conversation. Major clients are Bharateshwari Homes Institute, UNICEF local office, ICDDR, B local office and small agro-based business entitities.

The second part of the project is a training programme in computers, operating system, internet, MS Word, MS Excel and others.

Based on the Mirzapur project, Grameen Communications will provide Internet facilities to the remote rural areas through wireless technology by establishing Internet Village Kiosks for Grameen Bank members. Another plan is to launch a tele-medicine project to connect the well-known Kumudini hospital (in Tangail zone) with the hospitals in Dhaka, Rajshahi and Chittagong and thereby provide people better medical support.

The company has computerised 1,305 of its 1,537 branch offices. With an increase in branches every month, computerisation is a long -- drawn process. However, as Dipal C Barua, deputy managing director of Grameen Bank asserts, "The aim is to do everything by computers so that we can save time, energy and money. Consequently, our people have more time to interact with the borrowers at the grassroots levels. In studies we found that 50 per cent of the branch level staff's time can be saved with computerisation."

Likewise, there are other players such as BRAC and the less known UnnayanNet. These organisations adopt different paths -- BRAC, for instance, targets children, adolescents, youth and adults, particularly women, with IT and its various applications by providing computers to its "Gonokendros" (community centres). Up to March, 100 out of 900 had computers.

A unique aspect of BRAC's IT initiative is to provide extensive residential training to local librarians (of whom 93 percent are women). Arif Anwar, unit manager for MIS, Communications and Monitoring, BRAC Education Programme (BEP) says, "The librarians subsequently train children, students and adults in their own communities on basic computer operations. Not only does this empower the mostly female librarians but also their communities, who take pride in the fact that they are being trained by local people."

IT has wrought radical changes in BRAC's 44 regional offices (RO). Earlier the ROs would send their paper work to the head office, which in turn would enter the data by hand. Today they are entering it at the regional office level and sending the electronic version to the head office.

Another organisation in the field is UnnayanNet, a non-profit organisation that works to give the ownership of modern information and technology to the majority, especially the rural poor by solving the digital divide and poverty alleviation. According to a write-up by Shahjahan Siraj, the initiator and chief executive of UnnayanNet, " By using the ICT and web applications villagers can get a lot of benefits. Village artisans and producers will get access to global markets as well as city markets without exploitation by middlemen. They will be able to check current market prices. Cyber-kiosks can be an e-post office for the e-mail networking, as all villages don't have computers for e-mail. From e-public services villagers will get benefits from government services such as citizen's rights information, getting driving licenses, passports, online voting, banking and transportation."

Not everybody espouses the idea of Internet cafes at the rural level. According to some development practitioners, the concept is impractical because a first necessity is the necessary support infrastructure such as electricity and Internet access.

There's still a long way to go, says Anwar. In his view, "BRAC is at a nascent stage. Even though we have computers in most of our libraries, only one or two have Internet access. Making a very cautious prediction, in five years, I see 10 percent of our regional offices as having Internet access."

Some of the benefits of ICT, however, have percolated down to the grassroots level, Grameen has trained around 500 boys and girls from rural areas in computers. This number is likely to increase every day because the organisation is constantly opening more branches and seeks to set up more information centres. The whole computerisation programme is being implemented by Grameen Communications through 140 information centres.

For BRAC, there are other positives. One obvious change wrought by IT is the opening up of opportunities for rural adolescents. Rather than just going for early marriage, many have attained a sense of worth and opted to join the workforce.

The slow but steady steps in bringing ICT to the grassroots are likely to gain momentum. And ahead of the pack will be the NGOs who have already unveiled their hopes and aspirations of computerisation at the village level.

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