Can Information & Services Centers Guarantee RTI?
In this era communities are becoming ever more subject to external forces having little or no control. Policies and regulations- national, regional and sometimes global are guided- even drafted- by global development partners with inadequate local sharing- not taking into account ground realities and most importantly not from the human rights perspective. About one fifth if not more of its rural households in Bangladesh still cannot have 'full three meals' a day. In many social indicators countries are gradually improving but none managed to reach the essential level.
This growing inequality may be decreased primarily by ensuring people's access to information. Information flow can mobilize people and promote their voice. Information & Services Centers can gradually increase people's access to technology and its usage to join the knowledge economy on their own terms and build a network supplementing-supporting each other around the region- utilizing technology to improve their livelihood opportunities- their empowerment. Development Research Network (D.Net) a non-profit organization in Bangladesh successfully used the concept of using the technology of the cellular mobile phone as an effective medium in their Pallitathya Kendra (Village Information Centre) project to take information to the poor bridging the gap between information providers and the target beneficiaries. Dwellers of remote villages can also use the 'help-line' service to disseminate urgent information during times of emergency, such as sudden outbreak of a disease, incidence of a crime or violation of human rights.
Weak information flows and poor communications infrastructure constitute one of the major impediments to sustainable economic growth in developing countries. Lack of information, and thus lack of transparency, weaken the responsiveness and accountability of government institutions and create an environment where corruption can flourish. Establishing multipurpose Information & Services Centers at local government institutions in the rural areas at the initiative of government and NGOs and private sector institutions can be one of the most viable options for the meeting information needs of rural poor.
Given the multiple constraints they face, the poor are either unable to meet these needs, or must do so in costly ways that may perpetuate their disadvantaged position. In agriculture sector information such as information about seeds followed by insecticides, production method and fertilizer seems very essential for the community. Health is another important issue where different types of information are demanded. Major information regarding health sought by community people includes primary health care, availability of doctors, family planning, vaccination, safe maternity, sanitation and medication and so on. About law and human rights major information sought by the community are early marriage and dowry, land related laws, women's rights and robbery.
ICT and particularly the internet, are transforming all human activities dependent on information, including rural development. ICTs present new opportunities for individuals and communities to be not only consumers but also producers of information. Through media convergence, ICTs can also build on and integrate the capacities of other media (e.g. radio and television). Information & Services Centers are one of the most rapidly growing applications of ICTs in the developing world. Their rationale lies in shared-access models that allow provision of a wide range of services to more users at lower cost than privately-owned home or office computers which are often out of financial reach of poor people.
Current discourse of Information & Services Centers are taking two predominant shapes a) a centre (physical place) which provides shared access to information (mostly through Internet) and the other stream is b) services (not a place) provides the source (and as one can argue destination) of information that are relevant, readily accessible and comprehensible by the mass. At present there are over 5000 Information & Services Centers through out the country. The Local Government Division initiated Union Information & Services Centers (UISCs) in all 4501 union parishads. Notable among the other initiators are: Grameen Phone-Community Information Centre (GP-CIC), D.Net, Alokito Gram, Ghat, Speed Trust, Youth Power in Social Action (YPSA), Amader Gram, Practical Action, Grameen Telecom, Dhaka Ahsania Mission (DAM) and so on. In different names and forms they are spreading all around the country with news concepts.
At Union Parishad Information & Services Centers can be used as data reservoir containing all household data of the locality, basic information of socio-economic status of the citizens, the conditions of the society and basic data on geography, culture, heritage, local resources and local governance issues. The database can be used as a useful tool for disseminating the basic information of Union, Ward, Village and Household. This database can start off preserving household information. It can proceed by preserving aggregated data of village, then ward and finally union as a whole. This database can be useful for the Parishad as well as policy planners to make need-based planning while undertaking development projects at the local level.
This could be a good opportunity for the government of Bangladesh and others to introduce e-Government at LGIs to strengthen their capacity. ICTs can support the UPs to perform these civic functions like informing people about the services, setting up web notice board that will include all the relevant UP information like budget allocation or block grant for the UP for a year, the area covered under the UP, new development schemes; preserve all information about local people and resources through database, relief and VGA distribution, birth and death registration etc. Revenue and administrative services like maintenance of file, book keeping, tax collection etc.
Existing legal framework- which is based on the region's colonial past should be reviewed and updated- ensuring peoples' access to information- access to basic needs services. For example, review present regulations of telecom governance so that it can guarantee coverage of telecommunication, at low cost and available to everyone. Similarly, the Bangladesh ICT Policy 2009 and ICT Act of 2009 with the RTI act of 2009 are the three key sources, allowing delivery of financial and critical basic needs services utilizing digital means and modern technologies. Global norms should also be reviewed together these two acts which will build the framework for e-Governance following to e-Development- resulting development in the region.
The design of legal instruments used to regulate the telecommunications sector may vary depending on the legal tradition of a country. Generally, however, the legal framework follows a hierarchy beginning with primary legislation, such as laws and decrees from which secondary legislation such as regulations, resolutions and guidelines follow. This legislation, in turn, provides the legal basis for the regulator or the relevant ministry to issue authorization instruments such as licenses, concessions, and permits to operators. This legal hierarchy provides certainty and predictability to consumers and other stakeholders because it specifies the rights and obligations that apply to the sector. Such hierarchy provides assurances to stakeholders that secondary legislation cannot be used by the government to nullify certain rights and obligations set forth in primary legislation.
The management information system of the UP can be digitalized and the UP will have its website which will contain useful information regarding the structure, functions, activities, services of the UP. It will also serve as a data bank of the locality. For instance, records of various services provided by the UP are not maintained properly and records are non-accessible to the beneficiaries which could have paved the way for creeping corruption. Through digitalizing the UP, a better scientific accounting and record keeping system can be developed. Record keeping will become more transparent and updated. Local service providing organizations at the field level and their staff (e.g. health worker, social worker, agricultural extension worker) will receive necessary information from CeCs and ensure people's access to information.
There are, however, some limitations and impediments, which need to be addressed to ensure that ICTs have a positive impact on the life the poor. At the macro level, the unequal reach of these new tools and networks could exacerbate inequality. There is a risk that the rich will have greater access to ICTs than the poor who will be excluded from the benefits of the 'knowledge economy'. It is important not only to assure that relevant information is available to the poor in their own languages, but also that ICTs foster the availability of a variety of sources of information, and diverse approaches to the challenges facing the poor, so that they can decide for themselves how to meet their needs.
The writer is Advocate and Legal Analyst.